Media Students from Norway Explore the Caucasus
All photo credits John Gjertsen
It's quite a novel idea - sending university-aged
students on a study tour to the relatively unknown country of
Azerbaijan. But what do you expect when the concept originated
from a rather extraordinary school with a unique mission - in
Since 2004, the Danvik School of Media and Communications in
Drammen, Norway, has sent a group of students each year to the
Caucasus to hone their skills in journalism, filmmaking, and
international relations. Danvik is what Norwegians call a "folk
high school" (Folkehøgskole), which provides unique
educational experiences for youth, ages 19-21, who have earned
their high school diploma but who wish to further develop their
creative and technical skills before pursuing studies in journalism
or film school, or before being hired directly by the media industry.
Danvik does not give grades. Rather, the staff tries to foster
an atmosphere of self-discovery without the usual judgmental
critiques from adults. They hope that the result is "true
competence". Taking a year or two off from academic studies
and getting involved at Danvik also looks good on student resumes.
But why Azerbaijan?
What are the dots that
connect Danvik with Azerbaijan? The human link can be traced
back to the initiative of Tore Seierstad who directed the Norwegian
Humanitarian Enterprise (NHE) in Baku from 2000-2003. Today,
Seierstad is the Director of Danvik, but that hasn't stopped
him from further developing those early ties with Azerbaijan
by creating opportunities for young people to take these study
excursions. Seierstad immersed himself in the community while
living in Baku and has a great attachment to the place. Seierstad
learned a bit of Azeri while living in Baku, but, more importantly,
he says he learned a lot of culture and has friends and helpers
all over the country.
Seierstad notes that for many years it was impossible to visit
Azerbaijan since it was part of the Soviet Union (1920-1991).
He feels privileged to have been able to live in Baku and discover
what he calls a "treasure trove of culture, history, ethnic
groups, some of which speak rare languages and live quite isolated
in remote mountain villages."
Seierstad also credits Steiner Gil, former Ambassador to Azerbaijan
along with the Norwegian Embassy staff in Baku with helping to
open doors and help him establish good relations.
Heyerdahl and Azerbaijan
There is another link as well. Seierstad is from Larvik, Norway,
which is the hometown of the world-renowned archaeologist and
explorer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) who led the Kon-Tiki expedition
across the Pacific from Peru to the Polynesia on a balsa raft
Heyerdahl had his own ideas about early man's links between Norway
and Azerbaijan. He was convinced that early man migrated via
seas and rivers from the region of Azerbaijan to what is now
Scandinavia. [See "Scandinavian Ancestry: "Tracing
Roots to Azerbaijan," by Thor Heyerdahl in Azerbaijan
International, 8.2 (Summer 2000). Search at AZER.com.]
On Thor Heyerdahl's last trip to Azerbaijan with his wife Jacqueline
in 2000, it was Tore Seierstad who organized a visit for him
to Nij, a small village in the Caucasus mountains which is home
to the Udi people who claim descendancy from the early Christian
Caucasian Albanians of the 4th and 5th century. [See "Udins
Today: Ancestors of the Caucasian Albanians" by Zurab Konanchev
in Azerbaijan International 11.3 (Autumn 2003). Search AZER.com.]
On that same trip, Heyerdahl and Seierstad continued their journey
to Georgia to meet Dr. Zaza Alexidze of the Institute of Manuscripts
in Tbilisi, who was responsible for discovering and deciphering
the long lost written script of these ancient Caucasian Albanians.
Facts: Caucasian Albanian Script" by Dr. Zaza Alexidze
and Betty Blair in Azerbaijan International, 11.3 (Autumn 2003).
Search at AZER.com.]
It wasn't long before Seierstad as headmaster invited me - a
teacher of photography at Danvik - to do a feasibility study
for college tours in the mountain areas of Azerbaijan. That's
how I became Project Coordinator. I have since made seven trips
to the region. In the beginning we experimented with various
concepts for the tour, exploring various regions throughout the
country, particularly in the Caucasus around Guba, Shaki and
Nij in north central Azerbaijan, and Ganja in western Azerbaijan.
On the first tours we camped high in the Caucasus and visited
the remote village of Khinalig along with the mountainous regions
of Shahdagh Yaylaghi. A small expedition even hiked to the top
of Shahdagh during the summer of 2005. As Norwegian mountaineers,
we enjoyed the pristine mountains, but soon discovered that all
the hiking and camping proved to be too time consuming for our
other more important goals. Today, the trips primarily concentrate
in visiting Baku, Ganja, Shaki and Nij.
Students carry out various
project requirements while on location in the Caucasus region.
On our most recent trip in February 2007 trip, the group (consisting
of 13 students who were mostly girls), concentrated on independent
photography or film projects, media studies or cultural studies.
Students pay for these trips themselves but because we are quite
familiar with the territory, we are able to keep the expenses
Students at Danvik College can also choose to take part in study
trips to the United States or England. The trips to Azerbaijan
require additional preparation. Actually, students start planning
during the fall semester with country and regional studies, project
planning and technical training.
Since most of our students are fluent only in Norwegian and English,
while on assignment in Azerbaijan, they have to rely on interpreters
to communicate in Azeri or Russian. This provides an added dimension
for them. It's valuable field experience that would be difficult
to have in Norway.
As countries, Norway
and Azerbaijan share many similarities. Both are relatively small.
Both have mountainous terrain and, until recently when oil became
the primary economic base, both relied upon an agrarian way of
life, based on farming and sheep herding. But now, as both countries
are involved heavily in the oil sector, wealth is having an enormous
and not always positive effect on everyday life. Therefore, Norwegian
students enjoy understanding more about Azerbaijan. Many students
express a desire to return to visit their newly found friends
Danvik hopes to continue developing relations with Azerbaijanis.
Because of potentially close ties that can be fostered in education,
trade and culture, the school would like to invite some students
from Azerbaijan to learn Norwegian and vice versa. They hope
that this exchange program will continue long into the future.
As Seierstad observes: "When our young people develop friendships
with other youth, we are building relations which will last for
long time. And it is relations such as these that provide the
building blocks for a better tomorrow."
Note: Should anyone wish to do serious mountaineering or camping
in the Caucasus, it's really important to take along a professional
mountain guide. Highly recommended: Alexander Najafov, Tel: (994-50)
335-9930, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since 2005, John Gjertsen has been a teacher at the Danvik School
of Communications and Media in Drammen, Norway. He is Project
Coordinator for the Caucasus project and took all photos in this
article. Contact John Gjertsen:email@example.com.
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