Starting a troop and a pack halfway around the world was both a challenge and a lot of fun.
Members of Pack 3975 gather beside a waterfall in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains.
The first thing people ask me when I tell them that I just returned from Kazakhstan is “Where’s Kazakhstan?” Then, when I tell them that I was a Scout leader there in both a BSA Cub Scout pack and a Boy Scout troop, the response is something like: “There’s Boy Scouting in Kazakhstan?”
To which I reply, “There is now!”
In answer to the first question, Kazakhstan is one of the newly independent states that became a country with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Located west of China and south of Russia, the country is the ninth largest in the world in area, roughly four times the size of Texas, with a population of about 17 million people.
My official job was defense attache (the senior U.S. military representative) at the American Embassy in Almaty, the country’s largest city. But I had been an active Scouter for more than 10 years, and my unofficial job soon became organizing two BSA Scout units.
The United States Embassy already sponsored a Girl Scout unit for the children of U.S. citizens living in Kazakhstan. However, there was no similar program for boys, and with the support of the ambassador, I offered to start both a pack and troop.
We estimated about 14 boys were interested in becoming Cub Scouts, but 24 showed up for the first pack meeting and we had more than 30 by spring. The Boy Scout troop followed the same pattern, and as word got out, both units more than doubled in size.
An international flavor
One reason Scouting became so popular was that there were few organized group activities for youth in the international community. Most of our new Scouts were students at the International School in Almaty, which serves both the diplomatic and the growing foreign business communities.
While all of our Scouts spoke English, our meetings had an international flavor. Members came from seven countries besides the United States and included the son of the Danish ambassador. (As a courtesy, youths from other nations are allowed to join BSA-chartered units in other countries, with the exception of youths from the host country.)
There are more than 95 BSA-chartered units in 48 countries, serving primarily U.S. citizens and their dependents who live overseas. Those units not served by the Transatlantic Council or the Far East Council are served by the Direct Service Council, which operates from the BSA national office in Irving, Tex.
Registering a unit from halfway around the world can be a challenge. The 12-hour difference in time zones makes telephone communication difficult. E-mail was a great help, and with the patient assistance of the people in the Direct Service Council, Pack 3975 and Troop 975 were chartered to the American Embassy, with the deputy chief of mission (second-ranking person in the embassy behind the ambassador) as our chartered organization representative.
Scout manuals, uniforms, and other material were ordered by e-mail from the National Capital Scout shop and forwarded to us via diplomatic pouch.
This was the first Scouting experience for most of the boys. The few who had been Scouts helped fill key leadership positions, such as the troop’s senior patrol leader.
Finally, neither unit could have gotten off the ground if it hadn’t been for a group of dedicated adult volunteers, who served as leaders and members of the unit committees.
Kazakhstan is in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains and has beautiful locations for outdoor activities, from mountains to forests to wide-open plains.
The troop’s first outing was a day of snow tubing at Chimbulak ski resort, a 30-minute drive from Almaty. And both Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts hiked in the surrounding foothills, in spectacular terrain. At a campfire for both units at the end of the school year, the Scouts hiked up a blind valley to a hidden waterfall.
Cub Scouts enjoyed the same events as back home, including a blue and gold banquet (attended by more than 120 persons) and a pinewood derby. Each was extra-special because it was the first ever in that part of the world.
Working with the local citizens, most of whom knew nothing about Scouting, often presented a challenge. Imagine trying to explain to a Kazakhstani carpenter, in Russian, what a pinewood derby track was and how it should be built.
While the Scouts did community service projects, one disappointment was that there was not an active Kazakhstani Scout movement for them to join in activities. This may change, however, because we provided several interested Kazakhstani community members with information about Scouting.
When my tour of duty was over in the summer of 1999, I left Kazakhstan with some regret, especially about leaving the many friends I had made.
At the same time, I was proud of the fact I was leaving behind two new Scout units in a part of the world where none had existed before.
Other adults have assumed the leadership in the pack and the troop, and the Scouts remain just as enthusiastic, if not more so, than when we started.
There is Scouting in Kazakhstan!
Col. Dan Burghart is currently assigned to the faculty of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., and continues his Scouting activities in the National Capital Area Council.