One month in Kyrgyzstan
Pawel Rzemieniecki has recently returned from four weeks volunteering in Kyrgyzstan. He tells us more about his experience overseas.
I recently spent four weeks in Kyrgyzstan and without a shadow of a doubt it was a very rewarding experience! I was based on the south shore of Issyk Kul – the second largest mountain lake (after Titicaca) and the second largest saline lake (after the Caspian Sea). The lake is at about 1,600m above sea level. In fact, more than 90% of the country is at altitudes exceeding 1,500m and, for comparison, Ben Nevis reaches 1,345m.
It is a country of idyllic landscapes, endless mountains and picturesque valleys. It is a country where everyone I met was friendly and happy to talk to me, and where people’s warm hearts and generosity are exemplary, and everyone is full of smiles and laughter.
However, it is also a country where two former Presidents are currently in exile and the previous President has just been arrested. It is also a country where girls can be kidnapped and forced into marriage, a practice technically illegal and yet, not uncommon and traditionally acceptable in some communities.
Following this geographic, sociological and political intro, I will now talk in more detail about the camp and the work of the Jesuits in Kyrgyzstan. There are seven Catholic priests in Kyrgyzstan. When I first heard that I thought that it is a very small number, but then I found out that there are 600 Catholics in the entire country (about 0.01% of the population)! Thus, there is more than one priest for every 100 believers!
One of the major aspects of the missionary and pastoral work is the Children’s Leisure and Rehabilitation Centre by Issyk Kul, which is where I was based. Different groups of children visit for about a week. During my time there, I met five different groups of children: a group of local children from underprivileged backgrounds, a group of Catholic children, a group of disabled children and two groups of children from the other side of the country (who had spent 20 hours on the coach to get there!). As volunteers, we had a wide range of duties: some maintenance and house-related tasks such as painting the fence or wood chopping, some day-to-day tasks at the campsite (cleaning the house, setting up the tables for meals, washing up), but, most importantly, a whole host of activities with the children. I played volleyball, table tennis and badminton, I played some board games, I also played the piano at the talent show and I even had a chance to teach children a couple of the classic English nursery rhymes!
Overall, I had a fantastic time. I wish I spoke fluent Russian or Kyrgyz, that would have made the whole trip even more enjoyable and insightful! If there is one piece of advice that I would like to give to the future volunteers, it is to try to learn a little bit of Russian or Kyrgyz before you go. It is amazing though, how quickly one develops non-verbal communication skills: smiles, hand gestures, pointing at things and even singing!
For me, the highlight of the trip was all the human interaction: working with children of different ages (7-18), working with the local people who were based at the campsite, meeting Kyrgyz people on our numerous day trips, trying to understand the local customs and traditions and embracing the local way of living (including sleeping in a yurt for a week and camping in the mountains for three days).
I shall finish on a Jesuit note: Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ in his teachings on social justice advocated that we should all strive to be ‘men and women for others’. This is of course a life-long journey, but I do feel that the time I spent in Kyrgyzstan helped me to understand what he meant a little bit better and I hope that the fruits of this trip will be long-lasting and will allow me to see the world from a slightly different, more Ignatian perspective.