Posts tagged ‘imon’

The end of farming as you know it

By Rosalind Piggot, KF10, Tajikistan

I always assumed that farmers requesting loans on Kiva were carrying on a traditional, family activity.  Farming was a profession passed from father to son, from mother to daughter. The same practices were maintained for generations.  I didn’t ask any more questions.

I recently discovered that things are a little different in Tajikistan. (more…)

5 May 2010 at 06:31 6 comments

Mavluda’s poem and why you should get decked out in shiny hats

By Rosalind Piggot, KF10, Tajikistan

As I sat down at the living room table, former Kiva Entrepreneur Mavluda Muhidinova hurried to show me her work.  5 plate-shaped pieces of black material were already on the table: work in progress.  Mavluda had been hand-stitching traditional Tajik men’s hats, which are part of her business as a hat maker.

Mavluda shows me the first hat she ever made

I was amazed when Mavluda pulled out the first hat she ever made.  She had kept this green crochet hat since the early 1960s.  “I came up with the idea for this hat myself.  Here, men only wear the black hats.”

Tajik men's hats and ladies' wedding hats

“I am one of the few people in this city (Isfara) that actually makes the hats.   (more…)

2 May 2010 at 04:54 5 comments

Coup in Kyrgyzstan, business as usual in Tajikistan?

From my neighbors’ flat in Khujand, in northern Tajikistan, we watched images of Kyrgyzstan’s coup on Russian satellite TV. One woman was sitting in her dark shop illuminated only by flashlight, weeping. The mannequins that had once displayed her goods were now nude. In the next shot, another woman swept glass from the steps of her shop. “They smashed the windows… how will I feed my family now? they took my things”, my neighbor translated her words.

With the Kyrgyz border just 30 minutes away by car from the city where I live, (more…)

10 April 2010 at 21:16 6 comments

Sometimes the Most Boring Client is Really the Most Interesting

In the past week I have met with almost 50 clients, which is way more than I met in the previous six weeks combined. I should feel inspired and excited by that accomplishment, but I mostly feel tired and battered. That’s because all of the clients I met with were BORING! I’m not exaggerating – I didn’t have one interesting interview. At least, that’s what I thought in the days surrounding the visits….

When I meet with clients, I ask a bunch of questions about their business, family, and personal history in order to get a better understanding of the benefit they have experienced from working with a microfinance organization. The clients in and around my home base of Khujand haven’t exactly talked my ear off, but they’ve been surprisingly open and forthcoming with their responses. So when I took a week to meet with clients in the southern part of the country, I was shocked by their consistently brief and reticent responses. Here is a sample interview from the past week:

Me: Why did you decide to start a business?

Client: Because I wanted to.

Me: Why did you decide, after 9 years of owning your business, to apply for your first loan last year? Client: Because.

Me: What has been the impact of the loan on your business?

Client: It’s been good

Me: Can you provide any specific examples?

Client: No

Me: Do you have any goals for the next few years, for your business or family?

Client: No

It was the same thing, client after client. I wanted to scream – didn’t anybody have a wedding to pay for; a child to send to college; or a satellite dish to buy (all very typical responses to the goals question)? I pulled out every trick in the bag: rephrasing my questions; asking follow-up questions, smiling more; and talking about their family. But, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get anything out of these clients. We tried different communities, different branches, different translators and still nothing….the clients simply would not talk.

My first reaction was to chalk it up to the fact that microfinance isn’t always ‘sexy’. It isn’t always the glamorous success story that, as a lender, you hope to hear. My second thought was that this part of the country was simply more religious and therefor more reserved. But, I wasn’t satisfied with either of these explanations and decided to ask for some help from my IMON coworkers.

It turns out that the “boring clients” are a complex and emotional consequence of Tajikistan’s civil war, which erupted in 1992, just after the country had gained its independence from the U.S.S.R., and lasted until around 1997. The violence took up to 50,000 lives and resulted in widespread and devastating food shortages. While the northern cities were able to avoid most of the conflict and suffering, it was a different story in the communities I visited around Dushanbe and Sharituz. In these towns, up to 30-40% of the women are war widows; almost one hundred thousand people fled to neighboring Afghanistan; entire communities were burnt to the ground or otherwise destroyed; and most people lost their job or simply stopped getting paid. That’s why microfinance was so necessary and therefor so successful in Tajikistan. It helped individuals and communities create their own jobs and futures after the war.

When I went back through my interview notes, signs of the war and the ensuing reconstruction were glaringly obvious. I realized that most (indeed, almost all) of the clients had had some sort of career before starting their business: they were nurses, teachers, managers, government employees, factory workers, on and on. And they all said the same thing when I asked why they had started the business: “because I lost my job”. I also noticed that many of the women I interviewed were widows. Even my colleagues from IMON filled in part of the big picture. I had two translators: one to translate from English to Tajik and the other to translate from Tajik to Uzbek – because the English translator missed out on learning Uzbek when he fled to Afghanistan.

Even during our conversations, it was clear that the entrepreneurs had started their businesses in order to get back on their feet after the civil war, but I still couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t talk. I wasn’t asking questions about their deceased husbands or their burned down towns or their abandoned factories – I knew well enough to stay away from all of that. No, I was just asking questions about their current successes and their future goals – why wouldn’t they want to talk about that?

Because, I couldn’t join them for a cup of tea.

Tea is an integral part of the Tajik culture – we have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between. It is the first thing you are offered when you enter someone’s home and, as an honored guest, your hosts will never allow you to pour it yourself. Most of the clients I meet with ask me to stay after the interview in order to have tea, even if I am meeting with them at the very busy central markets. This is such an open and giving culture that it feels very natural to accept the invitation and focus on issues other than work but, when I am representing Kiva, I always decline the offer. First off, my MFI has strict rules about never accepting gifts from a client. And secondly, even though I have all the time in the world to sit with clients, I am always joined by a translator and loan officer who have very busy schedules.

So it wasn’t that my clients wouldn’t talk, it’s that they wouldn’t talk right away. Unfortunately, you can’t always get the interesting story in a 15 minute interview and you don’t always have time for a cup of tea. And, when you have a business history that includes death, war, and struggle, you’re not always interested in ‘cutting to the chase’ and explaining how it’s all connected.

I’ve learned a lot of things during 7 weeks in Tajikistan, mostly that this country is way more interesting than it often appears on the surface. The people are a complex mix of religions, languages, experiences, and dreams for the future. And the more work you put into uncovering these complexities, the more you are rewarded. I’ve learned to slow down when I am at work and when I am communicating. And I’ve learned to establish more realistic expectations about success, because sometimes it’s less about the answers and more about the process of getting there. To truly succeed in understanding Tajikistan and the people who live here, you must find that balance – as a Kiva Fellow and even as a Kiva lender.

Click here to learn more about IMON’s work and clients.  As always, thanks for your wonderful support!

25 November 2008 at 06:55 5 comments

Celebrating the Election and a Wedding

I wanted to share two really beautiful events from the past week: celebrating the election and attending my first Tajik wedding.

The U.S. Election

Contrary to the excitement that most were feeling on election day, I was feeling lousy. Here we were, on the edge of something truly great, and I was not able to participate. Of all the elections in all of the world, why did I have to miss this one?

Tajikistan is 10 hours ahead of the East Coast, so it was fairly obvious that Obama was winning by the time I got into work on November 5th. Judging from e-mails and Facebook postings, I could tell that all of my friends and family were caught up in the excitement back home, regardless of their political leanings. But all I could do was sit at my desk and watch the little states on the CNN map turn red or blue. I felt so helpless and, worse, so far away.

Then it happened: McCain conceded and Obama accepted. I read the transcripts of the speeches, browsed through the pictures of the celebrations, and cursed the very very slow Tajiki internet connection for not letting me watch any videos. And, being the cheeseball that I am, I started crying – not a lot, just a few tears ran down my cheeks.

After a couple hours of throwing myself a pity party, I decided to take matters into my own hands and throw a real party. I grabbed one of my co-workers and headed out in search of the biggest, most chocolatey cake I could find. My co-worker even chipped in for a bottle of RC and Orange RC (another food tradition I don’t quite appreciate here: washing down sugar with more sugar).

We set up the conference room and then went around to each office and invited all of the staff to help celebrate. At first, they didn’t realize what was happening and assumed that it was my birthday. But once I explained that I was throwing an election party, they got even more excited.

In good Tajik tradition, I had planned a lovely little speech in order to explain the reason for the celebration (mostly to explain that this was in no way an endorsement of Obama by myself or by Kiva). But my speech would have to wait: everyone wanted to express their hopes and prayers for my country first: “I hope that your country finds peace and happiness” “I hope that the people in your country will move out of the economic crisis and be able to make more money” “I hope that he will be the best president ever” and on and on and on. I was just blown away – I’m here to help support economic development in Tajikistan and they’re praying that people in the U.S. find wealth.

I felt really blessed and surprised that everyone cared so much. I don’t think they cared too much that Obama won, they seemed to care more about what the election would mean to the people in the U.S. And, not for the first time since arriving here, I felt really privileged. I felt the weight of what it means to be from the U.S. and the responsibility that that can bring. But, most importantly, I no longer felt pity for myself for being here instead of back at home.

A Wedding

I should start this section off with a disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of weddings. I’m not against the concept of weddings, I just don’t like how much stress and money goes into preparing what should be one of the happier moments of your life. And, unfortunately, the extravagance that accompanies most weddings in the U.S. is not a foreign concept here in Tajikistan. Up until last summer, the happy couple would be expected to throw an exuberant, multi-day affair with 500-1000 of their closest friends.

I know what you’re thinking: you don’t even know 500-1000 people, right? Well, that’s because you’re not thinking hard enough….you’re forgetting that you need to invite your brother’s coworkers and your neighbor’s aunt. In addition to feeding all of them, you would be expected to provide housing and cover travel expenses for those who were visiting from out of town. Families have gone into debt, or sent their men off to work in Russia, just to pay for their children’s weddings.

I will admit, 500-1000 people is over the top, no matter what country you’re from, but what are you going to do, make it illegal? Well, that’s what the President of Tajikistan decided to do last summer. He set a cap of 150 people for all wedding celebrations (and funerals….because, yes, they can be equally as debt-inspiring). Considering these recent constraints, I was feeling pretty flattered to be invited to my first Tajik wedding.

wedding dinnerOverall, it was a pretty amazing event. The bride and groom were welcomed by loud horns and drums; the guests were fed approximately 8-10 plates of food each (notice how the plates are stacked on top of one another in the pic); the families danced for several hours straight; and the bride spent the entire evening bowing in gratitude to the guests. As always, everyone was a gracious host to me: I was invited to sit at the head table, was welcomed by many of the families’ elders; and learned how to dance. Despite my general disdain for weddings, I had a great time.

Although, in the event that you one day find yourself at a Tajik wedding, I will offer you some sage advice…..if someone asks if you would like to congratulate the bride, kindly decline. Otherwise, you will find yourself standing on a podium, with a microphone in hand, making a speech for the new couple, whose names you do not know.

Here’s a short video of the horns, dancers, and bowing bride:

11 November 2008 at 10:45 4 comments

Tajikistan’s “White Gold”

It’s easy to tell when cotton season has arrived in Tajikistan, not because of a change in temperature or rainfall but because university students start disappearing from the city. Each Fall universities throughout Tajikistan come to a standstill as hoards of students are sent to do unofficially mandatory labor in the cotton fields. They are often paid little or not at all; are forced to abandon their studies and jobs; and risk loosing their diploma if they decide not to go. While this practice is officially illegal in Tajikistan, it is still widespread and devastating.

Tajikistan’s economy and culture are dominated by cotton. The industry employs roughly 50% of the country’s labor force, accounts for 15% of its exports, and is the biggest contributor to Tajikistan’s GDP. Everyone here has a story about how cotton has affected their life, their family, or their job. It is everywhere and it affects everyone. It even affects IMON, the microfinance agency that I am working for as part of my Kiva Fellowship.

A couple weeks ago 2 of my colleagues at IMON, also students at the local university, were called to work the fields. They were only given a few hours to prepare for a difficult two week venture: it is likely they will work long days without rest, sleep in the fields, become exposed to dangerous pesticides, and receive little in the way of nourishment. They could always pay the $100 bribe, a steal by most Western standards (including my own), but a hefty sum for the average Tajikistan worker.

A dark cloud slowly crept over the office as that day progressed. Almost everyone identified with the futility of the situation – they had also been forced to pick cotton and knew what the students were in for. The managers at IMON tried to pull some strings in order to free their employees from the assignment. But several hours spent making phone calls was only partially successful: one of the employees was able to shirk the responsibility but the other, one of the Kiva staff, was forced to leave. In addition, another staff person was asked to abandon their own job and take over the student’s Kiva responsibilities, including posting the month’s available loans on the Kiva site.

And it’s not just students that have been ordered to pick cotton. The IMON deputy director’s wife has also been called into the fields. As a doctor and a government employee, she is required to pick cotton one day a week during the season. She is older than most of her fellow pickers and is only able to pick around 10 kilos a day. And what does this established doctor receive for her day’s work in the fields? Around 74 cents! It costs her twice that amount to take the bus to and from the field, in addition to the lunch she must purchase for herself.

Since that day, I have learned more about cotton than I ever thought was possible. I’ve heard countless opinions on what’s wrong with the system and how the government should fix it. But, the deeper I dig, the more I realize just how complex the situation really is.

Is it the fault of the government?

In most cases the cotton farmers do not own the land on which they farm. They lease the land directly from the government, which in turn sets fixed prices on the cotton. The government also exercises strict control over what is grown on the land and in what quantity. While other crops like potatoes, melons, and wheat are often much more profitable to grow, the government has imposed unrealistic quotas that require farmers to dedicate most of their land to cotton.

Publicly, the government opposes student labor but they tend to turn a blind eye this time a year. They see cotton as a way for Tajikistan to compete globally. After all, the country is still recovering from a devastating civil war in the early 90’s and, previous to that, decades under the heavy hand of Soviet control. Their economic development has since relied heavily on agricultural exports, especially cotton. But their ability to remain competitive in this market is constantly constrained and challenged by the global downward push on prices.

Is it the fault of the farmers?

Farmers stepped in to develop the cotton industry after the Soviets left and have faced difficulties in finding the local investment needed to make much-needed upgrades to their equipment. They instead have been forced to seek outside financial investment from ‘futures companies’ that set strict and unreasonable quotas for the farms. If at the end of the season a farmer has not met those numbers they are subjected to high interest rates on the initial loans, which they cannot begin to pay off until the following season.

Is it the fault of the universities?

Many argue that the universities do not have to force the students to work in the fields – it is illegal, right? In addition, the universities have been charged with withholding payments that the students receive for their time in the fields. These funds are instead used to purchase books and supplies that they can’t normally afford.

Is it the fault of banks?

Farmers argue that they would be able to break the downward cycle if they simply had access to equitable funding. They would be able to repair and upgrade their equipment, thereby allowing them to improve the efficiency of their operations and produce a higher quality product that can earn more on the global market. But most reputable financial agencies within Tajikistan won’t provide these loans because they don’t want to get involved with the issue of forced student labor.

Breaking Free

The reality is that it is not the fault of one agency or one group. And the problem cannot be resolved unless all of the main players step up and work together.

In the meantime, we will just have to wait. My co-worker was supposed to be gone for two weeks, but that time has already come and gone. The staff at IMON is hoping that he will back soon, although many worry that he could be gone until December…..that’s how long they were forced to work in the fields when they were in college.

Want to learn more?

Check out this recent article in the NY Times and this report by the International Labor Rights Forum.

Thanks again for all of your support – Carrie Ferrence, working with IMON International in Tajikistan.

29 October 2008 at 11:58 2 comments

My first week in Tajikistan

I have to be honest, I was slightly terrified to become a Kiva Fellow, to travel halfway across the world to a place I had to look up on a map. Don’t get me wrong, I signed up for all the right reasons: I really believe in the way that Kiva operates, I wanted to delve deeper into the world of microfinance, and I thought that a three month sabbatical might help me gain some perspective.

But I also had a lot of little voices building up in the back of my head that didn’t think this was such a good idea. I felt uncertain: I don’t speak Russian or Tajiki, I’m not too familiar with this part of the world and, the last time I checked, the winters can be pretty harsh in Central Asia (I live in Seattle – the heaviest coat I own is a fleece). I felt selfish: I have a lot of responsibilities, including a mortgage, that don’t go away just because I do. And, I felt scared: I’m really happy with my life and where it’s headed, so why would I want to leave it behind?

So it is still amazing to me that I am here…. in Tajikistan.

And I’m happy to report that after a week on the ground I am glad that I followed my heart and not my fears, because I’ve already had some pretty beautiful experiences. The kind of experiences that tend to happen when you’re in a new environment and more aware of what’s taking place around you. And, the kind of experiences that make it worth traveling half way across the world to a place you have to look up on a map, no matter how scared you might be.

My Tajik Suitor

I have found that sitting in a main plaza is one of the best ways to pass time in a new city. You get a birds eye view of the culture and might even run into a future friend. But this past Saturday I was there mostly to enjoy the sun. It was a gorgeous 70 degree day and the plaza was bustling with strolling young couples, children playing with soccer balls, and old men telling stories to each other. 

I was writing in my journal when an older gentleman sat down on the bench next to me and immediately started talking, undeterred by my inability to participate in the conversation. When I tried to explain that I am American and don’t speak Russian or Tajiki, he became even more excited. In an almost theatrical performance of full body gesticulations, he began relating an apparently epic story about the United States. Seriously, this story had everything: airplanes, people dancing, and quite possibly a love interest, it’s hard to say.

He kept asking questions and I kept apologizing for my language shortcomings. Eventually he realized that we would never be able to communicate with words, so he reached into his bag and pulled out a bundle of roses. He slipped the flowers into the front straps of my backpack, smiled, and walked off.

My Tajik Mother

For the first few days after I arrived my apartment didn’t have much water and by the weekend it had none. So when I came across an old woman resting on the platform outside of my room, I decided to jump right in and get to the bottom of the situation. I tried miming a faucet and then a shower, both to no avail. Frustrated, I ran back in to get my Russian dictionary, realizing too late that she had taken this as an invitation to come into my apartment. Oh well, I thought, run with it. She vigorously nodded in understanding as I showed her the dry faucets in my shower and sink. She too broke into pantomime, describing how they were working on the pipes and that the water would be back on tomorrow.

She then proceeded to walk through the rest of my apartment, approving of some things (like my mini fridge) and questioning others (like my tv). Her last stop was my eating nook, where I had collected all of my market finds: rice, garlic, fruit, tea, and nuts. She started fiddling with all of the bags, which took me by surprise. My first thought was that I had offended her by not offering her anything to eat. But I quickly realized that she wasn’t helping herself to my food, she was simply arranging it in a way that would best preserve them. She wrapped the nuts up tightly, opened the bag of dried apricots so that they could air out, and put the bread in a bag. We introduced ourselves a little more and then “Tuitja” smiled, patted me on the arm, and headed home.

My Tajik Friend

On Saturday night I discovered that women don’t really hit the town after dark. After 20 uncomfortable minutes walking around by myself, feeling like a woman of ‘loose morals’, I turned back and went home. Which is why, when Sunday night rolled around, I was happy to settle in early to read and knit.

The sounds of horns and drums from outside my window quickly distracted these efforts. I tried to ignore them but it wasn’t long before they were joined by loud chants and I was forced to investigate. I threw on a coat and practically ran downstairs where, to my surprise, I ran right into a wedding procession in the courtyard.

As I stood watching the group of revelers loudly escorting the new couple to their home, a young girl approached me and asked me in clear English if I would like to go closer. I explained that I didn’t know anybody and would prefer to stay back but she grabbed my hand anyway and took me to a small patio where we could watch the men sing and dance around the fire. When the party started to die down she took my hand again and introduced me to her best friend and five younger sisters.

It wasn’t much. The whole event didn’t last more than a half hour. But she was so kind and reassuring, that I immediately felt more confident in my prospects for fitting in here.

 

 I’m sorry for the lack of pictures. I mistakenly brought the wrong camera cord but hope to have some pictures on the blog by next week. Thanks for your support.

 

Carrie Ferrence, working with IMON in Khujand, Tajikistan

14 October 2008 at 12:37 9 comments


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