Much of the last few days have been spent in meetings and listening to presentations. Our colleagues from another branch of the project are here for the end of the fiscal year discussions. It is a chance for everyone to catch up with everyone else and it is always interesting. Of all the presentations and things we discussed probably the most arresting and the one where we spent the least time was a presentation on Novostroyka.
Novostroyka refers to the “shanty” villages that are springing up outside of Bishkek near the Dordoi bazaar. As an entity they represent the face of the migration from the villages to the city to look for work. The buildings themselves are everything from mud to truck bodies to scraps of left over building supplies, to half finished or abandoned construction projects. In general there is no running water, no electricity and of course no heat in winter. The population is a mix of workers trying to find jobs and women and children. It is the children that are the worry.
There are as yet an undetermined number of school age children in these compounds who do not attend school for a variety of reasons. One of the big ones is that they have no documentation and are thus essentially invisible. They lack birth certificates which is the key to school entrance and often their parents are of limited literacy and abilities. The other big problem is of course resources. In order to go to school, children need uniforms (remember the suits and the bows) and they need copy books and pens and they need shoes. Without these things, children are obviously staying home which they have been doing in large numbers. As the parents work most of the time there are whole bands of children from tiny to teenager who are basically raising themselves. As they are not in school they are not gaining literacy skills and thus slowly but surely there is a growing large group of young people who will in the end be disenfranchised and isolated from the mainstream. However amidst this shocking tableau of poverty and mayhem are two brand new mosques. When asked, the children especially the boys, attend religious education there. If ever there was a garden of instability, unrest and religious zeal it is here.
The Kgz team however recognized this situation and did something about it. The first step was to take a census and in order to do that they sent out a virtual army of young people, dressed in yellow t-shirts and carrying black bags. They systematically to the best of their ability went from house hold to house hold in the rabbit warren of the Novostroyka trying to identify and register school age children. This was an enormous undertaking. From there they built a data base and began the unnerving logistical task of getting these kids in school. As a result they pulled together school packets with notebooks and supplies, uniforms and shoes and children who would not have attended school are now enrolled. The funding came from USAID and the powers that be in the personage of a young American x climber deserve major kudos for his flexibility and vision.
This project is not finished of course. Winter is coming and that brings up a whole host of other issues. I have been here in December and can attest to the clear skies but low temperatures. A winter wonderland is only that if you have heat. The team faces another set of problems such as how to get enough warm clothes to the same children to keep them going to school. They are working on raising government and public awareness to this issue. Clearly education is the dyke that allows for long term political and social stability and this team has their thumb in it.
It is projects and people like these that make the development world with all its flaws, false starts and confusion a possible and powerful force for good in the region and in the world. For every news story that breaks about charitable donations finding their way to the black market and corruption in high places there are the unwritten stories of people like these -young men and women going door to door to find kids to send them to school so they will have a chance. Margret Mead was right: never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.