Monday, April 5, 2010

Ganja and Mingachevir, Azerbaijan

I spent parts of three days and two nights in Azerbaijan.  Although I had a wonderful experience, everything I write needs to be understood within this very short time frame, and while  prone to sweeping (and enthusiastic) generalizations, I'll try to mute that impulse.

I traveled to Ganja with the Public Achievement mentors who participated in the Mentor Training in Tblisi.  This included Gulshon, Vafa, Shunafa, Shahnaz, Esmira, Gulnaz, Halima, Elvin, Seymur, Vali, Jeyhun, and Elvin.  The four-hour trip ended a block from where Halima's family graciously hosted me in a spare apartment that they own.  The apartment was on the fifth floor of a five-story building, and it had hardwood floors, a kitchen, a bathroom (with a sit-down toilet and shower), a spacious living room, and a bedroom.  The only time I spent there was at night to sleep, but I am thankful for Halima's family hospitality.  I took the photograph below from the kitchen window. 

I spent Tuesday night with a group of Public Achievement mentors from Ganja.  What struck me is what Harry Boyte calls the "citizen-professional."

One mentor, a licensed psychologist, led a PA team of 8 psychology students to work with families from a poor school with mental health issues.  It sounds very much like a service-learning experience.  When asked what she enjoyed about coaching, she said that PA "helped her to do her job better."

Another person, a journalist, led a Public Achievement team named "Nice Apples."  He mentored a team of 16 journalism students.  They organized a community journalism project that had them working with local apple orchard owners to research a blight that had been plaguing the owners.  The students surveyed the owners, conducted research, and worked with agricultural experts (the school where they study is an agriculture school) to produce a public service television show that provided both the background to the blight problem and effective ways for the farmers to address the problem.

A third person worked for a Ganja  insurance company, but she lived in a small village a short distance from Ganja.  Her children did not have a place to play.  Rather than building something in her backyard, she worked with others in her community to form a PA team called, "Would you like to play?"  Together, they built a public playground.

These people are good examples of what Boyte identifies as citizen-professionals.  They understand their profession within the larger context of what it means to be a citizen, someone who works from their self-interest to improve the commonwealth.  Harry, you would have loved this meeting, and I thought of you often!

Wednesday, I traveled via the omnipresent Lada to Mingachevir.  Seymur from Ganja joined me.  We sped through a fog so thick that visibility was cut to 100 meters.  Once in Mingachevir, we were met by the Mingachevir mentors: the two Elvins, Gulnaz, and Gulshon.  Gulnaz and Gulshon are teacher; the two Elvins are graduates of the local college.  They took me to their school for a presentation.

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At the school, I had the pleasure of hearing from five different teams.  One team of 13-14 year old children decided to research the local river's water quality and work to preserve its purity.  Another group worked with the local health officials to rid their school of mice and rats and the accompanying threat of dysentery.  I heard many mentors explain with passion their team's work, but my favorite presentations were when I could hear from the team members, who were enthusiastic, poised, and happy.

(Photographs to the left: two PA teams explain their public work.)

After the presentations, we walked the length of Mingachevir's beautiful boulevard.  I may have mentioned this before, but Mingachevir is a relatively new city, created in 1948 when the Soviet Union built a hydro-electric plant on the Kura River.  This brought workers from all over the Soviet Union who stayed to raise their families when they had completed the dam.  Given its history, Mingachevir strikes me as a clean and well-planned city with green spaces aplenty.  My posse showed me the boulevard, complete with a billboard depicting a white feather on a red background (Gulnaz explained that it exhorted viewers to love their mother tongue!), multiple statues or posters reminding all of the importance of Heyday Aliyev, and fountains, some running, some not.We ate and had tea had a lovely restaurant near the river (which runs aquamarine clear), scooted up to the reservoir (a first trip for some in the party), and returned for tea in Gulnaz husband's shoe shop.  It was really hard to leave, but we had to return to Ganja. 

(Photograph to the right: Lale and Gulshon at Mingachevir Reservoir)

Wednesday night, I met Hasan Huseynli, the director of Intelligent Citizen, the Enlightenment Center Public Union.  What an interesting meeting!  Dr. Huseynli was trained as a physicist, but in 1991, when Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union, Hasan left physics to enter public life.  For a while, he worked in the president's press corps, and he knows Thomas Goltz, my primary informant about Georgia and Azerbaijan through his books: Georgia Diary and Azerbaijan Diary.  Hasan taught me so much about Azerbaijan politics - first and foremost, he tells me that Azerbaijan not only must have free, fair, and transparent elections, but must also have free, fair, and transparent election results!  Too often, the sense among the Azeris is that election results are altered.  This kind of election fraud, over time, can only create a jaded public: why vote if my vote will be revised?  I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Hasan.  He is taking a trip to New Orleans in the new future, and I hope to arrange a meeting with my son-in-law's sister, Sarah Andert, the service-learning coordinator at Tulane University.  When I explained Sarah's work, Hasan was very interested.

That night, Vali, Nijat, and Ahmed showed me Ganja's main park, and then we dined with Mushfiq, whom I had met that morning.  Mushfig directs the Bridge to the Tomorrow center, which does great work teaching people skills such as computing, sewing, and barbering, all while emphasizing the democratic dimensions of public life.  Mushfiq likes PA, and he hopes to expand soon into Kazakhstan and Krygyzstan based on relationships that he already has with people there.  I admire the ambition and the vision.

Thursday morning, I went to a local Ganja school where five teachers use Public Achievement during part of their day with the students.  I met with the school's principal and the five teachers.  They were, for the most part, a young group, all under 35 years old, and none of them had been teaching longer than 6 years.  They all thoroughly enjoyed using PA (the two classes that I saw agreed to use PA to solve problems with their classrooms: the first photograph to the right shows a classroom where the students and their mentor/teacher agreed that the room was not pleasant and that they wanted to paint it; the second photograph, taken in a history classroom, shows some of the public work the students did - they worked to post maps, historical documents, and other pertinent materials on their walls: the photo doesn't do justice to all of the public work that they did).  Two comments seemed common: one, they enjoyed PA because they got to know their students in a different way, and two, they thought that using PA made them better teachers, too!  Interestingly, the students in both classes, when asked what they liked about doing the PA work, responded by saying, "honor."  It was an honor to do the public work; it was an honor to walk in each day to see the fruits of their work; it was an honor knowing that future students would see and appreciate the work.  What a pleasure to see this work and the people who did it.

A special thanks to Vali, who was my guide and handler throughout my time in Azerbaijan.  Vali is a Fulbright scholar, and while he has been accepted to the University of Rochester and Boston University for the fall semester, he still waits to hear from Penn State and the University of Iowa.  Good luck, Vali!  A special thanks, as well, to Halima and her family for putting me up in their spare apartment.  I hope that you enjoyed the book and sweetcake I left for you!  Thanks to Vali, Esmira, and Halima for organizing the Tuesday night meeting with the area mentors.  Thanks, too, to the Elivns, Gulnaz, and Gulshon for hosting me for a wonderful and all-too-brief trip to Mingachevir.  I hope I can return soon!  Finally, a quick thanks to Seymur, who journeyed with me to Mingachevir.  You were a great travel companion.

Tomorrow, I'll write about the differences and similarities between PA USA and PA Caucasus.  Feel free to ask questions, and I'll use them to frame my writing.  Thanks for reading!


  1. I read your impression about Azerbaijan with a big interest..That's always interesting to me to see Azerbaijan by foreigners eyes...
    That's really appreciative that you did not forget to mention about every details that happened to you here, even Gulnaz's husband's shoes shop and did not forget anyone to be grateful with...Thanks so much...!
    And that was very interesting to get information about P.A group in Ganja and about their work.That's really like that by doing this work with youth or with olders, that feelings that you can help someone by getting together gives you chance to feel "honour"...I love this word..this word push you to the way to be honest...
    I will read other postings too...i just wanted to post a quick comment..
    You are welcome to Azerbaijan anytime you want to...

  2. Lale, thank you for commenting and adding your own impressions about the word "honor." I hope to return to Azerbaijan soon.

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