(This is probably going to blow their cover but) my neighbor sells drugs. They have a sign and everything; “Drugstore,” in Russian graces their front gate. Business must be good because they recently upgraded their sign from a pencil-on-cardboard to the standard placard-sized plastic model for higher visibility and prestige. As if anyone in town needed a sign to know where to find them. With fewer than 300 houses, not only does everyone have each house memorized, but will have looked through the windows of half of them in their morning jaunt down to the water pump and can tell you who had raspberry jam for breakfast and who had apricot.
Their house is not mainly a drugstore. It’s mainly a house. They sell pharmaceuticals for the extra needed inflow of cash. Almost everyone in town runs some kind of business it seems. With an official unemployment rate around 90%, people need to turn to entrepreneurial enterprise to make ends meet.
Not that 90% unemployment means everyone is doing poorly. Those figures only count those with government paid positions in the village—teachers, city hall workers, and a few people at the clinic. The owners of the largest store in town don’t count as being employed, even though they have a two story house and own multiple vehicles. Many of those with private businesses are actually doing much better.
Business is booming
“What do you think her monthly profits are, Nazgul?” My counterpart and I are leaving school and I stop by the little hut to buy a pack of cookies. There’s a lady who runs a tiny little shack outside the school, barely big enough for her and one customer. She sells piroshkis (fried bread with potatoes), snacks and a few school supplies. “I’m not sure but I know she makes more than me,” says Nazgul, biting into a Kontik Milk. “If all she sold was 150 piroshkis a day, she’d make more than me. And I have an education.”
I ask Nazgul about her AVON business. Once in awhile she gives me a small bottle of cream or cologne as a gift and I wonder if she’s making any money. “I mostly sell for the free gifts I get as a rep,” she tells me, “but I’m not losing money.”
But with a teacher’s salary of around $100 a month, selling AVON products isn’t just a hobby, it is a way of helping Nazgul and her family provide for daily necessities. Government salaries are only paid once a month and cash is needed throughout to buy foodstuffs and household goods. “If we didn’t have animals I suppose I’d be in the city,” says Nazgul, brushing her hands of chocolate crumbs.
Almost every household here raises farm animals and these are the true source of financial survival in the village. One of my business volunteer friends here calculated out profits for raising sheep and while he found it wasn’t a hugely profitable business it did provide two important things: food, and a buffer against inflation. A sheep can always be sold at market price.
The families with fewer farm animals are struggling. “When you have animals you have food and money,” my neighbor told me one day over the fence. He’s pitching hay. “No animals—no food and no money.” My good friend Maksat is one such family. His father passed away a couple years ago and through the various obligatory cultural ceremonies, hosting of guests and new financial burdens, he and his mother had to slaughter or sell off most of their animals. He has a job as a math teacher at the school, but the combination of his government salary plus his mother’s government pension is barely meeting the cost of living. He’s thinking about taking off for Turkey so he can find a job and send money home.
Since many Kyrgyz people who go abroad do so without visa’s or documentation, it is difficult to say exactly how many are abroad. Some conservative estimates put it at 20-25% of the population. This speaks volumes about the current economic situation here. When a quarter of the population has simply up and left, it sends the message that people are not able to live the kind of life they want here. Or at least they don’t believe they can.
Maksat is an incredibly intelligent and sharp man. His work ethic is inspiring and personally motivating. But Kyrgyzstan is about to lose him and his acumen to a foreign market. I often wonder about the kids and young people we train and teach as Peace Corps Volunteers here. How much are we contributing to the so called brain-drain in Kyrgyzstan? Are we simply providing them with the way to get out? While I would like for those with the knowledge and work ethic to make Kyrgyzstan a better nation to stay, I can’t blame them for doing what’s immediately best for their own families. Often that means taking their skills to further shores that will reward them for their work.
I drop my bag in the trunk of the taxi and head off to find a pit toilet while our driver is waiting for one more person to fill the cab. I pass by the group of men hawking DVDs on the side of the road. A sign displays a new price, 25 som, or about 50 cents for a burned disc of dubbed American and European films. It’s 5 som lower than last time I was here; it’s a competitive market. Those who don’t want to leave Kyrgyzstan, or those who aren’t able, still find ways to make a little cash. Here among the entrepreneurial stalls of a small village, hope floats above the dust of gypsy taxis and cows returning home. Somehow, people survive.