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An American in Chisinau

By Marian Smith, A&S '05
I will be honest. I got the internship in Moldova last summer through my mother, Pamela Hyde Smith, who is the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Moldova, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. That may sound far-fetched, but as a child of two diplomats (a "dip-brat," as they like to say), I was used to being carted off to the four corners of the Earth.

All I knew was that I would be writing for some non-governmental organization called PFAP, and I figured that the experience would be applicable somewhere down the road. What a shock it was to step off a 24-hour plane ride, have one night to sleep it off, then go straight to work. So before drifting off into that familiar jet-lag-induced slumber in the comfortably recognizable embassy furniture, I sheepishly asked my mother what PFAP stood for, anyway.

"Private Farmers Assistance Program," she said, without batting an eye.

In between her visits and interviews with Moldovan farmers, Smith made time to visit local shops featuring hand-sewn garments. Farmers?! I began to realize the gravity of my situation. I knew nothing about farming. In fact, I had never even been on a farm. A whole summer of traipsing around the fields of Moldova and I wasn't even getting paid? Combined with this spoiled feeling of irritation was a feeling of guilt for having accepted an aid-work internship without understanding what it entailed.

So it was not surprising that the first day was somewhat of an embarrassment. I walked around pretending to know what I was talking about and to be thoroughly interested. Igor Vatamaniuc, my boss, flooded me with information about Moldova's history, and sent me home with more pamphlets to read than I had ever had at Hopkins.

Land-locked between Ukraine and Romania, just north of the Black Sea, Moldova relies heavily on its agriculture -- primarily maize and grapes, for wine. Thankfully, a rich layer of black topsoil contributes to the good conditions for farming. Igor proudly told me that when the Germans came during World War II, they loaded the soil into cargo trains and sent it back to Germany.

The Moldovans have had a pretty bad time of it for centuries. After the defeat of their greatest ruler, Stephen the Great, to the Turkish rule in the late 15th century, economic turmoil and unsteady power balances characterized the country's history. On and off throughout the 20th century, the Russians under Stalin, and the Romanians under the influence of Germany and Hitler, imposed their language and culture upon the Moldovans. Finally, in 1942 the country became a part of the Soviet Union -- until the U.S.S.R.'s breakup in 1991. Moldova gained a seat in the United Nations in 1992. The result of all this is a people more ethnically and linguistically divided than one would think possible for a nation as small as the state of Maryland.

On the second day I was introduced to my translator, 23-year-old Dorina Gotonoaga. She took me to lunch and we talked some more about the history. Soon I began to understand that she and those of her generation were incensed over the current political situation.

Passionately, she explained how the older generation -- the uneducated farming class -- remembers Soviet rule as a time of stability, unaware that the democracy established in 1991 inherited a crumbling economy. As the economy worsened throughout the 1990s, these farmers blamed the Americans and the new democracy for all their problems. When the 2001 election came around, they saw a communist running for office and thought to themselves, "Aha! The good old days!" and voted in Vladimir Voronin as president.

Older Moldovans remain unaware that the only reason the Soviet system yielded more money for farmers prior to 1991 was because of Russia's ability to provide. On their own, the Moldovans don't have enough in the way of resources or money.

This continuing delusion on the part of the farmers -- the largest portion of the population -- is what the Private Farmers Assistance Program is trying to rectify, Dorina told me. The PFAP has set up contact centers in villages that are stocked with information and advisors to help farmers understand the virtues of private business, and to explain the Western approach to agriculture, the economy, and politics.

So what did it mean to be a "private farmer?" I knew so little about agriculture that I didn't even know what kind of system we used in the United States. All I knew was that the word "private" sounded like it came from a free country, so I knew it must be good. Dorina obligingly briefed me, explaining that under the Soviet rule, all farming was communal, meaning that no matter how hard a farmer worked, he still only got the same amount of profit from the government by year's end as anyone else.

Now that all farming is privatized, PFAP, specifically, is trying to educate farmers who are newly privatized and still unsure of the idea of free enterprise, something so different from the Soviet Kolkhoz (collective) system. The situation is complicated because it has only recently been revealed that Russia was providing the farmers with their only market, so when the Soviet system collapsed it no longer provided equipment nor did it buy their agricultural products. Moldova's market and its technological resources were cut off, and now it is left with outdated farming equipment and no one to buy the measly amount of produce it has.

Gradually I became comfortable with my assignments. For the next six weeks I went on field trips to different judets (counties) outside Chisinau, the capital, and interviewed newly privatized farmers to write "success stories" about their accomplishments. One farmer, for example, told how he'd gathered other farmers in his town to form a collective company. They pooled together all their resources (i.e., tractors, seeds, fertilizer) and did pretty well for themselves, at least comparatively. My articles were published in newsletters and brochures that circulated throughout the farming community, and were even sent to other branches of the NGO in Europe, intending to set examples for other farmers.

But countless hours in old un-air-conditioned Soviet cars got me thinking.

Cattle graze on a strip of farmland outside Chisinau. It was probably well into the second or third week that I noticed a trend in my interviews with these impoverished farmers. First off, once they learned I was from America and was working in their poor country to help them, they treated me like royalty -- I was offered bread, fruit, wine, and more. They expected me to tell them what to do with their new businesses and freely asked advice. I, a 19-year-old college student who never once had set foot on a farm, much less knew anything worthwhile about running a business, was supposed to advise them? I tried to make my mother proud and be diplomatic about it, all the while becoming more and more aware of their state of desperation.

But that wasn't the only thing. My main concern arose when I returned to the office and sat down to write a "success story." Now how was I supposed to do that when these farmers kept telling me that their main success was that they didn't lose money this year? It was quite a challenge to present their situations in an optimistic light, as the farmers themselves had done, while I knew in the back of my mind that the U.S. alone could produce more than enough food for the entire world, and agriculture isn't even our main source of capital. When I think that Moldova relies almost entirely on the men and women I met on the remote, dusty fields of Eastern Europe, I grow very sad.

Through these experiences I came to understand some fundamental Moldovan personality traits. Very humble, the Moldovan people working beside me at the PFAP wouldn't dare ask me, the lowly intern, to do anything. I was not nagged to turn in my articles -- in fact, I was rarely given any deadlines -- and nobody ever asked to discuss anything I had written or edited. Furthermore, they reacted with surprise and awe if I ever suggested that we do something differently; it seemed unbelievable to them that one could express one's own will. All those years of oppression did more damage than I had expected. Whereas I had always been expected to be proactive and inquisitive and to challenge ideas and opinions, for the people of Moldova, the concept of freedom of speech was relatively new.

I wondered how this stagnant behavior could still be the case at the Private Farmers Assistance Program, whose main goal was to help and educate farmers by means of its publications. To me, a journalism center is the closest it gets to freedom of speech, and the Moldovans at PFAP were afraid to question the status quo, to take an analytical journalistic approach. Instead, they left every article with just the barest quotations from their interviews -- completely unchallenged. This seemed preposterous to me.

I decided that this would not do, so I spoke with Igor about changing the format to incorporate a more editorial-style approach. He was both astounded that I wanted to change something and delighted when he saw the positive difference it would make. I was ecstatic that I had contributed, ever so slightly, to this little country's development.

I doubt that my small input will make or break the future of Moldova's agriculture, but in some way it helped, and the resulting feeling was and is tremendous. What does it matter that I wasn't paid? Instead, my eyes were opened to a world so different from my own that it made me count my blessings and consider the things I take for granted. And yes, now I know more about farming than anyone would ever want to know.

Sophomore Marian Smith will return to Moldova for three weeks this summer to renew her acquaintances and check on the progress of her friends and colleagues at the PFAP.

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