Photos from Kenji’s Service
Kenji Yamada’s Peace Corps Story
Where and when did you serve? What did you do?
Albania, 2007-2009. I served as an English Education volunteer in Peshkopi, a town in mountainous northeastern Albania. I worked with English teachers at Peshkopi’s elementary schools to improve their English grammar, conversation, and understanding of their assigned curriculum, as well as co-teaching English classes at one of the local high schools, Nazmi Rushiti.
I worked with another PCV to train Nazmi Rushiti’s team for Model UN Albania. Our team represented Burkina Faso. I worked on a side project of trying to start a community radio station for Peshkopi and our local region. There had been attempts at a similar idea before me, and there were several residents and many students very interested in the project, but we did not succeed in getting together a Board of Directors willing and able to stick with it.
What is one of your favorite Peace Corps memories?
My favorite memory is coming home to Albania from a winter vacation in Macedonia.
Short version: Albania felt like home to me after being in Macedonia.
Macedonia is a majority Slavic country and its majority language is a Slavic language, but its western part, closest to the Albanian border, has a majority of ethnic Albanians who speak Albanian (“shqip”). It’s not identical to the Albanian spoken in Albania, but the differences are small enough not to impede understanding very much if you’re a native speaker. I am not, but at this point in my service I could speak Albanian well enough to communicate pretty decently on the other side of the border too – provided I was talking to an ethnic Albanian and not a Slavic Macedonian.
There is a lot of political and cultural tension between the Slavic Macedonians and the ethnic-Albanian Macedonians. As a result, speaking Albanian to a Slavic Macedonian is best avoided. When buying a bus ticket in Skopje, the capital, I made the mistake of referring to my intended destination as “Dibra e Madhe”, the Albanian name of the town whose Macedonian name is “Debar”. The ticket lady scowled and corrected me. But she did sell me the ticket.
I got on my bus and all was well until we reached a small town called Mavrovo. There, I was told, with gestures and a few words I could understand, that I would have to get off the bus. As best I could understand, the bus was turning around to head back to Skopje, and I would have to wait in Mavrovo for another bus to take me the rest of the way to Debar. I figured I had no choice and there would probably be another bus along soon, so I got off. The bus turned around and headed back.
This was winter, so it was getting cold by this point. There was snow on the ground. I got worried.
A minibus (we call them “furgona” in Albania) came along with a “Debar” sign in the window. I flagged it down. It was full. The driver would not let me on, and I could not ask any questions or communicate the urgency of my situation because he was a Slavic Macedonian and I had about five words of Macedonian. He drove on without me.
I waited an hour more and did not see another bus or furgon. Sundown was approaching and it was getting colder. I went into the one cafe-looking place left open to try to get warm. The man in there was nice, even though we could not communicate beyond me asking for a coffee and paying for it. I sat by the window for an hour watching for a bus and did not see one. I saw he was shutting the place down and needed to leave. Told him thank you (one of my five Macedonian words) and went back outside.
By now it was dark and very cold. I was very cold. I was 40 miles and an international border away from home. I began to think, “Maybe I will get hypothermia and die on the side of the road in Macedonia.”
Some time later, headlights approached and I saw it was a minibus for Debar. I flagged it down. It was stuffed full, standing room only. The driver made refusal gestures and said some stuff in Macedonian which clearly meant “We’re full, go away.” I was not about to be left to freeze to death in Macedonia, and boarded in spite of him. He gave up trying to make me get off, and drove on. I thought “I am surrounded by people I can’t communicate with, whom I have annoyed, but at least I may make it to Dibra e Madhe.”
On my keychain I had an Albanian eagle. It happened to be hanging out of my pocket. Pretty dumb while in Macedonia, but I hadn’t noticed it until now. A woman in the seat I was standing next to got my attention and indicated my eagle keychain. I didn’t pay attention to what she was saying until I realized she was speaking Albanian! She said “Are you Albanian?” I said in Albanian, “I’m American, but I live in Albania and I’m headed back there.” She indicated the rest of the passengers and said “We are all Albanians.” Suddenly everybody was my friend. The lady’s cousin, also on this minibus, was a taxi driver and promised to drive me to the border once we got to Dibra – which he did.
I got through the Macedonian border checkpoint, and walked across the short causeway to the Albanian checkpoint. Presented my US passport to the Albanian border guard. He was very perplexed to have an American coming across this rural border crossing late at night. I was still in a pickle, because I had another eleven miles to go from the border to Peshkopi, and there were no more buses or furgons at this hour. I asked him if there might be a hotel or other place to stay in Maqellara, the town at the border on the Albanian side. He said probably not. I thought “I am going to have to walk eleven miles in the dark on a windy mountain road, and maybe get hit and die.”
The border guard asked who I lived with in Peshkopi. (In rural Albania as in other rural places, people commonly identify others by figuring out what family they’re attached to.) I told him the name of my landlord. He said “Oh, he’s my cousin. Get in my car, I’ll drive you to Peshkopi.” He did so, and dropped me off right in front of my apartment. I thanked him profusely.
I felt a great deal of affection for Albania right then.
What is one of your least favorite Peace Corps memories?
I don’t have a distinct one, but there were a lot of very lonely and frustrating times. I was the only foreigner in my town for most of the first year of my service, and the nearest PCV was three hours away. I put a lot of effort into learning Albanian language and culture and connecting with people in my town, but there were times when I really wanted to talk with someone who understood my culture.
What do you miss about Peace Corps?
I don’t know that I miss Peace Corps as such. I do miss my fellow volunteers, and I miss some things about Albania. Mostly the good side of the close family culture there. It does have a bad side, which I don’t miss.
What is something you learned in the Peace Corps?
The Albanian language. 🙂 As far as life lessons, there is a lot I learned that’s hard to verbalize. I got a stronger sense of my country and culture as just one among many in the world. One big thing that has stayed with me more as a puzzle than a clear lesson is the paradox of how proud many Albanians are of their culture and identity, combined with strong negative opinions of their country. It’s not just about the people vs the government. Some individuals I knew were disdainful of the Albanian “mentality” and simultaneously proud of Albanian culture. Many Albanians who emigrate abroad miss Albania intensely (it’s a common theme in contemporary folk music) and are simultaneously determined never to move back.
Do you have a favorite quote or local saying that you’d like to share?
There are lots and lots of popular proverbs in Albanian.
“Gur gur, bëhet mur. Mur mur, bëhet kala.” (Stone [upon] stone, a wall is made. Wall [upon] wall, a fortress is made.)
“Nuk mbulohet dielli me shoshë.” (The sun is not covered with a strainer.) I think this refers to attempts to hide something which already obvious to everyone.
“Nuk ka pyll pa derra.” (There’s no forest without pigs.) i.e. nothing is perfect.
One thing I really like in the Albanian language is what’s called the optative mood. It’s a grammatical form of the verb used for wishes.
“Ju bëftë mirë.” (Literally “May it do you good”, said to people who are eating.)
“Të lumshin duart.” (“Bless your hands”, said to someone who has cooked for you.)
“Të lumtë goja.” (“Bless your mouth”, said to someone who has said something you’re glad to hear.)
“T’u thaftë goja.” (“May your mouth dry up”, said to someone who has said something you are not happy they said.)