Nomads: How Much Longer?

Jon Hiebert | KF 17 | Mongolia

This family was surprisingly connected. They showed me that the solar panel could charge their cell phones, and yes, they have reception here!

As we drove hundreds of kilometers on this “Mongolian highway” (dirt road), the only thing that broke the vast nothingness was animals and the occasional ger (Mongolian nomadic tent).  We were headed to a city called Kherlen in the Eastern Mongolian province of Dornod, where  I was scheduled to check in with five borrowers to verify some information.

While bumping along in the middle of nowhere, we saw a man on a motorbike coming from a different middle of nowhere, and our driver stopped to have a chat.  After we got going again, I asked my coworker/translator, Tsolmon what that was about.  He told me our driver wanted to stop at a ger where I could ride a horse!  I was happy to hear this news, as I needed to stretch my legs.  So, we drove and drove off the “main” road to find this horse.  After a lot of confusion and bickering between the two Mongolians I was with, we came across a ger – who knows if it was the ger – but I don’t think it matters all that much.

Not impressed
Not impressed.
We got out of the vehicle and within minutes I was on a horse.  I was amazed to see how these people live, and also got to meet their lovely two-year-old daughter.  Her father, Munhkhod, was really proud of her and the fact that she could ride a horse, so he wanted me to take a lot of pictures!

I did my work in Kherlen, and then — on the 13 hour ride back to the city — my driver turned off the “road” again and told me we were looking for the same family because he had developed pictures of their daughter on the horse in Kherlen, and wanted to give them to the family.  After an hour of searching, and going to another ger that I swear looked identical, we finally found the first family’s home.  They were very excited to see the pictures.

They were also much more comfortable with me, so they asked me to herd their goats and sheep. Even though I did a horrible job, they asked if I wanted to ride one of their camels.  From experience adventuring, I’ve learned to always say yes, so off we went to herd the camels closer to home. With one boost, I was relaxing in between two lumpy humps.  Then UP the little girl came (with some help) and we got to chill up high for a wonderfully comfortable ride.

We’re happy… the camel had seen better days.

As we ate breakfast in the ger after my ride, I had so many questions to ask the family about their lives out here — a four-hour drive from a city of 40,000 and nine-hour drive from the capital, Ulaanbaatar. They said they have two daughters going to school in Ulaanbaatar and that soon their littlest daughter would be starting school there.  I didn’t want to pry, but I wonder how long this lifestyle would continue? Who can continue herding when the life is by no means be easy? Think no running water, limited electricity, no toilet… and you get the picture.  Will these daughters come back to the traditional nomadic way of life after years of schooling in the city? I agree that there’s nothing wrong with modernization, but what will happen to these beautiful people of the steppe?

I’ve met a couple journalists here in Ulaanbaatar, Taylor and Nina, who are covering stories similar to this one with their NGO, the Vanishing Cultures Project (VCP). While it seemed like the family I met was doing well, all it takes is one bad winter and their life savings and their herd could be wiped out.  On VCP’s website it states what I know as reality, that “The yurt camps that ring the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, house what is now considered a permanent population of displaced nomads.” These people have had bad years in the countryside and move to the city for more opportunities.

I realize that we can’t force people to maintain their traditional lifestyles, but I have started wondering what solutions there are to embrace both tradition and modernization.  And also, how can people continue to provide for their families during this transition?  There are no quick fixes, but I know that microfinance organizations like XacBank, Credit Mongol and Transcapital (click to loan) are providing services to underserved areas. There is good news, in that the financial sector in Mongolia is quite developed, allowing for healthy competition.  This allows organizations to dig deeper and further into remote, rural areas.

This transition is somewhat inevitable, but adequate finances can make it much less difficult.

Jon Hiebert (KF 17) is a roving Kiva Fellow working with XacBankCredit Mongol and Transcapital in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.  Join the Mongolia Lending Team and lend to a Mongolian micro-entrepreneur now!

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