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The absence of a smile ≠ the absence of warmth

Kyrgyzstan, October 8, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mary Tam/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Ayzada Mukambetova with a fresh round loaf of hlep — bread — from her oven. Photo: Mary Tam/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps Kyrgyzstan  </span>
    Here I am, third from left, next to Ayzada Mukambetova — holding the still-warm loaf of hlep. Photo: Mercy Corps Kyrgyzstan

As Kyrgyzstan's October 10 elections approach, I think about my friends and colleagues over there and hope for their safety. Without a doubt, Kyrgyzstan and its people made an imprint on me, and taught me to challenge my assumptions.

In the United States, we are generally taught to smile when we meet people — projecting happiness and confidence. Naturally, when new acquaintances greet me with a straight face, I interpret that as disinterest. This was my initial notion in Kyrgyzstan, but it didn't take long to figure out that — in this land — the absence of a smile does not indicate the absence of warmth.

During my third week in Kyrgyzstan, I was fortunate enough to head north to visit some of our Issyk-Kul field offices with my fellow interns and our esteemed colleague, Ulan. Despite resembling a traveling circus, we managed to have quite the productive trip. One day of the excursion was dedicated to meeting various loan clients, who also participate in Kompanion's development trainings on agriculture, livestock and financial management.

On this day our local colleague, Dariya, introduced us to Ayzada Mukambetova. Ayzada seemed a bit reserved at first — offering a half smile with her hands clasped together in front of her. I thought, perhaps, she felt inconvenienced by our visit. But as she began sharing details about her life I realized this woman was full of a unique and organic energy, and that she was happy to tell her story.

With humble confidence, she spoke of her agriculture business and how she has improved the quality of her crop through Kompanion loans and development trainings. At this point, Ayzada had warmed up and I felt ignorant for having made a judgment based on the first moments of our introduction.

After talking to Ayzada, I felt like the laziest person on earth. “In the village,” she said, “one must have more than one source of income.” In a modest tone, she went on to describe her various professions. In addition to cultivating various crops, she raises livestock. She is a music teacher at the local school. In the summer, she has a bakery — in fact, when we arrived she was in the middle baking bread.

She said it is a good sign if guests visit the house when one is baking. She showed Dariya and I to the kitchen, rich with the smell of fresh bread, and handed me a golden-brown oval loaf. It is customary for Kyrgyz households to invite guests to join them for chai. If visitors cannot stay one offers hlep (bread). Dariya and I pinched off a piece of bread which was still warm, and she insisted we take the entire loaf for our afternoon tea. We visited four Kompanion clients that day — needless to say, we ate a lot of hlep.

It is not uncommon for a Kyrgyz person to wear a straight face when greeting you or posing for a photograph. But that does not imply anything about his or her attitude or interest in communicating. Every household we visited was warm with hospitality.

When we left, they would all say "preenhadeetye," which means, “come back.” This is a customary farewell, but — after hearing their stories and sharing bread — I like to think they genuinely meant it.