As temperatures heat up in Khujand, (hitting over 30 some days!) the atmosphere in the city has made a shift. Colourful clothes are making an appearance, trees are blossoming, people are sweaty, fruits are growing, kids are playing, water foundations are on, and there’s a general spring/summer bounce in people’s step; well definitely in mine at least! It seems the shift from the cold, grey, winter days to the blazing heat happened in a matter of weeks! This was something I definitely wasn’t prepared for in more ways than one, but mainly clothes wise (as vain as it may sound!) When I was packing to come here in February I was kindly informed the temperatures were hitting -17! I couldn’t even imagine what that would feel like; my daddy said stand in a freezer that should give you an idea! With this in mind I packed my suitcase full of winter woollies and didn’t consider the latter stage of my stay! I was also very conscious of earlier ‘rules’ I’d heard, “nothing above the ankle or elbow” in order to respect the Muslim culture. I’m not one for flashing my bits anyway but this is a difficult rule to maintain in 30degree heat! I look at some of the women wearing traditional clothing, covered literately from head to toe, head scarf and all, and wonder how they cope; especially when doing back breaking work. I’ve come to learn this rule isn’t all that strict and have braved t shirts which are above the elbow however I’m still very conscious not to show too much; it’s amazing how your sense of what revealing clothing is changes! I don’t think I’d be able to cope with the 40degree temperatures Tajikistan reaches in the summer months. It’s safe to say I’m a sun worshiper and can’t get enough of this heat, even though it can be difficult to breathe sometimes! Many locals can’t understand this. While at any opportunity I sit in the sun, the locals run for the shade! I try to explain we don’t often have weather like this in Ireland and if we do, you don’t leave the sun until you’ve a lovely Irish tan…..bright red!! This is a hard concept for the Tajik people to get their heads around, they don’t like having a tan and try to stay as white as possible, while us internationals are having a tanning competition (of our lower arms!) to see who can get the darkest before going home, the grass is always greener eh!
When I started this entry of the blog it was half way through the programme, now it is near the end; Suzie Sunshine has distracted me from writing! At the mid way point of the programme the team went away for what is called a Mid Phase Review. This is a few days out of the city where the volunteers are given an opportunity to reflect on the journey so far. This trip is organized completely by the volunteers; they choose the venue, sorted the transport and facilitated the sessions, giving me and my counterpart, Nigora, a chance to sit back and do some reflecting ourselves (it was great!) These few days really hit home to me how amazing this programme is. The volunteers discussed how they had already gained so many skills, knowledge and life experience. I have had the absolute pleasure of seeing them each develop massively in so many different ways over such a short period of time. I used these few days to reflect on my own journey too and how different my life has become while in Tajikistan. I didn’t give this experience a lot of thought before coming for a few reasons. One, I’ve learnt from the past that I’m happiest when I don’t have expectations and simply go with the flow. Also Tajikistan is such an unheard of country; there was limited access to information about it! And lastly I didn’t want to over think going, so there was no time to talk myself out of it! Therefore a lot of this experience has taken me by surprise and I have had to ‘think on my feet’ most days! In doing this I have gained so much learning about myself and have developed massively. This is exactly what I wanted from this experience and feel so happy and thankful that my aims, so far have been met. I know this experience will be one that has a lasting impact on me, I’d say I won’t realize the full extent of this impact until I get home and have a ‘WFT just happened’ moment!
Mid way also meant more host home visit. This is definitely one of my favorite parts of the programme. As I live in an apartment with the UK supervisor from the other group, Sarah, I don’t have much of an insight into traditional Tajik’s homes. Therefore being welcomed into the homes where the volunteers stay is a real treat. Each is so different, some are very traditional and I am very conscious to remember the ‘norms’ (I just try to copy my local co-worker!) and some are more modern where different rules apply. It is tradition that the youngest son of the family will have his parents live with him when he marries. These houses tend to be bigger, with the mother and father in law having part of the house to themselves. If I was a Tajik woman, and was fortunate to be one of the few who are allowed to chose who they marry, I would stay clear of a man who is the youngest son, as the wife not only has to look after her own husband and kids but also the in laws (a lot of work!) For families that only have their own family the house tends to be an apartment with 2 bedrooms max. One thing they all have in common is their extremely generous hospitality. It is as though their main aim is to have you leave the house feeling like you could burst, this aim was definitely achieved! In one house we got 6 courses with a constant flow of bread, salads, tea, nuts, biscuits and 3 massive shots of brandy to toast the wife’s birthday, international guest and the president’s latest speech! After 3 hours of this food fest, where the most common word used was ‘xurdan’ (eat, used more as a command than a gesture!) I said to my co worker we have to go as we had another visit scheduled. As we went to get up the hosts were horrified and said we can’t leave before Osh (bad luck!), this is my favourite traditional dish but it is very filling and after everything we had just eaten I felt like crying at the thoughts of having to eat a plate of it! Thankfully it was served on big plates to share so I could get away with eating less! I love my grub and never thought I would have complained about being served too much but these Tajik’s take it to a whole new level, one I only normally experience in my granny’s house at Christmas when I have to shout at her to stop serving food, here it falls on deaf ears they laugh and continue to command you to eat! When I heard 80% of the population lives on under 2 US dollars a day I wonder how do families afford to put on such a spread for visitors. In each house they had a cupboard full of nuts, sweets and chocolates, this is automatically opened when guests entre the house. Some locals informed me that a family will go hungry themselves but still have food for guests. This generosity is a lovely part of the Tajik tradition, but also a bit overwhelming, particularly by the end of a week of host home visits! I’ve to do it all over again at the end of the programme in a few weeks; it’s safe to say I’ll be coming home a bit heavier!
As part of the programme the volunteers organize Community Action Days, these involve the group identifying part of the community they would like to volunteer time to and raise awareness of. So far we have had three of these; the first was to a Children’s Residential unit. Initially the volunteers thought this was an Orphanage but when we went we learnt it was actually a residential centre for children who had long term diseases and illnesses such as TB, HIV, and Cancer. The centre provided them with food, bed, medical treatment and education; they could stay for a maximum of 8 months. After this time the kids would either return home to their family to continue treatment from home or, in what seemed to be most cases they would go to long term orphanages. Staff explained that in the majority of cases this is due to the family not being able to afford to care for the children. Some treatment costs more than the health service covers, also due to their conditions many of the children had more complex needs that a poor family would find difficult to meet. Some of the local volunteers explained to me how a single mother is unlikely to be able to provide for a child with such illnesses, also that child may not be able to contribute to the household; something many Tajik homes rely on. The volunteers did a great job on the day; they played games, taught English, sang and, of course, danced with the children in the morning time then spent the afternoon cleaning and painting the entrance with the help of some of the older children. One of the business women the volunteers are supporting is a Children’s Party Planner, she has cartoon customs. The group borrowed these and four volunteers arrived at the centre dressed as Micky & Mini Mouse, Winnie the Poo and a Giant Panda; the kids were delighted-the volunteers were sweaty! This was a great day; the children were in high spirits and seemed to be very happy with the company. The front of the centre was a lot brighter than before and awareness was raised as TV cameras randomly showed up and footage was shown on the local TV station! Although I kept a smile on my face all day (it was hard not to with 50+ excitable kids and a group of enthusiastic volunteers!) I also felt very sad thinking about these children’s lives. Life in this country can be difficult at the best of times but how difficult must it be for children who have a long term illness and no family? How difficult must it be for a family to hand their sick child to an institute such as this because they can’t afford to take care of them? What does the future hold for these looked after children? Having worked with young people in the care system at home I have had some insight into some of the challenges they face due to their family circumstances, but thankfully due to the great work many youth organizations and social services are doing these young people are provided with support and opportunities. In a country where such support services are extremely limited I can’t help but fear for the future of these vulnerable children. It is estimated that in Tajikistan 10,000 children under the age of 16 live in ‘institutes’ such as this one. For a country with a population of 7million, 1million of which are working in another country, the number of children in looked after care is extremely high. Fostering and adopting are not common in Tajikistan, in a country battling with poverty it is unlikely people could afford to take in an extra mouth to feed. It is also illegal for anyone outside of the country to adopt a child from Tajikistan. These complex factors show the probability of a child leaving the system is very low. We were very fortunate to have a talk with two Socials Workers from UNICEF who educated the team on some vital work they are carrying out in Tajikistan. Although they had some horrific stories and frightening statistics, I found it reassuring to learn this leading global organization and other NGO’s are present in Tajikistan protecting and upholding the rights of children and young people. There are many orphanages around Khujand, some government funded some not. The volunteers have been visiting these in their own time and have identified one which they have decided as a group to visit once a week in smaller groups. They take the children out around the city, play games and teach them English. This is an example of the passion of these volunteers and their eagerness to make the most of their time on the programme.
I have been lucky to have had the opportunity to visit rural areas outside of the city of Khujand in recent weeks. The team volunteered a day with Habitat for Humanity building a house for a family in a remote village at the foot of the mountains which separate Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This was a great day of physical labor which we did with the members of the family who were going to live in the house we were building. We got to see how a Tajik family in a rural area live which was fascinating. We even got a turn at cooking on the outdoor facilitates where homemade bread, tea and, of course, Osh was made. This family; three wives of three brothers, were very thankful for our help. Two of the brothers are working in Russia, leaving just one brother to support the three women and their children. Opportunities of paid work in the rural areas are scarce, many people live of the land however with extremely cold winters and hot summer this can prove difficult. Also with 92% of Tajikistan being mountainous access to electricity, running water and vital amenities in rural areas are limited. Although this makes for postcard views it also creates many challenges for people living in remote Tajikistan. Once again these people couldn’t do enough for us; they didn’t have much and were clearly living in poverty however they insisted on feeding us all and supplied us with tea all day. This was a true reflection of generosity and how kind humanity can be when it isn’t corrupt with greed or self preservation.
As we are approaching the end of the programme I am trying to prepare the volunteers for the closing stage. In my experience of programme work this stage can be challenging for all involved and I know this one will be no exception. These challenges will be different for each volunteer, some will be returning home to the UK or Afghanistan; others will resume normal life in Tajikistan. Some have plans to study, hopes to work, interest in international development, and many have new found aspirations to travel. These ambitions will be more obtainable for some than they will for others. One thing I am sure of is that this experience will have a lasting effect on us all. On the back of the ICS t shirts each volunteer got there is a phrase ‘Challenge Yourself to Change Your World’ for me this is the pinnacle of the programme and a concept I will carry with. With the two groups combined 36 passionate, brave, ambitious young adults will return to their own lives changed people; the impact they will go on to make in this world excites me. What a worthy way to spend a few months of your life!