Americans help foster a fledgling democracy

The Peace Corps at work in remote Mongolia.

Originally published on June 25, 1997.

A murmur of approval rippled through the mud-walled room as a large platter was brought from the kitchen and placed on the floor. Kevin Brady smiled gamely at the sheep's head that crowned the pile of boiled offal and horse meat that would be his main meal of the day.

"Mongolia's not a great place for vegetarians," he said, but he and his wife, Susan Boedy, have become used to making trade-offs.

Since beginning their two-year stint as Peace Corps volunteers in this provincial capital in western Mongolia in September, they have endured months of sub-zero temperatures, living quarters without hot water, and a diet that would make most Americans queasy just to think about it. But they said the rewards - sheep heads included - have been worth it.

"I've heard of P.C. volunteers who've woken up one morning and said, `What am I doing here?'" said Brady, 24, who is from St. Louis. "I've never had any doubts about that: I'm here to help people, and I'm learning a lot about myself in the process."

"We're learning about each other," added Boedy, a 1995 Drake University graduate with a degree in art education. "It's been the best experience of our lives."

This mix of altruism and self-discovery is typical of Peace Corps volunteers the world over. "We miss our friends and family, and sometimes we think of the food back home," said Boedy, deftly carving a piece of fatty meat from a boiled sheep bone. ("Always cut toward yourself," she advised.) "But what we're doing here is worth giving up some things we used to take for granted."

Officially, Brady and Boedy, like most of Mongolia's 47 other Peace Corps volunteers, are teaching English to Mongolians. Their students include the children of nomadic herdsmen, veterinarians, provincial government officials, and local teachers who, it's hoped, will teach English to others. They also are serving as ambassadors to one of the world's newest democracies.

Once ruled by Communists, with the backing of the Soviet Union, Mongolia started down the road to independence and a free-market economy in 1990. As anyone looking at a map can see, it is a strategic, but isolated place, lying between Russia and China.

"We want to give Mongolia the tools to interact with the rest of the world," said Mark Zober, the Peace Corps' in-country director.

A Peace Corps veteran of Africa, Zober works out of a modest office in an apartment complex in downtown Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital. He is fond of telling anyone who will listen that English itself is not important, but is the key to many doors that he believes Mongolia will want to open to enter the world stage.

Computers are another such key, and Peace Corps volunteers are busy giving help with them as well. Jamie Lloyd, 25, of Rye, N.Y., is based in Hovsgol National Park, about 1,000 miles northwest of Ulan Bator. He has been teaching park rangers English and how to use an IBM notebook computer provided to Mongolia's Ministry for Nature and the Environment by a grant from the United Nations.

Something to learn English for

"The computer gives them something worth learning English for," Lloyd said, "and it gives us all something neutral and interesting to work on together."

Since he and his wife, Caroline, arrived last fall, Lloyd's computer literacy and contagious enthusiasm have earned him the respect of an initially skeptical park staff. After nine months of living and working together in the cluster of small wooden cabins that serve as a park headquarters in the tiny town of Hatgal, he and the rangers have begun to create bilingual brochures and educational pamphlets, which they hope will increase the park's usefulness and economic viability.

Last year, the 700-square-mile park, dominated by a large, pristine, fish-filled lake and surrounded by spectacular snow-capped mountains, attracted fewer than 700 foreign visitors.

"With the right promotion and better interpretation, this and the rest of Mongolia's parks have enormous potential for eco-tourism," Lloyd said. "The Peace Corps is trying to help make that a reality."

Eventually, when Hatgal gets dependable electricity and phone lines, the park service computer may be connected to the Internet as well. "Then the sky's the limit on what we can do," said Lloyd. For now, though, the focus is more immediate and local.

In a country with few roads, few hotels, and little experience with tourism, any ideas about increasing foreign visitation are eagerly accepted.

"Mongolians look at a country like Costa Rica, which made $700 million through eco-tourism in 1996, and wonder, `Why not us?' " said Jeff McCusker, an environmental consultant to the Peace Corps. "Only a few of our volunteers are working on environmental projects now, but the Mongolian government would like us to do more. It's an area we're planning to expand."

Getting ready for visitors

Kinley Deller, 25, is another of the early Peace Corp volunteers assigned to environmental jobs. From his ground-floor apartment on the edge of Ulaangom in northwestern Mongolia, it is a short walk to the crumbling, one-story building that serves as headquarters for four of the nation's "Strictly Protected Areas."

Donning the traditional Mongolian del, a knee-length woolen robe with embroidered collar and cuffs and a bright orange sash, Deller made his way through the maze of wooden-walled yurts, or tents, that, as in many Mongolian cities, make up the residential section of this provincial capital.

Though the weather had moderated considerably since the weeks of 20-below-zero temperatures he experienced in January and February, it was still below freezing this morning. The commuters Deller passed on his way to work were, like himself, silent silhouettes, muffled and hunched against the cold.

In Deller's office, a small metal stove crackled and infused the room with aromatic wood smoke. Three park rangers, two dressed in Western clothes and one in a dark green del, sat behind a line of children's school desks.

Five more government workers in search of English lessons straggled in through the morning, but Deller started without them. He asked each of the men present to introduce himself and state his occupation - in English.

"I protect the park from poachers," said the first. "I calculate [inventory] the wildlife," said the next. The third man paused to ponder the words he needed. "I learn to talk to Americans," he said at last. The others nodded in agreement and smiled.

"If and when the tourists arrive," said Deller, "we'll be ready."

The Peace Corps was invited to introduce volunteers to Mongolia soon after the country's peaceful turn to democracy. Since then, more than 150 American men and women have experienced the joys and hardships of life in one of the poorest countries in Asia.

Layton Croft, from Charlotte, N.C., arrived with the fourth group in 1994. He so enjoyed his time teaching herdsmen in the Gobi Desert that he requested a third year of service in Mongolia. His request was approved and he was transferred from his rural post in Bayanhongor to Ulan Bator, where he now helps coordinate the activities of the other volunteers.

In the three years he has been here, Croft has seen enormous change. "Ulan Bator used to be a quiet place with almost as many horses as cars. Cattle grazed near the parliament steps, and crossing the street was no big deal. Now there are so many cars - and so few decent drivers - it's worth your life to walk anywhere near the road. You might as well be in New York or Paris."

Though the free market has brought prosperity to some Mongolians, it has also created a conspicuous gap between the new entrepreneurs and the rest of the population. As that gap widens, the Peace Corps volunteers see their role growing.

"We're trying to give everyone an equal chance," said Kevin Brady, downing one of the unidentifiable organs that graced the platter of sheep and horse meat before him.

"Mongolia is a huge place - the size of Western Europe - but it only has a population of 2 1/2 million people," he said. "With such a small population, each and every volunteer can have an enormous impact. Susan and I are lucky to have that chance."

Robert M. Peck is a fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, which is conducting long-term research in Mongolia. His recent trip there, made possible by a grant from International Research and Exchanges Board, was his fourth.