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.


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