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2018 Issue 1: The Water Issue

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Change of perspective: Meanwhile in Kazakhstan...

Change of perspective: Meanwhile in Kazakhstan...

Photo courtesy David Rakowski

Meanwhile in Kazakhstan…

A people venture. A culture adjusts. A nation transforms. And I’m seeing it all first-hand.

Long overlooked by a myopic West, Kazakhstan is striding confidently into the future in line with its 2050 Strategy, a plan to place Kazakhstan within the top 30 economically developed countries in the world. The plan was crafted by the country’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has held office since 1989, the year I was born.

Perhaps the most interesting - and politically laden - directives of the 2050 Plan is to trilingualise the country, adding English to the country’s already widespread bilingual ability (Kazakh and Russian).

Enter 300 English-speaking teachers, hired to work across a network of 20 “Presidential Schools” which form the upper echelon of a two-tier public education system in Kazakhstan. What this means is that our pupils are of the country’s most gifted, and receive access to modern pedagogy and technology; all for free. And that’s not all. My students arrive every morning in suit and tie or dress, sit in classes no larger than 12, are excited to learn, and on top of that, the concept of bullying does not exist.

“Kazakhstan? Duuuuuuuude, you don’t want to go there man!”

No, I don’t live in utopia. I work in a town by the name of Taldykorgan, located 120 kilometres from the Chinese border along the majestic Tien Shen Mountains in the country’s south-east. A nostril-shrivelling aridity coupled with Kingston-like winters and 45 degree summers make for a tantalising environment to live in. Yet climate aside, Taldykorgan has opened my eyes to a world outside Canada.

  • [photo of mountains in Kazakhstan. Photo by David Rakowski]
    The small town of Tekeli in early summer. It is famous for being one of the largest mines in the Soviet Union that contributed greatly to defeating the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945).
  • [Photo of a rocket-shaped play structure in a children's playground in Kazakhstan. Photo by David Rakowski]
    The Soviet Union might be over but it lives on through the infrastructure it left behind. Here, a rocket-shaped playground continues to entertain children.
  • [photo of police officer in Kazakhstan. Photo by David Rakowski]
    Another Soviet vestige is that of police uniforms. A local police officer stands on guard on Constitution Day with a larger than life President Nazarbaev in the background.
  • [photo of food market in Kazakhstan. Photo by David Rakowski]
    Many foods are seasonal in Kazakhstan. Fruits like watermelon, strawberries, and peaches come by the tonnes at peak season and abruptly disappear weeks later.
  • [photo of butcher in his shop in Kazakhstan. Photo by David Rakowski]
    My butcher, Khanat, was kind enough to pose for a picture in his shop. He, along with many other regular folk, take pride in their professions at the marketplace.
  • [Photo of construction workers with a bulldozer in Kazakhstan. Photo by David Rakowski]
    An everyday reminder that the only reason we have the idea of "Health and Safety" back home is because we can afford it. Construction workers in flip flops and open sewer holes are common.
  • [photo of David Rakowksi, colleagues and students at his Kazakhstan school. Photo courtesy of David Rakowski]
    David Rakowski, far left, with colleagues and students at his school.
  • [photo of David Rakowski and girlfriend in Taldykorgan. Photo courtesy of David Rakowski]
    David and his girlfriend Angelina on the outskirts of Taldykorgan with the Tien Shan Mountains in the background.

Here reality is harder than what we’re used to in the West. The eyes and hands of the older generation of Kazakhstanis tell the story of an arduous life and a Soviet state unable to deliver them from hard labour. Learning Russian has also opened up a world of previously inaccessible narratives. I’ve met Soviet veterans galore, who have served everywhere from Czechoslovakia to Mongolia; citizens three times my age who recall Stalinist speeches and nomadic Kazakhs escaping the collectivising efforts of the Soviet Union; poor farmers who brashly mock the West for its pervasive materialism and genetically modified processed foods - a much appreciated reminder that there is more to life than consuming goods.

Yet there is a new generation here, embracing the ideals of entrepreneurship, capitalism, and even the World Trade Organisation for which Kazakhstan will officially open its flood gates this January. It is undoubtedly an exciting time to be not only witness to, but a part of, a country in metamorphosis. Some locals brazenly scold fellow citizens who hold onto a communist past when work and a minimal standard of living were guaranteed – “It’s time to move with the world and work hard,” they say.

Amidst all these changes Kazakhs proudly celebrate their life and culture. The dombra, a two-stringed wooden banjo if you will, allows Kazakhs to preserve a vital part of their heritage. When played chorally, the voice of twenty dombras sings as thunderously as a herd of horses crossing the steppe. Many Kazakhs can still play this instrument, and all adore it. It is a pleasant reminder that music can be an invaluable source of cross-cultural respect.

When I first told friends I had accepted a teaching position in Kazakhstan, a typical conversation went as follows:

“Why would you teach in Afghanistan?”

“No, Kazakhstan.”

“Pakistan? Why??”

“No, Kazakhstan!”

“Ooh, like where Borat is from.”

Even my local Albanian pizza maker in Toronto showed genuine concern for my welfare when he said:

“Kazakhstan? Duuuuuuuude, you don’t want to go there man!”

Given such reactions, it was precisely because of them that I decided to open this chapter of my life. I eagerly await exploring other aspects of our shared humanity as I continue to teach around the world.

[flag of Kazakhstan]
The Flag of Kazakhstan (CIA.gov)

David can be reached at davidrakowski5@gmail.com. He graduated from Queen’s University in 2011 with a degree in Political Science. He then spent a wonderful year working at the BISC in England before completing his Education degree at the University of Toronto in 2014. He is happy to be out of Toronto but misses Kingston!

[cover - Queen's Alumni Review Digital Special Edition Fall 2015]