As the sun set recently over Budiyon, a village in southern Tajikistan's Khatlon region, the soccer field was surrounded by boys and young men enjoying one of the last mild evenings before the onset of winter. Some sat atop a broken water truck that seemed to have sunk into the field where it had ended its days, providing a front-row seat for the spirited five-a-side game that unfolded on the dusty field.
Half the children of Budiyon, it seemed, had come to witness the spectacle.
Not long after, many of them returned to fatherless homes.
The breadwinners had been away for months and sometimes years in Russia, the country that once controlled the Soviet empire of which Tajikistan was a province, and today still takes in Tajik workers en masse with the promise of wages that will help support families left behind in poor, remote places like Budiyon.
Almost one-third of Tajikistan’s GDP is dependent on remittances from Russia, and some Tajik men find new wives there and never return to the women and children to whom they bade farewell.
I came to Budiyon to visit the home of Abdukholik Gadoev, a 67-year-old cotton farmer and imam of the local mosque.
A father of nine children, Gadoev had a narrow, deeply lined face that seemed a moving record of the hardships he’s witnessed -- civil war in the 1990s, so many bad harvests, the recent loss of one of his five sons at age 24 -- and a smile that, to a guest at his home, carried a disarming warmth and exposed a modest awareness of his seniority in a village where his word is usually final.
“This man commands the utmost respect here,” said Azam, a family friend whose two sons were away in Moscow and who each day visited Gadoev’s home following afternoon prayers. Like other Tajik men his age, he spoke fluent but heavily accented Russian.
I had driven from Dushanbe with Gadoev’s 31-year old son Bakhtiyor, a married civil servant working in the Tajik capital with ambitions of a career in journalism. It was a two-hour trip over a 100-kilometer stretch of road flanked by sunburned Chinese workers provided by Chinese construction conglomerates that had won contracts to renovate Tajikistan’s infrastructure -- often doing the work on credit for a Tajik government that, locals say, is not concerned about its capacity to repay loans before the authoritarian rule of President Emomali Rahmon -- now nearing his fourth decade in power -- is over.
Gadoev’s home was full of children running around the garden and playing with what few possessions they had, kept watch by their colorfully clad but camera-shy young mothers -- Gadeov’s daughters and their neighbors.
The house was composed of around eight separate rooms, each of which could be entered from a door coming from the garden. The rooms inside the main part of the house were decorated with bright window shades of various colors, soft fabrics lining the walls, and meticulously embroidered carpets. Only in the living room was there any furniture: two armchairs, a sofa, and a huge plasma-screen television.
Like in most homes in Budiyon, there was no running water -- but television was king. Russian TV shows offered slick entertainment and Moscow’s line on world politics.
In the center of the living room stood a low table surrounded by cushions. It was on those cushions that five of us -- Gadoev, Azam, Bakhtiyor, and Ismail -- sat to dig into a feast of fresh fruit, various Tajik pastries, and a vast bowl of pilaf. Everything that covered the table had been grown locally and prepared by the men’s wives and daughters.
As we ate, they worked in the nearby cotton fields, stooping for hours as they scoured acres of land picking buds that would be sold for profit. An unusually hot summer, even by the standards of Tajikistan’s south, had dried out the cotton this year and brought another poor harvest. Gadoev feared the climate was changing for good.
But his large family had made this village thrive.
Out in the cotton fields, he pointed out his daughter working with other women, whose children ran into the road to pull back cows that had wandered dopily into our path.
He showed me the home of one of his sons, and proudly pulled back a curtain to reveal “the only working shower in Budiyon.” On the same street we stopped by another of Bakhtiyor’s four brothers, who was busy building his house with the help of workers, mixing cement with dirt that would then be poured for his patio. On a small plot of land beside his house, some two dozen women sat on bales of hay with their heads covered in veils as protection from the late afternoon sun. They were shearing broomcorn plants with knives and separating their seeds for later use as animal feed, laughing and joking as they worked.
Everyone seemed to have a role here.
The women worked in the fields and cared for the children, while the fathers were expected to help build the home and provide for those who inhabit it. Almost all the men had completed or planned a stint in Russia, a country where a shopworker’s salary of 20,000 rubles ($310) per month is triple what Bakhtiyor made working for the government in Dushanbe.
Across rural Tajikistan, the sheer multitude of children makes for communities that are filled with laughter and vibrance even in the absence of a parent -- poorly clothed and phoneless, they are energetic, curious, and happy. Outside the house belonging to Ismail’s son, where cleaned broomcorn plants brought from the fields leaned against the walls and the garden bloomed with eggplant, potatoes, carrots, and other foods that sustain the village, two children sat outside in highchairs as their mother cooked on an outdoor stove.
As Ismail lifted one of the infants and kissed him on the cheek, he explained that the boy’s father had been away in Russia for three months. The children were far too young to understand this, or to know why their father had suddenly disappeared. It was unclear when he’d return.
It was hard bidding farewell to Gadoev and his family. He had said several times that he hoped I’d stay the night -- often relying on his son to translate his words as if concerned his own broken Russian would fail to capture their sentiment.
But I had appointments in Dushanbe and promised to come again one day. Gadoev and his two sons assured me I was welcome in their home and should return with my family. I invited them, in turn, to visit England, knowing as I did so that few of them would ever get the chance.
On the bumpy drive back to Dushanbe, interrupted only when a policeman waved our driver down for an impromptu inspection, I wondered about the hospitality I had encountered.
I’ve often felt humbled by people who have treated me like a long-lost friend while expecting nothing in return. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what they might demand when they and I both know we’re unlikely to meet again. I also got the sense that -- despite their lack of possessions and their poverty -- the people of Budiyon were not unhappy.
In the sanitized snapshot of village life that I received, their children brought them joy, as did their work. The laughter and energy never waned.
Back in Dushanbe the next evening, I saw a very different aspect to family relations in Tajikistan.
I was exploring the city with a Western-educated Tajik who works at an international construction company, and we were en route to see the world’s second-tallest flagpole under skies that looked like they’d imminently open up.
As we walked over a zebra crossing near the presidential palace, a white Range Rover appeared on the horizon, speeding in our direction. I had to sprint the last few meters when I realized its driver had no intention of slowing down.
“Why doesn’t he stop?” I asked my companion. “This is a pedestrian crossing.”
“Because he’s someone’s son,” she answered.
As the car rapidly retreated, she pointed to its license plate. Four consecutive ones -- 1111 -- meant the vehicle belonged to a family member of the Tajik railways minister, she explained. Sevens are reserved for the president’s family, and other numbers for other top officials.
The police know better than to stop such cars for violating the law.