Sunday, September 30, 2007

There are several advantages to staying here for an extended period of time. One of them is that you have to go to a local hairdresser to remain respectable, and the other is that you meet acquaintances from other villages which you established over the years.

Yesterday Linda went to a hairdresser in Tokmak, a neighbouring town. She had done the sensible preparatory work by admiring the haircut of a doctor friend, and asked her where she got her hair cut. Quickly an appointment was set up with Tanya who works in a “salon” above what we understood to be a restaurant. In speaking to a woman who knows some English on where that restaurant could be located we almost had a reservation for a meal and not a haircut. But we enlisted the help of Lilly, a German missionary, and found the place.

On a previous occasion Linda had given clear instructions to the barber to cut only half an inch off Ben’s hair. The barber had nodded and Linda gasped when the first cut revealed that only half an inch would remain on Ben’s head! So this time she was somewhat wary and asked Lilly to make her instructions very clear. She did; Linda was pleased with the snippets that dropped on the floor. Then she wondered what was happening when a plastic sheet was draped over her shoulders after the haircut. Fortunately Lilly was watching and with a few “nyet’s” stopped the woman from applying hair dye! We were afraid to ask what colour it could have been. The hairdresser just assumed that Linda would want to get rid of her grey and replace it with possibilities such as rinse-blue, Halloween-orange, or the common wine-burgundy.

We love going to the Tokmak market on Saturday mornings. Usually we run into some friend, either at the fish market or when walking the alleys checking out the caged ducks perched on the front of a bicycle or watching the street vendors sell their books, knives, etc. We even found a small clothing shop which specializes in selling out-of-season clothes from Germany, and Ben bought two nice sweaters for the equivalent of $10 each.

Money seems be common when you are in the market area. You can get your pictures printed, visit a florist shop, buy Suzuki motorcycles, have outdoor coffee, buy live hens or turkeys, buy any fruit or vegetable in season, buy fresh fish of all shapes and sizes, remodel your kitchen with new cupboards and countertops, buy all the computer gadgets you need, get your watch battery replaced, buy bread, go to a modern grocery store, etc., etc. In the cities and towns the country is overflowing with consumer goods.

The problem, however, is that there are whole groups of people who aren’t making enough money to buy, so they are taking out loans at high interest rates, trying to keep up with their neighbours. It’s both a blessing and a curse. A blessing to see so many choices available, however the curse of enslaving materialism and accompanying debt is just starting. This week we noticed that, while some people are buying trendy items, others can’t pay for surgery, medication, or even school supplies.

Today is parliamentary election day. For centuries Ukrainians didn’t have the opportunity to vote, and now they are facing their 3rd election in 4 years. They seem to be weary of having too much of a good thing. Apparently there is a law not allowing polls to be taken or published in the weeks before an election, so there appears to be an element of some uncertainty regarding the outcome. We attended two rallies in Tokmak – one featuring the current Prime Minister Yanakovich and the other with opposition leader Julia Timaschenko. We thought that the opposition leader drew the larger crowd even in this area which in the past has been more supportive of the Russian-oriented Yanakovich. In spite of the political in-fighting, the economic situation of many people appears to be improving. In the Mennonite church this morning Jakob Thiessen encouraged people to vote and also to accept whoever God allows to lead this country.

We suspect that when our Mennonite leaders built the “Zentralschule” in downtown Halbstadt, they had not envisioned this being the Molochansk voting location for parliamentary democratic elections in an independent Ukraine, and furthermore, held on a Sunday!

Ben and Linda.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sometimes you go from famine to feast out here in Molochansk. But not in our eating, as we seem to be growing from borscht to blinyi (wafer thin pancakes) to varenika. However in going from things like no internet to Skype, and this week from no doctors we could relate to, to Drs. Art and Marlyce Friesen and Dr. Ed Wiens, we moved to an abundance of good health care. Having doctors converge around the breakfast table savoring “Benbucks” coffee is a little like having a traveling evangelist move in for a week of spiritual medicine. You know it is ultimately good for you but the stories they tell can be a bit scary! Fortunately these gracious doctors were wonderful company, well-skilled in the medicine of laughter.

It was from a meeting with these doctors that we heard the words that we have been waiting for, for three years. We were having dinner with local mayors and doctors who administer our Medical Emergency Fund. We were talking about how we can get more money so we can increase their monthly medical allowance. One of the hospital administrators said, “we don’t want to always rely on North American donors—we want to find a way to partially fund our own emergency medical needs.” Others agreed, and a discussion followed on how they thought they could help earn their own way. As Ukraine continues to develop and mature, this is the message we need to hear. It was a defining moment for all of North Americans. As Dr. Art said later that evening around our dining room table, none of us will likely be here in 15 years, but they will.

And that got us to thinking—where else can we see evidence of Ukrainians taking the initiative? More places than we initially thought:

We saw it at the Udarnik School (formerly Neukirch), where the principal showed us the Mennonite artifacts they are putting in their new school museum—items ranging from a Mennonite waffle iron to spinning wheels to a wonderfully built cradle. They were as excited about these as they were about their new computers. We saw it in their plans to put up a monument to those in the surrounding villages who were taken away under Stalin’s reign of terror.

We saw the initiative of Zoya, who takes time off from her job to work with the Canadian and Ukrainian doctors from the Christian Medical Association, as well as organizing community medical clinics and dispensing medications. For ten years she has never missed holding a monthly community clinic somewhere in Ukraine.

We saw it in the classy translator, Olga, who is both competent and caring. Olga, who once played for a professional volleyball team, seems at ease comforting little old ladies in church with her guitar and later singing delightful Ukrainian love songs at our dining room table. She seems so modest and only after some pressing did she reveal that she has a teenaged son whose 6’10” high-jumping achievement is ranked 3rd in Ukraine for his age group. She moves effortlessly between Ukrainian, Russian, and English.

We saw the initiative of Marina, the school principal at Dolina (formerly Schoenau), who has started a day-care/kindergarten programme at her school, relying initially only on the funding from Lorne and Hilda Epp’s church in Saskatchewan, and then shaming the community to start kicking in funds in January/08. She found old beds from the soviet system, cleaned them up, and 16 years later they are back in use.

At the end of the week we joined MEDA, the Mennonite Economic Development Association, in meeting with 4 businessmen/farmers who have established greenhouses to grow seedlings and citrus fruits right here in Molochansk. They have the business, their customers need credit, and MEDA has been approached to assist. Their grapes and grapefruit-sized lemons were amazing.

Finally, we saw the merging of the needs of the Molochansk Hospital with the interests of the Wiens family. You see, the Molochansk hospital desperately needed to improve the bathing facilities for their patients, and the Wiens family wanted to make a donation to honour their mother. It was a win-win situation. They take the initiative, we make the investment.

Ben and Linda


Sunday, September 16, 2007

The September 30th Rada elections are becoming more visible. If any village has a bit of good fortune, street lights go on, or water supply isn’t interrupted, people say “oh, there is an election soon.”

We were reminded of that early this week when we were coming back from Melitopol and the road crews were busy putting cow-pies of tar in the holes, then peppering the top with “pea” gravel and pressing it down for good measure. They were followed by a blue Ford tractor with a mower cutting the grass--and debris--along the shoulders. Later in the evening when we went to Tokmak we noticed groups of people hanging blue ribbons on overhanging branches. Driving back in the dark we had to scoot around the unlit, unmarked, blue tractor now mowing in the dark.

Why all the attention? We heard that on the following morning the Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych was driving from Melitopol, through Molochansk, and then on to Tokmak to give a speech. Because we had to go to Tokmak anyway we took the opportunity to join in a political rally.

Now, a political rally is somewhat akin to a Sunday morning church service. The same hard of hearing sound person operates the sound system for both groups; some people dress up, others don’t; children quickly find other interests, and we are all waiting for the coming messiah. This earthly one eventually showed up, accompanied by a few well prepped disciples in front of the stage. The speech was delivered and the applause was polite. Now, when Ben was a youth and sitting with the young boys in the South Abbotsford MB Church, long-armed elders would sit behind and remotely control their behaviour through glares, stares and pokes. Here the elders were replaced by bodyguards and police. Not many, but effective. Promises were given, doomsday scenarios presented and off we went.

The people appear election weary. When asked about the election, they shrug their shoulders, and say something like, “let them be, it makes no difference.” They ask, “who will pay for my surgery or my coal?”

On a national scale the political fighting often described as being pro-Russian or pro-Western, hasn’t impaired economic growth which currently is around 7%. The consumer goods are readily available in cities—new stores are springing up everywhere and traffic jams are all too common. However, there is a different story in the villages. Some former Mennonite villages still do not have running water and many only have outdoor toilets. And don’t think you’ll want to go in there to sit and peruse your Reader’s Digest.

Politicians will come and go. But the people in Ohrloff need money for new windows, ceilings, and books in the Community Centre library (formerly the school for the deaf). We don’t want to come in and promise, we want to come and be the likeness of Christ and be doers of the Word. Thanks for your support.

Ben and Linda

Sunday, September 09, 2007

One of the real delights in spending time together here is seeing how different cultural values impact the behaviour of these rural Ukrainians. The way people live is a mix of the impact of the Patriotic war, prescribed Soviet thinking, expectations coming out of independence, and western materialism. Often our evenings are spent reflecting on all of this and the gatherings around the kitchen table in the Centre with the mix of Russian and Ukrainian staff gives opportunity check our observations and assumptions.

For example, one of the things we have noticed here is the unusual number of people who are described as “invalids”. One of our staff speaks of her invalid daughter, and another refers to all the invalid children in the internat (orphange) or the sanitorium. People requesting medical emergency funds or other means of support speak of being invalids or of having invalids to care for.

When we asked Lucy Romanenkova, Director of the Florence Centre in Zaporzhye, she said this is a broad category of people who may have had surgery or have been diagnosed with a debilitating illness which qualifies them for a small medical pension. It is a well intentioned policy going back to Soviet times, aiming to provide for the sick, which however may have the unintended consequence of labeling and building dependencies. “Invalid” is not limited to being physically disabled--it is a broad category of illness. We do not begrudge them getting support, in fact some people should get more, and for all it should encourage empowerment and move them to independent living. A most inspiring moment came the other morning when we saw a well dressed young man with only one leg, assertively moving about on the street with a cane attached to his arm. His extended arm has become his leg. More amazing than his mobility was his appearance, his resolve, his confidence. That evening we reflected on this scene and agreed that in Canada our approach of making accommodation to ensure that the disabled can live full lives is better than giving a paltry token to many, keeping them in institutions or at home where parents collect their pensions. Just another thing to be thankful for.

Another intriguing practice that apparently is quite common involves buying gas for our Lada. Our Ukrainian Director and our maintenance man insist that we buy no more that 22 liters at a time (100 grievna). When we Canadians say, “let’s fill up the gas tank,” they say, “no, no, just put in 22 litres.” We are told that many people decide ahead of time how much driving they will do for the week and then buy accordingly. It is not uncommon to only buy 5 litres at a time and make do with that and make do with that for the week. We suspect this practice is more common in rural areas and it has been suggested that going in and saying, “fill it up,” appears presumptuous, almost boastful.

It appears that even in Soviet times Ukrainian women, particularly young women, took great care in their personal appearance. With the availability of western cosmetics, and clothes as well as the barrage of ads everywhere showing off western fashion, many women appear “dressed to the 9’s”. Some are drop-dead gorgeous compared to us frumpy foreigners. We were reminded of this when we went out for our anniversary dinner Saturday night at a local restaurant. The lady working in the kitchen was obviously as concerned about her appearance as she was about making meals. For there she stood at the service bar getting ready for a night out, one hand on the blowing hair dryer and the other hand running through her billowing locks! Ah, she looked so much better than those clamped down helmet-like hair nets that the less adventuresome Canadian health inspectors insist on. As for the food – at first it looked pretty good! And for real, it was pretty good. But we are now more thankful for the regulated Canadian restaurants.

Ben and Linda

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Weekly report – September 1, 2007

This week ended on a high note with the traditional First Bell celebrations held on September 1. This is the celebratory opening of the new school year which gives special recognition to the new 1st graders. The preliminary speeches will feels very much like the stale bread you get as a pre-meal filler at a restaurant, and take up most of the time. Eventually you get to the traditional highlight when a boy in the graduating class saunters across the courtyard to the frilly, nervous Grade 1’s, picks the cutest little girl, and effortlessly lifts her onto his shoulder. She is given a decorated bell, holds it close to the boy’s ear, and rings furiously. Then the graduating class walks across the courtyard to take the hand of a Grade 1 student, and they fall into step behind the boy and the bellringer, circling the applauding crowd. Mothers and babushkas of the graduating group dab tears from their eyes, possibly wondering where the years went, and mothers and babushkas of the Grade 1’s smile proudly, delighted that another one is off to school. It’s a ceremony rich in tradition and full of meaning.

At the Russian school opening the bread was not that stale. The Mennonite Centre was given special recognition for the work we did this year in replacing the crumbling school steps. At the Ukrainian opening Linda was seated with the VIP’s but unfortunately was seated rather close to those amplifier and speakers which the Mennonite Centre had so generously provided to the school a few years back! She did, however, enjoy hearing the three trumpets the Baergs have brought over from Abbotsford. They were played with skill and enthusiasm. So you, dear friends, have provided steps to the future for the Russian school and an amp and instruments to celebrate the future of Ukraine.

Another highlight this week was the visit of a farmer from Vasilievka. Over the past several months the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) has been planning a project for the Zaporozhye area. On Thursday we had a non-stop day of visits, requests, student scholarship interviews, etc. There literally was a line up outside the office. After a challenging interview with a mother and student, in walked Vladislav Sergeyenko. He has a big smile and is quickly talking Russian to Slava, our Ukrainian Administrator. Ben thought he might be a Russian father wanting for a scholarship for his son, and Linda thought he might be a father requesting funds for a sick child. Then Ben heard him say “MEDA” and knew that there was a MEDA group coming over to visit. You must understand that Slava doesn’t translate simultaneously but usually has a long discussion with a fellow Ukrainian and then gives cryptic one-sentence summary of the conversation, so we find that it is necessary to jump in, stop the discussion and ask Slava what’s going on. And so Slava said, “yes, this is about the MEDA visit.” Suddenly Vladislav said a few words in perfect German, and we realized that we could translate for Slava! It was glorious. Slava quickly went out to get coffee and goodies and we held court with our friend. This MEDA project is very exciting—they are using the expertise of a few local farmers to start a small-scale vegetable and fruit growing processing. Right now this is still in the planning stages and while we are not directly involved this is something well worth supporting.

This really represents what the Mennonite Centre is all about—a place where Ukrainians can meet North Americans and plan their future.