Half way through…

imageAs I approach the half way stage of my trip I am finding myself getting very used to the ‘norms’ of Tajikistan! Some initially strange feelings I have got used to are; the heartfelt joy I feel when I go into a public toilet and see a toilet you can sit on instead of a hole in the ground (if there’s toilet roll too that’s exceptional happiness!) Considering food in the shop to be in date if it’s only been off since 2013; it’s the best of a bad bunch! Communicating a whole conversation through non verbals, I now consider this a skill which I will definitely be putting on my CV! Getting starred at and often my picture taking while walking down the street, I fear this is something I’ll miss when I get home! And taking my life in my hands every time I need to cross the road, traffic lights don’t mean much here!

It is a regular occurrence that I will turn to my housemate and say “This place is F***ing nuts!” One of the many things I have already learnt is the value of patience! The general way of getting things done in this country is very different to what I’m used to. At times it feels like bureaucracy gone mad! Things that appear to be straight forward never are, therefore a simply task often takes a long time and requires people to jump through several unnecessary hoops! At the beginning I found myself getting frustrated by this, it seemed to me there were lots of people on power trips and they would exercise their power to make life difficult. Trying to organize a programme for 18 young volunteers with these realities has been at times challenging to say the least! After a while I realized getting frustrated was not helping matters and I just had to accept it for what it is, logical thinking out the window, realistic time scales forgotten about; going with the flow is the best way to spend my time here! I have gotten very good at showing my ‘this is completely normal, no worries’ face when inside I want to scream! Therefore I am very thankful to have my housemate to vent these frustrations to. We have a ‘randomness of Tajikistan’ chart which we add to daily! I’ve a feeling if it wasn’t for her I would surely have went mad by now! And also to my local counterpart, Nigora who provides great support when I struggle to get my head around the Tajik ways!

The randomness has definitely kept my time interesting and created some great laughs! However I do feel a lot of things in this country clearly aren’t working, for one reason or another, and like in many developing countries, the most vulnerable in society are the ones who suffer. The president visited the city I live in last week.  His visit was to officially acknowledge a new flag pole! In the lead up to his visit there was a lot of action in this small city. The park beside the flag pole was getting work done to it, new flags were put on every pole insight and the presidents lovely face was plastered all over the city (literally there’s nowhere in the city you can walk without seeing a massive billboard of him!) For the 2 days that he was here the city was in lock down. Schools were closed, public transport was off and roads were closed for his car to speed up and down! Children of Primary school age were placed on the streets waving flags and cheering for him passing, once again it was all very bizarre! When I ask people what they think of their President I feel I am not being given a genuine answer. It is as though people are not able to even think critically about him never mind express it. I recently finished reading Geroge Orwell’s book 1984. I had read this book before but something in me thought I should bring it to read again here and I’m glad I did! I have drawn many similarities from this book to the situation here in Tajikistan, which have left me feeling quiet sad. The thought police being one of them (you will only get this if you’ve read the book, apologies if you haven’t!) Tajikistan is the poorest post Soviet country which is evident in many aspects of life here yet the government refuses to acknowledge there is even any poverty in Tajikistan. I suppose if your main priority is to implement a regime that feeds you own ego, why would you care about people living a very different life to your own. This beautiful country has wonderful people, amazing landscape and many unique traditions. It has so much potential but if the powers that be continue to cover the realities with more flags and pictures of the top dog, what hope is there?

Tajikistan’s economy relies heavily on money being sent into the country from people working in other countries, this is said to make up 47% of the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product). This makes Tajikistan the most remittance dependent country in the world. With this starling fact it is no wonder why the country have such strong ties to countries such as Russia when they are dependent on them for quite a lot. It could also be argued that the high levels of migration also gives the power hungry government free run of the country with no opposition. If a large proportion of the population is working in another country and others are trying to live while below the breadline, why would they take to the streets to fight against the regime?

The volunteers started their main projects working with local women to start up their businesses. The teams are split into smaller groups; each group supports one woman to start up her own business. This is quite a new idea for Tajikistan and the volunteers have already been faced with several challenges! There’s no hiding the fact that gender inequality is a huge problem in Tajikistan. Many women are married young and not given opportunities to gain an education or employment. This leaves a high number of women reliant on their husbands to be the bread winner. With migration another huge issue in Tajikistan; it is said over 1 million, a third of the Tajik population, are currently working in Russia (although with many migrants going illegally this number is thought to be higher), this has left a society of unemployable women responsible to run a household, pushing many further into poverty. Divorce is also an issue affecting many women. Of course women can’t choose to get a divorce, however men can and many do. The divorce rate of Tajikistan increased by 14.3% last year alone. Many divorces occur while men are working in Russia; if a man repeats the word ‘Taloq’ (divorce) 3 times to their wife this means they are divorced. This can be done face to face, over the phone or via text message! When a woman hears this news she is often devastated. Divorced women are often seen as outcasts in Tajik society. It is unlikely that she will ever marry again, and she will now be responsible to provide for her family, alone. Being a single parent in an impoverished country is not easy, particularly in the rural areas where jobs are scarce / nonexistent. One of the few ways women in rural areas earn cash is by picking cotton. They are paid the equivalent of 4p per kilo, imagine how much work it would take to gather a kilo worth of cotton. Child Labor is illegal in Tajikistan, however it is known that many single mothers relay on the help of their children in an attempt to feed their family. This obviously creates a lack of education and childhood for the next generation. In extreme cases children are put into ‘institutions’ which have created orphanages. We are going to visit one of these orphanages on Saturday (packing the tissues for sure L)
All these complex issues make working with the women of Tajikistan vital. The volunteers are doing an amazing job, as well as working with the business women they are volunteering in other services such as a women’s crisis centre which supports women suffering Domestic Violence, that’s a whole other issue I’ll save for another blog!

One experience that I think will stick with me for a long time was going to my first Tajik wedding! Weddings are a huge deal, being standard that it is part of everyone’s life. I was so excited to be part of a families huge celebration, I had a feeling my Aladdin trousers wouldn’t be fancy enough so invested on a beautiful traditional dress from the local dressmakers. I knew this wedding would be of a young couple, as is the norm in Tajikistan but I was taken back at just how young they were. The beautiful bride was 17; she looked terrified and not at all happy. The locals I was with informed me this is the norm, traditionally the woman should look sad to be leaving her family and joining another, she should cry and definitely not enjoy the wedding celebrations! This bride played that role very well, she sat at a table on the stage with her head bowed down, covered by a veil, looking very miserable. She did not eat, speak or smile. Every so often she stood and took a bow; this was to thank everyone for coming. The groom was not much older, 18, and although he didn’t look as miserable as the bride, he still looks quiet scared! Meanwhile the party was in full swing, lots of music, dancing, food (no alcohol!) but the crowd didn’t need it they were having a great time!  The groom’s classmates were on the table next to us, they were having a great time; a group of teenage boys who hardly left the dance floor! This was another experience where I felt the generosity and hospitality of the Tajik people. We were welcomed with open arms to this young couple’s special day, even though we had never met them before! A video camera was going round and seemed focused on out attempt at Tajik dancing, I’m sure this will give the young couple something to laugh about when they see it! Towards the end of the night the bride and groom stood in the middle of the dance floor with both their parents; there was then a long winded speech by the man presenting the entertainment. It was explained to me how this is the official handover of the young woman. Her parents were handing her over to the young man’s family. This seemed to be a traumatic experience for all involved! They were all in tears, no one looked happy; it was quiet uncomfortable to watch!
I learnt a lot about weddings in Tajikistan that day! It seems the majority of time marriage is a cause of convenience; love doesn’t seem to come into the equation at all!  These two young people had met just once before their wedding day, however they were lucky to get this, many couples meet only on the day of their wedding. The marriage was arranged by the parent’s, neither young person had a say in it. It is tradition that a young man’s parents will pay a family for their daughter. This price varies depending how young, educated and pretty the female is. Reputation is also a huge factor. It is as though every unmarried female is being prepped to be married. Therefore an unmarried female would not drink alcohol or show too much of her own opinions as this could ruin her chances of being ‘picked.’ While at the wedding some of the older women were eyeing up the young girls for their sons, grandsons, nephews etc. They seemed to like to polite girls and were finding out more about their families etc. I found this strange, these girls were teenagers and they were being looked upon as potential wives! I thought about teenagers at home, in my own family and how I encourage them to spend as long as possible finding out who they are before they get into a serious relationship, never mind getting married!! But I suppose here why does a women need to get to know herself, when she is married she serves one purpose, to be a good housewife.
This whole experience blew my mind! I’ve never been a great believer in marriage, but I am happy for people who are in love and feel they would like to celebrate this through getting married. In a culture where love doesn’t matter but marriage is a must, it’s quite a shock! I thought about how many people here must go their whole lives without experiencing the feeling of being in love, which is quite sad or is it a case of being practical about your life partner and learning to love them as you are going to spend the rest of your life together? Once again I’m feeling very thankful for freedom and right to chose not to believe in marriage; this isn’t an option for the people of Tajikistan.

I continue to be thankful everyday for this unique, eye opening experience. I am learning so much about this fascinating country, the culture, the people, the traditions and most of all myself; all in a day’s work!

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