three days last week I spent with Tu Ye, one of the loan officers at the CZWSDA branch in
Youqi, were spent
travelling between some local villages in order to attend centre meetings. Much
like the urban centre meeting we attended on my first day Youqi, rural centre
meetings are a chance to the loan officer to catch up with her customers as
well as for the customers to make their repayments, then once the repayments
have been made there is either a short training session, or group activity. On
one occasion I had the honor of listening as one group sung a series of
Mongolian folk songs. Lead by the head of the group they sang haunting melodies
which, although it might sound a little contrived, seemed somehow to echo with
the emptiness outside, the melody sounding so forlorn and encompassing that I
was completely stunned into a silence. The rural borrowers are genuinely
remarkable people, so warm and welcoming yet at the same time hard, like
weather beaten stone.
Three ladies from the of Qiqiga, including Ruqumuge, our host there, in the middle
In the winter the temperature can easily drop below -25C, yet the villagers who live out on the plains will get up every morning religiously at 4am in order to start their days work, working solidly through until 9 or 10pm when they are finally able to go to bed. As I mentioned before, when I rather naively asked one village head what there was to do during the weekends, she laughed telling me that weekends were only for people who lived in the city. Whole villages are often dedicated to the one form of agriculture. Villages that raise crops during the winter, will all but shut down in the winter, concentrating only on keeping sheep or swine, the subzero temperatures making any sort of life or work out on the planes all but impossible. The village I came back from today, Masatala, makes nearly all of its living through dairy farming, each family keeping between 5 and 10 heads of cattle. Every morning the whole village will rise at 4am sharp to bring their cattle in for milking, the cows are then milked again in the mid-afternoon. Each milking session takes a couple of hours, which the villagers take in shifts. At 3.30pm precisely the entire group who’s meeting I was attending left to go and do precisely that. It is a relentless life seven days a week and 365 days a year, but it does have its benefits. The regular income that the dairy cows provide is far more reliable and stable then that provided by other forms of farming. When added to that the leverage that a microloan affords, enabling the borrower to add another calf to the herd or buy more animal feed for the winter, they are able to have a relatively comfortable life, selling more and being able to buy more of what they want or need in return
The leader of a borrowing group in Masatala outside her home. The corn behind her is used to supplement the feed for their cattle during the winter.
Each village meeting I’ve visited has had its own distinctive character, some friendly and inquisitive, some more retiring and shy, whilst some groups have barely paid any attention to me at all, instead busy nattering and joking away barley acknowledging my presence, not that I would have wanted them act any differently. The inner Mongolian women who live here all speak Mongolian as their first language, a beautiful sounding language far softer and more melodic then it’s distant cousin Chinese, I’ve been told that it’s the ancestor and precursor of modern Japanese. They take pride in their Mongolian heritage, claiming to be straight talkers, not being afraid to say what they mean, and I know that they mean it. The village leaders are always strong confident women who clearly aren’t in the habit of taking any crap from anyone. Even in the more retiring villages the strength that these women have is easy to see, a strength that is earned only through a life of hard work and labor. Even after having spent only a very short time visiting these villages, I already feel great deal of respect for the people living here.
The Village of Masatala, named after the mountain you can see in the back of the photo
Most villages are each comprised of a dozen or so simple houses. Three of the four meetings I have attended have been held in the group leaders’ home, the other, in a village called Dushi, was held in a small village meeting hall. The homes were made up of three or four undecorated and sparsely furnished rooms. The main room is usually taken up by a large raised hard surface, under which hot coals are placed keeping it warm during the winter. Often this provides the only form of heating in the house, and in many rural homes acts as the bed where the whole family sleeps together. I often meet older borrowers who’ve children have chosen to leave the village in favor of a job in one of the nearby towns. This creates an added degree of pressure for their parents who remain behind to cope with the additional work. One lady I met, a lovely kind woman called Renqumuge, her children had both moved to Daban, a nearby town, to marry or for work. She grew crops in the summer and raised animals during the winter. Life was harder as it was just her husband and herself left to do the work, I think that they must both have been approaching their 60s. She told me that microcredit had given her just that little bit more freedom, where she is no longer living hand to mouth and can afford to plan and to sell what extra she can now produce. As I was leaving her village we were stood looking out toward the mountains across the snow covered grasslands in front of her house, I asked her if she would ever want give up this life and follow her daughters to the city. She replied saying nothing, only gently shaking her head and smiling out into the distance.