Fieldwork Reflections: Picture of Kyrgyzstan

Posted: September 29, 2017

    Allow me to paint a picture for you. Imagine a place with distant snow-capped mountains; a valley lined on either side with short grass and abundant wildflowers. The valley rises from a beautiful cascading mountain river with perfectly clear fresh water reflecting the crisp sunlight back at you. The river is noisy without being deafening and the many colored rocks that line the bed of the river glimmer as the water flows over them. A village lies on one side of the valley with houses all along the snaking dirt road that climbs about a quarter of the way up on one side of the valley. The houses become less and less dense along the road until they reach a house at the top of a hill off to one side of the valley. Beyond that house is seemingly untouched mountain pastures and wilderness. Following the contour of the valley with the eye, you get a feeling for how beautiful and powerful nature is with the valley narrowing off into the distance to, presumably, a point. Beyond this are hundreds of kilometres of untouched mountains. On the side of the valley opposite the village, across the cascading river, the mountain raises up 500, maybe even 1,000 meters. Small groups of livestock are grazing up and down the mountain side, mostly at lower levels of elevation. Horses gently graze and flick their tails. A group of goats’ white coloring makes them clearly visible against the green grass backdrop. They are over 300 meters above the valley’s base. Then they freeze as two giant golden eagles emerge from over the peak and patrol the skies hunting. They fly in a searching manner, scanning the mountainside for vulnerable prey. The valley is quiet, with the eagles’ regal cries echoing throughout the valley over the steady murmur of the beautiful river. I am no Aldo Leopold, but I hope this picture I have painted has made you imagine a beautiful mountain valley that seems like it is straight from an artist’s easel.

This summer I had the opportunity to travel to rural Southern Kyrgyzstan as part of my assistantship responsibilities. It was an experience that will forever shape me as a person and as a scholar. What I have just described to you is the last village in a beautiful community known as Kichi Bulolu, where the research team and myself preformed data collection with tremendous success. Now imagine that scene I painted; think of looking out across the river, right at eye level, directly across from the houses, there is a donkey . . .  All of this tranquillity is suddenly interrupted as the donkey lets out an emphatic and shrill “HEEEEE HAWWWW, HEEE HAWWW, HEE HAWWW!” over and over again over again in 30 second bursts. That donkey possesses some miraculous comedic timing, it interrupted almost every one of the five interviews I conducted in Kichi Bulolu. I always knew donkeys brayed, but I had no idea of the awesome, moment shattering abilities that they possess.

I spent just under a month in Kyrgyzstan, for what I will forever remember fondly as my first large scale ‘fieldwork’ experience. The only way I can describe the Kyrgyz Republic, at least in the areas where I was, is that the people are kind, they are genuine, and they are resilient. With the help of our in-country partners we recruited a team of teachers who were on summer break to conduct over a thousand surveys. The teachers were a team of highly motivated, hard working, professional, and personable educators who were the ones that made the fieldwork truly successful. I am proud to call them my colleagues and friends. The friendships I made during the fieldwork are ones that I truly cherish and I look forward to fishing with my friend Choplon and climbing with Musa again in the future.

Some of my reflection on the fieldwork is me taking stock of the many development issues facing the country. Kyrgyzstan is a former Soviet Union nation that historically and culturally has always been very focused on livestock. Many Kyrgyz people practice transhumance, meaning they spend their summers moving with livestock and staying in yurts in the pastures, and then stay in a sedentary homestead during the cold winter. It does not seem, to me, that Kyrgyzstan can follow a traditional development “path” because pasture is such a central part of many of the Kyrgyz livelihoods. In these high elevation communities, it is clear that the mountain and horse are more than just a place to live and an economic asset. Kumis, fermented mare’s milk, is the national drink in Kyrgyzstan. It gave me quite a shock when I first tried it, but it grew on me. To me, it showcased the central figure that pasture is to a household’s identity. This drink, that I’m sure many of you are thinking sounds less than appetizing, represents a nutrient rich and preservable (hence highly tradable) product derived from the pasture. This drink represents Kyrgyz cultural heritage and culinary landscape. It’s pervasive consumption also showcases the central role of horses and livestock in everyday Kyrgyz life in this area.

To conclude the fieldwork, we had a big party at our guest house where we ate a cake and gave away mock awards from best dressed to best stories. There were a lot of emotional speeches and sad farewells. Among the speeches, perhaps the most profound deliverance came from the addresses that focused on the duplicitous nature of doing social surveys in the developing world. They talked about the sadness they felt when vulnerable households were struggling and the joy they felt when a household was doing well. This fieldwork comes with a tremendous responsibility to portray and analyse the data comprehensively because these are not just a collection of variables and words in a transcript; these numbers and words represent a story about each individual involved in the study. I hope you were able to take with you from this reflection a little bit of knowledge and appreciation for the Kyrgyz people. I know I will always hold them in the highest regard. I conclude this reflection with a passage taken from my fieldwork journal; the picture I have painted for you is just a sliver of Kyrgyzstan, there are many other places of tremendous natural beauty and many more villages full of loving families and kind-hearted individuals.

"As I stop to reflect on the last three weeks I am more motivated than ever to use my privilege to strive for societal good. I now feel the wind in my sails that came from the well wishes of so many deeply caring individuals in (the) Alay and Gulcha river valleys. The most difficult thing for me to reflect upon is the statement to the interview participants that this will inform policy.

These are proud people that have sometimes difficult lives but (they keep) an emphasis on their traditions and ways of life... I also took the responsibility as an ambassador for my family, university, program, and country very seriously. I hope I did well. I know that I am not bad at this but I hope that I can get better; and fast. The responsibility that lies with me and Dr. (Guangqing) Chi to preform careful and detailed analysis is something that I am prepared for but sort of dreading. These thoughts, and the completion of my reflections and fieldnotes, represents the conclusion of data collection and the transition into analysis."

Christian Kelly Scott is a second-year dual doctorate PhD student studying Rural Sociology and International Agriculture & Development at Pennsylvania State University in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education.