Current national and world events have me looking at some of my writing from Azerbaijan and Togo in a new light. At the time, 2006–8 and 2009–11, I was serving, through the Peace Corps, as a representative of the great United States of America. I personally wasn’t sure the U.S. was all that great, but observing the situations in the countries I was living in sure did make life in America seem pretty sweet indeed. The host country nationals, my host families and friends, idolized the U.S. and so many wanted to move there if they had the chance. With our stories of always-available hot water and grades and jobs based on merit, rather than bribes, we only confirmed the image of the U.S. as a society to be emulated.
It is hard to believe that only roughly a decade has passed, and under President Trump, American society, and the standing of the United States in the world, has plummeted this far. This hit home for me last year, when traveling with my daughter abroad before the coronavirus hit. See my February post “The Embarrassment of Travel in the Trump Era.” Now, with the pathetic national response by the United States to COVID-19 having caused our nation, whose population comprises only 4% of the world population, to have 20% of the world’s deaths from the virus, we are the laughing stock of the global stage on the pandemic front. Further, we have a president whose threat to democracy has become so brazen that he has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the upcoming election. President Trump’s recent debate with former Vice President Joe Biden brought the United States’ reputation to perhaps an all-time low. Watching the pathetic spectacle made me physically sick, and once again thinking back with disbelief to how, not too long ago, I, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, was, yes, a representative of peace, democracy, and understanding, but also, less wittingly, an agent in perpetuating American exceptionalism — a philosophy which, especially in the current moment, I cannot stand behind at all.
There were a lot of good points to our Peace Corps service, for sure. In the classroom, we taught positive reinforcement rather than yelling or corporal punishment (which were commonplace in the places I served). We taught games and role-playing rather than rote memorization. We tried to cater to different learning styles and taught about the melting pot that is the US. When we heard negative comments being made about other ethnic or racial groups, we emphasized that we in America believe that everyone is born equal and should be treated equally.
Same for the gender divide. We taught that women and men have equal worth and therefore women should be able to get a good education and a chance for a good career the same as men. We were sometimes appalled at how women were treated in the homes in our host communities — whether outright belittled, or just in the fact that, in some places, they needed to ask permission before leaving the house. In America, we said and modeled, it is not like that. Privately, we thought how backward it was for some of us to have to hide our LGBTQ identities or those of our friends, because such deviation was not accepted and could be severely persecuted in our host countries.
Now, however, the work of myself and thousands of other Peace Corps Volunteers over the years has been put to shame. In what ways is the United States currently exceptional? Under Trump, our cherished equal opportunity meritocracy has become (or been revealed as) a myth. I was a Girls’ Education and Empowerment Volunteer, officially in Togo and unofficially in Azerbaijan. Women’s rights in America? Now at risk. LGBTQ rights? Severely threatened. Racism and xenophobia? Let’s not even go there. Trump embodies the qualities that would make for the worst Peace Corps volunteer ever. Except that, he does think, and repeatedly say, that America is the greatest country on Earth.
I am reminded of something that my second host father told me in Azerbaijan, where claims of that nation’s greatness (and the superiority of its, well, everything) abounded in the national media: “Strong nations criticize themselves, while weak ones call out their own greatness.”
Currently, Azerbaijan is at war with Armenia, and I can’t help but think that the timing of this is not unrelated to the U.S.’s decline on the world stage and its chaotic internal distraction (for more on the conflict, see the recent NY Times article, “Armenia’s Leader Makes Plea to U.S. as Conflict Rages With Azerbaijan“).
I am posting below some excerpts from my journal entries while in Azerbaijan related to democracy, elections, and corruption, and I will follow those with entries on the same from a couple years later when I was in Togo, West Africa. (A few names have been changed for privacy.)
Stay safe out there, everyone, and let’s work to restore human values back to America and the global community.
Related Journal Entries While Abroad in…
August 27, 2006
A couple of days ago at my new site in Oguz, I was talking with my host father about how they have everything in their yard. “Yes,” he said, “here there is everything, but there is no democracy.” Both of my host parents are really interested in learning English from me, and I still do not really understand why. I do not see any practical use for English in their region of the country, since all the foreigners who come to Azerbaijan stay in Baku. I asked them if they want to live in America. Yes, they agreed vehemently. They would want to live in America if they could, because there there is democracy, and plentiful jobs. We supposedly have democracy here, he says, but as you will see during your time here, we don’t. Everything is bribes. Meanwhile, I entered their home and thought I was in paradise!
March 1, 2007
Today classes ended after third period: the president was expected to come to Oguz, and all of the teachers had to go and await his arrival so they could wave at him and make him feel welcome. I asked my younger co-teacher if she was going, thinking that she wouldn’t because her fiancé doesn’t let her go anywhere, but she said, yes, of course; I signed the paper saying that I would go, so I have to. Seemed more like a dictatorship than a democracy! I am happy I decided not to follow the hoard of teachers, because they were out waiting in the cold for over five hours, and then only got to see the president’s car as it passed by.
May 23, 2007
Azerbaijan is considered a democratic country now. Yet, the Azerbaijani television and the Azerbaijanis in general speak of their president and first lady as if they were royalty. The village’s refugee school director explained to everyone gathered at Gulnara muellime’s yesterday that in the US, and other countries, a new president is elected every four years, and can serve for a maximum of eight years. Even if people like him! That’s the way it should be in a democracy, he said. In Azerbaijan, it’s not like that? I asked. No, here the current president, the past president’s son, will probably serve until he dies, and then his own son will become president.
February 3, 2008
The news on Azerbaijani television is full of coverage of the 2008 US presidential elections, and several people have asked me which candidate I’m going to vote for. When I say I don’t know yet, they are surprised — everyone here already has an opinion, it seems. As far as I can tell, Azerbaijanis watch the elections in America with great interest mainly because of their conflict with Armenia. They want America’s help in getting their occupied territories back, and they want to set the record straight that there never was a genocide of the Armenians, in fact, they say it was the other way around — the Armenians massacred the Azerbaijanis during conflicts such the one in the city of Khojali in 1992. People have heard that Hillary Clinton is the candidate most likely to help tear down the false notion people have of the “Armenian genocide,” and so, surprisingly to me since I don’t sense a lot of support for women in leadership in this country, they are hoping she will win in November.
February 19, 2008
Is it possible that I’ve been living in a dictatorship for almost two years without realizing it? While reading an article online recently, I was thrown by a mention of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev as a dictator. That’s right! I thought. All those ridiculous huge signs on the road with his face, the mandatory sweeping and going out en masse to greet him when he comes to a certain region of the country…. But, certainly most Azerbaijanis do not think he is a dictator — they think they are living in a democracy, like in the US. When I point out to them the huge amount of corruption present in Azerbaijan, that they themselves complain to me about, they say, yes, yes, but there is corruption everywhere in the world. Maybe, I reply, but in my daily life in America, I’ve never seen it. To which they raise their eyebrows, considering.
April 10, 2008
My host father said that last semester, a girl in one of his university classes studied hard and did well on an exam on her own. He gave her a 5, the highest grade here, because she deserved it. Well, he said, boy was she surprised! Students who study and learn the material rather than paying money at test time rarely, if ever, receive the highest grade. The girl was so happy and thankful, he said, that she exclaimed, “Fariz muellim, next semester I promise I will pay [you a bribe] instead of taking the exam!” Well, I just laughed, my host father said. That just goes to show how ingrained the system of bribery is here — even the student who sometimes actually studies thinks bribery is an acceptable transaction here.
There was a man from Iran I once knew, Fariz muellim said, who came to Azerbaijan but soon left, saying, “A country where the word ‘honor’ is used to mean ‘bribe’… is no country for me.” (In meetings, and even everyday speech, Azerbaijanis often use the word hörmət, which means respect or honor, to say that someone paid or was paid a bribe, as in, “He showed me respect.” [He paid me a bribe.])
August 8, 2008
I’ve heard that for the upcoming presidential elections in October, lots of foreigners will be coming to the different regions of Azerbaijan to preside at the polling locations to try to make sure that the proceedings are fair and open — to make sure that Azerbaijan is in fact being run by a “democratic” government. The local English teachers, I heard through Nurana muellime, have been invited to serve as translators for these foreign visitors on election day. When I asked Fariz muellim what these “open society” workers are likely to observe when they come, he responded, “Nothing.” The election itself will be free and open, in that I can go to the polling place and freely write whomever’s name I choose on my ballot without anyone coming to punish or arrest me. “What isn’t free and open,” he continued, “are people’s minds. First of all, there is no viable opposition candidate to choose. But even if there were one, people are so used to this style of elections from Soviet times [in which you are forced to choose only the one powerful candidate], that they will do so regardless.” He recounted how, when he was living and studying in Russia during Brezhnev’s leadership of the Communist Party, he went for the first time in his life to vote in an election. Unsure of proper procedure, and seeing no other voters around to emulate as it was late in the day, he took his ballot, which had only one name on it — Brezhnev’s — into the voting booth to mark the one available box. When he came out of the booth, however, he was confronted by a burly man from the KGB who demanded to see his ballot, thinking that he had crossed out Brezhnev’s name in the booth rather than checking his box. Why else would he have gone into the booth? Everyone else, as it turned out, just marked their vote right there in the open.
September 21, 2009
The election in Feb. is going to be very important in determining continued foreign aid and presence in this country. The ambassador has no doubt what the outcome will be, it’s just a matter of how exactly it’s going to be handled…there are hints that we will be on high security alert and that if the election goes badly, we are at risk of being evacuated….
October 1, 2009
The Deputy Chief of Mission from the US Embassy in Lome visited us today to talk about the political situation in the country. Regarding the upcoming election, she feels that the outcome is already pretty clear, and that all the parties are “personality cults” anyway, with no platforms. The European Commission, in addition to the US, France, and a few other countries, have offered money to help with the election (help make it as free and fair as possible). If the election is deemed not to be free and fair, the amount of development assistance that Togo will receive will surely decline. Why is the international community interested in what happens in Togo? I asked. The DCM said that it’s no particular interest, just a general interest in building up the area of West Africa. She did speak about a West African oil pipeline from Nigeria crossing through Togo that is not currently functioning, and basically denied any conflict of interest/influence with the Chinese, who are involved in Togo with plenty of volunteers and aid work, apparently, such as building a bridge somewhere in the country.
February 16, 2010
“Plus Haut, Plus Loin, Plus Faure” (Faure being the name of the current president) is the slogan on posters that have started to go up on the sides of straw-roofed houses and baobab trees in the village. Today to mark the start of the official campaign season for what is now the March 4th election, kids were taken out of school and made to attend a big rally. Whooping men dressed in white blasted down the national road through town on their motos, and traffic was stopped for at least an hour to accommodate this. It turns out that the organization that Navarro will be working with to sensibilitize the populations not to be violent surrounding the elections is not an NGO but a pro-Faure group. I’ve heard two specific reasons why people and students support Faure: it’s because of him that primary school students can attend school for free, and also due to him that poor people no longer pay taxes. The main reason, however, seems to be to keep the country stable and peaceful. If an opposition party candidate were elected, Kossi and the directrice tell me, there would be huge problems, since all of the cabinet and ministers are Faure supporters. All of the higher-ups are Faure’s posse, so to speak, and if someone else came to take his place, all of them would have to be replaced as well, and the new people wouldn’t know how to work together or how to get anything done. So, better to stay with the current president than risk somebody new. It seems like this was the exact same reasoning I heard regarding keeping President Ilham Aliyev in power in Azerbaijan.
February 21, 2010
Not only Kossi, but some of the teachers at school, too, are involved in a mass sensibilization (education campaign) of the population to avoid violence during and after the election. Makes me a little nervous—is there really going to be violence? The directrice says that if there’s violence, it will be in Lome, since the south of the country is where there would be discontent at having a continuation of a president from the North. It’s an ethnic conflict, she said, and showed me pictures of guards with their flesh burned and heads cut off during political violence in the early 90’s. A neighboring volunteer says yes, that’s when Togo lost most of the international aid it once had…God knows why Peace Corps stayed on. I suppose Americans were not deemed targets of the violence. When the directrice showed me the pamphlets with the pictures of the mutilated bodies, I couldn’t help thinking that there has to be some connection between that kind of violence and the beating that happens at schools and in homes here…but in the US, where school and home violence is much less, we still go to war and kill innocent people, so maybe not?
March 3, 2010
Kossi and two of my host brothers will be serving as official UN observers of the elections tomorrow—they’ve already headed to their respectively assigned towns to prepare and, according to one brother, who was clearly repeating what he had been trained, to make sure there is no fraud. That the polling places open and close when they’re supposed to, that groups don’t interfere with people’s choices, etc. People up here seem to think that there’s nothing to worry about, probably as Faure, the most likely winner, is from the North and so is well supported here. There are so many observers, foreign and local, and local and police and gendarmes here just to patrol the elections, that it seems like how could there be a problem? But I heard on Radio France International this morning that their own journalists and journalists from a few other stations were denied visas to come report on the elections. Why would that be, if there is nothing to hide?
March 7, 2010
The elections went smoothly, and the results were announced last night: Faure is the winner, with about sixty percent of the votes. At around midnight last night, I was awoken to joyous cries and even marching and singing around Agninkata. But, as my French tutor Monsieur Bayamna says, “In Africa, you can’t have someone organize the elections and not win.” Meaning, even if Faure didn’t have the support of the majority of the country, he would still win, since it’s his appointed officials who control everything. The peasants here support Faure why? Not just because he’s from the North, but because around election time he buys them a drink, or a visor, and they don’t understand that this is just a campaign trick. According to Bayamna, the Togolese president is not officially married to anyone, but has many wives. And, he can take any woman he wants, even if she is already married. What, she is going to say no to the president?
And, a folktale, perhaps somewhat related to the elections, since farther south, the lack of development, for example, the awful state of the roads, is especially striking, and probably the Togolese, especially the large group of Ewe in the South, can expect now another stagnant five years…
“The Animals Sick from the Plague” by Jean de la Fontaine, a Frenchman writing in the 15th Century, but whose stories relate well to modernity in Africa according to M. Bayamna:
A group of animals gets together to discuss their problem: they are sick from the plague. The lion, the king, says, okay, we are now going to reveal all the things we have each done so we can find out which of us is at fault for bringing the plague. I’ll start, he said:
Sometimes when I am very hungry and I see a flock of sheep, I eat a sheep, but sometimes also the shepherd.
The ass was next: Once, I extended my tongue to eat a blade of grass, he said.
And immediately the animals find that it is the ass who is guilty of bringing them the plague, simply because, as the moral goes: “The reason of the strongest is always the best.” If you’re not rich and powerful, you will always be wrong.
July 22, 2010
Among the polling places in small villages during elections, it seems that the party that wins the most votes is sometimes determined by food. Representatives from each party are supposed to be present at each polling station, but inevitably, one party will have money and another will not, meaning that the representative from the first party will be sent to work with maybe a bag of beans or corn, delivered there in a nice vehicle, while the representative from the poorer party will not have been given anything to eat by his boss, leaving him hungry and nearly starving if the polling takes more than a day or so. (In the small villages, it was emphasized, you can’t just go out and find something to buy to eat—they don’t sell things pre-made like they do here in the town.) So, if the representative from the poor party dares show up at all, he will eventually have to ask or accept food from the representative of the richer party. When this happens, the previously hungry person will now have to do what the richer representative wants, even if it is against his own beliefs. What? I asked. Why? Why can’t he just take advantage of the richer party’s food and carry on with his job in an honorable manner? No, I was told, that would not be moral. You can’t accept someone’s food and then secretly turn against him. So, the representative from the poorer party will start to sway the votes toward the richer party. How? Well, a lot of people in the villages can’t read, and don’t know how to vote, so it’s easy. For instance, if there’s a blind person, he can’t vote alone; you have to steer him toward what he is supposed to do. So, you steer him toward the will of the provider of your nourishment, of course!
As for international observers, Kossi’s friends think the whole thing is a sad joke—those white people are sent over here, they said, and what do they see? Nothing, of course! The government officials are not going to let them see anything; they send them to where things are nice and seem to be functioning. They stay in nice hotels, eat and drink well, maybe look at some thatched roofs and naked breasts from the window of their fancy cars, and then they leave. Do you think they are going to be sent to the polling stations of the small villages we are talking about? They couldn’t even get there! The roads are so bad that sometimes [motorcycle] drivers are forced to dismount and carry their motos!