A ritual for healing

Tajikistan, July 1, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps

This past Saturday we celebrated the National Day of Reconciliation, which marks the day when President Imomali Rakhmonov and United Tajik Opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri signed a peace agreement in Moscow in 1997. That agreement ended the civil war that displaced 1.2 million people and killed somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 men over a five-year period.

Those ghosts hover here, perhaps especially in the Rasht Valley where a majority of the opposition was based. Nearly every day, someone tells me their own story about the civil war.

Despite this, the atmosphere was festive on Saturday as crowds of Tajiks strolled the streets eating ice cream; enjoyed plov and cold soda downtown; and filled the stands at the stadium to watch wrestling (a national sport?) and traditional dancing and singing.

While women and girls are mostly absent from the public sphere, it was refreshing to see them walking hand-in-hand, laughing and chatting. Young girls played together and many wore the traditional Tajik dress. Yet, I was still the ONLY woman who ventured into the stadium seats to watch wrestling. And while the men stared at me with curiosity, they were also very friendly — asking if I wanted to get closer so I can take some photos.

I splurged on a Sprite — imported from Kabul, Afghanistan — and popcorn. Popcorn! I love popcorn and here it suddenly appeared on the street. This is a celebration! A young boy operated the ancient red machine, filling a small popper with oil and kernels and waiting patiently. Slowly, slowly, it popped some corn. I could eat a bucket, but that would take hours so I settled for a small bag. The plastic melted against the un-popped hot kernels as I happily scooped the corn into my mouth.

It’s at this celebration that I felt a strong sense of community. One of the most interesting ideas related to community development theory is the concept that the soul is significant in building community capacity. I love this. One way to build community capacity is through rituals because they involve relating, healing and celebrating. Ritual can also provide stability and promote a sense of solidarity and cohesion. I think that creating space for ritual may be an avenue to rebuilding fragile communities.

Ritual is integral to rural life in Tajikistan — from the daily calls to prayer to the wedding celebrations every weekend. Daily rituals, annual celebrations — they create space for the Tajiks to exchange information, build trust and community, and reaffirm their identities.

While peace accords were signed more than a decade ago, there remains a desperate need for the Tajiks to process their experiences and heal. And rituals like this national celebration seem like one step toward healing.