Volunteers Visit Mongolian Family
Mongolians have lived this way of life for hundreds of years so it's obviously working for them, but disease, illness, and disability from a physically hard existence take a heavy toll on individuals.
Project HOPE volunteer certified nurse-midwife Denise Barnes, an American currently living in Jakarta, Indonesia, writes about a visit that four of the Project HOPE volunteers and a translator all serving on operation Pacific Angel Mongolia made to the home of local herder, Baasanjav N., 57, and his family. Photos by Allison Shelley.
With the help of several of the Mongolian translators, one of our team members arranged for us to visit the home of a family that lived over the hill from our camp. Our camp was about thirty “gers” in rows which were very nice but we knew they were tourist gers. We wanted to see how a real family lived in one and Baasanjav (Mongolians are referred to generally by their first name only) had been stopping by our camp every evening to offer Pac Angel participants rides on his horses.
A “ger” (rhymes with hair) is better known by its Russian name “yurt”. They are round tent-like structures supported by a collapsable wooden lattice that looks like a baby gate and wrapped in an inner layer of sheep’s wool and an outer layer of cotton fabric. We are told they can be set up or taken down by two people in about two hours. Traditional Mongolian herders move four times per year to change pastures and find locations that are optimal for the weather, and the family we visited had just moved to the site near our camp three days before.
A man with a kind face and permanent smile, Baasanjav brought over two horses for our team to ride the three kilometers or so back to their camp. He planned to bring more so everyone could ride but he wasn’t able to find his herd that evening. Most of his forty horses are free ranging and he only brings one or two in at a time. So two of us rode and three of us walked.
Baasanjav is the father of five children, two of whom still live with him along with his wife and three grandchildren on the family compound, essentially two gers surrounded by the infrastructure needed to sustain their animals (goats, sheep, horses, cows and several friendly dogs). This included a simple but curious stand which we were told was the “parking area” for horses consisted of two upright poles suspending a rope to which several horses were tied.
A satellite dish and solar panel were the most obvious items which seemed our of place at a traditional ger. A small black and white tv, dvd player, and a few other small electronic things were the modern additions to their home. The rest probably looked like these kind of homes have looked for 800 years.
The round room was smaller than our camp gers, which was a surprise. Besides the tv, playing a Chinese western dubbed in Mongolian, the first sight that caught everyone’s eye was the sheep meat drying on rope strung from the rafters. The smell wasn’t as bad as the sight suggested, but I was afraid the attention we paid the meat would lead to an offer of a taste. Fortunately it did not. We were however, offered pieces of dried yogurt which I tried. The drink coaster-esque delicacy was sour more than anything else and too hard to actually bite.
They then invited us outside to see the cows milked, after which we were led to where his son-in-law was cooling out their race horse after a training run. Baasanjav told us that the next race was in twenty days and that his five-year-old grandson, being the lightest, would be the rider for the race. Boys age five to ten-years-old are the riders in these 28 km races. It was clear that Baasanjav took great pride in horse racing, and his family has been doing this for hundreds of years.
Back inside the ger Baasanjav poured a bag of small bones onto a blanket and through our translator, Manda, explained that these are the ankle bones of sheep, which are cleaned and used to play games to get the family through the cold winter days. The bone was about the size and shape of a packing peanut, and they showed us how to set it flat or on end to see the differences in the sides. One way it represented a horse, one way a camel, another way a sheep, and the other a goat. They would roll them like dice and see what “animals” came up.
As a parting gift, Baasanjav gave each of us four ankle bones as gifts and we gave the family gifts that we had brought (including a Project HOPE fanny pack!).
Ger life looks reasonable comfortable but hygiene looked like an incredible challenge. Because the family does not have a well, all water has to be carried from a water source some distance from the ger. Frequent hand washing is just not possible.
Mongolians have lived this way of life for hundreds of years so it’s obviously working for them, but disease, illness, and disability from a physically hard existence take a heavy toll on individuals. Mongolia faces great challenges balancing their traditional way of life with public health improvements without tipping the balance in a way that will over stress the culture or the environment.