I'm both exhausted and exhilarated by my six-day journey through the red clay rocky back-roads of Tajikistan's border area with Kyrgyzstan in the Rasht Valley.
Moving village to village to meet with women who have been patiently awaiting my arrival for six months, I feel humbled by their expression of enthusiasm upon seeing me. They greet me with near-celebrity status, and are utterly unaware of how much I am awed by them, completely inspired by them.
These women, who have somewhere between a third and seventh grade education, live with their large families in a highly mountainous region where unforgiving winters last between six and seven months — severely shortening the growing season — and where they are miles from any market or hospital. Getting to a market or hospital in the winter time isn't generally an option anyway, except on foot or by horse. Occasionally, a government plough will clear the roads and, in a streak of good weather, it may be possible by car.
Electricity is also scarce and unregimented; houses are heated with wood they collect themselves or coal they buy, if they have the money. These women are the first to rise and the last to go to bed, providing the care for their children, their husbands, mothers- and fathers-in-law, the livestock and the land attached to the house. They stoke the fires, keep a constant pot of tea boiling and cook their one or two hot meals a day; they are the back bones of a large family, starting from the young age of 17 or 18, when they enter into an arranged marriage.
After three days in this Central Asian outback, my cuticles are split and bleeding and I'm constantly applying my £12 wheat germ oil to try to salvage my parched skin. Meanwhile, they are in and out of the house, to and from the detached kitchens, moving through the harsh elements — wind, rain or snow. There is no indoor plumbing, and sometimes the only running water is blocks away. Whether it is clean water or not is another issue.
The women thank me profusely for coming and I am at a loss to express my respect and admiration for them sufficiently. Even though it is my dream to live off the land, build my own house and have my own food forest, when I look at these women and their lives I wonder, could I ever do what they do? Could I ever really live as they live? Would I have the strength, the stamina, the fortitude to endure this beautiful but cruel environment such as they do?
I am grateful to these women, in this environment and with their workload, for actively participating in our programme of health and agriculture education — some coming from long distances to meet together and hold discussions. This is a new habit for them, and the health and agriculture village educators who volunteer for us tell me that it was very difficult for them in the beginning to convince the women to come.
Now, however, they come willingly and faithfully, eager to learn and discuss the topics of safe pregnancy, breast-feeding and supplementary feeding of children over six months. They tell me with fire and passion all of the different details that they know and have learned from Mercy Corps on these subjects. They tell me how the greenhouses have changed their lives too — eating tomatoes and cucumbers that they have produced themselves when they previously thought it was impossible in their region. They also express their gratitude that the jars that they have canned with fruits and pickled products are no longer exploding and being lost because of improper canning methods — now they are able to keep their jars and use them through the winter.
They are also grateful for the social time — the brief respite away from their large volume of tasks in the house — to meet together and exchange information, share problems and support one another in a forum that was previously unavailable to them.
Over and over their pour out their gratitude and appreciation to Mercy Corps for starting this programme in their communities. I tell them that, in the Garm office alone, we have 74 staff that are all working for them and that, without them, without their participation, we would not have a programme. I thank them, but I am thanking them for much more than just their participation. I am also thanking them for being amazing teachers of strength, capacity, warmth and extraordinary generosity — even though I fail to properly express this with my faltering language skills.
I hope they get it on some level — I hope they understand that they are the reason that I am here.