After having lived and studied in one of the world?s most affluent neighbourhoods for nearing two years, I began to suspect my appreciation of normality was becoming somewhat skewed. On my five minute walk to college each morning I took less and less notice of the luxury vehicles speeding past; vehicles which in my hometown would equate financially to an abode of generous dimensions. Returning home after a stint in London, I felt overly aware of the relative poverty in which much of Britain?s population subsists. I remember staring at a single mother on the tube one evening entrench in her offspring. I was enthralled by the social divide between us. Whilst we appeared to share a common nationality, I could not begin to relate to this person, impoverished financially as well as in terms of aspiration and decorum. Added to this was a growing sense of guilt that I was enjoying a comfortable Western lifestyle at the expense of others.
My decision to accept a work placement in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan was largely motivated by a desire to put my life into context. I needed to know if I my feeling of guilt was justified.
Tajikistan being one of the world?s poorest countries, one would expect its nationals to be deprived in the most extreme sense of the term. Indeed this is true on many levels. Fellow expats revelled in recounting numerous horror stories about the Tajik medical services; a large proportion of the rural population relies heavily on food aid for survival; and the strong desire of everyone with whom I spoke to leave the country reflects the poor employment prospects. Furthermore, the sense of deprivation felt by Tajikistan?s youth is exacerbated by MTV?s questionable portrayal of ?Western? society.
Nonetheless, I am now in a position to argue the contrary; there are many levels on which the West is deprived in comparison with Tajikistan.
Whilst crime statistics published by the Tajik government perhaps cannot be relied upon to give an accurate picture of Tajik society, from experience Dushanbe is a manifestly safe city. I felt far safer walking home through the Tajik capital at four in the morning than I do in any British city. The chance of being bitten by a rabid dog far exceeded that of being mugged. This is remarkable in light of Tajikistan?s recent civil war and the profound social contrasts between locals and foreigners.
My work in Tajikistan involved studying community-based projects in rural areas. The projects were undertaken by local people fuelled by their own initiative. The work made me appreciate the extraordinary sense of community which exists in this part of the world. Largely let down by their government, these people were coming together to resolve problems which mattered to them: rebuilding bridges, repairing the local electricity grid and renovating classrooms were typical undertakings. The most overwhelming aspect to their activities was the pleasure and pride they gained through the projects. These were extremely happy people; not having material goods did not mean they were deprived.
In my mind, I toyed with the question of how Western communities would deal with such a desperate situation. I recalled that such a situation had recently befallen New Orleans. Arguably Hurricane Katrina induced the, albeit temporary, collapse of society in which a scourge of lootings and murders only aggravated the dire state of affairs. In the face of its quasi-wealth, the West has much to learn from communities in Tajikistan.
The experience allowed me to understand the pros and cons to living in each society. Notwithstanding they are both deprived in different ways, neither community is denied happiness. I need not feel guilty about enjoying my lifestyle. The West has a lot to learn from its lesser-advanced counterparts.
Tajikistan is one of the five countries which make up Central Asia. Tajikistan was persistently ranked as the poorest republic of the USSR and has suffered greatly since the demise of the superpower in 1991; a civil war in Tajikistan?s first years of independence was followed by a long period of civil unrest. Endemic decay of the country?s infrastructure now hinders development to a large extent. The economic situation has improved in recent years; however, Tajikistan is the world?s 14th poorest country in terms of GDP per capita. Tajikistan is home to a population of 7.3 million. 93% of the country?s land area is mountainous.
Anyone in years 2-4 can apply. The closing date for summer 2007 registration is 11th December 2006. See www.iaeste.org.uk for details.