Jennifer Stutman, MAK20 TEFL Macedonia
I am writing this article at a cafe around the corner from my house. I’m drinking a cappuccino and have ordered a Caesar salad for lunch. It’s an outdoor table, so I’m sitting under the Mediterranean sun and watching the town bustle around me. Children are playing in the park across the city square and Nirvana is blasting on the cafe radio. Last night I stayed in with my host family and watched European singing competitions on the living room television. Tonight some local friends and I are going to a bar to hear local rock bands play covers of our favorite songs.
I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and yes, this is a pretty standard weekend for me at my site. Before you ask; no, I do not live in in the capital of my country of service. I actually live in a relatively small town in the south of the country, consisting of around 35,000 people if you count the surrounding villages and farms. Situated in a valley between the Macedonian mountains, my region is famous for producing the best wine in the Balkans. And geographically, I live closer to a border of the European Union (north Greece) than Macedonia’s capital of Skopje.
To be honest, my life in Macedonia as a Peace Corps Volunteer looks nothing like I imagined when I applied to the Peace Corps. I have none of the so-called traditional Peace Corps chores like cooking over a pitfire or biking across kilometers of terrain to reach a food market like you see on the brochures. Working hard to live as the locals do and integrate into my community, I spend most of my time outside work drinking coffee in cafes and sipping ‘domashno’ (homemade) wine with my host family. The majority of my students at school grew up with things such as electricity, healthy food options and steady internet access. They like to listen to American music and take shopping trips to stay up to date on American fashion styles.
Though everyday life here seems relatively comfortable, life in Macedonia and especially areas outside the capital are not as comfortable as it may seem to an outsider looking in. Looking past the newly built monuments in Skopje, the 25 year-old country finds itself running towards the finish line of modernization and development without having some of the basic infrastructure necessary to use as building blocks.
Like many former communist countries, Macedonia is still working to organize a transparent and fair democratic government in its short history as an independent republic. Unfortunately, this issue trickles down into issues with its clean water infrastructure, underfunding of the national education system and outdated roadways desperately in need of mending.
Further, paychecks in Macedonia are very low; the leading reason why a whopping 35% of the ethnic Macedonians have moved abroad in search of better opportunities for their families. And though food is relatively cheap in the republic, things made outside the country such as clothing and appliances are considered splurges for the average family. But even more expensive than clothing is the crippling cost of heat and electricity in Macedonia. Due to this, most families outside the capital still rely on wood-burning stoves to heat their homes in the winter. As wood is also a costly commodity, entire families tend to congregate into one room all day during the long winter months.
I don’t mention all of this to try and convince you that Macedonia needs Peace Corps, or to try and make an argument that Peace Corps Macedonia is not a ‘posh corps’ country like many say that it is. I share all of this from my very brief time in service to remind all readers that not all Peace Corps countries of service look alike and not all Volunteers will have the same experience during their time of service. And honestly, sometimes the comforts I find in Macedonia in my everyday life (electricity, steady internet access) make it all that more jarring when something happens that reminds me I am not at home but halfway around the world in a culture I am just starting to understand.
Between the mornings at school and the afternoons at the cafes, I focus a lot of my Peace Corps service in ensuring that Macedonia modernizes with a more progressive view of gender equality than what was considered the norm during the time of Yugoslavia. I work hard to be a role model for my students and community members, giving them an example of what American female independence looks like while also being conscience of the cultural significance that is Macedonian traditional gender rolls. I use programs such as GLOW and YMLP camp to preach on the ideas of gender equality in Macedonia’s future, and plan to focus my time later in service advocating for programs to alleviate social issues such as Macedonia’s high rate of unexpected pregnancy and dating and domestic violence.
What I love most about Peace Corps, and there are a lot of things, is the program’s ability to mold in order to fit the needs in each country that it works in. And though my time in Macedonia will not give me a chance to build a community well or organize a healthy eating program in my community, I still believe that my time and work in Macedonia will help my community as my country of service continues to move forward in it’s journey of modernization.