I've met Black Greeks pretty much everywhere I've traveled. Whether they were chilling in Toronto, living on an ashram in Accra, Ghana, or serving beer in a London pub, I'm never surprised. But Black Greeks in Kazakhstan? What the…?
Meet Erica McMahon, Syracuse grad and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority soror, who ditched her lucrative career as a diversity recruiter for the financial services firm Credit Suisse, in order to spend nearly three years in the dusty urban environs of the post Soviet nation of Kazakhstan as a Peace Corps volunteer. Why the Peace Corps? That option came up as a 25-year old Erica began reevaluating her life.
"At the time I had no idea that I was on a path to Peace Corps," she remembers. "I was working on getting transferred at my company to either the London or Singapore office. I wanted to see the world through the eyes of corporate America. [But] as the markets turned, people were being laid off and transfers were frozen, I felt stuck."
It was time for her to talk to her mentors about moving forward. And that's when becoming a Peace Corps volunteer began to make sense.
"The three things that I would say put me on a path to Peace Corps are my wanting to travel and help people; becoming a born again Christian in 2006; and having a wonderful professional career counselor for over four years."
Yet, none of this convinced Erica that the Peace Corps was ultimately the right decision to make. Being a Peace Corps volunteer meant leaving everything behind for over two years. Other than the monthly stipend you receive, and that's based on the local economy of your assignment, you're literally leaving friends and family behind. The Peace Corps requires dedication, and it took prayer, her mother's words and a Peace Corps vet to seal the deal.
"[When] it was suggested that I think about Peace Corps. I was totally against it. I didn't want to live in a hut, with no toilet or shower. I wanted a posh lifestyle like all NYC girls," she laughs. "[But] God and my mother slowly changed my mind. I began to do research, however there was no one in my circle who did Peace Corps. Luckily a friend of a friend introduced me to someone who served in Haiti. Once I spoke with him and went to a few Peace Corps informational, I was sold. And I've never looked back."
Never looking back meant heading to Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world in terms of area, located on the Caspian Sea, and surrounded by Russia and Turkmenistan. The population of 17 million Kazaks and Russians live on the steppe and in urban centers, where Erica is stationed. Erica wanted an Asian assignment in order to get a new experience, and in Kazakhstan, she spends her days teaching English to local residents. But as a Peace Corps volunteer, you're expected to do much more than be a single tasker.
"I also co-manage and women's club, conversation club, and grammar club at the local library. I also conduct teacher trainings, and hold seminars of various topics, for example in February I hosted a Black History Month Seminar Series."
And even though the Peace Corps doesn't require you to learn the local language, she's picked up enough Russian to be conversational. One thing she had to get used to was the word for black person in Russian.
"For one the word for black person in Russian is "Neh-Ger", which sounds exactly like nigger. I was warned before I came, and although most people who say that word have no idea what it means to an African American, it still stings every time I hear it," Erica said. "Also, you always stand out! Most of the white or Asian volunteers can pass as Russian or Kazakh, however I can never blend in. Therefore people are always looking and staring at me because most have never seen a black person before. It takes a while to get used to."
As one of three African American Peace Corps volunteers in Kazakhstan, Erica thinks it's a shame that more black people don't volunteer.
"More African Americans should do the Peace Corps because it helps improve our [African American] image abroad," she said. "I can't tell you how many people think they can only talk to me about Akon or .50 Cent, or that I know drug dealers.
"As a people we need to get on the globalization train and learn about other cultures and other languages. It will help you appreciate and love America that a lot of African Americans have a hard time doing in my opinion. And there are so many countries in this world that have their own version of mistreated underrepresented peoples. It's really interesting to learn about what they did or are still doing to overcome, and about how we are similar and different."
For this Zeta, life in Kazakhstan will pay off when she gets back to the United States in a year and a half.
"When I return to America, I plan on joining a Zeta graduate chapter again. The technical skills I learned during training such as grant writing, different community assessment tools, and language will definitely be useful. But also I hope that I can bring a unique perceptive on approaching challenges to my chapter. I can't wait to serve Zeta and my community in America again."
So if you're in Kazakhstan anytime in the next year, look up Erica. She's holding it down for Black Greeks in central Asia.
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Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.