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Peace, Love, and Flowers

June 1, 2000
One hygienist carved her own niche in the Peace Corps and made a true difference during her stint in southcentral Asia.

One hygienist carved her own niche in the Peace Corps and made a true difference during her stint in southcentral Asia.

Dorothy M. Baiza, RDH

I tried to avoid the stones in the rice and the bones in the soup, but I was out of luck this time - I had broken my tooth. But, rather than receiving sympathy, people envied me. "You broke a tooth? You`re so lucky," they told me. Why? There is no safe, adequate dental care in Turkmenistan - where I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer - so a broken tooth meant a free trip home and a chance to see loved ones and friends.

Awaiting treatment in the clean and sterile confines of the dental office in Washington, D.C., I introduced myself to the hygienist. "You must be the first dental hygienist in the Peace Corps," she surmised.

Was I? I hoped not. The Peace Corps have been around for more than 35 years, so surely other hygienists had served as Peace Corps volunteers.

I know that I was the first hygienist in Turkmenistan. There isn`t even a name for the profession. There is a form of periodontal therapy performed by dentists, so the residents of Turkmenistan kept referring to me as a dentist.

I didn`t go to Turkmenistan to work in a dental health program. When I applied to become a Peace Corps volunteer in the spring of 1995, I was surprised to learn that there were no dental programs of any kind in any of the countries which utilized Peace Corps volunteers. I had assumed it would be a high priority for developing countries, but I was wrong.

Because of my experience in teaching English as a foreign language and my medical background, I was accepted as an English for Special Purposes (ESP) teacher to teach English to medical personnel. I was sent to the central Asian country of Turkmenistan (see below), the southernmost and most neglected nation of the former USSR.

I was assigned to the Lebap Villayat Medical School in the city of Chardjew located along the Amu Darya River, the separation boundary between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. I was soon teaching English to student nurses and midwives.

It was enjoyable, but I soon began to realize that a great need for dental health education existed. Health education in general - and dental health education in particular - was sadly lacking, even in the medical schools.

I was astounded by the rampant tooth decay in my students and friends, but I was more confounded by their complete ignorance of why the decay was occurring. I was assured it was caused by the water or by nerves. They never attributed it to the huge amounts of sugar they consumed, or their lack of brushing and flossing. They had never been taught about decay and prevention.

How would I start teaching them about oral health? My knowledge of the Russian language was woefully inadequate for anything but basic conversation. I knew that I needed to begin this conversation in English, and the English Immersion Summer Camp seemed the logical place to start.

The camp began just months after the first Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Turkmenistan in the fall of 1993. They spent their first summer vacation just sitting in the relatively cool parks of their communities after quickly discovering that the students and townspeople didn`t want to participate in activities because of the scorching (100-130 degrees F) desert heat.

So a small group of Peace Corps volunteers decided to start an American-style, English language-only summer camp. They located an available camp - one of the former Soviet Union`s "Pioneer" camps in the Kopet Dag Mountains on the border of Iran - about an hour outside of the capital city of Ashgabat. An ice-cold mountain stream ran through the camp, which helped its temperatures stay about 10-15 degrees cooler than the park.

In the summer of 1995, with the help of 75 local teachers and university students, the doors of Camp Chuli were opened to 300 students ranging from 8th to 10th grade. It was a rousing success. Many campers - and local staff - had never been outside of their communities before. They had certainly never participated in a "rah-rah"-style American camp stuffed with activities. They were kept busy from morning until night, and it was probably the single most exciting and important event of their young lives.

I offered to teach dental health at the 1996 camp. These campers were the best and brightest of Turkmenistan`s next generation. What better place to teach the importance of dental health! I must admit that I was a little leery of how the class would be received. After all, we`re talking about dental health and teenagers, which may not be the world`s most exciting combination.

I wanted to make it exciting for them, even though the class was very basic. We covered the importance of healthy teeth and gums, types of teeth, tooth anatomy, plaque information, diet, acid formation from plaque and sugar, acid and decay and gingivitis, and how to choose a toothbrush and toothpaste. We often used mirrors so the children could explore their mouths. What teenager can resist a mirror? We practiced brushing and flossing and, in a country where the stores are bare, we discussed alternatives to using floss, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.

Because of the students` levels of English, I used plenty of pictures, visual aids, facial and body expressions, student participation, and hands-on experience. This style of learning was completely different than their normal ways of copying text from the blackboard, memorizing it, and then standing before the teacher and reciting it.

The children were fascinated! I was astonished and amazed by the interest in and the gratitude for the information they received. In camp evaluations, the children requested more health classes. In 1997, regular health classes were given by Peace Corps volunteer nurses along with the dental health course.

As the buses pulled away at the close of the camp session, campers were leaning out of the windows chanting "Den-tal health! Den-tal health!" For the first time I felt I was really making a contribution to the lives of the people of Turkmenistan.

I made dental health education my secondary project. I received a small ($80) grant for supplies. I began giving classes in schools where other Peace Corps volunteers taught. I had brochures on gum disease and brushing and flossing translated into Russian. I distributed them after the classes so the students could take the information home and teach it to their families. I was grateful to the Peace Corps for making my first copies because there were few copiers and very little paper available in Turkmenistan at that time.

From the secondary schools, I soon branched out into other venues, such as classes at the medical school, teacher methodology conferences, a nationwide youth leadership conference, a winter English camp in Chardjew, the Pedagogical Institute in Chardjew, the university in Ashgabat, my evening adult English classes, and, of course, the 1997 summer camp.

The same interest and gratitude was shown wherever I taught, and I was inundated with bouquets of flowers - a delightful tradition of the country. But one of the main goals of the Peace Corps is sustainability. I would soon be leaving after serving my two years. I had exceeded my goal of teaching 1,500 students, but who would carry on the project after I left? I decided that I had to show the school teachers how to teach the class to their students. Working with school administrators, I planned a two-day seminar for science teachers to be held in the spring.

I translated the plan into Russian and, with the help of my tutor, I practiced it. Because of the country`s lack of teaching materials, I wanted to provide each school with a packet containing course objectives, a lesson plan, teaching tips, and illustrations to use in the lesson.

I was in the midst of preparing the packet and wondering where I was going to find a copier and paper when the aforementioned stone and resulting broken tooth actually made it all easier. I was going back to the United States where modern technology and supplies were readily available!

In the few days before my flight, I rushed to translate everything I needed into Russian, then typed and printed it on the Peace Corps computer in Ashgabat. After all, I knew it wouldn`t be easy to find an American computer that printed in the Cyrillic alphabet!

When I arrived in the United States, my brother, who is an animator, and his staff helped me with the illustrations. My church`s missions work area had copies made and purchased bright yellow folders to hold the papers. When I returned to Turkmenistan, I lugged all of the copies with me.

In June of 1997, I gave a two-day seminar for science teachers from 26 secondary schools in Chardjew. When it was over, the teachers wanted more. "Don`t you have anything else you can teach us? Your seminar was so interesting and useful. We could sit and listen to you all week,O some of the teachers said. They were especially impressed by and appreciative of the lesson-plan packets.

I count the seminar as one of the major achievements of my Peace Corps service. Will it have the far-reaching results that I hope it will? Who knows. Successes in Turkmenistan can be transitory. With opportunities for Russians in Turkmenistan being reduced, maybe some of the teachers I taught will go back to Russia. Maybe some will stop teaching ? since teachers are not paid for months at a time ? and will become small-time entrepreneurs, setting up a booth at the bazaar. Maybe the brochure will be stuck away and never used because it?s not part of the OofficialO program. There are many maybes but, in Turkmenistan, every small success must be enjoyed as much as possible.

I also wrote the lesson plan in English and Turkmen. I left it with the Peace Corps volunteers who are health workers and English teachers. Hopefully, they will utilize it.

I would like to hear from other hygienists who have served in the Peace Corps. Was I the first? I don?t know. I do know that I carried ideas about hygiene halfway around the world and had a lot of fun doing it, as well as receiving a lot of satisfaction from the job. If I ever wonder if I made a difference, I only need to recall the thrill of hearing dozens of young voices chanting ODen-tal health! Den-tal health!O

Dorothy M. Baiza, RDH, can be reached at 330 Sixteenth St., New Cumberland, PA 17070 or by e-mail at dmbaiza In 1964, she joined the Peace Corps for the first time, serving as a home economist/community developer in El Salvador. She has twice visited Honduras with MEDICO to provide health care services to the rural population.

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The author teaches dental health to the youth of Turkmenistan.

Facts About Turkmenistan

> There are 4.5 million people living in Turkmenistan - a country that is the combined size of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

> Turkmenistan became an independent nation when the former Soviet Union dissolved in 1992.

> Roughly 70 percent of Turkmenistan`s people are Turkmen, while only 10 percent are Russian. The remaining 20 percent is comprised of a potpourri of ethnic backgrounds.

> The Turkmen are Sunni Muslims but - after 70 years of Soviet rule - there is little actual worship practiced. Other religious groups include Shiite Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians.

> There are five main tribes in Turkmenistan. The tribe and the family play an important role in the lives of the Turkmen.

> The Karakum desert covers about 80 percent of the country, so the summers are long, dry, and very hot. The winters are quite cold.

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Some of the participants in the dental health seminar. They are holding the folders Baiza brought back with her from the United States.

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Baiza (in yellow visor) with her English class of student midwives and their adviser.

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Baiza receiving gifts of a scarf and flowers from the participants of the dental health seminar for science teachers. Her associate, Farida, is filling out the certificate of achievement given to each participant.