A cause for Kyrgyzstan, 16 years and counting

A life-changing conversation with a leading expert on bride-kidnapping

Last week I had the honor of meeting with Dr. Russell Kleinbach, one of the world’s leading experts on bride-kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic. A professor emeritus of Philadelphia University, this is his tenth trip to Kyrgyzstan since first teaching in Osh as a Fulbright Scholar in 1998.

Born and raised as a Minnesota farm boy, Dr. Kleinbach went to seminary in Kansas City then worked as a civil rights activist, once meeting with senators on Capitol Hill in the mid-1960s.

After returning from his trip to Washington, D.C., he was asked to be a guest on a talk show debating the Vietnam War. Going head to head with staunch proponents, the “green” Dr. Kleinbach quickly found himself in over his head. “They tore me every which way and loose,” he told me, with a quiet chuckle.

For the next six months he read everything he could on the war, educating himself on the history and perspectives of the conflict. This led him and his wife to spend the last two years of the ‘60s living and working in Vietnam. The experience helped shape his deep ideological belief that “the foundation of all conflict in the world is inequality.”

Dr. Kleinbach worked for most of his career as a professor teaching psychology and the humanities. Having had a keen interest in the Soviet Union, he took the opportunity to live and work in Kyrgyzstan, a former soviet republic, a few years into its newly forming history. Here Dr. Kleinbach was first made aware of the phenomenon of bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, a social ill that affected his students and those in his community. Sixteen years later, Dr. Kleinbach continues to work researching and educating Kyrgyz people on the effects of this practice and how it can be stopped.

Bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is an extremely complex issue which runs the spectrum from those who elope to those who are physically taken practically at random off the street. Dr. Kleinbach’s cause works to end what they call “non-consensual bride-kidnapping” or the practice of forcing a woman to marry who doesn’t want to. (More detailed information can be found in this well-written 2013 Eurasianet article. A descriptive account can be found in this NYT article from 2005.)

Reducing bride-kidnapping rates one village at a time

I was initially invited to meet Dr. Kleinbach by my Japanese volunteer friend in our village. Entering the guest house where he and the director of the organization he started, Kyz Korgon, were staying, we found them folding pamphlets and rolling posters for their next round of seminars and door-to-door canvassing in villages in our region.

He started right in with the history of his work in Kyrgyzstan since 1998, the research he’s done, and the methods of education they employ.

Bride-kidnapping is a prevalent practice that, according to his research, has been growing in Kyrgyzstan since the 1950s. It is popularly believed here among Kyrgyz people that this practice has ancient cultural roots, yet Dr. Kleinbach believes it’s a more recent phenomenon. “In a culture without a written history, tradition can develop quite quickly,” he tells me, adding that no where even in oral tradition does the idea of bride-kidnapping appear as a legitimate way of gaining a wife. “It’s not in the Manas,” he says, referring to the world’s longest epic poem and what today many Kyrgyz people consider the foundation of Kyrgyz culture.

This is one of the appeals he makes to people during his organization’s seminars. They focus on a multi-pronged approach to reach people which includes a discussion on how according to the Koran, Muslim Imams are forbidden to bless a marriage that is non-consensual.

“The issue is start the thinking process,” he says. But he’s doing a lot more than that. His work is getting results.

The organization he works with canvasses an entire village, conducting interviews with women and men to determine the statistics on the number of women who have married non-consensually. Then, they meet with students and unmarried youth to show a video of women who have been kidnapped and discuss the devastating effects it has on people’s lives. The sessions end with an appeal for a written and signed “pledge of resistance” form stating that for girls, if kidnapped they will leave and return home, and for boys, that they will promise to only marry someone who will agree to the marriage.

The next year his organization returns to the same village and conducts interviews with those who have been married since they were in that village the previous year. The results are showing nearly a 50 percent drop in the number of non-consensual marriages.

His talk on the organization’s work only slowed when our host brought out the afternoon lunch of rice soup and steamed dumplings.

You’re asking the wrong question

As the conversation moved on to the kind of chatter associated with all meals, I felt this growing urge to ask him a selfish question. Maybe it was his professorial demeanor. Maybe it was his warm heart and open ear from decades of mentoring students. Maybe it was simply a deep gift for relating to people. Whatever it was, I felt that tug that comes whenever you’re in the presence of someone great, that tug to ask for sage words of wisdom gained from a life of living with purpose.

“What am I supposed to be?”

As a 30-year-old, still hopping the world every couple of years without a clear plan, I yearn for that calling. A cause that pulls my feet out of bed every day to stand for something instead of that listless noise that’s made me fall for everything.

“If you had a calling, you’d probably know it by now,” he says, tossing the thought ball back to me. “Don’t worry about the question ‘What am I going to do with my life?’…Focus on a cause you can pursue.”

Indeed Dr. Kleinbach didn’t discover the cause of bride-kidnapping prevention until he was in his late 50s. “Ah, but I already had a full life teaching. This is just sort of the icing on the cake.” He went on to commend the role of the teacher I’ve been playing saying that’s cause enough, an honorable cause.

Always one to make things practical, he followed this immediately by challenging me to pick up the cause of educating people of the dangers of bride-kidnapping and helping people work out a better way. To stake my claim here, in Kyrgyzstan, working with local people to end this practice that wrecks havoc in so many lives.

And there it is: the secret. It’s nothing more—and nothing less—than simply doing something. To start thinking about others and what needs to be done. To not worry about having what it takes or being on the right path because in his words, “the education will take care of itself.” That each and every cause is fought by people who through doing the work are discovering how to better people’s lives.

I’d been asking the wrong question and seeking its answer in the wrong direction. Focus on the self is where the problem lies, not the solution.

A cause to celebrate

“You ever hear about stone soup?” Dr. Kleinbach gave me a whimsical look.

I had—I remembered the story from grade school, where a man with only a stone for dinner invites the village over for soup, but first cleverly asks each person for just a little something to flavor the stone. The story ends with a simmering pot of vegetable stew and dinner for the entire community. I nod.

“I’m the guy with the stone.”

Dr. Kleinbach looks at me with the smile of one wise enough to know it’s not the personal cause alone that changes the world. It’s a focused heart, a willingness to do something and an invitation to draw others in to make a difference.

IMG_6310A student painted poster hanging in my school reads: “The 8th of March! Dear ladies and girls–we congratulate you on your upcoming holiday.” (International Women’s Day)

Tex-Mex food-stands open in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Local entrepreneurs bring Mexican to Kyrgyzstan

Here in Bishkek, it’s said, you could sell the air and make money.

This year however, two young entrepreneurs are making a go of it offering much more than air. Each has opened his own food-stand selling burritos.

Ilias Zhoroev, 26, developed his skills while working the night shift at a McDonald’s restaurant in Chicago, Illinois. After spending all night at the restaurant, Zhoroev and his friends would head to Subway or Chipotle after work for their dinner.

“It’s more healthy [than McDonald’s],” says Zhoroev. He’s leaning back in one of the plastic lawn chairs in front of his shop, aptly named Burrito. McDonald’s was a great experience for him in the service business and has greatly influenced how he runs his food stand and manages his employees.

Upon return to Kyrgyzstan, Zhoroev wanted to open a place like Subway because of its fresh and healthy options. “But some guys [here] did it ahead of us. So we thought, ‘We have Subway. Why not Chipotle?’”

Any visitor familiar with the Subway or Chipotle set-up will immediately recognize the similarity in Zhoroev’s food stand, located on the corner of Sovietskaya (Baitik Baatyr) and Jantosheva. There’s a simple menu offering choice of chicken, beef, steak or veggie. All the regular Tex-Mex toppings are added behind a glass window in front of the customer.


It’s a long haul from Mexico to Kyrgyzstan. Most Kyrgyzstanis aren’t accustomed to spicy food and it’s taking a bit of convincing to capture the local market.

“Most Kyrgyz people, they want meat,” says Zhoroev, chuckling. “They ask, ‘why this rice, and beans?’”

“First of all, it’s the meat,” says Tologon Arykov, 26. Washing his hands, he comes out of the kitchen and takes a seat across the table. Located on the East side of Rahat Shopping Mall, his shop, Amigo, offers indoor seating for about a dozen customers.

“We have fresh vegetables and cheese [and] we use our unique spices.” Arykov holds up two bags of dried peppers he got from an American chef during a culinary diplomacy event at the American Embassy. “Sometimes people ask, ‘Do you have anything other than the burrito?’ So we’re looking at other options like quesadillas or chili soup.”

Playing the entrepreneurial ‘air’ guitar

“I started from nothing—searching the internet,” says Arykov. This is his first business venture and it’s moving along like a bit of an experiment. “You have to have risk,” he adds, saying he expects it to take more than a year until the business is sustainable. “Research a lot. Location is huge. You have to have money and you have to have time for the people to love [the restaurant].”

Zhoroev’s shop, Burrito, has been open about six months longer than Amigo and has already acquired a clientele. “We have regular customers here and it’s important we recognize that,” he says pointing in the directions of the nearby American school and American Embassy.

“Love what you do,” says Zhoroev. His model is to have “a good product for a good price” and not worry about profit. “It’s not about the money. If you have the desire, you can find the money.” In a place where one can sell the air for profit, it’s easy to understand their excitement about the Tex-Mex burrito’s chances here in Bishkek.


IMG_1253“Burrito” located on Sovietskaya (Baitik Baatyr) and Jantosheva

Amigo“Amigo” located on Toktogul and Kalyk Akieva

IMG_1260Tologon Arykov displays chipotle peppers in his shop “Amigo”


I’m in my room laying scotch tape over a flipchart sheet of white paper to try and make a white board for class, while my 15-year-old host brother is in the other room playing Assassin’s Creed on his computer and lamenting the temporary outage of 3G internet. Somewhere there’s a disconnect here…

Should “small” languages be preserved?

Yesterday was National Kyrgyz Language Day and I couldn’t have felt more out of place. I had agreed over the weekend to show up for a recording for a show on foreigners who speak Kyrgyz and instead found myself on live television, sharing the stage with a host and 5 other Kyrgyz gentlemen—fathers of the Kyrgyz Republic.

I was the little kid brother to a 6th grader. A peon to the president. A proletariat to an aristocrat. I was a strange, thirty-year old foreigner in a purple checkered shirt and Adidas tennis shoes among congressmen, professors and those who have written Kyrgyz history with pens dipped in the sweat of their brows and the blood of their struggle. Let’s just say I felt…inadequate.

IMG_1290Public Teleradio Corporation (Коомдук Телерадиоберүү Корпорациясы)

Why I was on this show is beyond me. I was told there would be other foreigners there and that we would be briefed on simple questions like, “Why are you learning Kyrgyz? Is it hard? Do you like puppies? Here’s a piece of candy…” The host’s first question was something along the lines of, “Dear gentleman so-and-so, you were the one in congress who pushed for the recognition of the Kyrgyz language in the Soviet Republic of Kirgizia back in the late 1980s. Could you tell us a little about the history of that historic vote?”

We were told this would go on for an hour and now I was really nervous—how many questions was the host going to ask me? How was I going to understand the question, much less be able to put together a string of coherent thought cogently processed and well reflected given the diverse and nuanced point of views on the usage of the Kyrgyz language in today’s culture and society?

What ended up happening was the host asked me a question, I ignored it and then rattled off every piece of Kyrgyz that was anywhere near the front of my brain to tens of thousands of people tuned in to watch this talking head make a blunder on live, national television.

Basically I just talked about how I studied and learned Kyrgyz and gave some advice, but I also added that I thought both Kyrgyz and Russian are important for people to know. In some places, mainly small villages, students speak almost entirely in Kyrgyz and practice Russian very little. Then when they come up to the capital to attend colleges and universities, they really struggle because they don’t have a strong academic command of the Russian language. In order to function in the top tiers of Kyrgyz academia, business and society in general, you really need to know both.

That was about all I had time to say. I had been worried about the whole hour long thing, but luckily I was on stage with several senior gentlemen who also happened to be very opinionated and so that quickly ate up the time. (The first question above took over ten minutes to answer just by itself since we were receiving a minute-by-minute replay of the vote in congress from the distinguished gentleman on my right.)

IMG_1285I missed the memo on wearing a kalpak

The discussion never really got to anything truly controversial or interesting. Basically they just said Kyrgyz culture and mentality is best preserved through the language. That in order to best understand and preserve a culture, the language must first be preserved. Others added that since this was Kyrgyzstan, populated mainly by ethnically Kyrgyz people, the language should be the main operating language of the land.

I agree with this but thinking about it afterwards, I wish I had asked some questions like, “How do you ensure that everyone learns Kyrgyz, especially when Russian is already the operating language?” The world today is so interconnected that it makes little sense to huddle up with a small language almost no one outside of these borders understands. I’m all for preserving Kyrgyz and yes it is useful for those living here, but we can’t deny that Kyrgyzstan—like any nation in the world—is dependent upon relationships with surrounding countries near and far. If we are going to preserve Kyrgyz, let’s also push for fluency in Russian and English. English is the language of the world—you can go to China and speak English. You can go to Argentina and speak English. It’s a transferrable skill that offers immediate benefits in business, tourism, and education and the sciences, all areas that Kyrgyzstan needs so desperately to improve.

After what seemed like hours, the minute hand on the clock hit one revolution and the “live” light went dark. I was completely soaked on every limb of my body except for my mouth which felt like it had been lined with sandpaper and then filled with sand. I performed the perfunctory handshakes and cell phone pictures, received my little gift folder for being on the show and scooted out into the afternoon air.

IMG_1292Gift package including a Russian-Kyrgyz medical dictionary

I may not have had the time or language to get into a deep discussion at the studio, but maybe we could chat here if you have some thoughts to add? How important is it to preserve languages spoken by very few people? Does it make sense to require all people in a nation to speak one mutual tongue? What direction is Kyrgyzstan going? And what part should the English language play here?

God provides

I’m a cash-strapped Peace Corps Volunteer. A lot of it is due to my monthly salary of around $250. But a lot of it too is on my extravagant spending: a weekend by the lake. A $15 meal and a trip to the capital. Hours of phone calls to the states and in-country friends. A new shirt or hat or bag or a couple beers at the end of the day. The money never seems to fit my budget, or more honestly, my budget never seems to fit the money.

I found myself running especially low this month. But a surprise trip to the capital for medical leave gave me per diem to get through. And then just when I thought maybe my $6 a day wasn’t going to cut it, a reimbursement for underpaid housing payments appeared in my bank account.

A couple days later, Akmoor and I went to see a movie. It was the new historical film about Kurmanjan Datka, a queen of some Kyrgyz tribes around the turn of the 19th century. We were standing in line hoping to get tickets for a later showing so we could first go get something to eat. The line was several people long but what made it longer were the couple of people who cut in to buy tickets ahead of everyone else.

I complained loudly in Kyrgyz—the man who cut in said he needed a ticket for an earlier showing. I told him we were all in a hurry and he should have come earlier. He just laughed. His wife asked where I was from and I said, “I’m from an offended country!” She didn’t think that was funny. When the line moved on and the guy who had been right in front of us bought his tickets, he turned and handed us his change. It was 500 som, or $10, almost 2 days worth of per diem for me living in the city. He mumbled something about me speaking Kyrgyz, handed Akmoor the money, and walked away. It was exceedingly generous and very humbling.

So we got to see the movie and eat dinner for free.

These were awesome reminders of the way God provides. And then suddenly I was flooded with reminders of all the ways he takes care of me: A family back in the states who has helped me come home. A host father who slips me small pieces of wisdom and a host mother who always makes sure there’s food on the table, even when she’s not around. Peace Corps doctors who mediate health treatments and rally to my side. Friends who provide emotional support and reach out with community and humor. Locals so willing to host and cheer on and be resilient in the face of adversity.

These are all blessings that God rains down so abundantly and so generously. In our lives God provides for us. He provides for our joy. And in the end, he provides a place for us with him, forever. And in that place of golden streets and crystal sea, I think my salary for serving in God’s kingdom is going to be enough.