Category Archives: Kyrgyzstan

Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding by International Organizations and the Government in Kyrgyzstan, by Arzuu Sheranova (Corvinus University of Budapest)

This article has been reprinted with permission from The Central Asia Program; it was originally included in the collection:

https://centralasiaprogram.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/The-Conflict-in-South-Kyrgyzstan-Ten-Years-on-Perspectives-Consequences-Actions.pdf

The author would like to thank Aksana Ismailbekova and Philipp Lottholz for their valuable suggestions and comments on the draft of the article. Translation from Russian to English is made by Philipp Lottholz.  

Peace-Building and International Organizations in Kyrgyzstan

Since 2010, international organizations (IOs) in Kyrgyzstan have been working together with the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic (KR) to achieve sustainable peace and development of the country. International organizations conduct parallel work at the community and national levels, where they help and advise the government in creating a roadmap for the country’s development and raise questions about necessary reforms. In turn, the Kyrgyz government is open to international recommendations and strongly supports cooperation with them. Notwithstanding the efforts of rebuilding infrastructure undertaken by the State Directorate for the Reconstruction and Development of Osh and Jalal-Abad, government measures for peacebuilding and conflict prevention were more technical and institutional in nature, as for example state institutions were organised and reorganised and new concepts were adopted since 2010.

The work directly at the community level after the events of 2010 was mainly carried out as part of projects and grants of international organizations and agencies, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union (EU), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations (UN), which can be divided into three categories. The first category includes projects to alleviate the consequences of the conflict, which worked on the restoration of houses and documents, the allocation of internal refugees, and mediation and reconciliation of the parties. The second category includes projects to reduce tensions and prevent new conflicts, for example, projects focusing on building up capacity of the national and local governments, creating local networks for conflict prevention (early warning systems), training youth groups, women and community elders (Kyrgyz: aksakaldar), and creating networks of non-governmental organizations for effective advocacy and lobbying. Finally, the third category includes projects aiming at sustainable, long-term peace and at developing the country through mini-projects and social business projects implemented by communities (so-called ‘seed grants’), and reforms in public administration, for example, reforms of the police, judiciary and in other sectors.

Despite significant efforts on the part of both IOs and the government, in practice, almost all activities in the communities were carried out in the form of cultural events. Communities have hosted many theatre performances, festivals, competitions, concerts, film screenings, orsport events that have called communities to embrace friendship, tolerance, and diversity. Notwithstanding the fact that these projects were successful in and of themselves, they were also limited, because they were short-termist and unsustainable and theslogans they propagated were quickly misplaced. Therefore, I would like to argue that such cultural events are insufficient to achieve long-term peace and prevent conflicts. The state and international donors need to work on a longer-term solution, in particular on building a “new” civic nation through constructive clarification and promotion at the community level of the collective idea of“Kyrgyz Jarany” (“Kyrgyz citizen”).[i] So far, community-level efforts to explain and promote the idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany” have remained minimal, even though it was adopted in “The Concept for Strengthening the Unity of the People and Interethnic Relations in the Kyrgyz Republic” in 2013 (hereafter referred to as the Concept).

Delegates at the discussion of “Kyrgyz Zharany” at the Government Agency for Local Self-Government and Interethnic Relations in the Kyrgyz Republic 2018, as reported by FOR.kg news.

Some steps of the government to implement this idea do not receive support from communities and local governments, and both the idea and the Concept are perceived as generally seen as top-down measures that were decided without the population participating in their development and understandingtheir values (see Sheranova 2020). The lacking understanding of the importance of the civic idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany” precludes the solution of important socio-economic and political issues by the state, such as lacking economic opportunities and accessto justice, challenges to rule of law, and insufficient minority representation. Working closely with communities to clarify and promote the idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany”, especially from the state’s side, is today’s main priority in ensuring long-term peace,as it helps to shape relationships both among representatives of different ethnic groups and between the communitiesand the government. I will substantiate this argument with the following analysis of the peacebuilding and conflict prevention efforts ofinternational organizations and the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic as well as effects thereof.

What Happened Yesterday, is Forgotten Today: Celebration and Lack of Diversity

In 2010-2011 community-level peacebuilding projects worth 10 million USD were implemented with the support of the UN Peacebuilding Fund. These projects involved young people, women’s networks, and water user associations (Jantzi et al. 2017). In 2013-2016 the UN Peacebuilding Fund allocated another 15.1 million USD to support the second phase of peacebuilding. In the second stage, the UN has already introduced longer-term priorities for peace and development, such as the rule of law, respect for human rights, minority representation in governance, capacity-building of local government to prevent and resolve conflicts and support national cohesion (ibid.).

Furthermore, from 2010 to 2015 the OSCE and the EU provided assistance to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic to improve security in 63 communities, increase public confidence in the police and prevent crime by training 2,500 police officers (OSCE 2015). The EU allocated 5 million Euros to create a mapping of local resources and community needs for the effective distribution of humanitarian assistance (REACH 2014). From 2011 to 2013, the OSCE created local networks for conflict prevention, consisting mainly of women and youth, and trained them in mediation and conflict prevention methods (Winner 2012). In parallel, the OSCE worked with territorial youth councils in the cities of Osh, Jalalabad, Batken and Tokmok to increase tolerance and trust among young people of different ethnic groups and develop their capacities (2011-2016).

USAID ran its “Kyrgyz Republic Transition Initiative” (2010-2013) that supported 450 (mostly infrastructure) projects totaling 20 million USD to mitigate and prevent conflict and facilitate political transition (USAID 2014a). In 2010-2014 USAID also organized school youth theaters to build peace through theatrical performances (USAID 2014b), supported the creation and training of local early warning networks (USAID 2014a), and increased the role of women in peacebuilding by strengthening women’s initiative groups (USAID 2015a). USAID also allocated nearly 13 million US dollarsfor a program to improve public administration in Kyrgyzstan, implemented in 2013-2016. (USAID 2015b).

The author at consultancy work in the Kyrgyz Republic  (photo credit Akmal Mamadaliev).

My personal observations while working as a consultant in international organizations in the Kyrgyz Republic suggest that most of the international projects implemented at the community level were carried out primarily in the form of cultural events, namely, in the form of theatre performances, festivals, competitions, concerts, film screenings or sport events. Cultural events have become endorsed as tools for peacebuilding and conflict prevention on the ground. They were often carried out as part of mini-projects run by participating women and youth groups, such as women’s initiative groups, territorial youth councils and others. Mini-projects were aimed at promoting friendship, diversity and tolerance among local residents. In general, they can be described as successful, because, firstly, they have a large outreach to spread messages about friendship, diversity and tolerance among the audience. Secondly,they represent a joint organizational effort of representatives of various ethnic communities and the local government, during which representatives of ethnic groups get to know each other and develop friendly and trustful relations.

Nevertheless, cultural events are more eventually limited and inefficient. First, they are short-termist and unsustainable measures to achieve sustainable peace and development because they are one-off activities and are usually carried out only within of projects. After projects are completed, they are rarely held regularly by communities, with the exception of celebrations like Nooruz. Secondly, the messages spread by cultural events are quickly forgotten. Ideas of diversity or multiculturalism, tolerance and friendship quickly fade away in everyday life once cultural events and mini-projects are completed. The messages recede into the background of community life when unresolved socio-economic and political issues keep causing social tension. The peacebuilding efforts of international organizations were also assessed as ineffective by a group of researchers led by Nick Megoran (2014). According to them, many organizations duplicated trainings and seminars on mediation and tolerance for elders, women and youth within target communities, because such activities can be easily reported to donors while the root causes of the conflict remained unresolved.

Thirdly, at the community level, ideas about diversity and multiculturalism or tolerance and friendship are perceived more as another reason to participate in projects and use the opportunity to make profit, while not everyone understands and shares the meaning of these terms. For example, the UN Peacebuilding Fund’s program in order to achieve national cohesion mainly focused on promoting ideas of tolerance and cultural diversity and supported the implementation of multi-language education introduced by the government. However, in its report, the program recognized that activities aimed at civic cohesion seemed more interesting for local communities and partners from a business point of view, while they were less aware of importance ofthe roles youth and women had played in building peace and unity in diversity (Jantzi et al. 2017: 30). They noted that the understanding of the importance of diversity and multi-language education among young people, schoolchildren and their parents was high only in multi-ethnic communities (Jantzi et al. 2017: 22). According to the researchers, government officials and UN staff understood multilingualeducation in their own respective ways. The latter understood it in terms of diversity and tolerance, the former as a mechanism of assimilation. Similarly, in another, more in-depth analysis (Sheranova 2020) I have shown how measures to strengthen diversity and tolerance are perceived differently among different actors, including ordinary residents and employees of local government and national institutions. When it comes to multi-language education at the community level, for example, ambiguous understandings and even misunderstandings over the increase of Kyrgyz language education in schools seem to prevail (Sheranova 2020). In the absence of interpretation guidelines by the government, this could have negative consequences, whether international project support is involved or not.

Fourth, cultural events have become practical in the hands of both the IOs and communities because they are easy to pilot, execute and report. For example, in the framework of mini-projects (seeds grants) implemented by communities, festivals and concerts were considered practical because they did not require large expenditures, while the budgets allocated within the framework of the projects were limited and there was no significant support from local government.In turn, IOs also piloted and experimented with innovative cultural methods like ‘forum theatres’ or ‘Drama for conflict transformation’ (IREX n.d.) and participatory video methodology (Davidi 2019), which were adapted from the experience of other countries. However, the coverage and discussion of social problems and issues of concern to the young participants of these projects usually did not lead to more decisive actions by the authorities or did not even receive public attention at all.

Overall, since 2010, international projects in communities have been largely limited to cultural events, which in no way are sustainable and long-term solutions to achieve peace and development of the country. Their messages on tolerance and friendship are only temporarily present in the public sphere and quickly evaporate due to unresolved socio-economic and political issues. For example, although the UN program stated the goal of increasing representation of minorities in government, it recognized in its report that this was a politically sensitive issue and that the program did not affect the actual representation of minorities in the country (Jantzi et al. 2017: 40).

From Celebrations and Slogans to Action: Implementing the Civic Concept “Kyrgyz Jarany”

The peacebuilding and conflict prevention efforts of the government of the Kyrgyz Republic can be generally regarded as technical and institutional (primarily, the development of new programs) and, judging by the events held, as cultural. In 2013, the Kyrgyz government, after consultation with the international community, adopted The Concept on strengthening of the national unity and inter-ethnic relations in the Kyrgyz Republic’.[ii]  The Concept identifies three main areas: (1) state and legal regulation of interethnic relations; (2) the unifying role of the state language and the development of linguistic diversity; (3) the formation of the civic identity “Kyrgyz Jarany”. According to the approved Concept Implementation Plan,[iii] under the first direction, trainings for employees of the State Agency for Local Self-Government and Interethnic Relations (Russian: GAMSUMO) were delivered, 23 public reception centres and a monitoring centre were established and local initiatives to strengthen unity were supported, with a special emphasis on the Assembly People of Kyrgyzstan (ANC). Work within the second direction aimed to facilitate the transition to multi-lingual education, which for the most part included the transformation of schools and kindergartens with instruction in the non-state languages into ones with multi-lingual instruction, that is, instruction in Kyrgyz, Uzbek or other languages. Another emphasis was also put on translating Kyrgyz literature into non-state languages. In the third direction, special events, initiatives and mini-projects aimed at civic integration were supported, alongside cultural events and competitions, as well as research and print publishing in different languages.

Building Tolerance Through Distributing Children’s Books, USAID Kyrgyz Republic

The ANC is engaged not only in issues of strengthening the unity of the people and consolidating the “Kyrgyz Jarany” identity, but also in protecting the interests of ethnic groups. However, in practice, the activities of the ANC do not significantly go beyond cultural events and celebrations, either. For example, in the ANC report for 2016-2017 (ANC 2018) the number of cultural events and celebrations prevails over other aspects. In its report for 2019, GAMSUMO also notes that it mainly held cultural events in conjunction with the ANC. In addition, the website states without further specification that Gamsumo carried out 1,011 preventive measures in 2019 and reviewed 242 reports submitted via the public reception centres or other mechanisms. [iv] An evaluation of the work of the Concept was carried out with support of the Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the OSCE. While the overall assessment was positive, the High Commissioner found that the government’s work on access to justice and minority representation in the country was insufficient (OSCE 2016). Already in 2018, on the part of GAMSUMO, a draft of the new “Concept of general integration of Kyrgyz Jarany in the Kyrgyz Republic for 2019-2023” was developed and discussed, which is currently under consideration by the Office of the President.

As the above analysis of the activities of international organizations and the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic has shown, the main peacebuilding and conflict prevention activities on the community level remained in the framework of cultural events. Despite their achievements, these efforts were limited by their short-termist and unsustainable nature. Furthermore, in the course of project implementation at the community level a lack of understanding of the ideas and goals of the events themselves often became visible; the messages they put forward were often quickly forgotten. Therefore, I would argue that these cultural events are insufficient to achieve effective conflict prevention and a long-lasting peace.

In the current period,the government and international donors need to work on a more long-term solution, in particular on building a “new” civic nation (nation-building). Even though “Kyrgyz Jarany” was adopted in 2013 as part of the Concept, no work has been done in communities to explain measures to implement this civic concept. Due to the lack of public information and interpretation guidelines on the measures to implement the Concept and the idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany”, the implementation steps taken by the Kyrgyz government have not been (and still are not) met with understanding and support from the communities and even from local government. Indeed, the lack of understanding about the importance of the civil idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany” precludes the solution of important socio-economic and political issues by the state, such as the lack of economic opportunities and of access to justice, challenges to the rule of law, and insufficient representation of minorities. Thus, in order to achieve a sustainable peace, it is necessary to build a new nation through the idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany”, which the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic and international organizations need to explain and promote among the population. Unless the nation realizes that all ethnic groups living in Kyrgyzstan are part of a bigger entity and have one common future, the risk of interethnic distrust and tension will remain.

References:

Assambleia Naroda Kyrgyzstan [Assembly of the People of Kyrgyzstan] (2018) Report on the activities of the Assembly of the People of Kyrgyzstan for the period from April 30, 2016 to December 31, accessed May 25, 2020, https://assembly-kg.news/отчёт-о-деятельности-ассамблеи-народ/

Davidi, Charlotte (ed.) (2019) Participatory video in peacebuilding: lessons learnt from occupied Palestinian territories and Kyrgyzstan,accessed 25 May 2020, https://www.gppac.net/files/2019-11/Participatory%20Video%20in%20Peacebuilding-Lessons%20Learnt_0.pdf (Accessed 25 May 2020).

IREX. (no date) Drama for Conflict Transformation Toolkit. Youth Theater for Peace. IREX. accessed May 25, 2020, https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/node/resource/drama-for-conflict-transformation-toolkit.pdf

Jantzi, Terrence, Faria, Fernande and Anara Alymkulova (2017) Evaluation of the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) Project Portfolio In Kyrgyzstan (Evaluation Report), The Konterra Group & United Nations Peacebuilding, accessed 25 May 2020, https://www.un.org/peacebuilding/sites/www.un.org.peacebuilding/files/documents/kyrgyzstan_august_2017_-_evaluation_of_priority_plan.pdf

Megoran, Nick, Satybaldieva, Elmira, Lewis, David and John Heathershaw (2014) Evaluating peacebuilding interventions in southern Kyrgyzstan. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. accessed 25 May 2020, https://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/nick.megoran//pdf/reconciliation%20SIPRI.pdf

OSCE (2015) OSCE concludes Community Security Initiative project in Kyrgyzstanaccessed 25 May 2020, https://www.osce.org/bishkek/209331

REACH (no date) REACH -Informing more effective humanitarian action, accessed 25 May 2020, https://reach1.cern.ch/reach/kgz/kgz_2014/home/

Sheranova, Arzuu (2020) Kyrgyzstan’s ‘uneasy’ diversity after 2010: Community analysis of post-conflict policy, The Journal on Ethnopolitcs and Minority Issues in Europe, 19(1): 58-81.

USAID. (2013) Kyrgyz Republic Transition Initiative. Case Studies, accessed 25 May 2020, https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1861/KRTI%20Case%20Studies%20-%20FINAL.pdf

USAID. (2014a) Kyrgyz Republic Transition Initiative. Final Report, USAID, accessed 15 May 2020, https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1861/KRTI_Final%20Report_2014%2004%20EXCERPTS.pdf

USAID (2014b) Youth Theater for Peace, accessed 25 May 2020, https://www.usaid.gov/kyrgyz-republic/fact-sheets/youth-theater-peace

USAID (2015a) Women’s Peace Banks, accessed 25 May 2020, https://www.usaid.gov/kyrgyz-republic/fact-sheets/womens-peace-banks

USAID (2015b)Good Governance & Public Administration Strengthening Project (GGPAS), Accessed 25 May 2020, https://www.usaid.gov/kyrgyz-republic/fact-sheets/good-governance-public-administration-strengthening-project-ggpas

Winner, Victor (2012) “Messengers of peace prevent conflicts in southern Kyrgyzstan” in The Times of Central Asia, accessed 25 May 2020, https://www.timesca.com/index.php/news/11447-messengers-of-peace-prevent-conflicts-in-southern-kyrgyzstan

Endnotes

[i] “Kyrgyz citizen”, as defined in 2013 in the Concept.

[ii] The Concept (2013), all links accessed 25 May 2020, http://www.president.kg/files/docs/kontseptsiya_ukrepleniya_edinstva_naroda_i_mejetnicheskih_otnosheniy_v_kr.pdf

[iii] Decree of the Kyrgyz Republic dated 30 October 2013 No 430-p on approving Concept Implementation Plan for 2013-2017 for realization of the Concept (2013), http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/210041?cl=ru-ru#p1

[iv] Inter-Ethnic Relations, GAMSUMO (2020), http://www.gamsumo.gov.kg/ru/interethnic

New Publication Announcement: Конфликт на юге Кыргызстана десять лет спустя: Перспективы, последствия, действия, edited by Aksana Ismailbekova and Philipp Lottholz

We are pleased to share this announcement of a new publication from the Central Asia Program (CAP):  Conflict in Southern Kyrgyzstan After 10 Years: Perspectives, Consequences, Actions, edited by Aksana Ismailbekova.  The full text (Russian language) can be downloaded here: https://centralasiaprogram.org/archives/16310

and the English version can be found here: https://centralasiaprogram.org/archives/16380

Aging in the Absence of the Young and in the Presence of the Ancestor Spirits in Kyrgyzstan, by Maria Louw Aarhus University

In this blog post I will present a research project I am currently engaged in and reflect on some of my preliminary findings. The project is part of a larger cross-disciplinary project, “Radical Uncertainty and the Search for a Good (Old) Life”[1], in which artists, philosophers and anthropologists explore how people who are aging under challenging and uncertain life conditions strive to achieve good lives. My own anthropological part of the project takes me to Kyrgyzstan and focuses on Kyrgyz people who grow old in the absence of their close families. One of the themes that has appeared as central is the role of the ancestor spirits in the lives of the elderly.

A bed for Gulbara’s husband

Gulbara[2] points in the direction of the kitchen. She explains that she recently put up a bed there, as this is the place her husband usually lies down to take a rest when he visits her. Previously, he used to lie down on the floor, but she wanted to make things a bit nicer for him.

Gulbara’s home.  Photo credit Maria Louw.

Gulbara’s husband, as it showed up, had died many years ago, as had most of the other people she had cared about during her life. But Gulbara was not alone. The spirits of those who had died would often dwell in her house. They would come to her in her dreams, giving her omens, as ancestor spirits sometimes do, but more often they would just come and be there. Take a nap and leave again. When she was ill, they would encourage her to persevere: “eat well”, “rest well”, they would say. They would drink tea and ask how she was doing. “I live with them,” she said and shrugged her shoulders as if there was not much to say.

Elderliness in the absence of the young

For the last year or so I have engaged in a research project that focuses on elderly Kyrgyz people who grow old in the absence of their close family. Family members may be absent because they have migrated, because they have passed away, or because the elderly have lost contact with them.

Elderly man in At-Bashy, Kyrgyzstan.  Photo credit Maria Louw.

In Kyrgyzstan, a good life as an elder has traditionally and normatively been defined in relation to the extended family as well as the wider local community. As Judith Beyer has convincingly pointed out, being an ‘elder’ requires more than just being of a certain age: As they grow older, people gradually learn to comply with and perform ‘elderliness’ in expected ways, most notably through the performance of high moral integrity and authority: e.g. mediation of conflicts, passing on advise and blessings to family and members of the larger community, passing on knowledge of Islam, and taking decisions in regard to family property (cf. Beyer 2010 and 2013). In my project I explore how the elderly – bereft of the intersubjective relations in which it is traditionally experienced, performed and acknowledged – live and experience elderliness and its moral virtues.

Notions of virtue imply some notions of selfhood as the seat of ethical character and the agentive locus of ethical action (cf. Dyring et al 2018: 11). As Sara Ruddick pointed out in one of her important contributions to feminist philosophy, virtues are commonly represented as characteristics of individuals (whether as states, dispositions, capacities, or traits of character), but are created between people and inseparable from relationships (Ruddick 1999: 51-53): A person – in this case an elderly person – is able to perform high moral integrity and authority, only if she can create the occasions, with others, for doing so; if there are others who willingly listen to her moral advises and gratefully receive her blessings – and who care for her to compensate for what may be her physical frailty.

Gulbara managed by herself. She pointed out that doing her house chores kept her fit. Other elderly people she knew had children and grandchildren who helped them cook, eat, wash and go to the bathroom, and that made them weak. Nevertheless, her body had started failing her. She did not hear well, and she was nearly blind: She laughingly pointed out that none of her husbands (she had been married twice) ever laid a hand on her, but now the walls would beat her when she moved around her little house.

The absence of close family members, then, often means the absence – and the haunting presence – of particular versions of oneself: the person one could have been if they had been there to support it. The person without the bruises that come from bumping into the walls. The person other people would listen to with interest.

The care of the ancestor spirits

What I have found is that the spirits of the past often settle in the homes of the elderly, being uncanny hinges to lives they could have lived and persons they could have been, had their families not been absent. And thus, one of the themes I am currently exploring – and which brings the project in touch with what has been my long-term interest in the intersections of heaven and earth, the ordinary and the transcendent, in Central Asia – is the role of arbak, ancestor spirits, in the lives of the elderly.

Cemetery near At-Bashy, Kyrgyzstan

Among the Kyrgyz, the arbak, ancestor spirits, remain involved in the world of the living, following the lives of their living relatives and often seek to interfere with them (Dubuisson 2017; Louw 2010). There are certain elements that serve as meeting points between the living and the dead. Dreams for example. Candles. Or certain smells. Words read from the Qur’an. But basically, what ancestor spirits demand is to be remembered and cared for. To be included in the worlds of the living.

Care, in the broadest sense of the term, may be seen as the creation or confirmation of the presence of something or someone in a world. Gulbara’s care for the ancestor spirits gave them a presence and a place in her world – and vice-versa: the ancestor spirits and their care for Gulbara gave her a presence in their world. But what kind of world it was, she was not sure of.

Gulbara was prepared to leave this world, feeling more and more unhinged from the lives of the living. All those she had cared about and cared for during her long live had passed away: Her father never returned from World War Two; her mother had died at the age of 37, and her seven younger brothers as well as their spouses had all passed away as well, as had her husband. The only child she ever gave birth to died as an infant. Gulbara had lived alone for 15 years or more. She did not remember it exactly. “When I die I wish they could bury me, but none of them are alive”, she said, and kept returning to the topic when my field assistant and I visited her for the first time in August 2018. Death was approaching, she felt. She believed that the coming winter might be her last. She hoped that her brothers’ children would bury her after her death, without conflicts and disagreements – therefore she had already distributed her belongings among them. But she also feared that nobody would take care of her funeral, as the younger generation did not seem to care much about her: “They don’t come here to drink tea; they never invite me. I don’t know why they never visit me. They do not ask how I am doing.”

The spectral presences in Gulbara’s life added to a sense of being unhinged from the living but also, at the same time, lend a sense of ordinariness to the present that made her hold on to it, patching up a world that was livable. If Gulbara’s care for the ancestor spirits gave them a presence in this world, their care for her, in turn, presented forth a more virtuous version of herself than she was able to live in the company of the living: welcoming visitors to her home and being asked about how she was doing. Being generous and receiving care, as elderly are supposed to. Simple and everyday acts of care and concern that were both ordinary and essential to her sense of self; that is, the self she wanted to be but was unable to live among the living.

Ancestor spirits indeed often serve as hinges to selves that may be invisible to, or forgotten by, others – or selves one wishes to become in the future (cf. also Louw 2010). But their ways are not always that clear, and although they, to Gulbara, seemed to represent ordinary ways of human conduct she felt had been lost among the living, they also brought her questions. She recalled that she recently had a dream in which she saw her father. He came with two other men. They were on horseback, and they took her and rode up a hill. There they left her and went away.

When arbak take a person with them in a dream it is usually taken as a sign that the person will soon join them. Gulbara did not understand why her father left her and did not take her with him. She was prepared to leave this world, but the spirits encouraged her to persevere, and she did not understand why.

But if the ancestor spirits were uncanny, the ways of the living were even stranger: At first, Gulbara had been angry with her relatives for their neglect of her. But she had gradually realized that they just did like everyone did these days. She did not understand why, and she did not bother to learn why: her time in this world had come to an end anyway.

Closing remarks

Focusing on ghosts allows us to gaze into that which has been forgotten, repressed or ignored, in a self, in others, or in a society. Lives that could have been lived; worlds that could have been made (Gordon 2008), or potentials not yet realized. Ghosts may haunt people against their will, creating uncanny atmospheres in places they thought they knew – but they may equally well be what creates a sense of home in a world one feels unhinged with.

Literature quoted

Beyer, Judith (2010) “Authority as Accomplishment: Intergenerational Dynamics in Talas, Northern Kyrgyzstan”, in A. Sengupta and S. Chatterjee (eds): Eurasian Perspectives. In Search of Alternatives. New Delhi: Shipra

Beyer, Judith (2013) “Ordering ideals: accomplishing well-being in a Kyrgyz cooperative of elders”, in Central Asian Survey 32:4, 432-447

Dubuisson, Eva Marie (2017) Living Language in Kazakhstan. The Dialogic Emergence of an Ancestral Worldview. University of Pittsburgh Press

Dyring, Rasmus, Cheryl Mattingly and Maria Louw (2018) “The Question of ‘Moral Engines’: Introducing a Philosophical Anthropological Dialogue”, in Cheryl Mattingly, Rasmus Dyring, Maria Louw and Thomas Schwarz Wentzer: Moral Engines. Exploring the Ethical Drives in Human Life. Berghahn

Gordon, Avery F. (2008 [1997]) Ghostly Matters. Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press

Louw, Maria (2010) “Dreaming up futures. Dream omens and magic in Bishkek”, in History and Anthropology vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 277-292

Ruddick, Sara (1999) ”Virtues and Age”, in Margaret Urban Walker: Mother Time. Women, Aging, and Ethics. Rowman & Littlefield

Notes

[1] https://projects.au.dk/thegoodoldlife/ Fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan is conducted in cooperation with Babushka Adoption.   The broader project runs from 2017 – 2020, and here I draw on recent shorter fieldtrips (in 2018 and 2019) as well as my own previous longer-term research periods from 2007 onwards.

[2] Gulbara is a pseudonym.

The Analyzing Kyrgyz Narratives (AKYN) Research Project by James Plumtree, American University of Central Asia

Versions of the Kyrgyz epos Manas have been collected and studied for over a hundred and sixty years. Reasons for this research have varied. Foreign scholars collected the first variants of stories connected to the legendary hero Manas and his descendents for linguistic purposes in the mid-nineteenth century.[i] As a Tsarist expedition made the first sound recording of a performance, connoisseurship of written variants appeared with an emerging class of Kyrgyz literati.[ii] Nationalistic interests of these local intellectuals, and the Soviet focus on folklore, coincided with the aim to produce a complete narrative. Post second world war political concerns led to the publication of a harmonized epic, with features deemed problematic removed.[iii] Throughout these periods, the extinction of the living oral tradition has frequently been predicted. In post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan (1991-), the resurgence of oral performances has been met with the frequent claim that ‘true manaschis’ (chïnïgï Manaschïlar), performers of the Manas epos capable of the traditional oral improvising, have been replaced by ‘manaschis by the book’ (jattama Manaschïlar­), those who merely memorize a printed version.[iv] Wishing to examine this issue, in Fall 2017 a group of researchers connected to the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, responded to my initiative to collect and study new variants of the Manas epos.

Continue reading The Analyzing Kyrgyz Narratives (AKYN) Research Project by James Plumtree, American University of Central Asia