RPCV Spotlight: Anastasia Bannikova.
What made you want to become a PCV?
Serving and working with the Peace Corps has been my dream since I was 16. I grew up in Kazakhstan, and had a Peace Corps English teacher. Fast forward through half of my life, when, after years of cultural adaptation in the US along with studying, working and living in Pennsylvania, Canada and Massachusetts, I've become a US citizen, so I could finally serve!
The Peace Corps volunteers in Kazakhstan seemed to me like the bravest people. They've moved across the world to live in difficult conditions -- no heat in winter, shabby roads, uncertain future and other hazards. But they've stayed and learned the language and about our culture, so it seemed serious and fun at the same time.
Before the service I've worn many hats: I was a reporter, a translator, a wedding DJ, a paralegal and a volunteer at various communities. I helped with the Boston Marathon organization, a summer camp for kids adopted from Kazakhstan, farming and tree-planting activities and social gatherings for local Russian speakers.
Your Peace Corps resume differs from most people's. You found yourself in Ghana, then Ukraine, and then Armenia. How did that come about?
I believe in the Peace Corps' mission -- especially Goal 2 and 3. And, at the same time, I like to travel and live in different countries -- I don't like to be a tourist. Going to Ghana was an eye-opening experience. This was when the application process was more rigid, and you could not choose where you wanted to go. I am very happy that Ghana chose me -- it was stressful and hot sometimes but also vibrant, fun and thought-provoking. I extended my service there for a 3rd year because I wanted to learn more about the local culture and also help navigate newer volunteers various obstacles.
Then came Ukraine's Response position. I have Ukrainian roots so serving there was like coming back home. No one "suspected" that I was American, everyone thought that I was local because I looked, spoke and behaved the part. I've enjoyed rediscovering my roots, riding trains and buses and going to the Black Sea coast and Carpathian mountains. Armenia, my 3rd post, also shares its Soviet past with me so it was a bit easier for me to get adjusted. But the language, the food and the traditions were very unique there. It was one of the least "Soviet" of Soviet republics and I could see it. Living in the mountains was also pretty cool.
Serving in three countries in a row was a mixture of curiosity, desire to travel and also, not wanting to go through lengthy clearance processes if I took a break. I decided to do it in one go to avoid the long wait time every time I've applied.
I've seen you mention your Soviet heritage, tell us about your expectations and the reality of serving in 21st century Ukraine.
Ukraine brought a lot of memories from my Soviet childhood for sure. The buildings, the roads, the people and their habits were basically just what I experienced when I lived in Kazakhstan, with some minor differences. I try not to have any expectations when I go to live somewhere for an extensive period of time, but what struck me was how slow the inner changes happen. There can be more modern buildings, newer technology, different fashion in clothing, but deep inside people's attitudes and beliefs can stay the same after 20+ years of external changes. It was simultaneously nostalgic yet discouraged. I recalled myself from 20 years ago and realized that we change bit by bit if we are exposed to different ideas and notions, and that is what PC volunteers definitely did and do. But if everything is in a vacuum, then there is no change, no growth. For some people growth even seems threatening, the change from status quo is too extreme so it is understandable why we sometimes are resistant to any changes. But, in my book, change is good. And I tried to convey it to my colleagues and friends -- who knows, maybe 20 years from now, these seeds will grow, and someone will think differently.
Now you're serving your community once again, this time as a COVID contact tracer for Partners in Health in Boston. Based on your experiences, how successful in controlling the spread do you feel contact tracing would be in the communities in which you served?
Sometimes I feel that contact tracing would be more successful in all three of my countries of service than in the US... all because I saw how caring and worried people are in their communities there. Families, church members, even running club buddies would check on each other if there was any sight of trouble, while I think Americans can be lonelier in their struggles. In short, the social capital of many developing countries is higher than in the US for this exact reason -- that your community is responsible for your health and safety.
Photo: a discussion at a local English club organized by Mykolayiv Windows on America