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Journey to Asia clarifies future for RoEllen woman; Mendenhall served as Peace Corps volunteer in Turkmenistan

Monday, January 24, 2005

Nicky Mendenhall (front row, right) sent this photograph from Turkmenistan to Nancy Deere, a health educator at the Dyer County Health Department. Mendenhall, who worked as a Peace Corps community health educator, spent a couple of days observing health department operations and Deere's techniques before heading overseas.
Two years ago, Nicky Mendenhall graduated with a degree in anthropology and an uncertain future.

She didn't know whether she should pursue a career in anthropology or try something different. While attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Mendenhall had volunteered at the local rape crisis center. There, she developed an interest in how laws could be used to help people and began to consider law school.

Instead of making a quick decision, she joined the Peace Corps.

Nicky Mendenhall displays some of the treasures she brought back from Turkmenistan. The items include (clockwise from lower left) an album of photographs, a pair of handmade socks, woven artwork to hang over a doorway, a rug her host mother made for her husband commemorating their marriage, the heavily embroidered top to an outfit she wore there, and two purses. One of the purses is made from the embroidered cuffs of pants Turkmen women wear instead of undergarments.
Mendenhall, the 24-year-old daughter of Joan and Mike Mendenhall of RoEllen, applied to volunteer anywhere.

"I wanted to travel and it was a way to search out if I wanted to continue in anthropology," she said. "It's a great way to travel and to do good work at the same time."

She received an invitation to Turkmenistan in Central Asia. A nation slightly larger than California, Turkmenistan is a country of sandy deserts, dunes and a few mountain ranges. It borders the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

A former member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Turkmenistan gained its independence in 1991. The economy is based mostly on agriculture in irrigated oases and large gas and oil reserves.

Mendenhall said she hadn't heard of Turkmenistan but, after a bit of research, she decided to go.

For the first two months in the country, Mendenhall studied Turkmen, the language she'd need to communicate with the people in her village. She also reviewed the basic health and nutrition concepts she planned to share as a community health educator in Janahyr, a town of about 1,500 persons.

Mendenhall lived with a host family, Akmyrat and Akgul Korbanov, and their children. The father, Akmyrat Korbanov, works as a taxi driver, transporting people to and from large cities. The mother, Akgul Korbanov, works for the government, processing paychecks and paperwork. They have four children; one had married and moved out of the home before Mendenhall arrived and two more married while she was there. The family included her in all of the celebrations.

"They're really big on having community parties," she said.

The Korbanov's home was typical for the village, made with concrete blocks in a Soviet-inspired style. Residents receive free water, gas and electricity. While they have televisions and satellite dishes, the residents of Janahyr didn't have indoor toilets. They use outhouses.

Mendenhall was the first Peace Corps volunteer to ever live or work in the village.

"They were real excited to have an American come and live with them," she said.

Mendenhall took a two-pronged approach to her job. She worked with both the children and the adults.

She was invited to the local school, where she was allowed to talk to older girls about hygiene, menstruation and more. She taught younger children about nutrition.

"We have so much more health education here" in the United States, she said, adding that the residents don't get up-to-date medical information.

Janahyr students also don't get what we would consider up-to-date teaching methods. Students there learn their lessons through rote memorization. Mendenhall said she introduced them to more visual, more hands-on learning techniques. "They had never seen any of that before," she said.

In the summer, Mendenhall and other Peace Corps workers in nearby villages worked together to create summer camps for the children. She said the Peace Corps is famous in Turkmenistan for its summer camps. The children learned American songs and they tossed water balloons, spit watermelon seeds and made paper airplanes for the first time.

To reach adults, Mendenhall worked in the local clinic, teaching people about nutrition.

The diet of a typical Janahyr resident consists mostly of meat, cabbage, potatoes and bread in the winter. People raise livestock, such as goats, cattle, sheep and camel, for meat. Sheep is the most prevalent; lower-fat camel meat is often reserved for parties.

Palove, a dish common throughout Asia, combines rice and meat with other items, which vary from area to area. In Iran, palove takes on a citrusy taste. In Uzbekistan, it is flavored with cumin. In Janahyr, it comes with flecks of carrots.

The residents also eat a sour yogurt and lard - yes, straight lard. Mendenhall said people often dip bread in lard and eat it that way.

Spinach pops up quickly in the spring and is added to the meals just as quickly. In the summer, a variety of fruits and salads round out the meal.

Mendenhall, who had been a vegetarian for about two and a half years, realized that she wouldn't be able to continue her meatless ways in Turkmenistan. She said she became sick and her body stopped absorbing the nutrients she needed. When her body began to crave meat, she listened. She said she realized the meat offered something her body required.

Meals are served on the living room, laid out atop colorful fabrics. Several people share a large plate, scooping food up with their hands.

Many Turkmen women - like American women - don't get enough iron and suffer from anemia. Mendenhall and other Peace Corps volunteers obtained a U.S. Agency for International Development grant to print brochures for their anemia health campaign. They distributed the brochures and a few kilograms of spinach seeds to about 400 women. She also encouraged women to eat more fruits and vegetables and to stop drinking tea during meals. She explained that the tannin in tea is believed to reduce iron absorption.

In a letter to Nancy Deere, a health educator at the Dyer County Health Department, Mendenhall reported that health care services are free, but enormous cuts have been made since the country no longer receives financial support from Moscow. She wrote that she never realized how important UNICEF and the World Health Organization were until she began working in Turkmenistan. "Without them and the supplies they provide," she wrote, "most children possibly wouldn't be immunized and anemia rates would soar."

Mendenhall wanted to absorb as much as she could while she was in Asia. So, when she was given two two-week vacations, she toured India and Thailand.

Then, after her two-year stint ended in Turkmenistan, she spent four weeks traveling solo through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China.

"I wanted to see how Turkmenistan compared with (the rest of) Central Asia and I've always been interested in China," she said. Her journey led her down the famed Silk Road, past unrestored portions of the Great Wall of China and into the imperial tombs of China where terra cotta warriors and their horses were being unearthed.

Along the way, Mendenhall's focus became clear. She wanted to find a way to help others and believed a law career would allow her to do that.

Mendenhall returned to the States just in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, she's applying to law schools across the nation, looking for a temporary job in Memphis and speculating on future travel.

Mendenhall said she'd love to work overseas again, but the next time she goes, she wants to get a real salary.

"I need to make some money," she said.

Peace Corps workers are considered volunteers. They receive living stipends that enable them to live like the locals and a lump sum at the end of their terms. In Mendenhall's case, she earned about $100 a month, or about twice as much as the nurses with whom she worked.

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