Eric and Tanya have been living in Bishkek, the capitol of this far-away nation of 4,685,230 people since January 2001, on an 18-month assignment with the Habitat Kyrgyzstan
Foundation. The foundation is a non-profit Christian organization with a goal to build simple and affordable housing for people in need. However, a member or a friend of the family for whom a house is being built must work up to 70 hours a week on the house. In U.S. dollars, such a house costs between $4,000 and $6,000.
Kyrgyzstan, a former member state of the Soviet Union, gained its independence in 1991. It borders on China and lies about 200 miles north of Afghanistan.
Clete and Diane, who work as a shift maintenance supervisor and a shift personnel coordinator respectively at Tyson Foods in New Holland, first considered making this half-way-around-the-world journey last year, but the tragic events of September 11 gave them second thoughts. With assurances from Eric that they would be safe in Kyrgyzstan, Clete and Diane along with Clete's brother Clair and his wife Betsy of Lebanon, left home for the Far East April 19. From Philadelphia they took an eight-hour flight to London where they made a connection for a five-hour flight to Baku, Azerbaijan. After another plane change in Baku, they boarded a flight for Kyrgyzstan where they landed three hours later in Bishkek.
Prior to their departure, Clair and Betsy had done some research to make sure everybody had the correct inoculations before taking off. Clair confirmed that drinking water in Bishkek
would be safe but, outside the city where contaminated water is prevalent, they would need to drink bottled water.
In testament to their careful preparation, Diane reported that none of the Weavers got sick on the trip.
Upon their arrival in Bishkek, Clete noticed a military presence. "United Nations soldiers are present at the airport," he said, which, he admitted, was a bit unsettling.
The four Weavers then headed to Eric and Tanya's apartment.
They live in a nine-story apartment building in Bishkek, one of many built by the Soviets when they controlled Kyrgyzstan. "They have a small living room, a small kitchen with a sink, stove, and refrigerator and two bedrooms," said Diane of the couple's living accommodations.
According to Clete, "All these buildings are almost identical. The communists attempted to herd the nomadic shepherds out of the country and into the cities so they could control the population better."
Most of the population speaks Russian, although people in villages and outlying districts speak Krygyz. Tanya and Eric speak fluent Russian, which with Kyrgyz, are the country's two official languages. Seventy-five percent of the population is Muslin, 20 percent Russian Orthodox, and five percent classified as other.
Tanya is in charge of fundraising while Eric serves as a construction coordinator for the Habitat. Eric has been involved in missionary work most of his adult life. In fact, Eric and Tanya met while they were on a Habitat assignment in Romania in the fall of 1999. They were married in January 2001, then spent seven weeks in Chicago where they learned Russian. Next stop was Bishkek and Habitat Kyrgyzstan.
The Habitat was founded in 1999. Approximately 50 houses are being built by the Habitat on the site of a former apple orchard which was donated by the local government.
According to Eric, the construction of the houses is funded by donations from individuals and organizations. "Families are selected on their need and their ability to pay back the loan used to build the house," he explained.
He said that the medium incomes of those working on the homes are about $400 a year in Kyrgyzstan funds.
"They do not have good tools to work with," said Clete, who was all set to pitch in and help Eric. But, due to a lot of rain while the Weavers were there, Clete could put in only one day "on the job."
"The wood we worked with was freshly cut poplar, oozing sap," he continued. He added that the ladder from which he worked on one of the houses was of the handmade variety.
"You did the best you could with what was available," said Diane. "One difficulty is ordering ready-made doors and windows. They finally arrive weeks they are ordered, often being the wrong size."
In view of this situation, Diane explained that attempts are being made to make doors and windows at the construction site. However, funds would be needed to build a wood shop and to arrange for a carpenter to train people to run the shop. Clete met Bekter and Ryskul Usunbaeve who live in a home built by the Habitat. "Bekter is a dentist," said Clete, "but he makes more money in construction. Ryskul is a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, but her wages are very low because her training was paid for by the state."
During their stay in Kyrgyzstan, the Weavers were guests of honor at a "toi" or feast held at the home of Mirat, an associate of Eric and Tanya at the Habitat office.
About 15 friends and relatives were inattedance for an interesting evening.
For the toi, a sheep is slaughtered and roasted. It is customary for a guest of honor, Clair in this case, to carve the head of the sheep, eat one eye, and give the other eye to another person. One of the sheep's ears was given to Mirat's oldest son so he would listen to his father. Betsy, Clair's wife, received the other ear so she would listen to her husband.
The Kyrgyzstan government classifies sheep along with goats and cattle as among the country's leading agricultural products. It comes as no surprise that a great deal of lamb is consumed. Clete and Diane reported that large varieties of fruits and jellied, tea, and vodka are served at meals, some of which last for three hours.
Clete recalled that horse intestines and blood sausage were also part of the menu. "The blood sausage is made from rice and sheep's blood," he said. Diane added that she had eaten some horse intestine, and did not get sick.
"The Kyrgyz people eat chicken legs packed in the United States," said Tanya. "They call them 'Bush legs' because they were introduced by President George Bush, Sr."
Clete found a box with the Tyson logo at a bazaar. He bought three chicken legs for 33 cents.
On their visits to bazaars, Clete said many vendors sell produce which is often home-grown, and there is an abundance of dried fruit for sale as well. "The bazaars are about five times as large as Ephrata's Green Dragon," he commented.
He pointed out that farmers do not own their own machinery. "They have to lease it or borrow it from the village co-op," he said. "Most of the machinery is Russian-made, old and inefficient."
On the homefront, the Weavers noticed that children do not eat meals with the adults. Parents also do not show much affection toward their children. "I did not like the way parents often ignored children," said Diane.
A few people have television sets in Kyrgyzstan, she continued. Most broadcasts are aired in Russian, but "in the apartments they get Fox News programs."
"The roads are worn and full of pot holes," she said, "and nobody fixes them. People drive as they wish and do not obey stop signs or lights. Many people travel on bikes, on horseback or on donkeys in the country."
She said that most of the cars are old model Volkswagens or Mitsubishis.
In the Kyrgyz villages, plumbing is primitive at best. "There are no toilets or indoor plumbing," said Clete. "There is an outhouse with a hole in the floor. People bathe with a wet cloth. A family may have one toothbrush which is shared."
Overall Diane and Clete were amazed at how friendly the people of Kyrgyzstan were in spite of their poverty. While the Weavers said they would do another visit to this beautiful but desolate country, Clete said, "In a way, I was glad to be home."