Notes From Tajikistan
My experiences here in Tajikistan over the past several weeks have run the full spectrum of human emotion. I have laughed with astonishment at the absurd amounts of food that have been forced down my throat, stuffed like a pig all in the name of “hospitality”; I have been saddened and amazed by the industry of young porters who abandon school at the age of ten, forgoing their childhoods in order to earn a couple dollars a day carrying fruit, bread, and meat through the vast, chaotic scene of the Panjshanbe bazaar; I have been humbled by the sheer generosity and kindness of people, who despite receiving a salary of less than $200 per month, give this privileged American almost everything they have, asking for nothing in return; I have smiled with joy when the kids at my apartment block treat me like a minor celebrity, running up in small groups every time I come home from work, excitedly shouting the few English phrases they know mainly “Hello!” “What is your name?” “Goodbye!”; and I have gawked in astonishment at the sheer indifference of the government to the plight of its people.
Tajikistan is severely lacking in natural resources, and the hydroelectric power that used to be a significant asset is now dwindling away due to low water levels. The country is primarily dependent on cotton and other agricultural products, remittances sent back from the more than one million Tajiks who work in Russia, and the significant amount of drug trafficking money that is pumped into the economy thanks to its location directly north of Afghanistan, the world’s largest opium producer. Some estimates say that as much as 50% of the economy here is connected in some way to narcotics. Tajikistan is not a country that can solve its economic problems through purely physical solutions, such as the building of more dams or factories, but it can only hope to get out of its financial doldrums through the creation of significant human capital. Although it may sound cliché and trite, the country’s future will be determined by the quality of its educational capacities, and judging by my own amateur survey of these institutions, there is certainly a lot of work to do.
Modern Tajikistan is a land that is intellectually parched, despite laying claim to a rich history of scholarship. While brilliant men of a bygone era such as Avicenna and Rudaki are celebrated throughout the country with countless billboards and monuments in their honor, schools and libraries literally crumble into oblivion. Many teachers receive minimum wage salaries of 60 Somoni (less than $18) per month, and I have talked to a number of former educators who, due to their inability to live on such a pittance, have had to abandon their chosen professions in order to sell clothing or fruit at the local market. Surely, the poor state of Tajikistan’s educational system is a symptom of a country in dire economic straits, yet I can’t help but feeling that it is question of resource allocation as well. You never seem be more than an hour’s drive from some kind of presidential palace, and in the capital, Dushanbe, an eminently wasteful series of fountains and opulent buildings, called the “Palace of the Nation” project, are being built at tremendous expense. I recently read on the Radio Free Europe website that the country’s last synagogue as well as dozens of houses were demolished, leaving hundreds of people homeless in order to make way for this towering monument to governmental narcissism.
While Tajikistan’s scarce resources are spent on gold leaf and marble, university libraries lack books and adequate internet connections, elementary schools often go unheated during the bone-chilling winters, and college students spend the months of September and October picking cotton in miserable conditions for no money whatsoever. On a recent tour of one of the best Russian-language elementary schools in Sughd Oblast, I saw a sign hanging in the main hall with a quote from President Emomali Rahmon that proclaimed, with sad irony, “Our society needs to value its teachers!” Sure, the Prez has made some slight gestures of compassion such as doubling the monthly minimum wage from 30 to 60 somoni, yet everyone I talk to here tells me that such an increase has been futile due to the concomitant rise of prices. Unfortunately, it seems as though the despotic Rahmon and his inner circle would prefer to cultivate their own bank accounts rather than cultivate the next generation of Tajik minds.
Surely, it is easy for me to criticize this struggling Central Asian state from the lofty heights of American privilege, and the truth is that all societies, to a different degree, suffer from a similar pathology. We, in the United States, also pay our teachers poor salaries and devote vast sums of money to frivolous expenses. I include myself among those who have become accustomed to the waste that all too often accompanies our abundant lifestyles and in no way do I intend to escape from my share of the guilt by pointing the finger at President Rahmon and his cronies. Yet, for me, my experiences in Tajikistan have shed a much harsher light on the problem, bringing into sharper relief the contrast between the haves and have-nots, and making the obvious indifference of the government and the overt opulence of the rich much harder to stomach. I have also come to understand, on a more profound level, the inestimable importance of an educated civil society, of an open media, of the ability to cut against the grain of established thought, to openly challenge old ways of doing and seeing in order to take a collective step forward in the quality of our lives. From my vantage point of halfway around the world I can see more clearly the intellectual dynamism that makes America that country that it is and I can also see the stagnation that occurs in places that lack such fertile ground for open expression.
Being here in Tajikistan, I am prouder than I have ever been of those who shout at the top of their lungs to get us to pay attention to what is going on the world. Writers such as The New York Times’ Nick Kristof, philanthropists such as Bill Gates, and organizations like Kiva, all play a role in prying open our often parochial minds to the reality of the human condition across the planet. While in the larger scheme of things Kiva’s reach may still be limited, dwarfed at times by the immense scale of global poverty, it surely doesn’t seem that way to the Tajik seamstress who was able to buy an electronic sewing machine or to the toy merchant in Khujand who just doubled his stock of merchandise thanks to a Kiva loan. For these people, Kiva’s reach is tremendous, profound, and personal and the stories of their success shine through the gloom of government graft and profligacy to illuminate one small corner of this poorest of post-Soviet nations. In a place where exasperation can swallow you whole, these myriad stories of hope remind me of the eminent worthiness of microfinance, of Kiva, and of the struggle against global poverty.