For honor, glory and carpets

Buzkashi, which literally translates to “goat dragging” in Persian, is one of the craziest sports of the ancient world. It is still widely played across Central Asia today. Think rugby meets polo, but switch the ball for a goat’s carcass. Instead of 30 players on the pitch for the former and 8 in the latter, drag-and-drop 200 horsemen onto the field. This is Buzkashi, also known as Banzai-meets-Harakiri.

Banzai meets Harakiri

Banzai meets Harakiri

The origins of the game are lost in history, but I particularly like the version where the people of Central Asia would ride back to their towns (pillaged by the Mongols) to salvage and grab their flock at full gallop. I got to witness the spectacle last week, at Hissar district about an hour outside the capital city of Dushanbe. Here are the pictures as told through my short piece of work on exposure.   

There are multiple versions of the game today, and there are even formal rules set up by the Afghan Olympic Federation to govern the sport, but that is only limited to games played in Kabul. Across Central Asia, you will witness two distinct formats: team play and free-form. The madness I witnessed last week was free-form. Yes, every-horseman-for-himself. I asked my friend Sarhob, “So, in this Tajik-version, how do you win?” He pointed across the field, where about 100 large rolled-up rugs lay on an old truck and remarked, “In this game, each time  you score a point, you win a carpet!” That’s why the truck was parked there! I thought it was the most random one-stall-bazaar ever, in the middle of a crazy horse game. However, like most Central Asia cultures, the honor of winning outweighs the prize of the carpets. I went on to learn a lot more about the Tajik version I was witnessing, including how it is a completely free BYOH (bring-your-own-horse) game, and anyone can ride his horse onto the field to vie for the carcass. If you do not wish to participate, you can simply sit on your horse and hang out at the side. For a moment I thought I could ride a horse onto the pitch to try it out, then again I could also jump of a bridge – same outcome I reckon.

For the curious, here are some FAQs:

  1. Is the goat dead? Yes, it is a carcass. The goat is killed the night before, and soaked in water to make the hide tough.
  2. How heavy is the carcass? Between 25-50kg. It is NOT easy to get hold of that thing.
  3. How do you score? Find your way to the carcass, grab it, fend off 200 other opponents and drop it off between two humps of sand to score.
  4. How long does the game last? Hours, or until the carpets run out.
  5. Are whips used? Yes – both on the horse and the horseman! Ouch.

We got 99 problems, and 99 more.

Tajikistan got the short end of the stick, period. When someone decided to draw lines on a map, many of the “stans’ were given oil, gas and other natural resources. Tajikistan was given mountains. With great mountains come great problems – it is difficult develop significant economic activity in mountainous terrain. As you may expect, unemployment is rampant here and most Tajik people rely on agriculture for a living.

The awesome beauty of the Tajikistan mountains

Imagine if you can plant and harvest 100kg of carrots each season. Now, imagine your same 100kg of output fetching you less and less money each year because of the fiscal weakness in the currency. This is what the Tajik people have been dealing with all these years. In the past month that I have been living in Tajikistan, I think we have witnessed one of the worse devaluations of the Tajik Somoni of all times.

Take a look at this:


In 30 days, the value of the Somoni has weakened 15% against the Dollar. That is 180% annualized. It is pure fiscal madness. As many of the vegetables and goods get imported into the country, prices have been rising and the Tajik people are finding it increasingly difficult to afford basic necessities. Just today, a piece of Tajik bread that cost me 2.5somoni two weeks back cost me 3somoni today. Sure, it is less than a dime, but in percentage terms that is a 20% increase in the price! “tajik mumbles tajik mumbles DOLLAR! tajik mumbles tajik…”, the seller muttered. I nodded my head in concurrence and gladly gave her the 3somoni. At the other end of the market, tomatoes and other imported fruits sit and slowly rot away as the high prices have forced Tajik people to stick to local carrots and potatoes instead. On a side note, the implication on microfinance is also very significant. As some lenders take out loans in US dollars, they have to make repayments in US dollars. Since most of their income is derived in the local currency, in today’s climate they immediately become liable for a larger repayment sum than initially planned. Everyone is hurting.

Panjshanbe Bazaar in Khujand

In addition to the chronic problems of a staggering economy, soaring unemployment coupled with food and currency problems, Tajikistan is also plagued with a chronic energy crisis. According to the World Bank, 70% of Tajik people suffer from extensive power shortages during the winter. Despite having a few sizeable hydrolectric assets, they fail to produce sufficient energy during the winter when water flow is at its lowest. Consequently, electricity gets rationed in the big cities, and gets cut in the rural areas. Just when you thought the worse was over, throw “winter” into the equation and see what happens. I am experiencing this right now, in the northern city of Khujand. I have 4 layers on, and my nose feels frozen.

Ever since I moved to Khujand, I have become very good friends with Scarlett. In fact, she doesn’t know it but I consider her to be my very best friend at the moment. Meet Scarlett:

The words S-C-A-R-L-E-T-T are printed on the side this thing

However, and this is no fault of Scarlet, sometimes she fails to be a good friend by producing heat because there is no electricity flowing to her! Electricity gets rationed all over Tajikistan, becoming especially more intense in the winter when the rivers freeze over, thus reducing the flow of hydroelectricity. I am sitting in my tiny Soviet-era apartment making critical decisions every 5 minutes; decisions that involve the lights, Scarlett, the refrigerator, the electric stove and charging of my appliances. There is only sufficient electricity at the moment for two of the above, and I went with Scarlett and the lights. The lights are important because they indicate how much electricity is flowing to the apartment. Right now it is about 50% brightness. At 75% I will get to charge my phone, and at 100% I can get the electric stove and refrigerator going. However, the 100% is not guaranteed to last. So every decision is a gamble. Oh! It just went down to 0% and I guess I will sit in darkness for awhile now. Welcome to the everyday life of people in Tajikistan.

Soviet-era style apartment complex.

Neuklyuzhiy, meaning awkward…

In the developed world, we typically associate words like “auto” and “housing” with the word loan. Here in Tajikistan, the two most common associations are “sewing machine” and “livestock”. This reflects the current state of the Tajik domestic economy, which has struggled to keep pace with the rest of her neighbors since the civil war ended in the late 20th century. The road to peace has been long and tedious, but the journey towards sustainable economic development has been even more arduous. With more than 90% of the country covered by mountains, economic opportunities in Tajikistan are extremely limited. Even in the main cities of Dushanbe and Khujand, with a dearth of foreign investments and lack of sizable domestic enterprises, very few jobs are available to the Tajik people. Consequently, many Tajik men end up leaving the country to work in neighboring Russia.

we’ve got mountains and lakes y’all

According to the World Bank, about 42% of Tajikistan’s GDP rely on remittances from Tajiks working abroad, of which more than half comes from those working in Russia, propping up the ailing Tajikistan economy. With the men gone, Tajik women bear huge responsibilities at home. Very often, a newly-wed wife is immediately obligated to bear children, take care of the extended household, and at the same time find other means of contribution to the household income. If you want to find a “superwoman”, it is highly likely that you will encounter one in Tajikistan.

During my time here as a Kiva Fellow, I have met many enterprising women who juggle a ton of responsibilities. The most common source of independent income a woman can earn in Tajikistan is through sewing, which is quite profitable despite the amount of effort involved. Women typically take out small loans to purchase sewing machines which they use to produce beautiful Tajik national dresses for sale. Some purchase their own fabrics, while others use the customer’s fabric and charge only a service fee for sewing.

Having a husband who works and lives in Russia also creates additional “problems” for the women of Tajikistan. Often, after spending a significant time out of the country, the Tajik men end up having Russian partners, and some even start new families. This week, I experienced the most neuklyuzhiy, meaning awkward, situation in Tajikistan to date…

We were supposed to visit one of the borrowers last week, but when we got to the branch office, we were told that her husband had come back from Russia for a surprise visit! I thought, “What are the odds! Oh well, it is Tajikistan.” Earlier this week, we were told that she could not meet us as she had an urgent thing to attend to. On Thursday morning, the coordinator told me that we could meet her in the afternoon. Then around lunch, I was told again that her sister was about to give birth, and we could only meet her depending on the outcome. When we finally departed the office to meet her on Thursday evening, I thought we had won the lottery – finally this cat and mouse game was going to come to an end!

fariza and the kiva borrower

fariza and the kiva borrower

She was a petite-sized middle-aged lady, and she had used her Kiva loan to purchase a sewing machine and some appliances for her home. She derives her sole source of income from her sewing activities. When I asked her how much money her husband sends back to support the household on average, she said none. As we chatted, I realized that her husband had indeed returned for a surprise visit, but it was to apologize to her for cheating on her and having a family in Russia. Apparently, her son had gone to Russia to work recently and found out about this. He had then forced his father to return home to apologize to his mother! I stood there dumbfounded. This entire exchange also happened through the help of my co-worker Fariza, who had a we-really-should-end-this-conversation face as she related the story to me.

After exchanging a few more bits of information, we parted ways. Right before saying goodbye, she had even invited me over to her house for plov. I humbly rejected her offer, and rode back in the taxi thinking “wow, that was neuklyuzhiy”.

Such is the fate and hard lives of women in Tajikistan. Consider making a loan to support the women of Tajikistan here!

Fast and Furious: Tajik Drift

I am sitting in a Lada 1500, zooming down a pothole-filled tarmac road in the middle of nowhere, Tajikistan. This is a 2004 Russian-made car, which at its time of production had a few enhancements that included a clock and improved sound-proofing. What it lacked were airbags, seat belts and doors that did not feel like they could fall off anytime. We were going 90 miles an hour, swerving around potholes, in a decade-old Russian car that we would probably not want the insurance company to know about. This is also known as the process of borrower-verification, where we head out into the field to confirm that loans went out to the right people, for the right purpose, with aligned records in place. This is where we become Kiva’s eyes and ears on the ground.

zhafar inspecting lady lada

Zhafar was to be the sole driver for our journey today to look for a borrower in the town of Pyanj. Bright and early at 630am Zhafar said in broken English, “you ready? We go Afghanistan!”. At that moment, I realized how far we had to travel – about 250 miles south through all sorts of terrain towards Pyanj, which sits at the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.

some trecherous mountain roads

Tajikistan is one of the smallest countries in Central Asia, but what it lacks for in size, it compensates with height – 93% of this country is made up of mountains. Mountains introduce a particular set of complications to Tajikistan – the difficulty of building infrastructure to connect towns that sit in the valleys between the highlands. Thankfully, the Soviet era brought significant development in terms of roads, but the lack of and difficulty of maintenance on the mountains resulted in potholes larger than XXL pizza scattered all across the tarmac. Free back massage, anyone?

potholes larger than XXL pizzas

Furthermore, while “roads” are available, signs and directions are a rare sight. For about 500 miles of driving today, I think I saw maybe two. I eventually learnt that Tajikistan has her own version of Google Maps – any person you meet on the road. Zhafar remarked, “In Tajikistan, Tajik people is GPS!” Each time we met a fork in the path, Zhafar would ask the nearest person for directions, and no we did not stop the car. He would basically roll-up to the next car/bicycle/truck/donkey, sound his horn, wind down the window, ask for directions and then be on his way. In nine out of ten occasions, we were given the right directions easily, with the exception for one person who ignored us, leaving Zhafar to comment, “GPS… bad connection!”

tajik GPS

In a nutshell, we were travelling in a car that could barely pass a state safety inspection check, through mountainous terrain with no directions, on roads which provided countless hours of free back massages, plus incessant swerving which made the journey feel more like I was on a boat travelling through a storm. Except, I was in landlocked Tajikistan.

zhafar and our Lada

Hours later, after multiple changes in altitude, we finally arrived in Pyanj. In the distance, we could see Afghanistan. When we got to the borrower’s place, I was glad to learn that through her $2000 Kiva loan, Ozoda managed to purchase more household goods in bulk and at lower costs, which she was able to sell and make a profit on at the local market. With the help of credit support from Kiva, she now owns two shops at the market, and was recently able to afford the construction of a small extension at her home. When Ozoda saw the profiles of all the Kiva lenders that funded her loan, she repeatedly expressed her heartfelt gratitude to the Kiva community. Right there, I was reminded that the trip was well worth all the bone-shaking, as we said our goodbyes and rode off into the sunset back towards Dushanbe.

Ozoda and her husband!

The original post first appeared on the Kiva Fellows Blog.