Sunday, November 18, 2012

CHAPTER 3: The Half-Way Update

I've been in Tajikistan for exactly 4 months and 2 weeks! Over this time, I've attempted to capture Tajikistan’s texture by taking tons of pictures. My working album is sitting at over 300 pictures, give it a quick look here: Tajikistan 2012/2013 – Up and Around Dushan-baby

My day to day in Dushanbe
Working hours are 8:30am to 5:30pm. Generally people at the office arrive in the morning right on time and more importantly leave right on time. The bank’s head office is conveniently a 15 minute walk/2 minute bus ride from my apartment (a cost of 15 cents).
Although I've attempted to have as many adventures as possible, the majority of my time these past 4 months has in fact been spent in the office. So first of What do I do? I'm what the private sector calls an Analyst. I work with the Head of Business Development on Branch and Product management. On a day to day, I draft board proposals, manage openings/closings of bank outlets (work friends call me “The Terminator” because I've managed the closing of 4 mini-branches), perform data analysis and carry out field research.  I've also had some time to explore many interest-based projects such as: an FMFBT Mobile Banking study, research on how to cooperate with other AKDN institutions and Social Monitoring assessments. I try to frequently speak to borrowers and saving groups to hear directly from them what support would assist in building their capacity. 
A group shot with a Community Based Savings Group (CBSG) in Kulyab

I try to attend Jamat Khana (Mosque) daily however with the D’ua time recently being set to 6PM, it’s been difficult during weekdays. Daily JK attendance varies between 2000-3000 people and ceremonies are finished much faster than back in Canada. (Fewer recitations + No announcements + No Nandi = everyone in and out in less than 30 minutes) The Ismaili Center Dushanbe is the only formal JK in all of Tajikistan even though the Ismaili population is over 200,000. JK ceremonies have only started 6 months ago so processes are still being established. Differences between the Central Asian Ismaili culture and the Khoja/Western culture are quite intriguing and I've noticed a strong influence in the Ismaili culture from living and practising in a majority Sunni-Muslim country.

A few differences in JK include:
·      Wudu stations are located in the JK for men & women. (ritual washing before prayers)
·      People sit leaning forwards on their knees during D’ua.
·      Anyone under the age of 18 is not permitted to attend JK (as of yet) as per government ruling.
·      There are no morning JK ceremonies or no Majalis festivals.
·      Madhos/Qasidas are recited in replacement of Ashanji/Ginan. (see here for a link via DropBox to a collection of BEAUTIFULLY recited Qasidas I received from a friend)

The Ismaili Center Dushanbe

On evenings I sleep early like an old man and on weekends I generally try to go on at least one new adventure or try one thing new (recently, I've been learning to cook…I can now make a mean chinese mixed rice dish) 

The TOP 7 lessons learned to date

1)   Being on your own is challenging but if you listen to music loudly and dance like no one’s watching, the loneliness goes away really fast

2)   The Government’s role and support in development is very important. Private sector can only do so much but if there is no enabling environment for development, progress moves very slowly

3)   The very poor in developing countries lack long-term thinking. The foremost concern for most people is to ensure food is kept on the table. When possible, having a long-term frame of mind (i.e. investing in a child’s education or understanding the benefits of insurance) is very critical to sustainable progress

4)   At least in Tajikistan, communication between different  organizations who are working towards the same development goal is weak; this makes me wonder about what role technology can play in improving this

5)   No organization, including AKDN and its counterparts, is perfect. These organizations are run by people and contrary to popular belief, people are not perfect. Having patience and persistence within your scope of work is super important

6)   Many individuals in Tajikistan would prefer a secure/stable job rather than pursuing entrepreneurial ventures; there’s a very low appetite for risk here

7)   Uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations put you to the test allowing you to grow and ultimately realize what your potential

A Taste of the Texture of Tajikistan

Car Shining – Cars are by far one of the most prized possessions in Tajikistan. I see people washing, shining and admiring their cars on a daily basis. Definitely a status symbol.
Green Tobacco Chew – At first, I always wondered why people talked as if their tongue was stuck under their bottom lip. But after seeing every tom, dick and harry with a small plastic bag of tobacco chew in their pockets, I realized it’s quite common in Dushanbe.  Tajikistan also has a big Vodka culture. (reminder: 90% of the population is Muslim)
Anti-glasses society – I have yet to met someone in Tajikistan who wears glasses. There are no eye-care/glasses shops in the cities and I highly doubt the whole country has 20/20 vision. 

That is all for now. Feel free to write to me if you have any questions!

To bosdeed,

The crew. From left to right: Irshad, yours truly, Alim and Faheem. These are the Canadian Dushanbe Veterans and all have spent over 2 years in Tajikistan. Irshad taught Michael Jackson how to dance, Alim is the most connected person in Dushanbe and Faheem is a shrewd businessman disguised as a disaster specialist. 

Aga Khan Foundation Geneva Microfinance Specialists + the Head of the Micro Loan Office in Shurobod

Where I come home to every night. I live on the fourth floor (the one with the Satellite dish)

Opera Ballet fountains

A cultural performance (variety show) at the Ismaili Center Dushanbe

A glimpse of Iskanderkul Lake

Doing the Asian pose with our Driver

Man brodar as modar digar.
Translation: My brother from another mother.

A visit from my buddy Alykhan who was working in Afghanistan at the time. This is following a delicious breakfast croissant meal.

Nurek Pass – Has to be one of the calmest places on Earth.

CHAPTER 2: My Getaway to the PAMIRS

Hey folks,

It’s been a while.  So I recently spent two weeks travelling through GBAO aka Badakshan aka the Pamirs.

For the visual learners, here’s a public link to my photo album: Tajikistan 2012/2013 - A Journey to the Jewel of the Pamirs

A quick background: Badakshan is an autonomous province covering the eastern region of Tajikistan. GBAO has had quite a rough history since Tajikistan’s independence in 1992. This was also the same region where severe violence occurred this past July. So I travelled through: Ishkashim, Murghab and Bartang Valley; however spent the majority of my time in the spectacular city of Khorog.

From my perspective, the most mind-bending thing of Khorog was how the government there is Ismaili. The army is Ismaili. The teachers are Ismaili. The shopkeepers are Ismaili. The drivers are Ismaili. But so are the vulnerable - they are Ismaili. The wrong-doers too, are Ismaili. I had never been to a city or region which is 100% Ismaili. Here the whole spectrum of society and its positions/roles was filled with Ismailis. Fascinating to wrap your mind around.

En Route to Khorog

I travelled from Dushanbe to Khorog via Tajik Air (referred to some as Tragic Air) which is an 18-seater plane used back in the Soviet times. Travel guides mentioned that this was one of the only flights, where Soviet pilots were paid a danger premium to fly. Although none were on my flight, travellers are permitted to bring sheep/goats with them in replacement of their hand luggage. The other options for travel between Khorog and Dushanbe are by Jeep (quite a rough drive as this lady describes) or by the AKDN Helicopter which I was fortunate to get a seat for on the way back! As soon as I flew into Khorog, I was bombarded by Welcome Hazar Imam/Golden Jubilee Mubarak messages stone-engraved onto the side of the mountains.

Khorog: The Ruby of Badakshan

The city of Khorog, surrounded by mountains really feels like a land a little bit closer to the heavens. Although night falls early and it becomes dark by around 6pm, I wouldn’t really feel the darkness because a multitude of stars hung right above me. Every night I sat outside for a few minutes trying to recall what I learned back in Astronomy 101 attempting to point out constellations to some local friends (I definitely made up a few of them, but they definitely didn’t know this). Day or night; it was a great environment to be in to think about life, creation or simply to just take in how stunning our world is.

The city was also filled with wild dogs. In a 5KM radius there had to have been at least 100 dogs up and about. Some were big and vicious and some were the size of my shoe. As a former Globe and Mail newspaper delivery boy, I wasn't too thrilled about this but naturally, I quickly overcame my fears.

Some Highlights:
  • Spent Weekend 1 of 2 in Murghab for a wedding celebration; Murghab is 3650 meters high, no cows/chickens (they eat yak meat/butter and drink yak milk), hardly any trees, a very small selection of fruit and EXTREME temperatures. Winter temperatures would reach -50°C and summer temperatures would reach +40°c. Strong winds blow all year and severe storms could appear suddenly. Staying here for a weekend gave me some perspective on real challenges people face in day to day life.
  • Spent Weekend 2 of 2 in Bartang Valley in a village named Basid. Basid was the first place in Tajikistan where this is absolutely NO cellphone reception, NO USB-internet reception and very limited access to outlets or technology. Spending some time here was a nice reminder of how life used to be in the stone-age.
  • Experienced the natural hot spring, Jelondi Chasma; an indoor tub of sulphuric water at extremely hot temperatures. Apparently very beneficial for your body/skin.
  • Regularly attended an informal Jamatkhana (Mosque) in a region called Upeday. Ceremonies were led by a Calipha and the inside of the JK was designed like a Pomiri home (five pillars/chorkona roof) with incredible Quranic wooden engravings.
  • Drank from the Nasir Khusraw spring
  • Played a few 5 on 5 outdoor basketball games with locals
  • Mastered Tajik Dancing 101
  • Visited the Golden Jubilee Porshniev Darbar Site
  • Led a workshop to Grade 9/10 students at Aga Khan Lycee on “Thinking Globally in Career Planning"
  • Taught English for one week to Upeday Ismaili Volunteers

A few takeaways from the trip:
  • Language barriers can’t stop laughter – Learning Tajik in Dushanbe was challenging enough for me but Badakshan had its own other 6 languages in the various districts! I didn’t attempt to learn the language in such short time but was still able to get my messages across quite well through over-emphasized/non-verbal communication tactics and of course a smile.
  • From Canada to Honduras to Kenya, I’ve always found the same sort of things can make kids laugh which is always fun to test out. The iPad really does wonders to entertain; young or old.
  • Poverty is a mindset – If you look at the data on the poverty levels in Badakshan you would see extremely low numbers. (By far, the poorest Post-Soviet Country) What really surprised me during my travels to GBAO though was that I could NEVER feel it. The poverty is disguised in their hospitality. I’d constantly be invited to people’s homes; I’d be given gifts/food for the journey. It was hard for me to classify people and their families as ultra-poor. Exceptional hospitality is really in the Pamiri people’s DNA.

Until next time,


Flight from Dushanbe to Khorog via Tragic Air; An 18 seater Soviet Plane

 The Khorog Botanical Gardens Viewpoint

 The view en route to Murghab

Murghabi woman trying to sell me Yak (rare/wild cow) milk

             Group Shot with wearing our Kyrgz toqi gifts

Nasir Khusraw spring (NK brought Ismailism to Tajikistan approximately a thousand years ago; there are many Nasir Khusraw based traditions within the pomiri Ismaili rituals (i.e. Chirag Roshan funeral ceremony)

One of the cuter looking dogs

Holding some gifts for my mom given by the Calipha's mother from the Upeday JK

Their response to funny faces I made at them

The recently built outdoor basketball court! So amazing.

Khorog City dogs

Words don't do this one justice... 

My Khorog Guesthouse Mother, Kholog Shezan

The view of one of the mountains on the helicopter ride back to Dushanbe; Looked like a sand mountain!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

CHAPTER 1: Arrival to Dushan-Baby

Salom friends and family, 

Greetings from my 8-storey concrete apartment building located behind the infamous Segafredo Café at the intersection of the two busiest streets of Dushanbe: Rudaki Avenue and Ismoil Somoni Avenue. I arrived safely in Dushanbe about two weeks ago, moved into the new place this past weekend and finally was able to take a big breath of relief and can gladly say i’ve settled in.

Travelling through Turkish Airlines involved an incredible 27 hour stopover in Istanbul, Turkey where I was able to visit Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar! Before I jump into my first few encounters and reactions, let me give you some background of this beautiful place called Tajikistan.

Geographical + Historical Context

Fun Fact: Dushanbe translates to “Monday” in Tajik which reflects how the city was once a popular Monday marketplace. (Du = two, Shanbe = Saturday: Dushanbe = two days after Saturday).

A small country, bordered by Afghanistan to the south and China to the east, most of Tajikistan is mountainous (90% of it) and crossed by jagged peaks, the highest of which rises to 25,548 feet (which if climbable, i’m determined to find). Average temperature differs considerably between the city areas and the mountain areas ranging between a low of -45°C to a high of 50°C. (Dushanbe varies between -1°C and 40°C).

Unlike their Central Asian counterparts, Tajiks are of Persian and not Turkic ancestry. Tajikistan faced tough times through post-soviet rule specifically during its Civil War which was from 1992 to 1997 where an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 Tajiks were killed, and 730,000 were internally displaced! Today stability has returned, but economic prosperity hasn’t followed. Nearly half the population live on less than $2 dollars a day and there is a huge reliance on remittances (money being sent), primarily from Russia (almost 40% of the country’s GDP) Nonetheless the entrepreneurial spirit and flare is strong and various microfinance programs are gradually providing the resources needed to lift these people above the poverty line. I also would like to add that I’m able to spot Tajikistan on a map because the country seems to be shaped like the letter “n”. Clearly I was destined to come live here.

Quick Facts:
Population: 7.6 Million (Only 700,000 in the Capital of Dushanbe)
Languages: English, Russian, Tajik (Persian language; very similar to Farsi)
Religions: Sunni Muslim - 85%, Shia Muslim - 5%, Other - 10% (prayer time is a big deal)
Median age: 22.6 years (young people are the future)
Literacy: 99.5% (super impressive.)
Currency + Exchange Rate: Somoni; 1 U.S. Dollar = 4.8 Somoni
Time Difference: EST + 9 hours (in case any of you want to contact me…)

Why I’m here (click links for more info)

            I was first exposed to the AKFC fellowship program through coming across an advertisement poster in the notice board of Unionville Jamat Khana (Mosque) approximately three years ago and immediately knew this was a program I’d be taking a deeper look into post-graduation. The program is referred to as the Aga Khan Foundation Canada International Fellowship Program or in short “AKFC fellowship”. There are three streams including: International Development Management (IDM), International Microfinance & Microenterprise (IMM), and the Young Professionals in Media (YPM). AKFC has sent fellows across 10+ countries for over 20 years each spanning for 8 months working with various host organizations that are  part of or work in coordination with the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) (i.e. AKHS, AKF, UCA, AKAM/FMFB, etc) This year there are 20 fantastic fellows of various backgrounds/ages/interests that have been placed across 8 countries including: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Egypt, Bangladesh, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic!

So I’m doing the IMM fellowship and my placement is here in Dushanbe, Tajikistan working with the First Microfinance Bank Tajikistan (FMFB-T) which is the commercial bank arm of Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance (AKAM). I’m hoping to get exposed to as many projects as possible on both the control side and the product development side and learn about the realities of the criticisms of Microfinance by doing field-visits and asking clear and critical questions.

For those who would like to learn more about Microfinance, check out these links: 1) KIVA – About Microfinance 2) CGAP – Microfinance defined and of course 3) Wikipedia’s take.

Other goals I have for my 8 months here include:
  • HIKE as much as POSSIBLE
  • Get immersed in the culture (i.e. attempt to learn the language, indulge only in foods with names too difficult to pronounce and possibly learn how to play a Rubab/Tanbur instrument)
  • Travel to Khorog, Gorno-Badakhshan (via helicopter) and swim in the infamous Lake Sarez + the various Pamir Hot Springs
  • Learn from the Tajik Ismaili culture through understanding historical roots and differences in forms of prayer
  • Visit at least one of 1) Samarkand, Uzbekistan or 2) Kabul, Afghanistan
  • Refine my theory of development and specifically private sector approaches to development
  • Understand the opportunities/challenges in increasing coordination between AKDN activities in Tajikistan
  • Learn about micro-businesses and methods in which technology (i.e. mobile solutions) can simplify/enhance business processes

The Tajik way of life

Transportation:  One of my favourite aspects of being in a new city/country is experiencing the transportation as a local. A common method of public transportation are private drivers/strangers (also known as mashruka’s) who drive from each ends of the main roads providing carpool rides for 3 somoni (75 cents). Simply standing on the sides of the roads for less than a minute results in a car flashing their lights at you pointing to the laminated number card in their windshield indicating which direction they’re going, trying to convince you to jump in. Other alternatives are shared vans or city buses who act in a similar fashion and cost 1 somoni (25 cents) Travelling mashruka-style has proven to be a great way to meet people and attempt English/Tajik conversations; makes me think of the moments my Nani attempts to talk to me in English and I attempt to talk to her in Gujarati/Katchi i.e. a BIG fail.

Food: Adjusting to the food is the one challenge I’m still working on. Over the past two weeks, my diet’s primarily included: Twix/Kit-Kat bars, BBQ pringle-chips, Badam and this sweet tasting cherry juice. At the FMFB office there’s a lunch canteen where local food is served such as: Osh (Pillau), Compote (Sweet fruit drink), Borsht (Soup w/ oil, cabbage, vegetables, etc.) See below for a picture of today’s Borsht. *warning: your mouth may water* There are also various café’s I’ve checked out which I usually order the closest dish to chicken, rice, french fries and bread. I hope to try at least one new local dish each week but we’ll see what my stomach has to say about this decision. Ramadan starts tomorrow and as 90%+ of the country are Muslims, the days will be long but the feasts will be grand.

Overall Culture: Very hospitable and super friendly. Language is definitely a stronger barrier than I figured it would be, however I’m hoping to start weekly Tajik language classes with a tutor I’ve found. Mostly everything is written in Russian/Tajik and although my apartment included a 40” LG TV with a satellite dish, 39 of the 40 channels are in Russian and the one that’s in English is the Christian Bible channel (hoping to learn a thing or two). Consistent with most developing areas of the world, I’ve noticed a laid back culture (specifically in the workplace) and a strong emphasis on spending time with family and friends. I’ve witnessed countless instances where strangers help each other through the simplest of problems and I truly believe (and hope) I’ll be leaving this country next February, a stronger character.

I hope over the next few months to share stories of my encounters, and take you through my roller-coaster of struggles and triumphs. Please don’t hesitate to e-mail me if you would like to learn more about the fellowship program, my work, this magnificent country or just to drop a line.

Until next time,
Bakhayr Boshed, (Farewell in Tajik - “May you have health and happiness”)

My people at the airport bidding farewell...

Andrea and I enjoying an incredible seafood dinner at Alberto's in Istanbul 

Posing in front of two scripture monuments in the Hagia Sophia Mosque/Museum which right to left translate to: 1) Hazrat Ali Ibne Abi Talib and 2) Hazrat Hussein ibn Ali (aka the first TWO Imam's for Ismaili Muslims )

The Tojikmotlabut Hotel (more like a Motel) that I lived at for my first two weeks; great location in the city!

The center of the city aka a monument of Amir Ismail Samani who is considered the father of the Tajik Nation

The Ismaili Center Dushanbe; this picture doesn't do justice to how beautiful this building is, inside and out.

Going for a stroll in the park with a view of the President's Palace

Language barriers can't stop me from getting silly with kids. I'd convinced them to pose like monkeys.

An invitation from the AKDN resident representative office for July 11th Imamat Day Celebrations at the breathtaking Garden of the Dushanbe Serena Hotel; met the Saudia Arabian ambassador, nbd.

Bread Display at July 11th Imamat Day Celebrations at the Serena

Rock Climbin'

Haji Yakoub Mosque and Medressa located right beside the FMFBT office; went there today at my lunch with a colleague to say my morning D'ua because I missed it.

Soup of the day: This is borsht (soup) which was served with lunch. About 70% oil, some pink stuff and some green stuff. Mmmmmmm delicious.