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Tajikistan: Nasiba's Wedding Song --> Nasiba Homidova By Firuz Barotov

"How did your daughter become so beautiful,
Like a beautiful flower in spring,
Stand up and see your sweeping daughter,
Who fell in love with the bridegroom."

The singer of this song, Nasiba Homidova, earns a living singing wedding songs and playing the "tablak," a traditional Tajik drum. It is a talent that has saved her from despair.

Nasiba, who is now 18, lost her mother when she was very young. She had little choice but to sit for long hours in the local market as a vendor.

"Sitting at the market all day long was torturous.... One day we sold something and made a bit of money, another day nothing," Nasiba says. "We also had to pay market fees. One day you earn money, another day you lose money. I had a stepsister who shared the burden of selling cloth with me, but I was alone selling fruit."

Child labor is prevalent in Tajikistan and hundreds of young children share Nasiba's experience. According to UNICEF, 18 percent of Tajik children between the ages of five and 14 are working. Many of them are homeless.
"The number of children grows in the summer. They come to the capital from different villages [around Tajikistan] to earn money. Street children live a dangerous life, and the police use force against them."

As a young girl, Nasiba did not go to school. She remembers carrying huge bags of fruit and vegetables to the market every morning and then back again at night. She was also responsible for taking her little brothers and sisters to the market or school. The police, she says, would continually harass her for hanging around the town.

New Beginnings

Working at the market, she never made more than $1 per day. This money was spent on feeding her father, grandfather, grandmother, and siblings.

But Nasiba's fortune changed when she met a representative from Young Generation, a public organization that works to protect and educate children. Young Generation is funded by the U.S.-based International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX).

Tojiddin Jalolov, one of Young Generation's coordinators, says that there are about 2,000 street children in Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe.

"The number of children grows in the summer. They come to the capital from different villages [around Tajikistan] to earn money. Street children live a dangerous life, and the police use force against them," Jalolov says. "These children live the lives of tramps, staying in the markets and streets often up until 11-12 at night, sometimes [they] even spend the night on the pavements."

Nasiba was one of the lucky ones. She joined a Young Generation program that fights illiteracy. Around the same time, she also learnt how to play the tablak. Now she has mastered the instrument she is teaching other street children how to play.

"There are lots of poor street children who would love to learn to play the tablak. There are 15-17 of them who come to me for training. They have already learnt several musical themes in a month," Nasiba says.

Fakhriddin is one of Nasiba's apprentices.

"I worked at the market too and I came here to gain a profession. I want to become a good tablak player, because in the future everyone will know you and you will be respected and famous," Fakhriddin says.

Nasiba plays in the center, but is also invited to parties, particularly for wedding celebrations.

"I have put behind me the days when I could not even find clothes to wear. Now, I have a better life. I go and play at wedding parties many days and a wedding party is a joyful experience," she says. "I eat [well] and wear what I want and I am also given money. I don't need anyone. Before, I earned only 3-4 somoni [$1-1.5] a day at the market, but now I earn over 50-100 soms a day."

Nasiba says she performs at big wedding parties and "choygastak," a small traditional party that is held for young women before the bride leaves her parents' home.

People's attitude has changed towards her since she became a musician.

"Before, people looked at me and said, 'She is just a fruit seller at the market.' But now, they say, 'Good for her, she can earn her living,'" she says.

As much as she loves her work, Nasiba is worried that playing the tablak is roughening her hands.

"When I greet someone and shake hands, I am shy that my hands are like a man's," she says. A little while later her mobile phone rings -- and soon she is off to play at another wedding.

(This story was originally broadcast by RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 29 and 30 April. This story won first place in RFE/RL's June 2005 Division of Broadcasting Innovation Excellence (DoBIE) award for the "best story on youth at a crossroads.")