A few weeks ago, I took a trip to a place called Toguz-Toro, one of the most inaccessible, underdeveloped, and rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, to take part of a project with a few young people from Bishkek. The project is two-fold, focusing on investing in Kyrgyz Language learning, culture, and literature, as well as English language learning. I am participating as an native English speaker, both as a way to excite kids to participate, but also as someone who has a command of the language. (For those who read this blog, you will know my English skills are pretty lacking, but still excited to participate.)
I spent about a week traveling throughout the region, visiting schools to talk about the competition, practice my limited Kyrgyz (very little Russian is spoken in this part of the country), and taking pictures of mountains. It was wonderful to feel so welcomed in every school, to see kids so excited to participate in the project and share with some random American what they love about their country and their homes. Above every school door, even the most remote tucked away in the mountains of Jalal-Abad, was written Кош Келиниздер! (kosh kyelinizdyer) – Welcome! – and, to stray into sappy territory, truly felt it. It’s not always something I feel when I show up to work in Bishkek. While this is very distant from the work my organization wants out of me, it was a nice break to feel that excitement from both my colleagues on the project and from the kids we met with.
Being in villages and working with schools, made me question a lot about what my experience would look like if I weren’t in Bishkek, doing the work that I am doing. My life would be drastically changed – not just in the amount of sheep I would consume or the scarcity of the Internet or fresh fruit – but the way I would interact with the people around me or other volunteers in Kyrgyzstan. Feeling a stronger sense of belonging in a community, not just in a geographical definition, but in the way a community defines how people belong, their roles and responsibilities, and their commitment to each other. Feeling the immediacy of progress on a small scale, seeing it everyday in your students and the people around you. My work is creating progress, but in a more abstract, less tangible, less immediately-visible way, and it can be frustrating not seeing changes happening as you work. Feeling that on this trip was a nice break, but also a good reminder that strong investments in community development aren’t always immediately visible. It is long, hard work that needs commitment and buy-in from all sides to be done well. And while it may feel stagnant at times, I know that it is something that I am contributing to, even if it is a hundred, tiny, frustrating, difficult steps.
I think the most striking thing I found about my trip to Toguz-Toro, beyond this internal reflection on my service, was how underdeveloped the region is. The rayon – an equivalent to an American county, whereas an oblast would be equivalent to a state – has been traded back and forth between Naryn and Jalal-Abad oblasts since the 1990s, and the only paved road in the entire rayon leads to Kazarman’s open gold mine. Kazarman is the rayon capital, and its radioactivity levels are so high that they increase salaries of doctors and teachers to live and work in the shadow of the mines. The rest of the villages are no more than a few hundred people each, settled on the unpaved roads tucked into the valleys around the Naryn River. Unemployment is high, schools are underfunded, students are passionate but recognize their opportunities are limited, that their system is built to encourage them to leave. It is also remarkably beautiful, and hope emanates even in the bitterest cold.
In April, I will head back to Toguz-Toro to complete the competition, interviewing students in English and participating in a champion’s concert. I’m excited to head back to see the mountains in the spring, drink chai with the people I met, and talk more with the students about their lives and hopes in the heart of Kyrgyzstan.