G was born in 1967. At 19, she married. Bride-kidnapped by a man she’d grown up with. Not an actual brother, but a boy-man who had had the same babysitter as she (though ‘babysitter’ in this context is more like ‘actual caretaker’ or ‘surrogate parent’). Their biological parents were too busy with work to watch the children, so it fell to an elderly neighbour to communally raise G, her eventual husband and a slew of other village kids. Why he decided he had to get married, why to G, why he couldn’t just ask or wait … these are all mysteries. No one’s ever seen fit to ask G’s husband the why’s.
So G was a university student before the marriage. Even after, she tried to get her degree. But the pregnancies kept interrupting. So she stayed in the village, focused on raising her children. In 1991 – five years into marriage and with 3 children to show for it – the Soviet Union fell apart anyways. Factories shut down, jobs dried up. She and her husband became shepherds and subsistence farmers, trades they knew nothing about. But you learn when you have to.
Years passed, and G had an opportunity for something better. The Swiss came to town, carting with them all the accoutrements of cheese: the presses, the canisters, the rennet, the books, the knowledge. They offered free classes, they gave free supplies. “How to make your own cheese and start a business.” So G went and learned. They offered to take her to Switzerland for a week, to show her working factories and set up a business plan. But the gossip had long since started.
“She spends all her time with that young Swiss man. What are they doing together?”
“Women aren’t supposed to have colleagues. It’s dangerous.”
“She’s out on the street going back and forth to those foreigners. How embarrassing.”
G’s mother-in-law intervened. “No more classes, no more cheesemaking. You’re an embarrassment to the family. How can you disrespect me and my son like this?” The supplies and books were trashed, the trip to Switzerland cancelled. She was banned from cheesemaking. Her husband, drunk and whipped into jealous paranoia by his mother, locked G out of the house for 3 days. That was the end of the business; they tottered along at the poverty line for the next couple of decades, bringing them up to now.
The Swiss long since left their village. The Naryn program had been unsuccessful, it seems, though they still run classes and programs in other parts of Kyrgyzstan.
“Mom would be a member of Parliament now if she’d had the chance,” is what her son says.
“It’s just fate, you see. And now I have my children and I wouldn’t have had them otherwise,” is what she says. “There are still people who hold onto these dark customs, these shady gossipers.”
“Is it different for women in the village now?” I ask.
“Oh the Swiss aren’t there anymore. But the gossipers are.”