Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Listening to the Teachers

It was challenging to lecture in tandem with a translator, reading faces to guess whether I made sense at all. By the end, I could only imagine that the people packed in the classroom were tired too, ready to get up and stretch. To my surprise, after the Q. & A. time and after I had thanked them for coming, they just smiled and stayed in their seats. Puzzled, I asked the translator whether something was wrong. He explained that they just wanted to talk.

During the days preceding the conference, many questions had surfaced for me, so with a translator at hand, it was my chance to ask them some questions. It was surprising to hear that in this bread-basket region, getting enough food was a problem. Later I learned that many teachers had given up precious planting time to attend the conference. It was precious because most of them relied on their own gardens to supply food for the following year. The economy was in a state of collapse; stores were empty; many relied on their own gardens to supplement meager salaries.

And then other stories tumbled out: how the disaster of Chernobyl affected pregnancies, how much of the rich and fertile soil was polluted by many sources including tractor fuel. Prior to the communist period, farmers tilled their own fields and managed their own production. After the takeover, though, their farms were incorporated into collectives managed by distant bureaucrats who could articulate ideology but weren’t so good at farming. For a time, a farmer’s pay was based on the amount of fuel left in the tank at the end of the day. As cynicism grew the farmers-turned-machine found it expedient to make a few passes with the tractor, and then drain the fuel out into the ground.

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