Working in Kyrgystan
I landed in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan twenty hours after starting my journey in San Francisco. I had spent the week prior at Kiva Head Quarters learning all about the organisation and my responsibilities as a Kiva Fellow for the next four months. Kiva is a non-profit organisation which allows people to lend money via the Internet to low-income entrepreneurs and students in over 80 countries. Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty and over the last ten years, Kiva has enabled 1.6million people to lend over $955million USD to 2.3million entrepreneurs around the world. Upon receiving a phone call confirming my acceptance into the competitive fellowship program, I had placed a tick on my bucket list with a smile. The founders of Kiva had figured out a simple and effective way to provide low-income entrepreneurs and students in developing countries with equal opportunities and as a child of a country with hundreds of entrepreneurs and students in need of opportunity, I wanted to become part of the Kiva family and play even the smallest role available to bring a Kiva field partnership back home, to Fiji. When I had written this down on my bucket list as a twenty-one year old University of Auckland student, I never imagined the journey would involve working and living in a former Soviet Union country, whose name at first, I could not spell without the assistance of autocorrect. I stepped out of the airport and amidst a sea of foreign faces, accents and gestures, realised for the first time that I had signed up to live alone in a country I had never heard of before, surrounded by people who, with fair faces and short statures looked nothing like me. Upon arriving at the hotel I had booked for three nights until I found a more permanent living situation, I immediately connected to the wifi and found comfort in a WhatsApp group I was a part of with the rest of my fellow’s class, who were similarly getting settled into their parts of the world. Messages from my twenty-hours of disconnect flooded in from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, India, East-Timor, Myanmar, Phillipines, Haiti, Palestine, Tajikistan, Mexico and Peru. Helen Keller once wrote, “Walking in the dark with a friend is better than walking in the light alone” — during my four months in Kyrgyzstan, the group of inspiring and grounded individuals in that WhatsApp group were the only reason I did not feel alone walking into the unknown, everyday. Most days, they were also the only people I had the luxury of speaking english to! I moved into a small one bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of an old soviet building within a week of arrival. At $250 USD a month, I was told my pad with broken louver blades which let the heavy car-pollution fumes in and a heavily water-damaged bathroom ceiling, was the best
money could buy. My first three weeks in Bishkek unfolded the greatest everyday challenges I had ever faced in my twenty-six years of life. Street signs, restaurant menu’s, grocery brands, the labels on my washing machine and even the Finding Dory movie poster on the roadside were all written in Russian. I realised very quickly that I had to at least read and write the cyrillic script, as well as, learn the basics of the language if I had any hope of doing much more than walking to work and back to my apartment during my fellowship. It is remarkable what the human brain can do in survival mode. Six weeks in, I was fluently reading and writing cyrillic… heck, I had even learnt Microsoft Excel functions in Russian and was holding basic conversation with colleagues in the lunch room. The most common mode of public transport in Bishkek is the “Mashrutka” — a fleet of minivan’s that stop at a wave anywhere on the road and commonly hold at least ten additional passengers than legal. I quickly learnt that Mashrutka’s are not built for anyone above 5’10” in height. Spending many sweaty, dry, summer afternoons sardined between people as we drove over the bumpy potholed streets of the capital, I finally decided I would opt for the electric bus commute instead. It was on the bus one morning that I experienced one of the hallmark moments of my Kyrgyz adventures. I had opted to stand, given it was peak commute time and the bus was full to the brim with children heading to school, adults heading to work and the growing over-60’s population heading to the nearest park for a morning walk. As I stood there with feet planted firmly on the ground as resistance against the chaotic ride, I was tapped on the shoulder by an old Kyrgyz man who, along with the rest of the passengers, was a familiar face on the bus every morning. “Kogda Vy rodilis?”, he asked with kind wrinkled eyes. I flicked through the rolodex of Russian phrases in my mind before registering that he had asked me where I was born. “Fiji, Vy znayete?”, I asked in broken Russian, if he had heard of my island home before. He looked confused and kept repeating the words, “Fiji… Fiji”. Before I knew it, the question had spread through-out the bus like wildfire and all fifty Kyrgyz commuters were now in intense conversation, trying to figure out where on earth Fiji was. The bus driver parked up on the side of the road and joined his passengers in the geographical puzzle. I tried drawing a map in the air, I even imitated a rugby match, the waves of the ocean and a swaying coconut tree — which only resulted in everyone bursting out into fits of laughter before swaying from side to side like coconut trees themselves. A month later, the Fiji Seven’s team won a gold medal in the Olympics. Sitting in my apartment early that morning, watching the medal ceremony, I had never felt more homesick. I wiped the overflowing tears of joy from my eyes and made my way to the bus stop. As soon as I got onto my usual bus, everyone from the bus driver to the middle aged lady in the backseat carrying her usual plastic bag of vegetables erupted in cheer — “Fiji! Gold! Fiji! Olympic Gold!”, they all shouted and cheered, laying heavy pats and hugs on me as I walked to my spot. That morning, in a country as foreign as foreign can be, I felt right at home. That morning, I realised that true humanity lies in the ability to find joy in celebrating the joy of others, no matter how different our differences are. Living and working in Kyrgyzstan was the best thing I ever did for myself — out of the initial language, culture and lifestyle challenges came an unparalleled feeling of loneliness which ultimately transformed into a feeling of pure connectedness. The country itself is untouched with breath-taking alpine lakes and mountain ranges which stretch out in the form of green hills and snow capped peaks as far as the eye can see. The Kyrgyz people are beautiful souls who welcomed me into their lives and homes with open hearts and soft smiles. Marcus Aurelius once wrote that the purpose of life is fellowship — out of my literal Kiva fellowship placement came a genuine experience of true fellowship with some of the happiest people I have ever met outside of Fiji. Kyrgyzstan well and truly became an extension of home for me.
Alatoo Square in Bishkek
Osh Bazaar where locals do their shopping every weekend
The road to the south of Kyrgyzstan
A local Kyrgyz woman serving tea
Local Kyrgyz child