What would you do for an interview?

Tajikistan, July 22, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Village beehives in the shadow of mountains in Tajikistan's remote Rasht Valley. Photo: Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Graduate student and summer intern Jarrett Basedow holds locally-produced pears. Photo: Amy Spindler/Mercy Corps

Amy promised me pancakes if I wrote a blog entry, and I’ve accepted her terms.

Road conditions in Tajikistan's Rasht Valley are always a constraint. This summer holds great promise with a number of new roads being built, but also great frustration in navigating road closures. I know this has been a huge challenge for Mercy Corps’ food distribution currently in action. Beyond road closures and sometimes confrontational road crews, there are also the usual poor road conditions. I’m continually impressed by the resiliency of our vehicles and the skill and knowledge of our drivers.

Before I get to my description of navigating a different type of roadblock, I should introduce myself. I am a graduate student interning with Mercy Corps this summer, conducting a value chain study. I’m examining how Mercy Corps can implement value-added programming to improve the honey, rose hip and fruit markets — specifically pears and apples. I’ve been interviewing buyers, wholesalers, retailers and producers to see what people are selling and how the system works. It has been fascinating and, although I’ve found myself in the middle of a few swarms of bees, I haven’t gotten stung yet.

Earlier in the week I interviewed a wholesaler, Makhmad, who purchases dried rose hips from several jamoats (districts) in the area. Basically, if you own a truck in this area you are a wholesaler, and you transport goods to the capital of Dushanbe, as well as the northern city of Khojand, Tajikistan's second-largest city. Makhmad was very helpful, explaining his business and his main contact in Khojand to whom he sells all his goods. He also told me that the village of Pingon, in a nearby jamoat, provides him with up to 14 tons of dried rose hips each year. The interview went so smoothly that I was later startled to find out I had such good access to a man villagers call a "phantom."

I wanted to verify price and other information from Makhmad, so on Friday set out for Pingon with Dodarjon, a member of our agricultural team, as well as our driver Iskander and his trusty yet increasingly shock-depleted Lada Niva. Iskander’s taped-up MP3 player has an interesting selection of Tajik pop, Russian covers of Western artists and Enrique Iglesias. I am burning him a CD so that the last one is in rotation less.

We passed through the village of Shulmak, where I was again unable to track down a phantom of my own — another truck owner that my interviews have pointed me towards. However, he was in Dushanbe this first time I stopped by, and now he's in China.

Further down the road we encountered another obstacle – the bridge going to Pingon was washed out. With the options of turning back or finding a footbridge, we decided to eat lunch. The head of the road crew offered us another option – fording a lower part of the river with his bulldozer. I was offered a place inside the cabin, and Dodarjon and Iskander held onto the sides. I held on to a loose watermelon that had been rolling around.

After our alternative crossing, we walked 4 kilometers to Pingon to interview villagers who ascend to the mountains each fall to collect rose hips. I’m conducting the interviews in Tajik, but I’m still glad to have Dodarjon there to take additional notes that I can review later. Household income in Pingon is almost entirely dependent on the collection of rose hips and walnuts in October, brought down on donkeys or on villagers' backs from higher altitudes a few kilometers away.

Most villagers accept informal credit from buyers like Makhmad in the summer, which is based on a low price for the product they hand over in the fall. Other intermediaries appear in the village in November. Wholesalers like Makhmad and buyers in Khojand and beyond remain a mystery to village producers.

While walking back to find a footbridge, a car pulled up. A man who had just returned to the village heard there had been a guest and insisted on giving us a ride to the river. This attitude is wonderfully pervasive throughout the region – guests are celebrated, welcomed and honored.

A few rickety footbridges spanning a fast-flowing river later, it was back to the bumpy ride home and good conversation with Dodarjon about possibilities for increasing and diversifying household incomes in the region. He was clearly amused yet beat from a long and interesting day. When we dropped him off, he still insisted I come to his house for a cup of tea.