Our* collaborative photo essay aims to depict the cultural and traditional legacy of Kyrgyz people, incorporating a life history method and a documentary photography technique. It portrays a Kyrgyz traditional family from Baktuu Dolonotuu village in the Issyk-Kul region. They are hereditary shepherds, cattle breeders and butchers, who wish to perpetuate their traditions and livelihoods and pass them through the generations.
“God bless кыргызское мясо!” (God bless Kyrgyz meat!)
Facebook meme, widespread among young Kyrgyz.
The collapse of the USSR resulted in economic chaos in Kyrgyzstan. Most of the Issky-Kul region’s factories were closed and many people found themselves without jobs. The Altymyshev family was forced to make a difficult choice. Karypbai Altymyshev had trained as a commodities administrator and his wife was an accountant in a factory. Nevertheless, the end of communism forced them to revert to the nomadic lifestyle of their Kyrgyz ancestors. They had the knowledge of how to work with livestock from their parents, who were hereditary shepherds, cattle breeders and butchers.
Karypbai remembers returning to an agricultural way of life: “I understood from the very beginning that working with cattle breeding was my destiny. We pass the knowledge from generation to generation. I remember when my grandfather and father always brought me and my brothers to our pastures to take over their skills. We lived in the mountains, ride on horseback and grazed the herds. Literally, sheep, horses, goats and cows became my friends. I always knew what they need. I got my education only because it seemed prestigious during the Soviet times, now there is high unemployment and my specialization is not necessary.” Karypbai, and his wife, Chinara live in Baktuu Dolonotuu village in the Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan. They breed sheep, cows, goats and horses, slaughter their stock themselves and sell the meat in the bazaar in the town of Bosteri, which is a summer tourist center.
They have five children, four daughters and one son. Three of them live with their parents and help them. The Altymyshev’s are typical of traditional Kyrgyz families, with a fierce sense of loyalty and semi-nomadic life style based on a distribution of labor dictated by Kyrgyz cultural values. “We work together; my husband’s brothers live high up in the mountains grazing our herds. My husband is a great butcher. He knows everything about his business. I am responsible for household, trade and family budget. All our income is shared fairly”, says Chinara.
Chinara farms fruits, berries and flowers in her garden. At the bazaar she sells huge assortment of meat: sirloin, brisket, ribs, hipbones, chucks, shanks, heads and hooves that her husband prepares beforehand. Karypbai believes that keeping his children in the family business will help them avoid the employment problems that are affecting Kyrgyzstan. “Not everyone will have high positions of prosecutors, businessmen and diplomats. Somebody has to do cattle breeding and feed people”, says Karypbai. Their family business supplies other towns and villages with meat. They look after his 20 horses, 30 cows, 50 goats and 250 sheep. “We are not vulnerable like most of the people in Issyk-Kul region. Our business does not depend on the tourist season; it goes on all year around and people buy our meat, because there is no such thing as a vegetarian Kyrgyz”, laughs Karypbai.
“I am so happy to have a son who will take over from me. I believe that he will be the next generation of livestock keeper and butcher. I have four daughters, two of them are married, and the other two are studying for jobs in the banking sector.
I let them be independent, make their own choices, but if things go bad for them, they can always come back to family business, come back to family business”, says Karypbai.
Karypbai’s son already works in the bazaar with his mother. He is 13 years old and moves happily between pools of blood and animal carcasses hanging from hooks. He already knows how to tell when beef, mutton and horse meat are fresh and how to divide up sheep and cow carcasses. He even has his own axe and a selection of knives. Karypbai regularly takes his son to the slaughterhouse, where he practices chopping and cutting on his father’s instructions. “I will take over from my father and develop our family business,” affirms his son. As the day draws to an end, the Altymyshev family gathers together on the wide veranda of their home to share news, gossip and plenty of cooked meats.
Like an increasing number of the new generation of traditionally structured Kyrgyz families, the Altymyshevs rely on meat for food and for their livelihood. For the foreseeable future at least, the Kyrgyz people will not stop eating meat.
*Coauthored by Vassiliy Lakhonin and Guljamal Pirenova. Guljamal Pirenova has a Bachelor of Arts in European Studies, from American University of Central Asia, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Authors’ note: With our immense gratitude to the Altymyshev family members and our trainers from the “Youth in XXI Century: Debating and Producing Media workshop” (Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, 2012): Vanitha Nadaraj, Malasian reporter, correspondent, editor and teacher; Sebastian Meyer, a freelance photojournalist and editor at Metrography, the first Iraqi photo agency; Dmitry Kiyan, an art historian, translator, teacher and editor of the Russian photographic online publication Photographer.ru. Editor’s note: This photo essay was originally prepared as part of the “Youth in XXI Century: Debating and Producing Media workshop” supported by the Open Society Foundation (OSF) Youth Initiative Program. We are grateful to the OSF for publication permission. The authors were inspired to follow the life history research method after their involvement in the multidisciplinary, transnational academic project, “Livelihoods Strategies of Private Households in Central Asia” based at the University of Magdeburg, Germany (also see http://www.uni-magdeburg.de/fgse/node/177).