Friday, June 29, 2007

Reclaiming the Nomad - At the Center a Yurt

A Home in Nature
A red carcass, made from fire, wood, water and sweat. Its exterior made from the shepherd’s bounty: wool felt and song. The yurt is the center of life: a mobile hearth, the center of the nomad’s creativity and freedom.

The yurt consists of many parts: the wooden lattice, the kerege, on which uuk, curved wooden poles are tied to hold the crowning cap - the tyunduk – which acts as both a window and a flue (chimney). The Chi, or reed wrapping, decorated with colored threads protects from wind and dampness. Thick pressed wool (felt) coverings wrap the outside, and then there are Alakiiz (multi-colored felt carpets), Shyrdak (the quilted/appliqué felt mosaic carpet used to decorate the walls and floor), Jabyk Bash (embroidered curtains for the Yurt door), Teigirich (the horizontally woven border decoration for the outside of the yurt), Tchachery, the woven interior decorations, and others still.

To make the yurt takes patience, skill, and soul.

It is a practical, functional home into which creativity and life are woven: Soul integrated into the daily life. The yurt is creation intricately intertwined with survival. It embodies the nomad’s respect for his world, the environment – and is made of all the elements in the proximity of the nomad: wood, wool, reed, water, fire, natural dyes. Simple, it is full of spiritual generosity: colors, symbols, forms, and patterns which unveil the spirit, soul and energies of the makers.

The whole expresses the world of the nomad, their freedoms and the harmony of their lives in nature. To pack it up and shift pasture lands takes a mere three to five hours. It is the embodiment of mobility.

The yurt stands at the intersection of science (architecture, form) and the enchantment of nature and spirituality. At its core is a lifestyle of meaning and unity with nature.

Kyyzl Tyy
I go to Kyyzl Tyy – a village of Yurt-makers with the golden-toothed Salkyn – my friend and interpreter from Bakenbaevo. We go meet the open-faced Gulbar and Sapar – a man and wife team. Sapar and his two sons build the wooden elements of the yurt, while Gulbar and three women from the village make the felt and reed elements that will decorate and protect the frame. The yurt is a union of labor, a union of the sexes – partitioned by separate tasks, but brought together in the whole.

Sapar and Gulbar make about five complete yurts a year, and about 20 carcasses – just the wooden frame. One yurt needs about 15 parts of felt, thick and sturdy to last a decade. The wooden frame lasts for two decades, outside in all the elements, it is built to last.

Sapar, now 54 has been making yurts since he was 12 years old, taught by his father. His is a family trade that has continued for multiple generations - more than he remembers. His grandfather also made jewelry. Sapar says that if his father had continued to make jewelry, he too would still make it, but his grandfather died while his father was still young, and the knowledge disappeared.

We sit down to tea. The cows are in the summer pastures – so there is no fresh milk, and we spoon powdered milk into our black tea.

The mosque calls to prayer, and Sapar’s two sons rush out of the studio. They are beautiful, tall and lean, with sun-kissed dark skin and sharp eyes. The mullah beckons and the sons run off to the mosque, where they pray five times a day. The mosque in Kyyzl Tyy was finished 3 months ago. Before, the sons would go every Friday for the Juma Namaz in the neighboring town. Now, proximity enables more fervent devotion. The mosque was built with Syrian money: new, shiny, calling. Gulbar and Sapar do not pray, but they are happy that their sons are learning. Gulbar says it will give them a good education and up-bringing, while keeping them away from alcohol, drugs and cigarettes – the common ailments of the village men.

Over the past decade, almost every household in Kyyzl Tyy has started to make Yurts. After the close of the Soviet Yurt factories (production was centralized), local and foreign demand for the portable hearths increased, and the whole village went to work. Mostly, they are exported to tourist centers, where travelers pay a steep price to experience the great wide. Some are still bought by local semi-nomadic shepherds.

Sapar says that ten years ago only five or six families made yurts, but today more than 100 families are involved in the trade. He does not think this will last, as many of the yurt-makers make sub-standard quality. However, in the meantime, the increase in production has put great pressure on the local willow trees used to make the carcass. Where once, Sapar used to just cut down trees from the neighboring forests, he now has to buy wood from Jetty Ogus, a valley about one hour from Kyyzl Tyy.

A Way of Life
But despite this boost in the local Kyyzl Tyy economy, today, the semi-nomadic way of life the yurt embodies is threatened. Urbanization and globalization are forever pulling people away from the nomadic lifestyle, luring them with tales of fabulous wealth, material goods and the unsustainable luxuries of our Western lives. (of course, there are many good things about our way of life: health care, education, travel and many others, but there are also many problems. here, I’m thinking about the problems). The Kyrgyz are increasingly sedentary – the impact of sovietization and today’s global world. They are losing touch with the land, and the symbiotic relations of man and nature are being exploded – worn down, strained.

Ak-Terek, a Bishkek based NGO supported by the Christensen Fund (“backing the stewards of cultural and biological diversity”) studies the traditional knowledge surrounding the yurt and the economy of the nomads – animal husbandry. The stunningly beautiful and soft-spoken director of Ak-Terek, Nazgul Esengulova, is worried that the links between generations are weakening, and much of the traditional knowledge of the pasturelands and the nomadic lifestyle are disappearing.

The biocultural landscape of the Kyrgyz nomads is shifting rapidly, perhaps irremediably. Nazgul tells of the extreme land degradation that the Kyrgyz herders have inherited from the Soviets. Focused on quantity, the soviets multiplied the amount of sheep herded on pasture-lands – thus draining the richness of the pasture soils. They ignored the traditional rotation of pastures, and brought scientific methods to the animal husbandry: vaccinations, calendars and time-tables etc. That delicate balance, and “ecoute” or listening of the land disappeared. Where once the grazing times and places were determined by knowledgeable/versed herders who could read the pastures by the appearance of certain plants and animals, under the Soviets, all pasture land was used to full capacity, ignoring the traditional signs of over-grazing etc.. Furthermore, in creating a commune, the Soviets took away ownership of the land, thus taking away the intimate link and responsibility towards the land. The commune broke that deep respect between a herder and his pasture.

Here ecology and culture collide. How we live – our cultural norms, lifestyles - impact our natural world. (why do we always need to look elsewhere to be reminded). It is an interesting field of work – understanding a biocultural landscape. a double lens of culture and science.

The delicate knowledge of the pastures’ cycles, including its shifting plant and animal-life have all but disappeared. Nazgul and her organization have worked with many of the herders around the Song Kul alpine lake. She speaks of an elder in Tuluk village, Albi Mahamat Ata, who at 84 still knows a lot about the land and its signs. But he’s getting old she says, and often mixes up stories, and slips and slides between realities. The elders are disappearing, and with them that sacred – incredibly ancient - knowledge. Today, Nazgul says, many of the young herders do not want to listen to what little traditional knowledge remains, they rely on science and technology. They now force open mountain passes with bulldozers, rarely rotate their pastures, and have short-term profitability goals.

Where we – the ultra-modern West - should be learning from nomads, they are unfortunately learning from us. Our rapid, secular, disenchanting worlds are conquering even these high-mountain pastures.

The yurt which is the physical embodiment of the nomad’s sustainable subsistence and spiritual world may remain – in museums and tourist destinations – but the real soul and indigenous traditions and knowledge from which it was crafted are disappearing fast.

I’m thinking about Dinara Chuchunbaeva who said that, “Today, the disappearance of traditional cultural values [is] precipitating the extinction of traditional skills and expertise accumulated for ages, handicrafts are becoming a rarity (…)”

Perhaps crafts can be saved, continued – but what about this soul, this knowledge, this lifestyle. Can we ignore this when working with crafts – the soul and values from which they emerged?

Reclaiming the Nomad - the Sacred

sacred places.
mazars. manas in the city
will we still know how to express emotion in the cement centers of our global worlds?
have we already forgotten?
I think of Lizou, crying when we depart.
and that afternoon when Dad bid me farewell with some dollars, a holy book and tears.

for more pictures:

we have ridden out of the city. a van. scholars, travelers, and mazar-keepers. we have entered those green summer valleys around Bishkek, where the mountains fold green and rock into inviting canyons leading upwards. a winding road up to Chong-Tash.

we arrive into the afternoon buzz of insects and a small stream.

all of the sudden, he throws his arms up into the air. running wildly up to the memorial, crying, yelping. sadness and astonishment. disbelief. he runs up the stairs to the brick kiln where 140 people – the elite of Kyrgyzstan – were executed in one of Stalin’s purges in 1937. there he sits, finds a piece of paper, a pen, and writes rapidly. words. prayers. voices. emotion.

we have come to the Chong-Tash memorial with the keepers of Mazars - sacred sites. we sit down to pray. palms upwards. open. prayers for the world, its madness and its calm. Allah Akhbat. we break bread and share the music of prayer. Stalin, father of death. will the shaman voices expel his dark soul from the world?
Chong-Tash. November 5, 1937

shadows and blood.
we shall reconquer these areas. plant a tree of life and build an opening to the sky.

(many thanks to Aigine and Gulnara Aitpaeva for sharing this with me)

Monday, June 18, 2007

Reclaiming the Nomad - An Ode to Bishkek

Kyrgyzstan is still pulsing with the spiritual heritage of the nomad, the Jailoos (summer pastures), the cycles of fattening and waiting, of summer and winter snows.

In May, beyond the urban center of Bishkek, these summer pastures are beckoning. The sacred, fought-for autonomy of families and tribes in the wild. Here once stood the traditions of survival and autonomy: beautiful color woven into the vast expanse. Balance and respect. Symbols bursting with meanings, interiorized and innate. Symbols of lives, woven, sewn and chiseled into rock and into crafts: arrows of departure and return. A rhombus for the world, for the patronage of the family: protecting and encompassing. Rams horns for wealth and prosperity, bird wings for flight and inspiration.

And at the center of the world, the opening. The yurt center, the Tunduk. Open to the stars, to the worship of the sun and the rain. The continuing importance of this symbol is embodied by the Kyrgyz flag on whose center reigns the Tunduk. red, daring.

Yurts are aperture: an architecture for the infinite.

There is a sacred to this place, still felt silently in the city. This is a people who could live in the wild – I imagine it to be a fierce knowledge, an autonomy among the chaos of the world. A love of freedom. Some gestures remain: an amen at the end of tea and bread. Guests entering when they appear. doors open, no need for phone calls or preparation. Here is a time made for guests and welcoming: the values of the wild mountains.

And among this mountain sacred – an urban center, open to the modern, bustling, global world.

In its architecture and layout, Bishkek is a Soviet City, a capital of culture and administration. Theatres, parks, administrative buildings, schools, it is outfitted for urban exploration. It is a cacophony of languages and faces, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, Chinese, Turkish, Indian, Uighour, Dungans, – French of course. Here the world collides. Faces. Postures. Fragrance. It is a city of movement.

The roads however are a catastrophe, an obstacle course of holes and crevices. The parks and sidewalks have not been weeded in years it seems. The street lights have not been fixed in decades. It is a city that blacks-out at night: not one streetlight for the late-night reveler. It seems that the administrative and physical upkeep of the city stopped when the Russians left. The people of Bishkek are now making due with the eroding infrastructure – decrepit enough to wonder what will happen to the city when the infrastructure really crumbles.

But Bishkek remains a true urban center. The city is a dance of femininity, unveiled, untempered. The streets are a competition of mini-skirts, a tik tak rhythm of high heels, a web of fish-net stockings. Though small by comparison to any other global city, Bishkek is an urban center in every sense of the word. A place of concentrated means and creativity, a place of open mores and values. The urban distance giving the anonymity and freedom to explore beyond traditional values, and the indifference or wisdom to accept difference.

And yet here in the city, traditions still enter and thrive. Surrounded mainly by women here – I hear mainly of the values that affect them. Virginity is still key – to be protected, sheltered and valued. Surgery to sew up the hymen is common, though completely confidential and low-key. Sexual freedom is in getting sewed back up. Women get married early – 23 is often considered old for marriage. When people ask me how many children I have, they are surprised that at 27, I am not even married. Women are more numerous than men here and so the competition for marriage is great, as is the shame of not finding a partner.

The city has not changed this altogether. The pressure seeps in from families in rural centers and time-old traditions.

But there are those more delicate and (what I think are) good traditions that are felt here too. The spiritual and the sacred. The mountains seen from the city. Pictures of Manas – the Kyrgyz warrior – etched on city walls. A woman’s arms extended to the skies. Color. The golden toothed smiles. The long greetings. The forms of politness: Aka, Apa. The sacred balance of respect and rules. Traditional proverbs, stories told. The sound of Ordo Sakhna. The swinging hips of gypsy women.

Bishkek is a city alive. The mountains are close by.

Reclaiming the Nomad - a Mother and Daughter Team

A Mother and Daughter Team: Kalipa Asanakunova and Asel Saparkova
I am introduced by Galina Turdyeva – whose studio is in the adjacent building. Galina tells me that Asel and Kalipa, have a strong business – anchored in souvenirs and Christmas ornaments and that I should go talk with them. The door to Asel’s small studio is open. There is one table, at which two women work. Ornaments hang from the decorative branches of a wooden pedestal. A couch and table with the usual utensils for greeting impromptu guests: tea, coffee, cookies, candy and bread, are arranged in a corner.

Asel speaks great German, so the conversation with her is easier. Lucky as Elena has had to go back to school and can’t translate for me this afternoon. My Russian is still so painfully basic.

A Women’s World
Asel and I sit down to coffee. She’s a punk of a Kyrgyz with bleached blond hair. She’s got rocker shoes – those high-rising sneakers, worn down with that edge of cool. She’s wearing long blue-jean shorts and a black t-shirt. She’s comfortable in her body, and occasionally flicks back her dyed blond bang. She’s clearly a city girl – but a metallic city girl with that tough attitude.

I’m a little tired and so we sit down on the Ikea-like studio couch and have coffee and some samosas before a more formal interview. Asel asks me how old I am. Answering 27, she asks, like everyone else here, if I am married. No I tell her, I have just broken up with my lover of almost seven years. I have been thrust out into the world, strong and a little disoriented. She nods saying that sometimes it is right to leave, or be left. She’s breaking up with her husband right now, and is worried about her daughter. It’s a little sad to bond over sad love stories, but I like these impromptu moments of intimacy with women.

Back to Business
Asel’s mom, Kalipa, has been an artist and designer for the past 30 years. Seeing the market potential for felt souvenirs she joined in the stream of artists and opened her studio in 2000. She received a starting grant from Aid to Artisans – the American development organization that really (and surprisingly) has done an impressive and positive job in Kyrgyzstan. With that first USD 1,500 Kalipa was able to kick-start her creative and business visions.

Asel joined her five years ago to lead the business and sales aspects of the studio, while Kalipa focuses on the creative designs. At first Asel and Kalipa sold their products exclusively through craft stores in Bishkek (Tumar, Kyrgyz Style, Tsum etc.), but taking advantage of Asel’s German, the mother/daughter team started directly selling their products in Germany. Asel attends the Import Shop Berlin sales forum each year, where each year she sells almost everything that she has brought and also gets orders from several buyers.

Asel and Kalipa stand with pride in their studio, and with unfeigned pleasure they state that their organization is the second or third leading organization in Kyrgyzstan for felt products, behind only Tumar Studio. They state however that they are the uncontested leaders in the small souvenir market. Today their studio employs 50 women. They have a revenue of about 20,000 to 30,000 USD per year. Last winter alone they made 10,000 USD over the Christmas season. Theirs is a successful and profitable team.

A Kyrgyz Business Model
Asel and Kalipa follow the business model that I will encounter throughout Kyrgyzstan.

It is a business model centered on the need for high and consistent quality and design control. It also takes advantage of the high unemployment rate in Kyrgyzstan, providing part-time home-based labor to unemployed women.

The business model is centered on one studio/organization/NGO, but involves a wide network of female employees based in their homes, in the villages in close proximity of the organization. One or two studio leaders design all the crafts that will be made by the organization and its network. Based on those designs, four to five full-time salaried staff work in the main studio and prepare the various felt pieces that are needed for each design. They prepare the felt, choose the colors, and cut out the pieces according to pre-determined sizes. The four to five full-time workers than create “craft kits” which include the felt pieces, the chosen color of thread that will be used to assemble the pieces, as well as all the accessory beads or tassel.

The main studio then distributes these ready-made “craft kits” to their network of home-working women. These home workers will be paid per piece for their assembly and embroidering of the pieces. They bring the finished pieces back to the studio and pick up the next order of “craft kits”.

Integral to this business model is the idea of development. And these businesses not only create vital jobs, but are also aiding in the revival and preservation of traditional gestures and crafts.

As I am talking with Asel and Kalipa, two women are preparing the craft kits that will be distributed to their network of 50 women. One woman comes into the studio with her finished pieces. She is a young and beautiful woman, her work precise. Asel goes over each of the more than 30 pieces (small angel ornaments), making sure that they are well assembled. The work is well done. They give her a next “craft kit” that she will assemble over the next two weeks.

Kalipa says that many women come to the studio looking for work. They try to give as many women as possible the opportunity to work with them, but they say there are just too many women looking for employment. They are proud that they give good salaries to their network of women.

Asel and Kalipa are looking to expand, building a bigger main studio and employing a larger network of women. They are not going to take out a loan, but rather re-invest some of the previous years’ profit. Their biggest challenge will be how to find more demand – they know it exists, but they need the capability to seize and attract it. They tell me this would be possible with a multi-lingual staff.

They are optimistic about the future, and now have the financial security to take risks and explore market options. Watch this mother-daughter team get BIG.

Reclaiming the Nomad - a Soviet Woman

Notes from a Converstation with Almadjan Mambetova, head of the crafts organization Kyrgyz Heritage

I meet Almadjan in her office in southern Bishkek, and later we go out for a beer. I return several times to talk with her. My sister Marie buys me a beautiful quilt from her store for my birthday. (merci)

these are notes from the first talk we have.

Almadjan is a bold woman. Short. compact and strong. She has perfectly messy bleached blond hair. Provocatively modern. She is not someone who will complicate her life it seems - she’s brutally straightforward. I like it. A sharp-shooter. She wears a touch of make-up, but she does not look flustered by her soft wrinkles. She is at ease with her age and her life. She has had many lives.

Almadjan talks about her daughter and her mother. She is part of a line of strong, bold, and strikingly unconventional woman. He mother was divorced and left her husband when Almadjan was a little girl. She was raised by women. You can feel the force she finds in her femininity. She wears ethnic silver bangles around her wrist. a red shirt and black pants. she’s put together. fresh.

A Self-proclaimed Soviet Woman
Almadjan repeats, “Oh yes, I’m a Soviet Woman”

“We, Soviet women,” she says, “are highly educated.” According to her experience – a sentiment I will find throughout Kyrgyzstan - there is nothing bad or pejorative in being a Soviet woman. Her parents were communists, dedicated to communist ideals. “Honest, clear, clean,” she says. Her dad was a physics teacher, her mom a history teacher. “Nobody craved or lusted after money,” she says. “We traveled freely around the USSR. As a child, I went to Tashkent, Moscow. Probably the only problem with the Soviet Union,” see notes, “was that is was closed. We didn’t see much luxury, but we felt secure, in jobs and as persons.”

She admits that much of Stalin’s policy for Central Asia was to exploit and tax the land, killing the brightest and strongest of the Kyrgyz men and women, not letting them become a strong nation. But she says, “the USSR gave much to Kyrgyzstan. They gave us access to the world, to world culture, to literature, science and technology. They gave us the notion of statehood. They gave us literacy. This is why it makes no sense for us to tear down Lenin’s statues. This is why we can remember.” Almadjan marks however that “of course there were many negatives which stemmed from the narrow policy of communist party leaders. Collectivization was brutal and unnecessary. Nationalists were also punished and suffocated. But our crafts never stopped. The Embroidery, the Shyrdaks, the Kurak all continued.”

Under the USSR, talented craftspeople were organized under the banner of the “State Crafts Union” which centralized creation and industrialized production. Quantity was often more important than quality. Styles were chosen by the factory’s designers – often inspired by Moscow. The Soviet presence did severely impact – almost impair handicrafts. Speaking recently in Uzbekistan with Mutalibjan, the second in command at Andijan’s Hunarmand Crafts Association, he confided that had the Soviets stayed 20 more years, most of Central Asia’s crafts traditions would have been lost.

The Fall of the USSR
An English teacher at one of Bishkek’s top universities – Almadjan was armed for the fall of the Soviet Union. She had acquired the tools to reach out to the English-speaking world. She quickly went to work for the US government – the second country, after Turkey to open its Embassy in the Capital. (The US was indeed eager to get its foot in the door.) Almadjan joined the government’s USIS – the US Information Services here in Kyrgyzstan, where she was exposed to the ins-and-outs of American culture, and introduced to the money, grants and support that US organizations were willing to give to Central Asia.

Having acquired the experience, expertise and confidence, in 1996 Almadjan opened one of the first NGOs promoting women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan. She then wrote a plan to the Soros Foundation – one of the largest donors in Kyrgyzstan, doing outstanding and interesting work. She met with George Soros and got her project supported. She’s the kind of strong woman you want to give money too – she looks fierce, as if she could blast through any obstacles. fearless. Its easy to see how she could have seduced the philanthropic American billionaire.

She designed an international conference on “Patchwork and Modernity”. Three days of roundtables, master-classes and exhibitions.

Kyrgyz Heritage
Inspired by the idea of combining Patchwork and Modernity, and driven by the need to do more to support the many unemployed women she was meeting, Almadjan decided to open a crafts business. With an original group of 5 women, the crafts business openned in 2001. Each woman invested 2,000USD into the venture. They looked for skilled and talented women who could embroider and felt and launched themselves.

“The beginning was a waste of time,” says Almadjan. “We wasted so much time and resources. We were not business minded, and didn’t really understand the market we were entering. We didn’t know how to keep our production up to international standards – we didn’t know the basics, like which colors would sell, which sizes fit our biggest demand pool.”

“It was two years spent out in the rain,” Almadjan says, “All our money disappeared.”

Then a Canadian consultant came to help their faltering organization. She was a retired consultant, ready to act as a volunteer advisor for the organization. She turned the organization around. She came three times for two weeks over a three year period. She made an electronic catalogue to send to potential buyers, she donated a digital camera so that the organization could share their work. Most of all, the consultant designed and wrote a business plan for the company. She conducted business seminars, and developed an order form. Almadjan, sums it up saying: “basically, the consultant taught us how to run our business.”

Today there are 23 women who work part-time from their homes as seamstresses for the company – renamed Kyrgyz Heritage - as well as 7 full-time staff. Most of the 23 woman are originally from the countryside, but now reside in Bishkek. The company is focused on Kurdak – patchworking.

Her business is doing well, but Almadjan says the competition is FIERCE. She claims that there are over 300,000 people working in crafts today in Kyrgyzstan. Out of a population of 5 million, this is quite substantial.

Today, Kyrgyz Heritage is focused on reviving traditional Kyrgyz patterns and symbols in Patchwork. The company makes quilts, wall-hangings, bags, pillow-covers, table liners – you name it - all boldly designed with the symbols of the Kyrgyz nomads.

“We [the Kyrgyz] have our own way of thinking,” says Almadjan. “The early Kyrgyz were children of nature. They considered themselves as part of nature: the sun, moon, mountains were intertwined in their lives. They knew a cyclical time, led by the equinox. At Kyrgyz Heritage, we have integrated this knowledge in the crafts we make today. We incorporate the meaningful ornaments of the past.”

mountains. nomads. infinite. skies and the sun.

Even if the symbols and some gestures remain, today, most Kyrgyz have lost the knowledge of their ancestors self-sufficient way of life. So that the mountains that once protected and nourished their forefathers – are now serious obstacles to development.

(enough to wonder if the nomadic lifestyle was not much more adapted and better for the high mountains. sometimes, I feel that these are the lifestyles that will save the world when we have blasted the planet with our delirious consumption and ignorance – another story – but some people are working on the question and trying to preserve this nomadic knowledge for use around the world, especially in refugee camps. The Yurt Revolution)

back to mountains and the development challenge they pose.

About today’s economic crisis
“We are 97% mountainous,” says Almadjan. “We have to deal with high-mountainous conditions. Roads, development, everything is harder here. Compounded with constant earth-quakes, landslides. This is eating at the state budget. Everything is more expensive in Kyrgyzstan. Furthermore, we are landlocked – we have to pay for all our access. We have to pay everyone.” Almadjan says.

Almadjan sees the end of the Soviet Empire as having the scale and amplitude of a revolution. Any revolution she says is accompanied by a severe crisis in all spheres of life: economic, morality, culture (tradition), education. She says that the transitional period after a revolution can last anything from 5 to 50 years depending on the geopolitical interest/policy/leaders. It has been almost 20 years already for Kyrgyzstan.

This is a hard burden. time stretched out and frozen.

I ask Almadjan about the role Islam can play in Kyrgyzstan
She says that Islam is a “young and aggressive religion.” She thinks that Islam is at the top of its spiral – peaking globally. But after this peak, she says Islam will start to decline on a global scale. “Of course we [the Kyrgyz] converted, but we are modern,” she says. She believes that 90% of Kyrgyz traditions are nomadic, she accords only 10% to Islam.

(This an answer from a “Soviet Woman” – and many contesting ideas emerge over the next weeks in Kyrgyzstan. but the country is overwhelmingly liberal and more about personal-religious experience rather than canonical/institutional frameworks.)

Almadjan points out that the traditional ornamentation of Kyrgyzstan’s crafts are devoid of religious influence. Ornaments have preserved the nomad’s beliefs – their links with the natural world, their worship of the stars and the sun. The ornaments, she believes have preserved the meaningful, informative symbols of the nomads. Every hook, every turn in the design has some semantic meaning. Reflecting the openness of the plain, the freedom of the nomads.

It is these meanings that Kyrgyz Heritage tries to revive.

The Future of her Business
The seasonal shifts in demand she says are “absolutely frustrating”. In the summer tourist months the company runs smoothly, but the winter is hard to get through. The company still needs to stabilize demand and find new year-round buyers.

Furthermore, Almadjan laments that “there is no support for the business community here, especially the small-business community. The unstable political situation is hurting us – it’s hurting our production lines: women can’t come to work if there are demos going on. It’s hurting our demand, as tourists don’t want to travel to Kyrgyzstan if there is political instability.”

She has been to the demos raging this week out on Ala Tau Square. She’s trying to oust the current president – a “southy” she says pejoratively. She will be at the front-lines of change.

She’s 62.

Reclaiming the Nomad - A Golden Thimble

Again, so many thanks to Prof. Emita Hill, Gulnara Aitpaeva and the Aigine Girls, CACSA and Asel and Elina who made Kyrgyzstan shine for me. Rhakmat!

Altyn Oimok
The Golden Thimble, Bokonbaevo, Issyk Kul Oblast, Kyrgyzstan

Janyl Baisheva, Director

Bokonbaevo is a ghost of a town. It is a wide, vast, quadratic series of dusty streets, about 5 km south of the blue shores of Lake Issyk Kul. It is a dot on the cracked and pot-holed highway leading around the lake and onward to Bishkek. Here the economic crisis is palpable and real. no factories, no industry. no work. The only light in town comes from sunlight bouncing off the new mosque’s metallic cupola and minaret – a gift from Turkey. Contrasting the first dreariness of Bokonbaevo’s sad streets is the abrupt beauty of the Tian Shan, whose peaks rise just beyond the town – but even the mountain’s proud shadows seem to want to hide the degradation of the shamble town. Bokonbaevo seems a scar in the exquisite natural scenery.

It is here that Janyl has created her Altyn Oimok (Golden Thimble) – a burst of color and texture.

The story of Altyn Oimok starts in 1996. The collapse of the Soviet Union has seeped deep into the population of Bokonbaevo, the economic crisis sinking into the population’s bones like the chills of a humid winter. The women in Bokonbaevo are united in hardship. So many of their men – husbands, sons, and brothers - have succumbed to the depression of chronic irremediable unemployment, many drowning their sorrows in vodka. The once tight-knit threads of family structure are being stretched thin.

It’s about this time that three of the town’s women decided to unite together to fight unemployment and revive the pride and strength of their communities. Determined, the women want to fight for their families and themselves, to emerge from the shambles of their country’s economy and to revive the honor and pride of their everyday lives. They are ready to put up a fight.

These three women had talked to Aid to Artisans and Dinara Chochunbaeva – and were convinced by what they had discussed: women’s traditional handicrafts could be an income-generating activity.

They first attended Aid to Artisans workshops and seminars on business-creation and marketing. From the newly created Central Asian Crafts Support Association (CACSA), the offspring of Aid to Artisan’s work in the region, they learned how to make high-quality standard products that could target foreign markets, tourists, and later even American soldiers at the Manas Airbase in Bishkek.

The women were learning what they could do and felt empowered and ready to set up an organization of their own. No easy task, when this had never before been done.

Today, in 2007 Altyn Oimok has been busy making handicrafts for 12 years. They have 16 full-time staff in their office and workshop, and 35 women who work with them from their homes. Their market has been focused on the tourists who come to enjoy the blue of of Lake Issyk Kul, but in 2004 with the help of CACSA they exported their first products to Canada. Their products include both traditional felt handiwork such as Shyrdaks and Ala Kiyiz, as well as new products designed for the tourist and foreign markets such as felt slippers, necklaces and small souvenirs.

This success is not a surprise when you meet Janyl. There’s just something in the light of her eyes. a cool reassuring calm. a determination. Janyl, wearing a colorful scarf on her head, is a woman of clear stature. She is gentle and speaks calmly but firmly. She is deeply invested in her community.

Hers is Social Entrepreneurship

Altyn Oimok has worked with the most vulnerable women in Bokonbaevo, gathering, training and employing single mothers, women from poor families, women who have been physically abused. Janyl says that many unemployed women who feel powerless or lost come to find work with her organization. “They become empowered and strong here,” Janyl says. “We give them a chance to develop their skills, to gain financial autonomy and respect within their families and the community.” Altyn Oimok’s business is clearly engaged in community building and in bringing positive social change.

This is Janyl’s clear and simple passion: to return the respect of daily life and beauty to her community. She is a social warrior. simply. resolutely.

Janyl says, “In our village, making handicrafts is the only income-generating activity that can be done while also staying at home and taking care of our families.” Altyn Oimok’s business model, which follows the “Kyrgyz Model” (described in the introductory blog article), enables women to contribute financially to their family’s well-being, while still enabling them to be present in their households.

Janyl takes us inside the homes of some of the women who work with her – she is welcomed as an old friend. a partner. There is clear respect. Working with Altyn Oimok has not only helped the women contribute to their family’s income, but has created a clearly united group of women. a community.

Janyl has many plans for expanding the reach and breadth of Altyn Oimok’s work. She dreams of building a children’s daycare within the workshop, enabling more women to come and work with her, and enabling them to work over-time when they receive large orders. She also wants to build a training center where women can learn about new craft design, models, and marketing. She wants to encourage women to start their own organizations and wants to help in the skill-building.

Janyl also has very business-minded goals, which include making Altyn Oimok a big profit-generator with a more regular market.

Up until today, Altyn Oimok has been vulnerable to seasonal market variations. This is due both to the seasonal nature of market demand (tourism) and the seasonal production of raw ingredients (sheep are sheared in spring, felt is made in summer). Summer is the best time for felt production, which is currently done outside (Altyn Oimok only has a small interior workshop), and dried in the summer sun.

Janyl would like to get the necessary equipment and work space to be able to make the felt continuously throughout the year. She also dreams of incorporating pressing equipment for the felt-making, which would reduce the labor-intensive process and enable her to produce more of the raw materials (felt) the organization uses to make their crafts.

All of these dreams require substantial investment. Janyl feels that a bank loan would be too risky, as there are no loans made specifically for small-business generation. She relies on the organization’s savings and potential grants from development agencies. She is ready to listen to new ideas – and would be happy to get a specialist’s volunteer hours.

Here, in Kyrgyzstan, it seems that even the direst situations can be transformed: the lights are out in the Bishkek night, but it helps to see the stars.

Kyrgyzstan Reclaiming the Nomad - intro

Any article on Kyrgyzstan must first start with many thanks. First to Prof. Emita Hill for continuous encouragement/ideas and pointing me to the amazing women of Aigine - Gulnara Aitpaeva and her team. Most days in Bishkek involved a stop to the Aigine office to chat, have tea or just say hi – it was an inviting home-base, full of women passionate about Kyrgyzstan and the country’s spiritual heritage. merci. And of course, many thanks must go to CACSA – the Central Asian Crafts Support Association and the organization’s executive director Svetlana Balalaeva, who pointed me to an amazing network of craftspersons and let me hang around the CACSA office asking questions and participating in seminars. And to Asel and Elina – what can I say – it was so amazing to live with you both. colorful. wild.

Below is an introductory article that I wrote for the NewEurasia Website – a website uniting bloggers from around the Central Asian region.

Crafts in Kyrgyzstan: A Look at Creative Small-Entrepreneurs
While the politicians talk and argue about policy, struggling to piece together effective democracy, life on the street goes on: people, everyday, waiting for change, and continuing to craft a living among the economic chaos and slowly crumbling soviet infrastructure. Political quarrels and corruption have left many still unemployed, lost, and without the necessary financial tools to enter a new economy of competition and risk. It has left many blisteringly poor. Part of the picture is bleak. But the hardship has also spurred a small, mostly female group of craft entrepreneurs creatively supporting their families and communities.

Looking at crafts in Kyrgyzstan today is to look at hope and the strength of small entrepreneurship.

On the Recent Development of Crafts
Crafts development in Kyrgyzstan was fostered by the need for employment and profit-creation. When Soviet economic structures fell over night in Kyrgyzstan, women and men were left unemployed, without the security once offered by the planned Soviet system. The brutal loss of employment and the distress and poverty caused by the rampant inflation that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union put clear pressure on family heads, the breadwinners. This chaos created unlikely entrepreneurs. Women from both urban and rural regions were faced with the hunger-pangs of their children, and the primal (perhaps cliché) need to feed and maintain their families. Emboldened by need, women launched into small business ventures.

“Women became aggressive. The woman had to face their children asking them where dinner was,” says Almadjan Mambetova, Chairwoman of the crafts organization Kyrgyz Heritage. “It was the women who would hear their kid’s pangs of hunger. Not the Dads. Faced with unemployment, women became interested in crafts,” Almadjan states. After the fall of the USSR and losing her job as a painter, Galina Turdyeva the founder of the Bishkek-based Kiyiz Art Studio says that “this is when I had the idea to open something on my own. I had so many doubts. I was not sure how to combine art with business. But under the strenuous economic circumstances, and the surprising turns of life, I had to do just that - launch myself into this business.”

At this time, development organizations played a pivotal role in the development of these entrepreneurs. Organizations like Aid to Artisans began to show local women that the crafts they were making for their families (felt-rugs, weaving, embroidery, etc.) could be sold for profit. Foreign aid organizations working with local experts like Dinara Chochunbaeva introduced the idea that there was a market for all these formerly home-centered crafts. Women could capitalize on the ancient skills at which they already excelled.

Unlike other regions, crafts in Kyrgyzstan were traditionally made for a family’s own consumption and use, not for economic activity. Each family had the knowledge and skills to make a wide variety of crafts. However, the idea that these home crafts could be sold for profit was new. In the context of unemployment and high economic pressure, the idea took root and developed with initial financial help from a large variety of development organizations.

“The present had failed them,” Almadjan Mambetova says, “so many women looked to the past to see how they could earn money.”

“A tough life has made us remember our traditions,” says Galina Turdyeva.

Women created crafts organizations and started making traditional felt rugs, Shyrdaks and Ala Kiyiz for the foreign and tourist markets. Through trainings with organizations like CACSA, the Central Asian Crafts Support Association (an offspring of the work done by Aid to Artisans) they learned the wide variety of different crafts and souvenirs that could be sold. They learned the essentials of business-creation, marketing and how to make consistently high-quality goods following international standards.

Reviving Old Traditions
This new small business-creation was all the more powerful (and successful) in that it was built on the rich and deep-rooted knowledge of Kyrgyz traditional culture. Marketing and business knowledge were brought to already existing local knowledge and technologies.

The nomadic/semi-nomadic way of life of the Kyrgyz, and the character of the traditional Kyrgyz economy based on herding had promoted the development of many home crafts for local/family consumption. Often away from town-centers and their markets for months at a time, each family needed to be able to produce the crafts essential for the daily life of their household. Each family thus knew the technologies and skills involved in the crafts, which were passed down from generation to generation. This was a rich knowledge carried and shared by each member of society. (This is not true to all crafts, as some crafts like metal-working were specialized and usually done by one local master). Even after years of Soviet rule and the lifestyle changes brought by the Soviet economy, most households in rural areas still knew these skills, many continuing them for home-consumption.

The women-entrepreneurs with the help and support of the development agencies would tap into this local knowledge.

A Kyrgyz Business Model
To harvest the unique opportunities created by the widespread craft knowledge, the women developed a tailored and focused business-model.

Choosing one craft: the first step for creating their businesses was to focus on one of the traditional crafts. As the main element in the nomad’s traditional house (the yurt), felt occupied a key place among traditional crafts. Furthermore, the knowledge of felt-making (unlike metal-working for example) was still widespread after the fall of the USSR. The raw materials (wool, water) for felt-making were also readily available and affordable. There would also be minimal infrastructure investment involved in felt-making, as it could be made entirely by hand. It was therefore logical for the new entrepreneurs to center their budding businesses on felt.

Quality was the next challenge. Although each woman knew how to make the felt and felt-products, there was great variance in the quality and style of each piece. Each woman had different quality standards. This was a hurdle the entrepreneurs needed to overcome.

To focus the quality and design control, the business model was centered on one studio/organization/NGO, which then reached out to involve a wide network of female employees based in their homes, in surrounding villages. One or two studio leaders design all the crafts that will be made by the organization and its network. Based on those designs, four to five full-time salaried staff work in the main studio, where they prepare the various felt pieces that are needed for each design. If the studio makes its own felt, rather than buy it ready-made, the salaried staff is also responsible for felt-making. The full-time salaried staff prepares the felt, chooses the colors, and cuts out the pieces according to pre-determined standard sizes and designs.

The four to five full-time workers in the main studio then create “craft kits” which include the felt pieces, the chosen color of thread that will be used to assemble the pieces, as well as all the accessory beads or tassel. The main studio then distributes these ready-made “craft kits” to their network of home-working women. With these craft kits, the main studio assures the creation of standard sizes and designs as well as the high quality of the felt. The home workers will assemble and embroider the kits, and be paid per piece. They bring the finished pieces back to the studio and pick up the next order of “craft kits”.

Socially Responsible Business
Integral to this Kyrgyz business model – and what I believe makes it really innovative - is the idea of development. The business model directly addresses and “takes advantage of” the high unemployment rate in Kyrgyzstan, providing part-time home-based labor to unemployed women. It taps not only into the existing skills of the community, but the need of many women to find part-time employment. These artist businesswomen have created organizations with clear grass-roots social benefits.

Most of the studio heads that I talked to, stressed the point that they are employment-generating ventures, creating jobs for vulnerable women.

Building on these social results, the new business-women have learned that communicating and marketing the “social goals” of their studios and businesses could be profitable. They have learned that both their buyers and potential donors value these social results: buyers ready to pay higher prices, donors ready to distribute grants. Interestingly many of the business leaders that I talked to call their studios “NGOs”. Indeed they are non-governmental private ventures, so in essence are NGO’s, but the organizations have the clear aim of being profit-driven ventures, and are not dependent on grant-money for survival.

That these crafts organizations have become versed not only in the existence of wide demand for their products, but also in the marketing and development vocabulary of the West - is probably closely linked with the presence and initial support of aid and development organizations in Kyrgyzstan. But this conception of their small crafts businesses as NGOs, I believe is also interesting, in that it highlights both the strength and weakness of the Kyrgyz crafts market. First, the strength of the market’s creativity and talented marketing, and second the apparent weakness of the overall business environment that does not support small-entrepreneurs, but forces them to search for development grants and aid in order to grow.

Reviving Tradition
Beyond their employment-generation potential, these small crafts-businesses are also helping to revive and sustain ancient gestures and traditional knowledge.

As household objects of daily use, crafts are tightly intertwined with a people’s traditional way of life. Crafts are fossils of tradition and life, maps of cultural identity reflecting daily gestures and generations of esthetic choices. To look at a craft object is to glimpse at how people see and act in their world. Yet, as objects so closely tied to traditional lifestyles, they are also vulnerable to the abrupt changes in lifestyles, seen most recently in Kyrgyzstan with sovietization and now globalization.

“Today, the disappearance of traditional cultural values [is] precipitating the extinction of traditional skills and expertise accumulated for ages, handicrafts are becoming a rarity (…)” says Dinara Chochunbaeva

Galina Turdyeva, head and founder of the Kiyiz Art Studio, speaks about the disappearance of traditional knowledge. She points to the fact that the links between the generations are fading. Where once young women would learn these crafts from their mothers and grandmothers, today this passing-down of knowledge is becoming a rarity.

Galina believes however, that a strong market for traditional crafts can help revive these generational links and help preserve that sacred knowledge. “If there is a market,” she says, “people will continue to make traditional crafts and arts. The future is dependent on the existence of a market for the goods.”

Many of the new crafts businesses have explored and revived some of the most traditional ornaments of Kyrgyz culture. The felt rugs made by the organizations include those ancient pre-Islamic forms that reflect Kyrgyz ancient shamanist wisdom and spirituality. The ornaments of the crafts carry images of sacred myths and symbols, their color choices reflecting the balance in nature, and the cyclical rhythm of the nomad’s world.

“We have our own way of thinking,” says Almadjan Mambetova of Kyrgyz Heritage. “The early Kyrgyz were children of nature. They considered themselves as part of nature: the sun, moon, mountains were intertwined in their lives. They knew a cyclical time, led by the equinox. At Kyrgyz Heritage, we have integrated this knowledge in the crafts we make today. We incorporate the meaningful ornaments of the past.”

There are many people trying to preserve the know-how: the knowledge to make the felt crafts and interpret their ornaments. Others are also starting to revive other crafts and traditional knowledge.

In Bokonbaevo, Jildis Asanakounova the founder and director of Felt Art Studio, wants to expand her successful business to include embroidery. “I see that embroidery skills are disappearing rapidly,” she says. Jildis has been collecting antique embroidery pieces and learning some of the stitches, but she believes that more needs to be done to save the knowledge of Kyrgyz embroidery. “I am looking to integrate some traditional embroidery in the crafts we make for tourists, to create a market for embroidery. I’m sure it can work,” continues Jildis. She is currently looking for the funds she will need to expand her business into this new line of crafts. She notes that time is pressing however, as many of the older women who still know how to embroider are getting older, and will soon no longer be able to teach and share their craft. A micro-finance loan or a small-business initiative grant would be rightly placed in her hands.

A Maturing Market
There are no crafts if there is no profit. It is perhaps an obvious statement, but it needs to be retold. If there are no buyers, there will be no makers. Over the past sixteen years, Kyrgyz craftsmen and women have created their market: assembling the makers and seeking out the buyers, they have transformed home-centered crafts into profitable businesses.

Today, the Kyrgyz crafts market has a variety of actors. There are large support organizations, like CACSA and the Kyrgyz Crafts Organization that assemble, support, and market Kyrgyz crafts. There are large local shops and showrooms such as Tumar, Kyrgyz Style, and Tsum that provide a local sales-surface for small crafts organizations from throughout Kyrgyzstan. There are also a few foreign-based stores that regularly purchase from various Kyrgyz studios, providing a foreign sales-surface. However, studios mostly rely on crafts fairs and festivals to gain access to the foreign market. The market also has numerous individual studios with their own local storefronts. The home-workers with no participation in sales stand in the background, but are pivotal to the success of the organizations.

The supply is strong and competition fierce. The actors however, remain small and the work hand-made and labor-intensive. The increase of machinery will most likely bring about significant change in the market structure. One of the market’s greatest strengths – beside the beauty of their products is the predilection of the Kyrgyz organizations for creative innovation. A real strength that is visible in Kyrgyzstan’s crafts-market is that it is not only about revival, but about seeking new creativity, new innovation and adjusting to the preferences of demand.

Ideas are quickly recycled among the different workshops and studios and the fierce competition is motivating higher quality and continued innovation

Sales and finding demand is the current challenge: how to create sales-surfaces abroad, where the demand lies. If someone has an advantage in reaching out to the foreign market they will inevitably start to lead. Kalipa Asanakunova and Asel Saparkova have demonstrated this, as they have used Asel’s fluency in the German language to tap into the German market, and become leaders there.

Foreign demand remains relatively untapped – and the market therefore remains dynamic, with many new opportunities to seize.

The craft industry in Kyrgyzstan is firmly implanted and strong – but there remains much left to do to help small-entrepreneurs realize those larger, more ambitious plans. Small entrepreneurs are at the base of both economic and social growth and change – they are the local actors that can perhaps help Kyrgyzstan emerge from economic crisis. They are integral players, and they need support.