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Where the road ends

Tajikistan, July 24, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sarah Royall for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The road crossing a river in Tavildara, Rasht Valley, Tajikistan Photo: Sarah Royall for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Sarah Royall for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The road to Gharm, Tajikistan on a good day in summer. Photo: Sarah Royall for Mercy Corps

After four hours of winding through bumpy dirt roads heading east from the capital of Tajikistan — Dushanbe — hugging mountain sides with sharp drop-offs to a rushing river, you'll find yourself in Gharm. It's a small, conservative town by most standards. There's one restaurant, a small daily market and a few shops that carry that Tajik staples: RC cola, rice, cookies, soap, etc.

For the past six weeks this is where I have called home. Most fellow expats in Tajikistan ask me, how do you live in such a small place? But I rather like it actually and I think it's important that Mercy Corps places expats out in the field where our work is really happening.

As though Gharm weren't small enough, I've been spending the last few weeks in even smaller villages. The roads to these villages are even worse than the road to Gharm. Our drivers skillfully pass through small rivers, slosh through muddy roads and find the road where I honestly can't see it.

What's at the end of these roads is astonishing. Most of Tajikistan is covered with high mountains, and amazingly people find a way to live up there. Not only do they survive the harsh winters, but they do so with an incredible sort of grace. Everywhere we go people greet us with smiles and laughter, and beg us to share a cup of tea with them or even stay the night.

Last week we visited a little village in the district of Obi Mehnat. During the winter these villages are completely cut off from larger towns because the snow makes the difficult roads up the mountains completely impassable. In 2002, Mercy Corps built the first school up in this village.

I met one of the school teachers who herself had only been able to attend 8th grade because the village lacked any further grades. She boasted that now the students from their village are constantly ranking in the top of the country for academic achievements. Not only that, but in the heart of the conservative Islamic Rasht valley, they are graduating more girls than boys!