One way to achieve the sensation of being a rock star is to be an American Teacher with a great camera in a small Central Asian village. I have been trying to walk in the early morning when it is cool, however the last few days have been intense and in the city. As I am a frequent walker in the village, there is a whole band of smalls who are thrilled to see me. They pop out of doorways and from behind bushes. As I had not walked for a few days I devoted this morning to a long amble, wending my way up and down the paths and with my camera.
Village life is enormously appealing to the outsider. I imagine it can get a bit stifling to the young and ambitious who chafe under the watchful eyes of their elders and are drawn to the cities. But for me, this little village has become something of a study in community and my guides have been the kids.
The orientation of villages in Central Asia seems to rely on space and water. Thus they are not laid out on a grid as they are in some parts of the world and the center of the village seems to be a widening in the road rather than a square or as in Central America a park and a church. The villages, well, amble along the ridges, gullies and hillsides. The main street is dirt , houses open out to the streets but only as doorways in walls. All of the homes are compounds with the very few exceptions of small houses built on the hillsides.
The kids are really the best part however. Once I explained that I was a malima americanski ( American teacher) and that I could show them instantly a photo of themselves I was a rock star. Now, when I come around the corner , there is immediately a team of children shouting Malima Malima at the top of their lungs. Some who are “old timers” as my guide shove the younger ones forward. They jostle and push each other to line up for pictures, taking great delight in the arranging of themselves and then jumping up and down waiting for the end result. I tip the camera so they can see themselves and usually the response is squeals of delight, clapping hands and pantomime to do it again.
The adults however, are not as thrilled with my presence as their kids. In fact the same elder or Imam who walks down the village street as the same time as me, greeting small children with great affection, usually just glares. Even when I put my hand over my heart and greet him.. Salam Alikum gets barely a grunt. One father stopped me on the street as his little boy wanted his photo taken. Niet was the response. Then we had a limited conversation that mustered my entire arsenal of Russian and Tajik. I explained I was an American teacher but I was not at the village school, rather I worked in the city. I had friends here in the village and I was living with them. The dad seemed relieved and then smoothed his son’s hair for the photo. Another village elder stopped him and I heard as I walked off Malima Americanski. Identify the stranger in our midst.
These moments tug just for a second at the unexpected longing we all have for community. In a globalized world and particularly in the west, we have lost for good or bad much of the essence of village. Mind you, I am not romanticizing this idea as the golden age of civilization. I imagine life in this village could be and is pretty grim for those who don’t fit or those for whom the elders are not happy, but there is a sense of connectedness and ordinariness that resonates. Villagers simply go about their day without the benefit of a blackberry or calendar of events or for that matter scheduled meetings. People get married like they did this morning and the family of the bride makes plov for the whole village. Ours was delivered at 8:30 at the door on a beautiful blue and white china plate. The plates don't get returned to the owners rather they simply circulate and eventually find their way back to the kitchen of origin. It is a community event seen as part of the fabric of the place and a renewal of the community. Old ladies and little kids stake out the family cow or donkey and the other members of the family work the garden or do the wash. Life is pretty close to the ground in these places.
Opportunity comes in small windows rather than the vast panoply that we have in the developed west. It comes actually in the form of education. In my travels this morning, I went to the school. It is by far the best and it is probably one if not the only public building. Recent renovations mean that there is a nice new tin roof, the courtyard is full of flowers, the paint is fresh and the building practically glows in white and blue. There are new rain gutters and not just the old soviet era rusty kind but really good ones manufactured in all probability by one of the many craftsmen here. It is an appealing place and clearly the children of this village all attend, even the ones who I saw walking this morning from a considerable distance. The quality of the education is in all likelihood as good as anywhere else. Perhaps not up to the humming bird standards but at least the basics are in place. That seems to translate into an interesting and creative entrepreneurial set of outcomes.
For example there is a cabinet maker who figured out that the old style wooden windows were not so efficient and with the model of a new casement window is busy manufacturing and installing them. My colleague brought a wooden folding chair from England that was designed in the 60’s and is perfect for the garden. They are now being replicated and in all probability will find their way to the bazaar. There is the table rental guy who figured out that all of these community events require seating for about 100 people so he bought some folding tables and chairs and now for every wedding and celebration he rolls in with his truck and does a set up. There is a seamstress who makes the sparkling dresses that I have come to fully appreciate and now own two. Around the corner from my house is a master mechanic. I am sure he can keep even the most ancient car on the road. It is a family business and now the elder simply directs his sons. The village sustains itself.
My walk ends the same way it begins with my “tour guides” jumping up and down and shouting datsvedunya Malima in deafening tones that have an endearing enthusiastic quality. I wave furiously and they wave back with equal energy as there is a bend in the road where clearly they are not allowed to go beyond. I can’t help but think if I could come back here in ten years where would my young friends be. In all probability they will be right here in this village going about their lives. Opportunity here is defined as maintaining a way of life within the context of family and community. Valuable assets for sure and what makes that possible in large measure is the shiny white school at the top of the hill.