The United Nations distributed enough food to feed 250,000 people for two months in impoverished Tajikistan last month, but it is the smile in the eyes of a 42-year-old widow on a cold winter’s day in the mountains that puts a face on the statistics ahead of the important New Year’s Day celebration.
Thanks to a UN World Food Programme (WFP) distribution of wheat flour, vegetable oil, dried peas and salt, Rajabgul Rasulova now has something to put on the table for the family for the celebration, giving her a small measure of freedom from penury and desperation.
“Before, my relatives and neighbours gave me food but it wasn’t enough,” she says. “So I took my children to other people’s houses and asked them to feed my children. Sometimes the people pushed me away, but I had to do it, I had to try to get my children fed.”
As the food is taken to her home on a truck rented collectively by other widows and abandoned wives from her village on the western edge of the small Central Asian country, she stays behind at the WFP distribution site to talk about her life.
The memory of the humiliation makes her weep. The gaunt, 42-year-old woman wipes her eyes with a cloth as she tells her story at the WFP food distribution site in Essanboy district – a story of unending struggle and sacrifice.
In Tajikistan, the poorest country in the former Soviet Union, the burden of rural poverty is shouldered mostly by women, who raise the children alone after their husbands disappear into Russia’s remittance labour pool, move away to take a second wife or die.
Ms. Rajabgul’s own husband died in 2008. She had spent more than 20 years taking care of a man who she realized was mentally ill six months after the marriage, arranged by her family, took place. She and the three children – aged 17, 15 and 12 – continue to live in a decaying house built in Soviet times in a village on the border with Uzbekistan.
“I have no land or livestock,” Ms. Rajabgul points out later at her home. “Sometimes I can work for a neighbour and they will give me something to eat.”
The family’s diet is unchanging – tea and bread in the morning; soup made of peas, onions and water for lunch; and tea with what remains of the soup for supper. Ms. Rajabgul buys potatoes and onions in the market because she has no water supply to grow her own vegetables. Fruit is a luxury beyond her means.
She and the other villagers get their drinking water from the river, hauling it half a kilometre in plastic containers. They let the water sit for a day until the mud settles, then use it for drinking or cooking. They also harvest rainwater in containers on the roof of the houses. Rain and the firewood they collect on the high mountain slopes are the only free things in their lives.
And yet, amid the hopelessness, today Ms. Rajabgul felt happy. She has food for the New Year family celebration, she has told her story and shown visitors around her home. Impulsively, she hugs a WFP staff member and kisses her cheek. Her sudden smile lights up her face.