Dance Party- Shaartuz Pre-New Years Party

My coworkers, Nodira and Abdulrahim

My coworkers enjoying our office new year party!


The Realities of Winter

Tajikistan in winter is distinctly different from in the US for two primary reasons.
In Shaartuz electricity is rationed and the markets aren’t connected to the global food supply. From 6am to 10am and 5pm to 10pm we have power. This totals 9 hours per day; Shaartuz is rationed 3 times the amount of power that neighboring villages receive during the months of November to March. Our office runs on a generator during the day. *

With rationed power the neighborhood becomes a social place. It’s commonly warmer outside than inside, so people visit with one another in the sunshine. Kids play games, men play cards, women socialize when their chores are completed, and strong social bonds are reinforced daily. It’s impressive.

Another noteworthy thing we can learn from Tajikistan is how to manage our own vanity. Tajik people dress exceptionally well most of the time, but the difference is each person has an average of three stylish/professional outfits. It’s the norm for people to wear the same outfit repeatedly, and my co-workers’ outfits are always clean and pressed. I’ve thought about it, and this makes sense. Why are our closets filled with so much stuff? Why do I have a significant amount of clothes sitting in a storage unit in Montana?

The truth is, I’m a consumer, it’s my culture, and it’s something I’m evaluating as I live in Tajikistan. My consumer instincts have been curbed regarding food purchases too. The markets are filled with cellar crops and not a lot else. Each meal is a variation of potatoes, carrots, onions, green turnips, rice, pasta, broth, meat (sheep, goat, cow, chicken), and the beloved dumba oil. Dumba oil is made from sheep butt fat. The food is tasty!

When things are predictable it’s easy to adapt and overcome. If you know electricity will be rationed, you plan for it. When you know you’ll have limited ingredients, you develop delicious recipes for what you have, no big deal. These are just a few of the reasons why Tajikistan and its people are inspiring.

* So where does the power go? Here is just one contributing factor: “The Tajik Aluminum company, Talco, consumes up to half of Tajikistan's electricity, contributing to major seasonal shortages and suffering. Though Talco is technically state-owned, most of its revenues end up in a secretive offshore company controlled by the President.”


What am I doing in Shaartuz?

Shaartuz is an arid region constituting the South Western corner of Tajikistan. It’s nestled up to both Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The desert terrain traverses the borders, as do the many rivers that flow through the area. Agriculture is the primary source of income for the region. It took consultation with an agronomist to convince me that the region is good for growing things, and I’m still not certain, and I’m certainly not an expert. It was counter intuitive for me to come to this conclusion, because there is sand, not soil, making up a large part of the landscape. How does gravelly earth get transformed to viable soil: water, lots of water.

For the most part, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan disappeared in the 1990’s, it died a rapid death under the guise of Soviet progress. Specifically, irrigation systems watering the arid regions across Central Asia, irrigation systems that are still in place today. A small portion of the Aral Sea has been rehabilitated, but it’s such a small portion I’ve been told that it’s not linked to Shaartuz’s local river outputs. So, Shaartuz’s rivers end by flowing into the dead Aral Sea. With this rationale, there is no reason to stop growing things in the desert, and that’s exactly what’s happening in Shaartuz. Cotton, yes, thirsty cotton is one of the primary cash crops.

I am working on making sense of this while I am engaged with another part of Shaartuz’s economy: youth employment and empowerment. I am working for Mercy Corps as an intern until the end of February. Mercy Corps is in the 2nd year of implementing a 3 year US AID funded project: TSEP (Tajikistan Stability Enhancement Program). TSEP works in 3 regions of Tajikistan: Shaartuz, Garm, and Khojand.

Each region has a youth coordinator; Hakeem is my main man in Shaartuz, he has creative ideas and is patient with my Tajik. Farhod is the Shaartuz training coordinator, he possesses a wealth of knowledge, and I expect to learn a lot from him, he also serves as a translator for Hakeem and me. I have high hopes for what we can accomplish together! In the upcoming weeks I will be investigating how to link youth being trained in TSEP workshops with regional and national markets. The second aspect of my internship will focus on how to mobilize and train youth to accomplish community service projects funded by TSEP. These projects will be linked to crisis prevention in the areas of health and environment.

Next week I will be meeting with youth from 3 villages to listen to their thoughts about what the primary health and environmental risks are in their communities. From their feedback I will work to construct proposals for community service projects. I am learning that it’s important to take my time, there are a lot of stake holders that must be considered before projects are approved. This is why I am hoping to create pre-approved projects that reflect local youth’s interests. Once these projects are approved, youth will be able to choose what project they want to implement in their communities.

Minimally, I want to create a methodology for training and project implementation. If this is successful, the hope is to mobilize youth into action, launching a pilot program for in Shaartuz. If successful, the model could be implemented in the other TSEP regions.

Wish me luck, and if you’ve got ideas, I’d love to hear from you!


The Social Scene in Shaartuz

There is rumor of an underground disco in Shaartuz…there is rumor of an UNDERGOUND DISCO in SHAARTUZ! As this rumor was being discussed over a meal of shashlik (kebabs), my fellow Mercy Corps interns and I were contemplating how we could find the disco. One of our fellow coworkers responded “why do you need to find a disco, I know the owner of this restaurant and this can be our disco.”   

This conversation was at the beginning of dinner, we all chuckled, and continued to enjoy our meal. We were sending off a Mercy Corps intern, Vanessa the agronomist, who was returning to America. She had made quite an impression on the community, in 5 months she had mastered conversational Tajik. I was told this week that to learn Tajik, one must love Tajik people, and then it will be easy to learn the language. It is clear that Vanessa loved Tajik people, and I like to think I am following in her footsteps.

As the meal came to an end, we were all lubricated, and the idea of making a disco in the restaurant sounded less funny and more like a good idea. The tables were pushed to the side, the music was turned up, and we danced! We danced with our arms in the air, as is the Tajik way. We embraced the moment. This is the way to live and enjoy Shaartuz.

I couldn’t help but notice that our Tajik coworkers danced similarly to their fellow Soviets in Georgia. The music is different, but the body movements are similar. When surrounded by the people of Tajikistan when they are speaking Tajik, it is easy to forget about the Soviet past. This week we received a new American supervisor, Justin, he speaks Russian. With his presence, Russian is used more frequently in the office. It is amazing to see how easily my coworkers move in and out of Russian, both linguistically and culturally.

Justin arrived from Mercy Corps Afghanistan in Kunduz. As the bird flies this is approximately 80 kilometers from Shaartuz. Last night he made the comment, that to see how significant the Soviet influence was and is, you just need to cross the border. He is happy to be in Tajikistan. We are happy our American enclave in a region of 100,000 has expanded to 3.


Can you be a Victim of Hospitality?

Let’s talk hospitality...
As the recipient of incomparable hospitality, sometimes you have to rise to the occasion and be the exceptional guest. You have to eat two dinners in one night, you have to finish the bottle of vodka, and you have to dance. To never say “enough” is an art form that guests in Central Asia must master. As my changing physical form attests, I am an apprentice of this skill.

While sitting around dinner tables being goaded to have more, eat more, enjoy more…I have found myself wondering: Why didn’t I pack more pants with stretchy waste bands?

In the video below is Uncle Imimyor and the beautiful family of his side kick Ahmad. This was a feast night to be remembered (and yes, this was our second dinner of the evening)!

Women in Barcheed

In Barcheed, like a duckling I followed and imitated what I saw Maino doing. Maino is a strong, intelligent, capable, and patient Pamiri mother. She is pictured above making pilov, a prized national dish. Maino is the mother of my friend Zor, a Pamiri student attending the University of Montana. Maino is the mother of three children; those children have chosen to study overseas (two in Russia, one in Montana). Maino adopted me into her daily routine very easily, even if I resembled a misfit duckling.

I stuck close to Maino, eager to practice my language and learn about her life. Village life followed a clear routine. A routine no matter how closely I watched, things escaped me. It took me the entire duration of our stay to realize the cow got milked twice a day. If this was the animal kingdom, my chances for survival would have been slim. Thank god for opposable thumbs and grocery stores!

In the village (кишлок), when the sun comes up, the cows, chickens, and sheep got moved to pasture. All of the houses surrounding ours were inhabited by relations. All these relations also had cows and sheep. The sheep watching responsibilities rotate among the families. This includes grandma, mother of 12 children, Soviet hero; she’s tough as nails and smaller than the average 10 year old.

The role of women is foundational to community life. Grandma’s raising grandchildren, while their daughters are migrant workers in Russia, earning money for the family. 36% of Tajikistan’s GDP is based on remittance payments. Women working overseas is new to this generation. It will be interesting to see if their daughters follow in their footsteps. To work hard abroad with the hope of retiring at home, with the hope of one day being able to raise grandchildren, make bread, plant and harvest crops, live a routine life. Village life is full of work, so retirement doesn’t seem like the best word choice.

To live and enjoy life without complaint, this is what I observed. Who’s got time for nonsense when there is so much work to be done? Not a pint sized Soviet hero with more great grandchildren than you can shake a stick at, not Maino, not any of the women I met in Barcheed. 

I blog. I'm a blogger.

Here is a link to my Buskashi photos. Also included are some pics from the Heli ride from Khorog back to Dushanbe, that was awesome: http://www.flicker.com/photos/mikeylikesbikes
I have posted a few pics here, but I encourage you to check out the rest at the above website.

Yes, as Ali points out this is my first blog post ever. I blog. I'm a blogger. It is also my first on-line photo album. I recently purchased a digital camera and I have been spotted texting very slowly. Are these all symptoms of my sisification--the wimpyness of modern man? (see Reuters article "Modern Man a Wimp says Anthropologist"). Note: I don't Facebook, I don't exactly know what Twitter is, and it took me several days of work to get my photos on the Internet, but my friend Alex did once convince me to open a Friendster account.