Note: This is a post I wrote for the official Kiva Fellows blog, mirrored here. I have given Rahim a pseudonym to protect his privacy. Photos do not picture the locations mentioned in the text.
“Be careful,” called Rahim from somewhere above my head. It was pitch black, and I felt for each stair with the toe of my shoe, slowly working my way up to where Rahim stood. Shards of fallen concrete snapped beneath my boots.
Rahim was standing in front of a door and fiddling with his keys. “Sorry, we have no lightbulbs in the stairwell. It’s difficult to see,” he apologized, just as the lock snapped open with a crack that echoed down the dark stairwell. Without so much as a pause, he swept me inside his apartment and sat me down on a sagging armchair with a stained floral pattern. “Please, make yourself comfortable! I’ll be right back with some tea,” he said, disappearing abruptly.
I took the opportunity to examine my surroundings, and my eyes widened. What on earth had happened here? There had once been wallpaper, but most of it had peeled off in great swaths, leaving behind bare, mottled drywall shaded by hanging paper flaps. The carpet was in only marginally better shape. One wall was entirely taken up by a large patch of water damage, with clumps of plaster dust scattered across the bed below. Unruly piles of clothes stood in every corner – a quick glance around showed that there were no dressers or wardrobes to hold them. A small color TV with only two colors left flickered on the table, all the actors’ faces a sickly orange-green.
Rahim set down his teapot and pulled back the heavy tablecloth that covered the table. “Please!” he said. “Кушайте на здоровье – eat to your health!” Sitting underneath the tablecloth was a platter of meat slices that had been left out in the open in the 80-degree apartment. What else can be done when there’s no refrigerator to be had? Next to it sat bowls of grapes and walnuts, a wheel of Tajik lepeshka bread, and dishes full of three kinds of chocolate candies – an essential part of any Tajik meal. A bowl of kefir was there as well, plainly clotting up and beginning to separate in the heat. The flies had managed to nudge their way underneath the tablecloth; a dozen squatted on the meat slices, and several more rested on the lip of the kefir bowl. Rahim absentmindedly batted them away.
As I picked uneasily at the bowl of grapes – preferring to avoid the warm meat and kefir altogether – Rahim took issue with the pace of my eating and began to send bulging handfuls of walnuts and candies my way. I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Rahim, nobody can eat this many walnuts at once!”
“For the road, then! For the road!” He slipped them into my bag and grinned, exposing his two front teeth, one of which had snapped off near the base. He’d told me before that he knew he badly needed a dentist, but he didn’t have the money for treatment. “Here, come with me, I’ll show you the rest of my home!”
We walked into the kitchen. I could hardly see anything; the only light in the room came from the almost-twilight outside. I realized, with a start, that the lightbulb in the living room was the only one in the entire apartment. All the other sockets stood empty. “I’m sorry it’s so dark,” he said. “I want to buy more lamps, but I don’t have the money.”
Across the room, a gas-powered stove stood in the corner – and directly in front of it, a second stove, only shin-height, with two tiny electric burners that glowed red in the darkness. “We don’t have gas,” he explained. “Nobody does in this building. The landlord doesn’t care. He doesn’t do a thing. Our heater doesn’t work either, can you imagine? The whole winter, we sit here with big jackets and drink tea to survive. Sometimes it goes down to minus 20 in the winter. How can they leave us like this? They leave us here to rot.” He sighed. “Come. I’ll show you the boys’ room.”
He turned and headed out to the apartment’s enclosed balcony. I was briefly confused, until I realized that two beds stood out on the balcony, pressed tightly between the splintered wood panels of the inner and outer walls. The entire balcony had a perceptible downward sag. I noticed that more than a few of the windowpanes in this “bedroom” were broken or missing altogether. “Don’t the boys get cold at night?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” Rahim admitted. “But they have lots of quilts. And I just bought some plastic sheets to put over the windows so they don’t get wet if it rains. I want to fix these windows, but” – he hesitated – “I don’t have the money.” His face fell, as if it had just dawned on him how many times he’d said those words to me.
After a few seconds, he spoke again. “Do you want to see a picture of my family?” I agreed enthusiastically, and he disappeared back into the living room. I lingered next to one of the half-missing windows on the balcony, taking a moment to reflect on the shock I felt.
Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. In terms of per capita purchasing power parity–adjusted GDP (GDP PPP), it is on a level with peers such as Cambodia, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Yet urban poverty in the former Soviet Union does not quite square with Western concepts of what a developing country “should look like.” In places like Africa, like Asia, like the slums on the outskirts of cities all over the developing world, there exist vast communities of people who have never had running water, electricity, or adequate shelter. Many citizens of Tajikistan were given all of these things under the Soviet Union, but time, poverty, a lack of infrastructural investment, and a devastating 1990s civil war stole it all away. Paved roads degenerated into bone-rattling, barely passable fields of potholes. Gas lines ruptured and were never repaired. Water still gushes out of broken aqueducts all over the countryside.
Poverty in Tajikistan can only be understood against the backdrop of this infrastructural decay. It’s far too easy to look at a typical Tajik urban dweller, who might live in a high-rise apartment block with a porcelain toilet and a full kitchen, and conclude that these people “don’t need help” compared to their tin-shanty counterparts in Dhaka or Nairobi. But it’s a little different once you discover that their building no longer has running water above the fifth floor, the toilet hasn’t flushed in years, the gas and electricity have a habit of running out for a month in the dead of winter, and their Soviet-era apartments are little slices of misery inside a crumbling concrete shell.
“Look! Come look!” called Rahim from the living room. I came to look. He proudly showed me a framed picture of himself, his wife, and his two sons, and then began to take me on a comprehensive tour of all his family’s possessions. Rahim and his family owned almost nothing, but he was touchingly proud of every single thing he’d managed to buy. A foot-powered sewing machine that bore a Soviet stamp of craftsmanship from the 1940s. A mostly broken TV. The table on which the TV stood – “I built it myself!” he beamed, out of materials that looked oddly like old railroad ties. A purse for his wife. Books for his children. Each possession they owned was imbued with near-religious significance.
Finally, he drew forth a tin pencil case and held it in his hands for a moment. It was the sort of thing that would cost 99 cents in the United States and less still in the bazaar here. An American cartoon character was incongruously emblazoned across the top. I looked at Rahim, confused. He opened the lid. Inside were two pencils.
“My oldest son goes to school,” he said softly. “These are his pencils. He draws so well. He’s going to be a famous artist when he’s older. He’s going to live in Russia, and his pictures are going to be in museums, and everyone will know his name. He will live so much better than he does now.”
My heart broke.
His sons. The elder named Timur, the younger Alexander, in memory of the grand Mongol and Macedonian conquerors from Tajikistan’s history. A tacit plea from Rahim to his sons: Dream big. Range far and wide. Seize this world and make it yours.
Do not let yourself become trapped in this life.
Rahim left the room to go heat up some more tea. I looked at the walnuts and sweets in my bag and panicked. I can’t accept these gifts. Tajik hospitality be damned, I cannot take the only food this family has. I slipped the walnuts back into their bowl and quickly rearranged the sweets into careful patterns on their respective dishes.
Seconds later, Rahim returned, another steaming pot of tea in his hand. He set it down. “Please, take some more walnuts!” he said, picking them right back out of the bowl and offering them to me again. “We grow them right here in the city, you know. They’re delicious here. It’s a gift from the Tajik soil.” He grinned broadly, his shattered front teeth poking out from his gums like tiny knives.
I reached out and took the walnuts in my hand, troubled.