By Carrie Piesen, KF13, Tajikistan
As part of the application process for the Kiva Fellowship, prospective fellows have to submit a ranking of countries where they hope to be sent for their placement. I’m sure Thailand, Samoa, and Costa Rica are lovely at this time of year, but there was little doubt in my mind as to which would be first on my list – what could be better than winter in Tajikistan?
This country has it all! You want mountains? They make up 93% of the country, making it one of the highest and most mountainous on earth. Clear skies? Tajiks enjoy over 300 sunny days a year. The latest diet and fashion trends? Done and done.
I’ve been living here just over a month, and the country has not disappointed. The scenery is spectacular, the food respectable (and my system superb!) and Dushanbe must be the prettiest capital of the former Soviet republics. But it’s the hospitality of the people that has already made my time here so remarkable. I’ve been to three weddings and celebrated an epic Eid Qurban holiday by going from home to home with a friend, sitting down to a massive feast at each, seven (!) times in all. I haven’t met a soul who hasn’t invited me to his or her home for tea, which always includes bread, fruit, sweets, occasionally a full meal, regardless of the family’s circumstances. Hospitality in Central Asia might be legendary, but nothing could have prepared me for how full on, even overwhelming, it can be at times.
Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet states, and the statistics are sobering – 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, nearly half of the labor force works abroad in Russia or Kazakhstan, and remittances sent by these workers account for a staggering 50% of the country’s GDP. A civil war in the 90s brutalized the country, and although most people have moved on with their lives, there is widespread distrust of the government and a growing concern over Islamism being used as a vehicle for opposition. Infrastructure is poor or nonexistent, and disputes with Uzbekistan over natural resources leave people without power for much of the winter.
But the staff at Humo, my MFI, doesn’t flinch when the power goes out. When family members leave for Russia, those at home pick up the slack, many of them relying on microloans to start and expand their businesses. As the country’s economy develops and infrastructure is strengthened, one would hope that fewer people will need to leave their families and communities behind in search of work abroad – that there will be sufficient opportunity for them here at home.