This guest post is from Clay Westrope, a M.A. Candidate in Sustainable International Development at the Heller School for Social Policy & Management. He is the TSEP Agricultural Value Chain Intern in 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.
Tajikistan is a small, mountainous country located north of Afghanistan, west of China, east of Uzbekistan and south of Kyrgyzstan. The poorest of the former Soviet republics and landlocked, this country is 95% mountainous, leaving 5% arable land. Following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan experienced a debilitating, tragic civil war that ended in 1997, leaving between 50,000-100,000 dead and around 1.2 million refugees. Tajikistan is a predominately Muslim country with a language similar to that of Farsi and Dari. Due to the lack of employment opportunities within the country, a large number of men and an increasing number of women are migrating to Kazakhstan and Russia for work sending remittances back to the country, accounting for the largest proportion of the country’s GDP.
As part of my Master’s degree in Sustainable International Development at the Heller School, I take part in second-year fieldwork to gain practical experience in the field. Due to my particular interests and future career goals, I negotiated a practicum with the INGO Mercy Corps in Tajikistan. The original plan had been that I would travel to Garm, in the mountains, to work on the agricultural value chain portion of a large USAID-funded program there. Reports were issued, however, that a group of anti-government militants 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.
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.
I work in villages between 30 minutes to an hour away. Given that the program on which I’m working is so large and has a number of separate objectives, the past two weeks have been spent becoming acquainted with the program and the communities in which we work. Through trainings, interviews and just casually spending time with community members, I am growing to understand the distinct needs, desires and issues associated with each community.
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 in Russia or Kazakhstan – that Tajikistan will again experience its proud history in the present.