Ms. Tsegee has an infectious smile. I first met her in the Mercy Corps office I am visiting here in the Western Mongolian Province of Uvs. Ms. Tsegee was dropping off her community group’s required progress report after winning a grant from us to build an income generation business for herself and three other women. Ms. Tsegee is about 60 years old but speaks and interacts with the youthful exuberance of a woman half her age.
In Mongolia they call her a very ‘energetic’ woman. I call her inspirational. Ms. Tsegee heard about the grants being offered to community groups just over a year ago. She quickly recognized the opportunity and formed a group of women with shared expertise in sewing and signed up for the training in order to apply for the grant. All of the women have something in common…they all care for a disabled relative or are themselves struggling with a disability.
In Mongolia a majority of people still live in traditional yurts, or gers, used by the nomadic herdsman for centuries. Genghis Khan is famous for having had his gigantic ger carried on his campaigns pulled by a team of horses. Even though many modern Mongolians have stopped living the nomadic lifestyle, they have not abandoned their gers. Instead gers are now organized into neighborhoods in all Mongolian cities, from the Capital Ulaanbaataar that is 1 million strong to this provincial capital in the far west that boasts a population of about 10,000.
Today I arrive at the ger of the other senior member of the community group, Ms. Maamuu. I duck to enter as the doors to these domed yurts are about shoulder height. Ms. Tsegee and Ms. Maamuu usher our group to the couch on the left side of the circular room and introduce us to Ms Maamuu’s husband who lays in a bed on the opposite wall. Ms. Maamuu’s husband is bedridden from a disability and requires constant care. Ms Maamuu’s eldest daughter is also there; she is a tall thin woman in her early 20’s who is also a member of the community group. After receiving a steaming bowl of fermented cows milk and having a bowl of candy and a plate of biscuits placed in front of us, the women are ready to talk about their project.
With a giggle from Ms. Tsegee, we are told that the two young women in the group are the designers and do all the detailed needle work because the two elder women do not have the best sight these days. It is this joyful acceptance of age without allowing it to slow her down that endears me to Ms. Tsegee.
They begin the story of how they used the grant money to buy materials in order to make the traditional dresses, coats and tea bags that they sell. They relay the story about how they had the opportunity to take their items to a regional trade fair where they were very successful. Yet, Ms. Maamuu’s husband had been frustrated when they returned because they had been gone too long. In order to ease his frustration they had told him that they were awarded the bronze metal at the fair. My first instinct was to say that it is unfortunate, but these two women began to laugh laughed so much that they could barely finish the story. They confided in us that they had actually won 8th place at the fair not 3rd, but they planned on winning next year.
I ask Ms. Tsegee if she thinks this group will stay working together in the future. The lines around her eyes deepen as she smiles very wide before she answers back in rapid fire Mongolian. “Of course” she says, but what they really want to do is to repair a building just behind Ms. Maamuu’s ger so that they have a work space, because currently they are working out of their gers. Ms. Maamuu nods deeply at this idea because it would mean she could work and still be close enough to care for her husband. Ms. Tsegee tells me that they have been approached by other women who have seen their success and want to join their group. One of the women has experience working in sewing factories from the Soviet times and has some equipment that the group lacks. They thinks this will be a good addition to the productivity and skill of the group.
Together these 4 women directly support 12 different people with what they have earned since coming together as a community group. They have been able to pay for two family weddings in the past 6 months and each have been able to take 200,000 tugric, around $170 USD, a month in shared income from their sewing work. This is compared to their families living off of small disability pensions before they joined the group.
All of this success is based on a 500,000 tugric ($400 USD) grant from Mercy Corps last spring. I am constantly in awe of the audacity of the community members that we work with globally. Motivated women like Ms Tsegee will change the economic face of Mongolia, one small group of women at a time.