Dress for Success

Sitting in a room with four other girls, Gulshan Chorieva holds up a dress that she and the other sewing students have been working on under guidance of the master seamstress. In the brightly lit room looking out over a small garden of colorful flowers and vegetables, typical of southwestern Tajikistan, three sewing machines and scraps of fabric are strewn about in the chaos of work and instruction.

Ten years ago, Gulshan and her family were living with a relative, unable to afford a home of their own. One night a flood rushed through the home, destroying it and all of their possessions. Forced to move, they ventured to the village of Chkalov, outside Shaartuz and found shelter wherever it was available. Gulshan’s uncle eventually found them a plot of land on which they have slowly built a home. Mostly windowless and lacking a ceiling, the house that she and her family have built has been a work in progress ever since they moved here.

Seven years ago, Gulshan’s father became ill and died, leaving her, four sisters and their mother to support themselves. As young girls, Gulshan and her sisters helped their mother in the fields growing corn and wheat for sale or barter as well as vegetables for their own use. Without another wage earner, it has been difficult for Gulshan’s mother to support the family and she has had to rely on help from relatives.

With sewing machines supplied by TSEP and in partnership with the local NGO Mehrubon, Gulshan and nineteen other girls in Chkalov are studying to be master seamstresses under the guidance of five skilled teachers from the village. Work with the masters follows a three-month training conducted by Mehrubon. Every day, these girls come to the master’s home to learn the craft and develop the skills necessary to begin a seamstress business. Gulshan shyly, but with a sense of happiness in her eyes says, “Because of this class I will be able to support my family.” Her teacher offers reassuring information saying that even after just two days of instruction, Gulshan has sewn dresses and sold them at the market for seven somoni ($1.60) each and that she has shown such potential that TSEP has given her a sewing machine. She explains that once Gulshan has the skills of a master, she’ll be able to sell her dresses for many times more than this.

Lost in Translation

Parranda,” he says, pointing to the gray and white dove hopping from branch to branch of the grape trellis above. 

“Bird,” I say, with a confident nod of affirmation.

Gul,” he says, plucking a brightly colored red flower from the lush central courtyard of his home.

“Ahh, flower! It’s beautiful,” I say with a feeling of relief, thinking to myself that I’ve got the hang of this whole Tajik thing.

This is usually how my conversations go with Anvar, the owner of the home in which I’m currently living and the father of my Tajik teacher, Hayom. Basic as they may be, I have grown to understand him, his family and Tajik culture much better through our simple exchanges of mutual understanding.

But then there are those moments when both myself and the person to whom I’m speaking are at loss for understanding . . .

“His kidney hurts because he just got married,” Hayom says, with a devious smile while holding his lower back.

“His kidney? Gurda? Or do you mean lower back? Pusht?” I ask with a look of complete confusion.

“Yes, kindney! Gurda!” He exclaims, continuing to smile a mischievous smile.

Hmm, either the Tajik wedding night involves something a whole lot more risky than its American counterpart or I’ve been missing out on something. Or maybe it’s just lost in translation.

Through the travels I have been fortunate enough to experience, I have often found that human understanding transcends the limitations of language and translation if there is a genuine attempt to do so. There are times, however, when simple communication fails to convey the needs and desires of a person or a group of people. It is often our unwillingness to listen or to attempt to understand the other person that causes misunderstanding or conflict. This happens both within the same culture among people speaking the same language as well as between people from different traditions around the world.

Tajikistan Parliament
Tajikistan is currently embroiled in a conflict of misunderstanding, unwillingness to listen and fear of what would happen if the other side got what it wants. The conflict seems to lie between the government and those who desire a more deliberate Islamic influence on the laws and traditions of the country. This also happens to be largely between a small minority of the individuals who were on the losing side of the civil war and the current administration.

Tajikistan has experienced some of the worst violence in the past month since its civil war ended in 1997. From bombs in the northern city of Khujand to a bomb at a nightclub in Dushanbe to the ambush and subsequent killing of 28 troops in the restive Rasht Valley east of Dushanbe, the government is growing increasingly paranoid and is falling back on its usual rhetoric denouncing the activities of “Islamic militants”. There are reports that recent directives have prohibited the wearing of hijab in some regions of the country and encouraged the parents of students at foreign madrassas to bring their children home. While the veracity of these reports is still in question, what is clear is that the government is growing increasingly nervous of the country’s movement toward more conservative Muslim traditions (especially among the youth) as the country moves further away from Soviet influence.

It is unclear as to who exactly has been engaging government troops in fighting the past month, but what is clear is that they don’t intend to stop their attacks until their desires are at least given an ear. I am certainly not advocating for an Islamic state or the implementation of policies intended to force traditional values and traditions on the country’s populace – quite the contrary. The reality is that the majority of people in Tajikistan are wholeheartedly opposed to radical Islam. The individuals that are perpetrating these acts of violence are squarely in the minority, but their feeling of being ignored or marginalized by the government are shared by a much larger number of people. The voices of opposition groups left over from the war have largely been ignored and their dissatisfaction has spread. Moreover, youth who are presented with few options for employment, have turned to more radical forms of Islam as an alternative to the current situation and as a referendum on the government, largely viewed as corrupt and morally deficient. It seems that the current heavy-handed approach by the government against Islamists has proven to be counter-productive and may actually be inflaming feelings of disapproval by the majority and acts of violence by a small minority. This disfavor has even brought in radical Islamist sympathizers from regions such as Chechnya and Afghanistan. Military power may suppress the current acts of violence for a while, but the motivation behind those attacks will remain.

It is my hope that both sides will make the effort to listen to each other and find common understanding. Yes, this may be overly simplistic and perhaps a bit too idealistic, but unless there is an attempt to understand and be understood; to listen and be heard; to have both a voice and an ear, it all risks being lost in translation.

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In a Pickle No More

Just a glimpse into some of the work we're doing here . . .

Madieva Hadischa sits on the tapchan, or tea bed, in the central courtyard of her home in Chkalov village with a veritable feast strewn behind her and the warm autumn sun illuminating the designs on her long traditional dress. She knows, however, that the sun will soon no longer be warm and with the cold will come a lack of crops that the Tajik cuisine relies on, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and onions.

For years, Madieva and the eight members of her family have had to rely on the meager crops available during the winter and what they were able to preserve from the autumn harvest. Not only were the yields from these crops lower, but they do not constitute the necessary ingredients for traditional Tajik meals. Madieva explains that, “Before, most of the food that we tried to preserve would spoil. We would lose nearly half of our stored food during the winter due to unreliable preservation.”

In an effort to curb this trend, Mercy Corps has organized trainings, such as the one that Madieva attended, in many villages in this southern frontier of Tajikistan. These trainings aim to teach improved methods of food preservation to ensure lasting food security and diversity through the winter months.

With a smile on her face, Madieva continues to praise the trainings, saying that, “I found the training so useful that I gathered together eleven of my friends from surrounding villages and taught them the new methods I had learned.”

Madieva brings out some of the more than 80 jars of food that she has preserved so far. With some of her children at her side, she says confidently, “I now don’t have to worry about whether there will be a choice of food to prepare during the winter.”

As the cooler months begin to set in, Madieva and the scores of other women who now have the skills to reliably preserve food have many things to worry about, but what their family will eat is not one of them.