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Published: March 19th 2012
Herder setting off one morning to look after sheep in the pasture
“Bilay, bilay” (“dance, dance”) we encouraged as two year old Gulzhan giggled and wriggled in a dance and then clapped her hands. I was already ‘tatia’, her aunt, and making friends with her helped me to settle into my new home in rural Kazakhstan. Gulbashyn, our hostess, was friendly and talkative and happy to rent us a warm clean room whilst we did our research. The household included Gulbashyn, her husband and three of their five children, the other two were living in Almaty.
Gaziza and I are staying here while we interview local herders and farmers. The village contains about 250 households but only about half have livestock and many people are unemployed, often seeking work in Almaty. We have been given a room on the ground floor right next to the kitchen so that the stove on the other side of the wall keeps our room toasty warm. When we arrived the ground was still covered in snow and ice which froze hard overnight but as the day warmed turned to slush and mud. Straw is used to try to keep the garden path to the outside loo dry but our boots have to be left at the
Snowy morning street scene
Gulbashyn is always cooking and baking and we seem to have meals or tea breaks all the time. These are communal sessions where dishes of homemade bread, salads, biscuits and sweets are always available and meat, chicken or fish dishes are added at lunchtime or in the evening. Slimming here is impossible as I am encouraged to “Eat, eat”. My favourite dishes are those with potatoes or rice topped with chicken or fish and delicious home-preserved vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. Added to this is all the food we are offered in every household we visit. No visitor should leave a house without eating bread (at least) and drinking tea. Our interviews therefore seem to be as much about eating as asking questions!
Our interviews in the village started well. Gulbashyn’s 'step' mother and father told us about their life in Soviet and post-Soviet Kazakhstan. They have lived here in Ulguli for 35 years and moved here as the village was being opened up for agriculture by the Soviet Union. This village was a ‘sovkhots’ or soviet farm. In the soviet times herds of animals belonged to the state but are now privately owned. He
Some of the old people are telling me their life histories
was a driver at that time but is now retired and acquired livestock at privatisation in 1991. He is part of a group of herders that take it in turns in rota to herd their combined livestock as they have no land of their own but use common land outside the village. In the morning the small groups of animals flock together and a herder on horseback takes cows, horses or goats and sheep out to the pasture. In the evening the herds return and it is fascinating to watch the animals divide off in small groups again as they make their way down the street and wander into their own yards and stables.
Another delightful old couple we have met returned with their family to Kazakhstan in the 1950s from China. Apparently 18 people entered on only one passport. He herded sheep for the sovkhots and was called a wolf man as he was responsible for shooting wolves to protect the livestock. His horse had just given birth to a pretty white colt and he proudly showed him to us. His wife was slightly deaf but smiled and laughed with us. She proudly told us as she served
Man, horse and foal
This old herder was proud of his new foal 11 days old
the inevitable cup of tea that she was to receive a presentation the next day as it was Women’s Day.
March seems to be a month of festivals and holidays in Kazakhstan. The 8th
March is Women’s Day and a three day holiday. On the 7th
most businesses and government offices closed early and concerts were held to celebrate women of all ages in Kazakhstan. Even young girl children may receive a flower or gift. The administrator in the akim’s office, Bazarai, invited Gaziza, Gulbashyn and me, along with a couple of other young women, to her house for a small feast to celebrate one evening. One of the women, a social worker, was in stylish modern dress and a similar age to Gaziza but already married for five years with a child. The other younger woman was just married and rather shy at first. Neither of them could understand why Gaziza at 25 was not married with children as she was already old in their minds. It appears in these rural places that many women have paid jobs, as well as the domestic responsibilities, whilst many of their husbands are unemployed except for herding. But, like the family
Gulzhan celebrates her birthday with her mother and sister
we are staying with, they are relatively self-sufficient in basic foods and although not rich able to live in reasonable comfort. Bazarai worked hard at her job but was also responsible for looking after her teenage son who was mentally disabled through a MMR injection as a baby. Such a sad story as medical facilities here are limited to treat and care for people. Later on 8th March we celebrated both Women's Day and Gulzhan's 2nd birthday with another feast and about 10 guests plus young children.
Our work schedule is not always smooth and we had a slight delay when the normally helpful akim in Ulguli panicked and decided that he wanted extra permission to allow foreigners to do research in his village. Memories of the Soviet times often makes people suspicious as we do our interviews and the akim had started by asking with a smile if I was from MI6. No I said that is James Bond. Later, despite being friendly and answering all our questions he must have changed his mind. So we had to visit the provincial centre and the akimat (Government Office) to get official permission for our work. The provincial akim though
Beetroot salad made with layers of grated potato, mayonaise, carrot, beetroot and egg.
seemed quite happy and welcomed the opportunity for foreign researchers to be in his area so we were able to return.
After a brief visit to Almaty we visited a 'sharman' lady in a neighbouring village. This old lady has a small hospital and dormitory for visitors although she spoke of herself as administering advice rather than medicine. She spent most of the time we were there recording prayers onto the mobile phones of people seeking help. However a television programme recently recorded a ceremony where she was pouring animal blood on people wanting treatment. We also climbed up the local 'mountain' with one of her devotees to wish for blessings from the sky. Whether or not this side of her practice works some of the people visiting her seemed to be getting help from her and by making a retreat from their normal lives.
The 22nd March is Nauryz - Kazakh New Year that is celebrated at the equinox. Everyone is now preparing for this event. It should be the start of spring but last night we had another deep snowfall so the street parties that are being planned might be rather chilly! But more on this
Sheep on their way home in the evening
event next time.
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