Kiki goes to Kyrgyzstan

Wed, 03/25/2009 - 9:08am
By: Ben Nelms

FCHS grad begins two year Peace Corps stay in Central Asia Saturday

Kiki goes to Kyrgyzstan Kristen “KiKi” Fornito and two of her students in Ghana. Photo/Special.

From Fayette County to the west African nation of Ghana in 2008 to teach English. Then back to Fayette and, less than two weeks later, Fayetteville resident Kristen Fornito will be headed to the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan to spend 27 months with the Peace Corps.

At age 20, and with a grasp on life’s importance for someone far beyond those years, Kristen (Kiki) has her eyes set on a mission to help others.

“On my 21st birthday (March 28) I’m getting on a plane and flying to Kyrgyzstan with the Peace Corps. I think the Peace Crops is one of the most helpful organizations,” Fornito said. “And it’s a test for myself, too, because it’s a 27-month commitment. I’m there for a long time. I’ll get to impact the community and I’ll be fluent in another language.”

The former Fayette County High School graduate completed her studies at the University of Georgia in December with a B.A. in International Affairs. Today she is studying Russian in preparation for her departure to Kyrgyzstan, also known as the Kyrgyz Republic.

Fornito is no stranger to immersion in another culture. In 2008 she taught fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in Ghana through the Global Volunteer Network for St. Monica’s Preparatory School.

“I just really wanted to go and experience that culture. I knew I wanted to teach,” Fornito said.

Kyrgyzstan, or rather the Peace Corps, picked Fornito for an English-teaching assignment to the central Asian country. Her first choice was South America, but funding cuts caused the closing of the program for which she had been accepted.

“Then I was supposed to be going to Eastern Europe. Then I got a phone call a few weeks ago saying there was an opening in the program going to central Asia. So I was like, yeah, sure. I didn’t even know then where I was going until I accepted. If I got the invite, I wasn’t going to say ‘no.’ I think I’m more excited about central Asia than I was about Eastern Europe,” said Fornito.

Until she arrives, Fornito will not know what portion of the country she will call home for more than two years.

Fornito said she recently spoke with a Peace Corp volunteer who just returned from Kyrgyzstan doing the same job she will have.

“It changes you. You get to experience something that you’ve never really done before. Even in Ghana, we had a flush toilet in the house and running water. We had electrical outages or would be without water for a day or two so we saved it up,” Fornito explained. “(In Kyrgyzstan) I’ll be bathing in a sauna-type thing, mixing hot and cold water, and using an outhouse and probably running out of heat when the winters are 30-degrees below zero.”

There will be a total of 63 Peace Corps volunteers making the trip to the Kyrgyz Republic. Sixty-three others are already in-country from last year. And of the group before that, 27 of the 63 completed the two-year stay, Fornito said.

Once she arrives, Fornito and the other in-country Peace Corps volunteers will be trained while living, two volunteers per household, with host families. After three months of training, she will move on alone to her assigned village to work for the next two years.

Her duties will include teaching secondary English to 13-17 students.

“From what I understand they’ve already had quite a few years of English in the classroom, but that doesn’t always mean much. Some can’t write their name in English. That’s where I come in. I’ll bring a lot of materials and ideas,” Fornito said.

Teaching English is about five hours a day. Beyond the classroom, she will initiate other activities such as Girls Club and soccer games.

“I think we’re expected to do more outside teaching, but it’s not mandatory,” she said, approving of the concept of immersing oneself in the community and cracking a little laugh. “I want to stay busy. I think I’ll realize how alone I am if I go home every day after work and sit there. I can’t even talk to anyone because I don’t understand Kyrgyz yet. Right now I’m practicing Russian in Rosetta Stone.”

As for communication with her family back here in Fayette County, Fornito said a letter will take four weeks to arrive. There are Internet cafes in the country, but they are often a 4-5 hour trip from most villages. Of course, there are always the ubiquitous telephones that cover the globe. And it is telephones that the Peace Corps recommends for communication. Whether phone service will be available in her rural village remains to be known.

Her previous teaching stint in Ghana taught Fornito about the perceptions of others, including their mistaken beliefs on what life in the United States is really like.

“They view us as rich, selfish people. I want to change that image, even in my community. I want people to respect us as a country. Not everyone is like what they see in the media,” Fornito said, speaking of the glamor and glitz that permeates the music and movie scene and gives a false impression of the life of the average American.

But, fundamentally, why do this, why join the Peace Corps to travel and live in a far away land?

“I just want to help people. I’m blessed. I’ve lived in Fayetteville. I have a car and a cell phone and a laptop, all the things that don’t really make your life that much better. When I was in Ghana everyone was so happy and they don’t have those things. I’ve always wanted to give back to those people who weren’t as blessed as me. I didn’t really do anything to get what I have,” Kiki explained.

“I didn’t work hard when I was five years old to buy my car when I was 16. I was just born into the situation. Whereas, these people are born into their situation. Like in Ghana, some kids get sent home from school because their parents couldn’t pay their school fees. There are only a few public schools in the whole country and they are a horrible, horrible quality. Teachers hardly get paid anything so they just don’t go to work. And then you’ll end up with one teacher with a class of 300. The kids can’t even afford an education. But we take those things for granted.”

Fornito’s mom, Donna, will soon see her daughter leave home for a second time. As before, her absence from home will be difficult.

“As a mom I will say it’s hard to let somebody go that far, half way around the world. I talk to her every day now. I’m not going to be able to do that, for 27 months. It’s going to be difficult. I’m a Christian and I know that God is going to take care of her. And the Peace Corps is all about safety. I’m not worried about it, I’m just going to miss her. She’s doing great things and she’s going to come back and do great things,” Donna said. “People fall in love with Kiki wherever she goes. They’ll fall in love with her there, too. Twenty-seven months can be challenging. It’ll be challenging for me to let her be gone that long.”

Fornito will leave Fayetteville again on March 28. Her journey to the other side of the world is one that is much more than a matter of geography. It is an internal journey where, as is always the case in life, the only way to make a difference is to be the difference.

“Some of my friends were about finding a job and making a lot of money. That’s just never been my focus. Intrinsic fulfillment is more important than extrinsic. It’s always been that way. It will always will be that way,” Fornito said with a smile. “I’m not going to be wasting these two years. I going to make some sort of difference, in the country, in my village, with the students. The teaching staff I work with, and my host family, they will be changed because I was there. I will be changed because I was there. There is no part of it that’s wasting my time. It doesn’t matter where it is, it’s not even about my preferences, it’s not about what type of people or which country. They are people, we are all people.”

The northern part of the county is an area, she said, that is more closely tied with Russia, both in language, religious beliefs and a preference for vodka.

Central Kyrgyzstan is traditional Kyrgyz, with a mix of Russian and central Asian influences, while the southern part of the country holds to an even greater Asian influence and a more strict practice of Islam.

The Kyrgyz Republic became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It covers an area of 77,181 square miles that is 90 percent mountainous. It is nearly identical in size to South Dakota or Nebraska.

Its neighbors are China to the east and southeast, Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west and Tajikistan to the south. With a population of approximately 5 million, the religious make-up of the country is approximately 75 percent Muslim and 25 percent Russian Orthodox.

Agriculture products include tobacco, cotton, wheat, potatoes, sugar beets, beans, apples, apricots, peaches, grapes, berries, sheep, goats, cattle, wool. Trade exports (2007) totaled $1.34 billion in cotton, wool, meat, tobacco, gold, mercury, uranium, hydropower, machinery and shoes. Its main trading partners are Russia, Switzerland, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.

Ethnic Kyrgyz are traditionally tied into a complex system of tribes and clans, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Many politicians are sensitive to divisive voting patterns that could open up fault-lines between ethnic Kyrgyz, Russians, Uzbeks or other minorities, between Muslims and Christians, among the Kyrgyz tribal groupings, or between “northerners” and “southerners,” according to IWPR.

Kiki Fornito marches to the beat of a different drummer. She is on a mission to make that difference. It would be that way in her life whether she traveled the world to lend a hand or stayed at home to accomplish the same mission. For Fornito, it is about who she is, not where she goes.

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