I arrived in Uzbekistan knowing very little about her. I knew only that she was one of the former Soviet republics that became independent in the early 1990s. Unlike developing countries such as Indonesia and Ethiopia, which had gained prominence because of disasters such as tsunamis and famines, Uzbekistan doesn't get a lot of attention from the rest of the world.
Over dinner in the capital city of Tashkent, Mark Goldenbaum, our country director, gave me a little background.
During the Soviet era, the country benefited from government investments in education, natural-gas pipes and water lines. Most of these services began to disintegrate after the country gained independence and lost its main benefactor in the USSR. And the people of Uzbekistan, especially in the Ferghana Valley, one of the poorest and densely populated regions, were so used to relying on government to fill their needs that they didn't know what to do when that government fell apart.
Exacerbating the situation was that the Soviets, to strengthen their grip on power and prevent a sense of nationalism taking hold in these formerly independent republics, had created pockets of ethnic groups throughout the region. The Ferghana Valley is a jumbled patchwork of borders and ethnicities: it spans the boundaries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and there are ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks in every country.
This led to problems when the countries claimed independence and drew new borders. Many communities, because of their ethnic majorities, were cut off from water, gas, electricity or health facilities only a few kilometers away.
Aspiring to New Heights in the Ferghana Valley
The drive into the Ferghana Valley from Tashkent took about three hours. We didn't pass much vegetation in the mountainous terrain, except for mulberry trees — and for good reason. I was traveling along the ancient Silk Road, and the leaves of these unique-looking trees were essential to nourishing the silk worms. I also saw orchards of apricot and peach trees, and farmers starting to plow their lands in preparation for spring.
On my first full day, I visited the village of Pahtabuston. Most of its residents were ethnic Krygyz, even though we were still in Uzbekistan and only a few miles from the Tajik border. Three years ago, the village had only one kindergarten and one shop, and no natural gas supply. Their school was crumbling. Villagers felt the government ignored them because they were Kyrgyz. They were bitter.
Pahtabuston's sense of marginalization contributed to its admission into Mercy Corps' Peaceful Communities Initiative program. The PCI program is a way to improve living conditions and reduce the potential for conflict in the Ferghana Valley by building trust within and among multiethnic communities, establishing safe and open mechanisms for ongoing dialogue and providing training and resources for implementing real solutions to everyday problems.
Villagers identified the lack of natural gas as their number-one problem. The whole community came together to discuss what to do about it, and decided that all households would donate some money to build the necessary infrastructure. Those fees covered more than three-quarters of the cost; Mercy Corps paid the rest. In the process, the villagers met with government representatives and realized they hadn't intentionally ignored the village, but simply didn't have money to pay for natural gas service.
A new dialogue started, and as a result, the government promised to replace the village's crumbling school. Residents pitched in with donations and volunteer labor, and today a new school serves 500 students.
I took a tour of the building — a very humble structure, nonetheless full of villagers’ love and sweat — with Mr. Absattor, one of the schoolteachers. We walked down a corridor and arrived at a roomful of young pupils dressed in costume. One teacher explained that the costumes were part of a celebration of the great Uzbek poet Alisher Navoi's birthday. He's the country's equivalent of William Shakespeare, and his works are just as impenetrable, especially for young students. But the class showed me that they’ve been well taught, reciting some of Navoi's poems without looking at their books. It was a scene that simply could not have happened before this school was built.
Spreading, Seeding Cooperation and Development
Pahtabuston didn't limit what they had learned — the importance of civil society, problem solving and conflict management — to their own borders. They also helped their neighbors in Janobod, populated mostly by ethnic Uzbeks, install new water pipes to irrigate their fields of cotton, wheat, apricots and peaches.
Later, I visited a predominantly Tajik village, Vorukh, whose residents also felt neglected by government and mistreated by an adjacent village that controlled the irrigation-water supply. With Mercy Corps' help, they were able to work out an irrigation schedule that satisfied both communities — another example of peaceful development that is this project's hallmark.
Wherever I went in Uzbekistan, I received warm welcomes by friendly people who'd insist on inviting me into their home for meals — even if I was just there for a brief visit. Their first questions were usually about age and marital status. When I told a mother I wasn't married, she inevitably wanted me to meet her son.
Auspicious Signs for Peace
I had another reason for coming to Uzbekistan: to receive two health volunteers for the Community Health and Sanitation (CHS) program funded by ICDF Taiwan. Through this program, more than 25,000 residents in Ferghana Valley are being educated and equipped with the knowledge and skills to better maintain their health. Like PCI, it's a program aimed at empowering people and giving them the tools they need to improve their lives and communities.
It's programs like these - and the spirited response to them - that provide a ray of hope for an impoverished region. Uzbekistan, like many of its Central Asian neighbors, is at a crossroads: Will it seek greater openness in its government and its economy, and follow a Turkish path to European Union membership? Or will it turn inward and become more isolated from the community of nations?
During my time there, I saw ethnic harmony, the growing desire for community-government dialogue from both sides and the fervor for self-improvement. These are all signs that an open, participatory system of government may lead Uzbeks to a more peaceful, prosperous future.