One month in!
Can’t believe it’s been a month already, in some ways it has flown in and in other ways I feel so settled here and being at home seems so long ago! The novelty of being in Tajikistan has started to fade and now I’m just getting used to working away, however every now and then the randomness of this place creeps in again and more surreal moments are created!
I got to experience the amazing hospitality of the Tajik people for the first time when I did host home visits. I had scheduled to visit 2/3 homes a night but after the first I realized this wasn’t a quick chat and check around the house and I was being way too ambitious thinking I could get three done each night! I was welcomed into their homes with open arms and was feed 4-5 courses of food in each house. I pretty sure I gained a food few pounds in that week alone! To be sitting amongst a family who speak little/no English and still feel part of the conversation due to their smiling faces and kind gestures was a unique and surreal feeling! The families were all lovely and were very proud; some had their finest dishes on show, others their best clothes on. One got his youngest son to show me his report card from school; of course I couldn’t read a thing but gathered all the 5’s meant A’s! I was thrilled to be welcomed into these homes but also felt a little awkward at times. This was where I experienced, face on, the hierarchy in the home. The father was undoubtedly the boss, then the sons, then the wife and if there were daughters they would be doing the work with the wives. There’s no denying females are considered as 2nd class citizens in Tajikistan and I knew this from the beginning so I don’t know why I was so surprised to see this in the home but it was something I was very uncomfortable with. The wife was not allowed to speak before the man, she was not allowed to sit unless he gave her ‘the nod’ to and she was literally at his back in call. This rule didn’t seem to apply to me though, the opposite actually I was treated like royalty. This confused me a bit, is it just because I am a ‘foreigner’ (as they call me!), because I was assessing the house as a potential host home or because I wasn’t the wife!? I couldn’t work it out but nevertheless it made me feel extremely uncomfortable. This did not upset anyone else though; everyone knew their place and appeared to be happy with it. I suppose if you didn’t know any different why wouldn’t you be happy?
Every day I am learning more about this unique culture, particularly through the volunteers. The programme started last week when the UK volunteers joined the Tajik and Afghan volunteers. I thank my lucky stars for this opportunity every time I am with the group. The conversations, relationships and atmosphere within the group create an exceptionally amazing experience. Every one of these 18 young people are nothing short of inspiring, I feel this programme is pretty amazing just for bringing them all together. All the local volunteers are in University, therefore doing the programme part time. There are not many school leavers who aren’t in University, only young housewives who have ‘no need to study’; I was informed by a teacher, and young men who have joined the army, another popular option. When I talk to the local young people about University they share their frustrations on the corruption and lack of choice they have over their education. I was informed that intelligence and hard work won’t get you anywhere if you don’t have a rich family who can give the lectures a backhander in return for good grades. Many of the young people I work with don’t come from a rich family. They are without a doubt the most hard working and committed young people I have ever come across yet they are fighting a losing battle as many are still getting low grades because they aren’t able to play the corruption game. I have been learning more about the high levels of corruption. It seems you can buy your way in or out of just about anything in this country! It is common talk that certain laws only apply to the poor as the authorities are easily bought, something the wealthy avail of quiet regularly. It seems life can be very different depending on your wealth. I feel this effective tactic is keeping the people of this developing society from uniting.
Talking to the local volunteers about their future is another massive eye opener. Many have dreams to leave Tajikistan, a common ambition amongst a lot of people I have met. It is a common mindset that there are little/no opportunities in Tajikistan. High levels of migration, particularly to Russia have left many families struggling without a male to provide for the family. Many young people talk of the ‘free world’ in USA or the UK and how eager they are to join it. The ‘Green Card Lottery’ is very popular; I had never heard of it before but apparently it’s an international lottery to win a green card to live in the states for 5 years! The great thing about a cross cultural group is the local volunteers are learning from the UK volunteers that the western world isn’t quite the land of opportunities they think it is. When the UK volunteers share their own challenges they face at home, it is a great eye opener for the locals and challenges the illusion they have been taught about the western world. The females of in the group would like a career but are unsure when they will be married. Arranged marriages are common, depending on the family some young people have no choice over when they will be married and to whom. I am very conscious not to offend this tradition but when I hear 18 year olds not holding much hope for their future as the reality is they may be married and, for the females, made a housewife against their will; I find it difficult to accept.
I’m finding myself having to change my way of working when tackling issues such as these, in order to support the volunteers as much as I can. At home I have the mentality that you are in control of your own life and, when possible, you make your own destiny. This personally makes me feel empowered to live the life I want to live. This experience so far has taught me that I am lucky to have the luxury to think like this. So many people in the world are controlled by their environment and no matter how much they want or try to live the life they desire; it may not be a possibility.
This weekend was Navruz, the Persian New Year. This is a massive celebration in Tajikistan which comes with many traditions, which I was lucky to experience! One tradition is the making of Samolik, a traditional sweet dish which is cooked outside in a massive pot for 24 hours! I was looking out the window of my flat to a family in the garden below; 8 women were preparing for the cooking of Samolik, each with their own task. They caught my eye and waved me down. Never refusing a party, I went down and was welcomed into their garden where a family party was by then in full swing! There was food, tea, music, dancing and the massive pot of Samolik, being stirred by the grandmother. I was waved over to stir the pot. The tradition is you make a wish while you stir, with the pressure of about 25+ people watching me stir I forgot to make a wish! I had a dance with the women and children and was invited to eat and drink tea with them. This was another lovely experience of how hospitable the Tajik people are. I could hardly communicate with any of them but we still had a great time! I left after a while but the party went on all night until the Samolik had cooked for 24 hours! This family reminded me of my own family, they too would invite a stranger into their company hand them food, probably something stronger than tea, and have a dance with them!
Today I brought the group to Bus kashi, also known as dead goat polo! Hundreds of men riding horses in a field fighting to get a dead goat from one end of the field to the other is essentially what it is! Each round they were playing for different prizes; starting from a fridge right up to a car! This bizarre sport happens once a year at Navruz and was very popular, mainly with older men from the surrounding villages. The UK volunteers weren’t so impressed, the vegetarians were particularly disgusted! We discovered quiet quickly that animal rights are nonexistent in Tajikistan!
1st month down so many unique/random/surreal experiences and I’ve a feeling I’ve plenty more to come! Tomorrow I’m going to my first Tajik wedding, very excited!!