The past three weeks in southern Tajikistan have brought the last big snowfall of the winter, the sudden end of electricity rationing, the celebration of the Persian New Year “Navruz,” blooming apricot and cherry trees, farmers evacuating their homes for the fields to begin planting and irrigating, a rainbow of wildflowers dotting the hills outside of town, and the perfect not-too-hot-not-too-cold weather that scientists will probably one day figure out how to geo-engineer the Earth’s climate to be everywhere all the time. Even after seventeen years in Pennsylvania, I can say I’ve never felt nor appreciated the coming of spring more.
The end of March left me with lots of time with nothing to do but bond with my Tajik host fam. My office was closed for a week for Navruz and power cuts were still happening so there was only one hour of electricity per day. Furthermore, the warmer weather meant that I wasn’t inclined to spend every minute of free time hidden in a blanket fort in my bed room. Of course it takes not having any power or any way to go to the office for me to foster face-to-face relationships rather than working in front of a computer all the time. So American of me. As I started to spend quality time with the family doing activities other than our nightly Russian soap opera watching, I learned that their thinking my name is Lawrence (which they still do) has not been the only communication failure between us. They also thought I was 30. On my end, I suddenly noticed that the daughter-in-law is at least 5 months pregnant. I also finally mastered all of their names and learned that they speak Uzbek with each other and only speak Tajik with the father. This was kind of a relief as I was getting concerned that every word that came out of their mouths sounded like complete gibberish. Conversely, when they speak in Tajik, which I’ve been trying to learn for the past year, it also sounds like complete gibberish, just with intermittent numbers and references to the weather which I kind of understand.
Once we cleared up the basics----ages, names, first-languages, imminent babies, etc---we were able to move on to the fun stuff. I’ve introduced them to some of the finer things in life: blue grass music, Planet Earth, do it yourself facials, and hot chocolate. I also gave my host mom some crystal light packets, explaining how the beauty of bev packets is that they don’t have calories. She was very tickled that I cared about this. She pointed out that both her and her niece are so fat that they look like they are about to have babies and they are both plenty happy. Now she likes to amuse the fam by grabbing her round belly and saying “baby baby!!” Bonding with my host father has involved a shared affection for a less healthy beverage--vodka. On Navruz we took about seven shots to the New Year bringing me a husband and my first son. The next day a tiny part of me wanted the toasts to come true for the sole purpose of rationalizing my terrible hang over. We had a picnic in the mountains a few weeks ago and I alternated between playing volleyball with the kids and taking vodka shots with the men. So I think my place in society as an old unmarried woman who can’t cook is somewhere between a preteen and a man.
In contrast, the 21 year-old pregnant daughter-in-law, Nargiza, never stops cooking and cleaning. Once when I tried to bring a dish to the kitchen after dinner my host mom exclaimed, “Don’t do that! That’s what I have a bride for!” Nargiza is Uzbek and barely speaks any Tajik. She comes from a family with nine children and no father. But like most families here, they are able to get by because all of her brothers live and work in Moscow. The Moscow-induced man drought is very apparent. Last week we went to a cousin’s birthday party and there were about ten women there and only one man. Five of the girls were pregnant and all of their husbands are in Russia. Another weird thing that I just learned about that contributes to the man drought is the draft system. This is prime draft season and any 18-27 year old guy who isn’t in university is eligible to go. Serving in the military is extra harsh here, as many soldiers go to remote border posts where there is very little food and no heating. The draft system doesn’t seem highly organized---apparently eligible men can be picked up off the street and not even allowed to go home and gather their things. So men who don’t have enough money to pay the necessary bribes to avoid service often hide out at home for the month or two long draft season.
Not having men around doesn’t seem to be the worst thing. When I asked my host mother when in her life she was the happiest she said that she has always been very happy because her husband is a good man and has never laid a hand on her. The fact that not being beaten was her sole requirement for life satisfaction seems telling.
Anyways, getting to know my Tajik fam better over the past few weeks has been exciting. I feel lucky to be with such a kind and happy family. Just as I’m starting to get comfortable though, it looks like it might be time to rock the boat again. I’m looking into moving up north to a city called Khujand to look at the sustainability of some irrigation and drinking water projects there. Will keep ya posted on the move!