Your eyes suddenly open in the middle of the night as you hear the drip… drip… drip of the tap. Sounds familiar? Well it would be except this is Jalalabad and you breathe a sigh of relief as you rush out to the courtyard to start filling buckets, basins and empty coke bottles. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan, plentiful in water but struggling on with the pumps the soviets left behind. It feels not so much of a country as a tower of Babel with the ethnic Kyrgyz, Russians, Uzbeks, Kurds and Tatars among others living out life side by side in different languages. People are immediately identified here by their physiognomy, language and failing that by their head wear (which has led to the observation that I may be mistaken for a retired Russian). In a predominantly muslim environment it can be a little akward identifying oneself as Christian:it appears local evangelical churches have done little to allay fears of suspicious ulterior motives. I have a fair idea now how a muslim in Britain might feel with all the post 9/11 misconceptions about the Islamic faith. Generalising is a terrible thing, but as this is only a shortnote (and being that im woefully short on vice at the moment) I’ll continue. It’s a beautiful country, Jalalabad is a beautiful city. It has wide boulevards, a huge bazaar, hills of pistachio and almond trees and never-ending blue skies. The Jesuits have a beautiful uzbek style cluster of houses surrounding a vine draped courtyard complete with fish pond (for those of you ’living in solidarity with the poor‘ I apologise.).The small chapel has a large copy of Caravaggio’s second painting of St. Matthew, the apostles bones being said to lie in a lake near the capital. If you ever want an image of how the people of Kyrgyzstan retain a seemingly impossible balance given the precarious nature of their situation, look no further. On Sunday a good 10 or so people attend mass although few have asian features. The local beer is sweet, the bread is naan, the food is good, the housekeeper sings me songs (and only ‘me’ I’ve noticed) and the neighbours children (although in need of a good scrub) don’t bite.
And what do I do? Well for the first week I pretty much sat on the toilet. Now I teach English to various ages of local kids, take conversation classes at the university (where the students are all female.. answers on a postcard please..), fill buckets with water and recently have been knocking down a few walls (literally not figuratively unfortunately as I have been helping to renovate a recently purchased property, aka my future bedroom). I’ve also started to visit homes for disabled adults and kids (some of whom do bite) to distribute fruit and show films( did anyone else know that samba the lion king can speak Russian?). When ‘I’ eventually speak Russian I hope to do more (my long suffering Russian teacher would probably re-write that sentence for me as “when I do MORE, I will eventually speak Russian”)
Standing under an almond tree on the hill above Jalalabad you can look out over the arid rolling landscape to the lush beauty of the valley leading to Uzbekistan. Reflecting on this beauty you wonder how that only days ago on the road from home to here (a distance of less than 1 km) a young girl could be murdered in daylight by her peers. It is a huge consolation to know, that people in the nearby mosques, like the 10 or so Catholics in the chapel, are on their knees trying to make amends. In a country where more than 90% of the land is over 1500 metres high you can only hope that our voices sound that much clearer to whoever is up above.
p.s. that was a terrible report, I know, but I wasn’t sure whether or not to write the story about the local handyman (commonly referred to as Sinbad) WHO IS RUMOURED TO BE USING THE JESUITS POWERDRILL TO FINISH OFF THE ROOF ON THE LATEST LOCAL MOSQUE. MAYBE NEXT TIME.
volunteer in Dzalalabad Parish of blessed Mother Teresa from Calcutta,
teacher of English language