Hungry China = Hungry Tajikistan?

A family shows food preserved using improved techniques.
In a country like Tajikistan – landlocked, post-conflict, few natural resources, 93% mountainous, crumbling infrastructure and a questionably corrupt government – investors are hard to come by.  Some recent discoveries and actions, however, may be changing Tajikistan’s luck.  Whether this will be positive or detrimental to the country’s future development remains to be seen.

Last month Gazprom announced that it had discovered approximately 60 billion cubic meters of natural gas, or the equivalent of 50 years worth of domestic use.  This is good news for a country that has become so reliant on natural gas for heating from Uzbekistan that during periods of chilly relations or delayed payments, supply has been suspended causing untimely deaths for some of Tajikistan’s population.

This is in addition to the massive hydroelectric project currently underway at Rogun Dam that is expected to help make Tajikistan a net energy exporter to countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan in the near future.  And Rogun is not the only hydroelectric project planned for this glacier-rich country.

Also, just this month, two new gold deposits were found in central and north Tajikistan, totaling 117 tons and 59 tons respectively.  With the help of Chinese mining companies, these deposits could help increase Tajikistan’s current 1.3-1.5 ton production annually.

So I mention the Chinese.

China has made immense investments in Central Asia in recent years.  As the global leader in energy consumption, China has been furiously looking for other sources to fuel its economy. China has provided $10 billion to Kazakhstan to help boost its economy in exchange for a construction of a pipeline that is expected to carry 400,000 barrels of oil per day to China.  There are already 15 majority Chinese companies in Kazakhstan.  The Chinese have even overtaken Russia’s influence in Kazakhstan with Chinese companies importing 18 million tons of oil from Kazakhstan in 2009, compared to just 6.4 million tons by Russian companies.

In Turkmenistan it’s the same story, with China already signing contracts to purchase up to 40 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas annually.  This is after $7 billion of approved soft loans to Turkmenistan in order to develop specific gas deposits.

So what does this mean for Tajikistan?  Well, the Tajik government just announced that it was going to lease land on Tajik soil to allow 1,500 Chinese farmers to grow food for the Chinese.  This is certainly disconcerting in a country that has difficult producing enough food for its own people.  The government has given the justification that the Chinese will bring with them contemporary farming techniques and develop land that has been left fallow due to labor shortages from labor migrations to Russia.  People in Tajikistan aren’t so sure.

One issue is the fact that this means a large incursion of Chinese into the country to work the fields.  There were 30,000 Chinese migrant laborers in Tajikistan in 2007 working on roads and mining sites.  This number had jumped to 82,000 by 2010.  This is likely to expand rapidly with this new deal in Tajikistan – a reality that does not sit well with many in Tajikistan.

This new deal comes right on the heels of an announcement that Tajikistan had ceded 1,100 square kilometers of Tajik land (1 percent of the country’s total land area) to China.

With China’s rapidly growing influence and investment in the region, one has to ask what the benefits will be.  With Chinese laborers building these projects keeping employment from a Tajik population of young people desperately in need of work and with land being leased or ceded to China for food production in a country that has periods of high food insecurity, investment may come at a net cost to the people of Tajikistan.

An energy and nutrition hungry China may mean a perpetually hungry Tajikistan in the future.

Articles of Interest


No less than fifty horses and riders rode on the snow-filled field high in the mountains.  Outfitted with colorful saddle blankets, boots, whips, Russian tank helmets and other adornments, riders and horses alike were prepared for battle.  Their object: fight over a disemboweled goat carcass and see who could throw it into a tire in the middle of the field.

Buzkashi is a sport that no narrative, nor photo could do justice.  Riders and audience both are part of the game.  You take your own life in your hands standing as a spectator watching each match as riders come galloping toward you at full speed hanging half-off their horse fighting over a goat carcass with another rider.  It’s the shouts from the crowd, the whoops from the riders, the sound of the whip crashing across a horse’s (or rider’s) body, and the screams of joy filled feared as audience members run for fear of getting trampled that constitute the game.

Below are photos from a couple Buskashi matches I attended while working up in the Garm and Tavildara districts.

Janice - one of my coworkers, as the only woman to have ridden in a match - much less win.

Christmas with the Kazakhs; New Year's with the Dutch

One shot

The top-shelf Russian vodka burns my throat as the sound of a substantial Russian man behind me barking the lyrics to “Sign” by Ace of Base burns my ears.

Two women dance idly in the corner of the room while a man not older than 25 attempts to woo them with his amazingly arrhythmic dance moves.

Two shots

At the table I am accompanied by approximately twelve Lufthansa crew members laughing riotously and screaming to each other in high-pitched German.

I cling to my Kazakh acquaintance to my left as the only other person not shouting unintelligible phrases at an overly-audible level into my ear.

Three shots

A few of the crew members crawl out of their seats to take the place of the substantial Russian man at the microphone to sing Pink’s classic, “Let’s Get This Party Started”.

The initial signs of dancing begin to take shape on the dance floor.

Four shots

I am pulled rather violently from my seat to take center stage and lead the eager crew members in a rendition of “New York, New York” which is only appropriate - I am repeatedly reminded - because I am the only American in the room.

Five shots

The dancing really gets underway with Russians, Kazakhs and Germans alike being pulled onto the dance floor in a cacophony of movement and a flurry of sound (yes, those adjectives are correctly placed).

Six shots

The night progresses oscillating between Russian pop songs and English classics spanning the decades.
Zenkov Cathedral (made entirely of wood)

Language is of no issue at this point as everyone in the room dances to each song regardless of its linguistic origin, taking only the occasional break for another shot.

. . . And that’s how I spent Christmas in Almaty . . .

Kazakhstan is a place of contradictions, perhaps by design: It sits squarely in the Central Asia region, yet Almaty is more European than Asian; it is a country founded on the Kazakh identity, yet is one of the most multi-ethnic countries I have ever visited with Kazakhs, Russians, Koreans, Jews, Uighurs, Kurds, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and a host of other ethnicities coloring the landscape; Almaty proper is dense and polluted but just a short bus ride away lie some of the most beautifully unspoiled mountains I’ve ever seen.

Almaty and larger Kazakhstan also does not contain some of the more historic architecture or sights of its European or Central Asian counterparts; nomadic until Russian occupation, the Kazakh people did not construct large cities like the Tajiks of Samarkand and Bukhara. Interestingly, religion is much more diverse than other parts of Central Asia with the population splitting its allegiances between Russian Orthodox, Islam, atheism and a smattering of other faiths.

Perfect day for a hike
I was fortunate to get a peek at this unique country through the eyes of its most visited city. It left me wanting to explore more.
After spending Christmas with the Kazakhs (and a large number of Germans), I awoke early on the 29th to journey to Amsterdam for New Year’s. It was with great anticipation that I returned to the city for the first time since I left in 2004 and to meet some dear friends with whom I had spent a year studying there.

(Some of) the Amsterdam crew reunites

BOOM sputter sputter

The sound and accompanying sonic force nearly knock me from my bike as I race through the streets of Amsterdam following Karl as well as possible through the haze of firework smoke.

BANG BOOM fizzle fizzle blinding light

It seems that every resident of Amsterdam feels that it is perfectly safe and ordinary to light fireworks in the middle of the street as myself and a few hundred other bikers weave through seemingly life threatening explosions and showers of sparks.

BAM BAM sputter fizzle

The impossibly tall Dutch man and his family stare at me as I halt my bike waiting for the shower of sparks to stop.

Happy New Year from Amsterdam!
I can’t tell if they stare at me because they see no reason for me to stop or if it’s because I’m wearing silver tights, gold sequin hotpants and a sleeveless shirt that reads “Moon Gymnastics” . . . I’m leaning toward the former.

BOOM BOOM sparkle sputter BOOM fizzle fizzle

“Hot outfit,” a group of impossibly tall Dutch girls shout as another explosion lights the sky behind them, “I want some of that!”

Not tonight girls, not tonight.

While Karl and I never did find our friends to attend the “Space Oddity” party we had dressed so appropriately for, we did manage to find a few other watering holes to ring in the New Year. Riding my bike amidst showers of sparks along the canals of Amsterdam wearing utter ridiculousness, however, was celebration enough as I remembered why I love the city so deeply.

. . . And that's how I spent New Year's in Amsterdam . . .

Wishing for Barf for the Holidays

барф (barf) means snow in Tajik, by the way.

As I sit here in the relative luxury of Dushanbe, I realize that it's been quite a while since I last wrote a blog entry.  I apologize; I know that you've been waiting with bated breath.

Summing up the past month: свет нест has become a daily occurrence leaving only a few hours of non-generator electricity per day (thus sketchy internet and no electric heat); following-up on my successful sheep slaughtering, I managed to procure a turkey for Thanksgiving and cook a fairly palatable meal despite the limitations; I may or may not have crossed over into Uzbekistan during a recent weekend hike; my doctor host father has asked me to procure a prostate stimulator for a patient during my international holiday travels; and finally, all of the New Year holiday decorations are out in full force around the country, complete with Boboi Barfi (Grandfather Snow) and "New Years Trees".

The holidays have always been a time to reflect for me.  Whether it be because I am often far from "home" and separated by many miles from family and friends or because it signals the end of a year and the impending beginning of a new one with endless possibilities, this time of year brings with it a special opportunity to step back and gain perspective.  My time here in Tajikistan is more than half over.  Despite many setbacks and stalls along the way, I feel like I have accomplished a great deal and learned volumes more.  Tajikistan has got a hook in me, so I know that when I leave in 3 months, it won't be last time I'm here.

Below are some photos from the last month.  I'm headed out early tomorrow morning for a two week adventure to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan ... with a little detour to Amsterdam for New Year's; a reunion with another place that is close to my heart.  I'll try to post some updates from the road.  Expect a full debrief once I return mid-January.

Oh, and Happy Holidays to anyone who is still reading this.  I miss you all!

So many chickens ... where's the turkey?


The hiking crew

Thanksgiving dinner

Development or Dependency?

"бутсы! бутсы!," they yell as they run down the narrow unpaved street toward me with arms waving in the air.  Skidding to a stop in front of me, the group of six boys proceed to ask for money, phones, cameras . . . and the ever-popular бутсы (soccer cleat).  When I decline, the boys proceed to tell me, "чй? дустиман." ("Why? You are my friend!").  This exchange goes on for the the entire remaining walk to my office.

The neighborhood boys posing with their new ball and jerseys.
Upon first glance, the causal observer might think me selfish.  Unknown to the casual observer, however, is that I had already bought the boys a soccer ball and jerseys, as their ball had multiple holes in it and they were unable to play.  I wanted these boys to be able to enjoy whatever short childhood they still had left and thought that this would give them the means to do so.  The best of intentions aside, I was misguided in my approach, for my gifts turned into a desire for more and a dependency on what they thought I could offer them . . .

. . . Not two weeks after I had bought the boys the new soccer ball, they came to me with the deflated ball asking for another one when before they had found ways to repair the old one.

Simplistic as this illustration may be, it got me thinking a lot about aid dependency.  For years, there has been a lot of discussion from scholars and practitioners who have questioned the effectiveness of international aid in its current form.  Does it create dependency?  Does it prop up undesirable governments?  Does the money actually get to the people for whom it is intended?  Books have been written about it, especially with regard to Africa.

In development, it is important to constantly be aware of the impact you are having on a community - both positive and negative.  Outright loans or grants to a government may be the easiest or the most politically viable option, but it also may be destructive in the end.  It is my hope that with all the talk of international aid reform in the United States, the new plans for the State Department and USAID include more of a focus on engaging local organizations with smaller grants, rather than large grants to governments and that there is a very purposeful review of every intervention that is implemented and its overall impact on the target community.

This is certainly not insightful or groundbreaking, but evidence in the field, such as the simple illustration above, certainly helps me to understand more concretely the challenges that the field of international development faces.  It is my hope that government aid and development agencies worldwide heed this evidence.

Relevant Article:
Draft QDDR Review:

свет нест

"свет нест" ("no light") is a phrase that has infiltrated every aspect of my life here.  It's a phrase that has redefined productivity/unproductivity and intimately taught me that sometimes there are more important things than electricity and internet connectivity.  Below are some notable events that have happened when the electricity has been on . . . and off.

Washing my clothes in scalding hot water.

Close Encounters of the Itchy Kind
It was 4:30am.  I was scheduled to go to the Dushanbe airport to fly up to Khujand in the north for two weeks of work on our projects in that region.  My driver arrived at 5am sharp and we drove through the dark, frigid streets of Dushanbe.  Completely unaware of the fact that there are two "terminals" at the airport, given that there is only one small building comprising its entirety, I first tried to enter the international departures door and was swiftly turned away.

After a few moments of confused queries, I was directed to a door outside on the side of the building.  Loitering with a few other passengers bound for Khujand, we waited for over an hour, our flight departure time come and gone, huddling as close together as possible for strangers.  As the first light of day began to appear, we were told that our flight had been delayed until 9am.

I searched for a warm tea house around the airport with futility.  Eventually sneaking into the "VIP lounge" that was filled with Russians anxiously awaiting their return to Mother Russia, I sleepily sat through three consecutive flight delays.  Finally leaving at 2pm, I was asleep before I sat in my seat, despite a growing itch around my ankles, knees and elbows.

Forty-five minutes later, I arrived in Khujand, was met by my driver there and proceeded to the field office.

Opening my computer, I was greeted with an Apple startup page that did not actually boot the computer despite a couple hours of effort from me.  One computer down, little sleep the night before and a full two weeks of fieldwork ahead of me, I was . . . concerned.

And still that itch . . .

I woke up the next morning to freezing rain and the most intense itch I have ever experienced over my entire body.  Showering and dressing for work, I entered the office and immediately asked for the nearest doctor.  A trip to the hospital later, I was diagnosed with Scabies.  It was to be a weekend of scrubbing, hot water and dousing my body in nose-hair-singing medication.

After spending a fortune on calling AppleCare, I was informed that my problem was likely due to the voltage fluctuations here in Tajikistan and that they would have to send me new software to fix the problem.

The trip to Khujand ended up being highly productive.  I visited most of our target communities in the region and completed most of what I had planned despite the invasion of parasites - human and computer alike.

Dividing the meat of the sacrificed sheep.
Blood On My Hands

Almost as soon as the morning prayer concluded, the steam rose from the blood that streamed from the sheep's throat and came in puffs as the animal took its last breaths in the chilled early morning air.  Holding the sheep's feet through its last convulsive attempts at life, my hands were warmed by the body that was soon to turn cold.  Proceeding to fillet and separate the meat,  the prized sheep's fat was scraped into a separate bowl to make the special Eid-i-Korbon dishes that would feed numerous neighbors and friends.

Eid-i-Qurbon (Eid-al-Adha in Arabic) is a religious holiday commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his eldest son as commanded by God.  The most symbolic act on this holiday is the sacrificing of a sheep and splitting its meat into three parts: one for the family, another for family and friends, the third for the poor.  Families visit each other throughout the day, enjoying abundant food and conversation, opening their own homes to anyone who wishes to eat.

The gang I rolled around with for Eid-i-Qurbon.
My day began with a rousing sacrifice of a sheep followed by visits to two funeral ceremonies and no less than eleven houses with twelve guys (men and women usually travel in single-sex groups and eat in separate rooms).  I ended the day bloated, my eyes swimming from countless cups of tea, ready for bed.  I will never forget the excitement on the streets or the bright eyes of the children who go door-to-door singing and asking for candy or money.  The sheep slaughtering will also leave an indelible imprint in my mind . . . and perhaps my clothes.

While the lack of electricity makes productivity impossible sometimes, it is the moments, both great and challenging, that happen despite свет нест that I will likely never forget.

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.

Relevant Articles:,-Russia-and-China-19564.html

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.

Parasites, Weddings and Tajik Lessons

It was late afternoon when I piled into a small Lada with the Chief of Party and a national staff member who were returning to Shaartuz after a few days in Dushanbe.  After what seemed an eternity among the dust, car horns, shouts, animals and heat that swirled around us in Dushanbe, we finally made it onto the open road headed for Shaartuz.  Infrastructure soon gave way to rolling sand hills and grazing livestock as the Lada toiled the pothole-ridden road.  The car conveyed us through flat farmland and imposing rock faces; dessicated sand dunes and cheerful communities.  Three to four hours of incredibly beautiful landscape and good conversation, we arrived at our destination.

Shaartuz has now been home for two weeks, yet it seems that I have been here for months already.  It is a town in the southern corner of Tajikistan dotted by mountains, small villages and the borders of both Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.  The town is arranged around two major streets and is almost purely residential.  Homes in this part of Tajikistan usually consist of a series of buildings arranged around a large central kitchen garden.  Each room of the home is accessed from the central courtyard with the kitchen and bathroom being outdoors.  The Mercy Corps office is located in just such a house.  It is here that I take all my meals and where all the staff works from during the day.  I am currently sleeping in a room in another part of town, just a short walk from the office.

It would be disingenuous to begin reflecting on my first impressions of Tajikistan without mentioning my epic battle with a fairly stubborn parasite.  The warning signs were there.  Rumblings.  Frequent trips to the squat toilet.  Fatigue.  Headaches.  For the first few days I decided to ignore it and thought that it was just something that I had eaten.  It was only when I could hardly hold down my food at a wedding I had been invited to that I realized that drastic measures had to be taken.  A few doses of Cipro later and I finally felt myself.  My formidable foe returned a second time, but I was ready.

Speaking of weddings . . . I have now been to no fewer than three.  I have arrived at the end of the Tajik wedding season and it seems that every one of my colleagues knows someone who is getting married every night of the week.  The Tajik wedding is a multi-day affair with dinners at each family's home, a religious ceremony with a mullah and a public reception with music, dancing and dinner.  I have been privy to only the public reception, but it is certainly an unforgettable experience . . . deafening live Tajik dance music blaring from the speakers, heaping amounts of food on the tables, a a unique brand of dancing on the dancefloor all while the bride bows to her guests throughout the night.  Despite the most recent Presidential decree outlawing weddings that cost a certain amount of money and delineating the times during which receptions could be held, the last wedding I attended managed to hire a singer named none other than Benji.  Dressed in red tuxedo pants, a shirt unbuttoned to his navel (somewhat scandalous for Tajikistan) and a black tuxedo jacket, he wowed the audience with a dance rendition of Michael Jackson's Thriller among other well known "classics".  To cap off the night, myself and the other intern here in Shaartuz, being foreign, were asked by the bride and groom through a line of intermediaries to make a speech.  I have to say, it was quite eloquent without preparation.

Wedding feast

In just a short period of time, the Tajik people on the whole have amazed me with their abiding hospitality, keen sense of humor, commitment to family and immutable smiles.  Every day that I travel to the villages in which I work, I undoubtedly see considerable poverty.  Yet, the mood is always light and the people always ready with a joke or sarcastic jab.  Being the awkward foreigner, I rarely understand the entire joke despite it being explained to me by an English speaking staff member, but the cheery atmosphere nonetheless points to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.  I have seen this in other collectively wounded peoples, such as the Cambodians.  Tajikistan and its people have come a log way since the end of its civil war in 1997.  The wounds are still there, but I am confident that with the continued effort of the Tajik people in concert with appropriate and truly sustainable development programming aimed at engaging youth to combat extremism and creating employment opportunities within the borders of the country - not Russia or Kazakhstan - that Tajikistan will again experience its proud history in the present.

Hayom, my Tajik teacher (far left); Aziza, his wife (far right); Rukshona, national staff (next to Aziza)

Salom Tajikistan!

It was 5:30am and I awoke from a fitful sleep between two large Russian men on an AirBaltic flight from Riga.  Despite my best attempts to drown out the noise of some pretty aggressive snoring on either side of me, I had failed.  The flight attendants announced that we had landed at Dushanbe airport and that we would be taken by bus to the airport "terminal".  Half-conscious, I rolled out of the plane, into the bus and arrived at the single diminutive building that constitutes Dushanbe airport.

After presenting my Letter of Introduction from Mercy Corps to the immigration officer and sitting in a small room with a handful of other scruffy looking foreigners, I received my visa and was sent off into the early morning darkness with my bags to meet my driver.  I immediately spotted him among the surprisingly large crowd of people standing outside holding a sign emblazoned with "Mercy Corps Tajikistan" on it.  Once in the car, he handed me my cell phone to be used during my time here, gave me a few papers to sign and then we were off, barreling down the empty streets of Dushanbe.  He pointed at seemingly innocuous buildings, describing what they were in Tajik and Russian.  I understood maybe a fourth of the explanations, but I appreciated the brief tour nonetheless.

After I arrived at the Mercy Corps guesthouse, I stumbled in the dark to my room, changed, and passed out.

Fast forward to 1pm . . . I awake from a death sleep to an empty guesthouse.  I had apparently slept through my alarm clock that had been set for 9am . . . good thing it was still Sunday.  I whiled away the next few hours unpacking a bit, eating and getting the lay of the land.  Eventually the other two Mercy Corps staff got home - one another intern, the other the Deputy Chief of Party of the program I'll be working on here.  The rest of my time in Dushanbe was spent exploring the interesting, albeit limited historical sites around town and becoming acquainted with the staff based in the Dushanbe office.

The original plan had been that I would travel to Garm, in the mountains, to work on the agricultural value chain portion of the program there.  Reports were issued, however, that a group of mujahadeen who had been imprisoned after the civil war here escaped and were a potential security threat in the area around Garm.  A quick turn of events and I was detoured to Shaartuz in the south near the Afghan and Uzbek borders for a couple weeks until the situation quieted down in Garm.

So ends my Dushanbe adventure and begins another further south . . .

Parliament in Dushanbe
The People's Palace in Dushanbe
Somoni Monument in Dushanbe
A beautiful local mosque
My guesthouse for a few days
The view from Mercy Corps Tajikistan's HQ offices in Dushanbe