Sunday, September 20, 2009

Classes and cotton

The school year is off to a chaotic start. But I had expected this. The piles of handwritten documents, schedules, grade books and curricula have yet to be completed and everything is at a standstill until they are signed and stamped by the director. The Soviet system of "spravki" (paper documents) for everything from permissions to equipment requests is still very much alive. When I lived in Russia we spent a few months studying "spravki" in all its forms, and how to properly write them. After months of learning about "spravki" I never wanted to see one again, but they are asked for everywhere still in former Soviet countries. The schedule for all 10 grades had to be hand written. There are four groups of each form, so a total of 40 schedules were painstakingly written in cramped letters. With each change, a new schedule was written out. The schedule covered 12 pieces of 8" by 11" white paper. Of course it had the director’s stamp of approval as well. I too have gotten used to handwriting everything for classes because of a lack of a copier. If I don’t have time to individually handwrite all of the exercises or texts, I will write them out on the chalkboard and the students will copy them into their notebooks. My chalkboard doesn’t work very well and I must first wipe where I want to write with a wet cloth and then write. If I try to write on it dry, the words are barely visible. I appreciate the efficiency of technology and the convenience of whiteboards more and more.

It is cotton season now in Turkmenistan. During the Soviet Union, the government basically drained the Aral Sea by diverting the two biggest rivers in the area, the Amu Derya and the Syr Derya, to make Central Asia fertile cotton country. The Syr Derya runs west through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan until it empties into the Aral Sea. The Amu Derya runs north-west from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan and also empties into the Sea. The fields around where I live are still watered by the Amu Derya. From about 1960 the Aral Sea’s water level was drastically reduced because of the diversion of water from the rivers for agricultural irrigation. The Soviet government converted large acreages of untilled land in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into irrigated farmlands. By the 1980s, during the summer months, the two formerly great rivers dried up before even reaching the lake and the Aral Sea began to quickly shrink due to the evaporation of its unreplenished waters. The increased irrigation on the hot, dry regions around the Amu Derya has resulted in evaporation that has left salt deposits that make the soil infertile. Also, surface runoff has transported the salts to the river, increasing the salinity of the Amu Derya. The farms in my region water using a flood technique. They will open up the canals that come off of the Amu Derya and completely flood their fields. When the huge amount of excess water evaporates, there is a white blanket of salt on the surface. The water in the region north of Lebap, Dahoguz is too salty to drink and entire communities are suffering from health problems related to the salinity of the water. The salt is slowly leaching down to northern Lebap and I first noticed the salt left over after irrigation last fall when I was out on my usual running route. I run on the small dirt roads that weave through the fields, and with each step my shoes would break through a thick crust of salt that had formed after a routine flood irrigation. My town has been ripping up the streets to lay pipes for fresh drinking water, but the smaller villages have no such luxury. The Aral Sea is of great concern to environmental scientists, but the leeching of salt into the surface water in Turkmenistan has the potential to cause great health problems and is not being addressed. This entire environmental catastrophe began with the vision of creating a vast area of fertile cotton fields that would supply the Union with cotton enough for everyone. To this day, Turkmenistan is still very proud of their cotton. When the school children learn about the "riches of Turkmenistan," gas, oil and cotton are included. My sixth grade class learns the verb "to pick" before they learn the verb "to study." They learn the word "cotton" before they learn "family." The cotton season began last week and will continue for two months. There are some cotton-picking machines, but the majority is picked by hand, and not by choice. The teachers at my school are required to pick cotton each day after classes. Under the old president, children were allowed to skip school to go pick cotton, but this has since been prohibited. Still, I have seen a drop in student attendance in the last week (and this is even more true in the smaller villages that are still collective farms). At the end of a shift, they must weigh the cotton and fill out a "spravka" that states how much they picked. For each kilo they are given 1,000 manat (7 cents). My counterpart told me that she picks about 17 kilos in a four-hour afternoon shift (17,000 manat =$1.20). For those who don’t have time or don’t want to pick cotton, they pay someone to pick their quota of cotton. As long as the quota is met, it doesn’t matter who is actually out in the fields. No matter who collects the cotton, it is loaded onto huge trucks that take it to the cotton plant on the edge of town. The government owns the cotton. The entire cotton industry is government owned just like the gas and oil industries. Fittingly, it is called "Turkmen Cotton" and the green government trucks all share the same logo showing a cotton boll with white fluffy cotton fiber inside. For now, cotton picking is the priority and all of the fields must be emptied of "ak altyn" (white gold). During the Soviet Union the comrades were required to pick cotton as a collective, to gather it all together and to send it off somewhere. Now, the only difference is that they are paid a few cents for their work, but not much else has changed in the white gold industry.

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