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In the concluding part of our discussion of her new book A Magpie’s Tale, Anna tells us about the family she stayed with for the best part of a year – with sometimes as many as ten people in their small, two-room house – and how dramatic economic and political changes drastically changed the lives of many Kazakh families in Mongolia.

Read more: Author interview (PART 2): ANNA ODLAND PORTISCH on A MAGPIE’S TALE

How long were you with the Kazakh family that had taken you in and what was daily life like for you?

I stayed with the family for long periods during the year I was in Bayan-Ölgii, but I also rented a small flat in the town of Ölgii. The family house in the village had a front room and a bedroom, where everyone slept. I had the front room to myself at night and slept on a bed, which functioned as a sofa during the day. There was a curtain in the doorway separating the two rooms and, in a small house like that, you were always aware of what others were doing. We were usually six in the house and during school holidays the children who were at school or worked in the nearest district town, came home and then we were ten. Once in a while I needed to be alone, to sit and think, to read and write, so I would spend some time in the flat in Ölgii.

When I returned to London, I invited the eldest daughter to come and visit me. We laughed at the situation, because she was slightly horrified at the prospect of having the front room to herself. She felt most comfortable with her family around her. She didn’t like the idea of being alone in a room at night. I had had the opposite experience. I needed more personal space than I realised.

I was lucky to find a small flat in Ölgii that was safe and comfortable. Saying that, I always came down with a terrible cold when I was in Ölgii. I was used to a mostly vegetarian diet at home, and in Ölgii I cooked mainly vegetarian food. In hindsight I don’t think that really was enough to sustain you. I think meat and fat, and tea with fresh milk and butter, help you get through the Mongolian winter. From November until April it was always below minus 20 degrees Celsius. At the coldest time of the year it was down to minus 40 degrees at night.

In the family house, I helped as well as I could with the daily tasks and found things I could do reasonably well, but I wasn’t as efficient as the others. There is quite a skill to hammering coal into smaller lumps, rolling thin sheets of pasta for dinner, or milking the yak on icy mornings. Even the neighbours’ twelve-year-old daughter was much better than me at collecting water from the well outside in winter. On freezing cold afternoons after school, you would see this slight young girl, with her braids still tied for school with pink tulle bows, heaving a long wood pole into the well and hammering away at the ice inside the well, and then hauling slush up in buckets to bring inside to make tea for her family.

I imagine life there being hard. What are the dominant economic and political issues that shape it?

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, previous member and ‘satellite’ states, including those in Central and Inner Asia, entered a severe and enduring macro-economic crisis. Mongolia is said to have been one of the countries that was most dependent on outside assistance (measured as a percentage of GDP). In the early 1990s, trade with the former Soviet Union ceased, subsidies and financial aid fell away, workplaces were privatised and often subsequently closed, inflation soared, and infrastructure, education and healthcare suffered, state salaries were delayed, there were food shortages…

As part of the liberalisation of the Mongolian economy, former collectively- and state-owned assets were privatised. When the collectives were disbanded in the early 1990s, the domestic animals were distributed amongst former members of the collectives. There was no longer any real demand for animal products, and people found themselves, to a large extent, isolated from the market. In a remote region like Bayan-Ölgii, many people were forced into a subsistence livelihood, where they came to rely on domestic animals for food.

Many Kazakh families who had lived in Mongolia for generations, decided to immigrate to the newly independent Kazakhstan. Bayan-Ölgii lost almost half its population in the 1990s. Conditions in Kazakhstan were different, but not always better, and some people eventually decided to return home to Bayan-Ölgii.

When I arrived in 2003, it had been just over a decade since the onset of the economic crisis. I met former engineers, accountants, veterinarians, opera singers, musicians, and many other professionals, who had for the past decade survived by herding domestic animals. It was, if you like, a vastly over-qualified population, in a region with very few job or economic opportunities to make a living. Most people nevertheless tried, as well as they could, to put their children through a further education, to give them opportunities to make a better life for themselves.

Is family at the centre of Kazakh identity?

Yes I’d say family is extremely important to most Kazakhs in Mongolia. It’s a tightly-knit community and family relations define many aspects of life. Adoption across generations and between siblings is also something that ties families closely together. Extended family networks are important socially and economically, and people often help each other. One part of a family living in the countryside may take responsibility for another’s domestic animals, while they in turn may accommodate children attending school in their town. Mutual help and dependence (and of course sometimes the failure of this) is very important in defining people’s lives. There is a strong sense of loyalty, of needing to stand by each other, and the economic crisis of the 1990s and 2000s has directly affected family relations. 

There is also the practical aspect of living in this region. You don’t go off and set up a yurt and herd your sheep on your own! You can’t practically get everything done that is necessary to survive in the countryside as a single person, and even as a couple it is difficult. Families are usually quite big. Older couples mostly live with one of their grown children, usually the youngest son, his wife and their children. In the summer months, young people often stay with relatives in the countryside to help with the work that needs doing.

In terms of starting a family, bride kidnapping still happens in Bayan-Ölgii. In fact, in some parts of Central Asia, for instance in Kyrgyzstan, this practice has had a resurgence since the 1990s. Not all marriages start like this, but if she is not careful, a young woman may be kidnapped for marriage by a young man and his family. Marriage is, in any case, virilocal and often a young wife moves in with her husband’s family and parents-in-law. Sometimes her firstborn child is given in adoption to her parents-in-law. This is an old custom, and it serves to knit the family closely together. It ties the young wife to her family-in-law. A young wife works and lives under the authority of her mother-in-law. There is a social hierarchy within families, where age and gender play important roles, but of course this is a negotiation process rather than a fixed set of rules, and takes as many shapes and forms as there are families, individuals and personal relationships.

Have you returned since your fieldwork? How is the region changing?

I went back to Bayan-Ölgii a few years after my fieldwork, as a daughter in the family was getting married (she was not kidnapped). It was a huge family gathering and a very happy occasion. At the time, mobile phone coverage had vastly improved in the region and everyone was on social media. This sort of communication infrastructure and connectivity can definitely improve how well connected people are, and it could also potentially be useful in terms of calling for assistance if, say, someone had an accident in a remote area. Of course mobile phone coverage doesn’t bring ambulances, good roads or well-stocked hospitals into being. But it could be a step in a positive direction.

I know a number of NGOs and charities have funded projects in Bayan-Ölgii, for instance working to improve access to nurseries and primary schools. There is some tourism in the area, particularly around the eagle hunting festival in autumn, and the beautiful film The Eagle Huntress has been important in creating awareness about the region and the Kazakhs living there.

A Magpie’s Tale is published in our Lifeworlds: Knowledges, Politics, Histories series. Find more about that here:

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