I have just returned from a richly rewarding trip to Kirgistan to visit the Manas Social Village, which is in the hills outside of Bishkek. The Social Village is a community in which people with disabilities live and work together with a team of co-workers. The trip was part of a project I am conducting for the Friends of Waldorf Education (Freunde der Erziehungskunst Rudolf Steiners e.V) and the German Ministry of Cooperation and Development (BMZ) who have funded over 40 projects around the world over the past 10 years in which the ideas of Waldorf education are practiced in developing countries by various NGOs. This involves a comparative study of three of these projects to look at ways in which their aims and values and those of the Friends are being realized so that new projects can benefit from these experiences. I will write a detailed report on the three projects (in Kirgistan, Lebanon and Vietnam) and analyze how they are helping people with disabilities to live a good life.

First impressions

I arrived at Bishkek airport after a long flight via Moskow, at 5 am. I was picked up by the brother of one of the co-workers at Manas. It was still dark but there was a huge full moon. The trip takes about an hour and a half and as the dawn came up, with the full moon still hanging big and full on the western horizon, I suddenly became aware of the outline of white mountain peaks that were to form the backdrop of my entire stay. It had recently snowed and the mountains were white as far down as I could see. We arrived in time for breakfast- strong chai with heaps of sugar and chunks of bread and thick honey – and left directly for the Saturday animal market in the nearby town. Here the farmers and herders from the surrounding hills were there to sells their wares – horses, sheep, cattle, pigs, ducks, turkey, chickens, ducks and rabbits, as well as vegetables and tools of all kinds and everything you might need for horses.

The faces were fascinating. So many different ethics features from blond and blue eyes, the high cheek bones of the Kyrgyz, to the Chinese looking Dungans; the men in high felt hats, all smiles full of gold teeth. The people here are farmers and herders, who drive their herds of sheep and cattle on horseback out onto the open steppe. As winter sets in the animals are brought back to barns and driven out the next morning.

Mans Social Village in Kirgistan

The history of Manas Social Village

The Manas Social Village was founded in 2006 and is built on a plot of land adjacent to a traditional village on the terraces above a river in a valley leading to the mountains. Starting with single house they have expanded each year adding recently a new house with rooms for 10 villagers (funded by the BMZ), barns, workshops, a traditional bath house and tunnel greenhouse. The villagers’ disabilities include physical and mental challenges ranging from good mobility to extreme lack of mobility and the need for total care. There is a felt workshop making a range of traditional products which are sold at Christmas markets at various Waldorf schools in Germany. Three young German volunteers help in the house and garden and there is a team of co-workers, most of whom come from the neighbouring village, including a farmer and herdsman. The director, Dr. Gulya Takyrbasheva is a medical doctor who went blind some 12 years ago and thus became aware of the situation of disabled people in her country and was moved to pioneer a worthy life for others with disabilities. Together with a Foundation established in Germany to support the project (see their website in German www.sozialdorf.org ), they have built up the community with barely any financial support from the state. The disabled villagers get a small invalidity pension, though this does not cover their real needs. Otherwise the project is dependent on gifts of money and time. The community has expanded to 20 people with disabilities and 8 co-workers, some of whom are part-time.
Villagers working with felt

The care of the disabled in Kirgistan

Most of the disabled adults in the community have come from state children’s homes and have no families or their families for various reasons are not in a position to care for them. Attitudes towards people with disabilities in Kirgistan society, as in many countries, marginalize these people and deny them the opportunity to develop. There is widespread denial and the children are hidden away, abandoned or put from an early age into institutions, in which they are deemed incapable of either learning or working. Until recently no therapy or educational opportunities were offered to disabled people who were simply ‘managed’ by badly paid carers with no specialist training.

When these people leave the children’s homes they are placed in similar institutions for adults, in which no attempt is made to provide them with meaningful occupation. Such institutions keep the inhabitants locked within high walls and institutionalized accommodation that in effect resemble prisons. Western nations had such asylums well into the 20th Century and when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was revealed that many countries kept people in need of care in appalling conditions. In such institutions there is neglect and frequently abuse. In the children’s homes in Kirgistan the children are dressed, fed, cleaned and otherwise contained in small spaces, with some access to a yard with high walls. They are segregated into ‘manageable’ groups depending on their level of disability, age and gender. They do not learn to dress and feed themselves and only have contact with other disabled children and of course the carers. As a result there is very little development, regardless of their original disability (and some children probably get included as abandoned babies who have no natural disability), which simply enhances their dependence and lack of further emotional or cognitive abilities let alone improving their mobility. I visited a children’s home that is undergoing a major internal reform through an enlightened director with the help of some international NGOs. Here some 15 children from around 250 were now being taught to read and write and two qualified physiotherapists from an NGO were working with physically handicapped children. The challenge of turning round such an institution for children and youth with no new funds is daunting and it will take many years for real change to come about. One such change is the good relationship with the Manas Social Village.

Herding cattle

New hope in the Village

The Social Village was set up to take some of these young people once they become 18 so that they don’t have to spend their lives in state institutions, where they will vegetate their lives away. When they first come to Manas they often have very few practical skills, can’t dress, feed and care for themselves properly, have little sense of time or space or what to do with themselves. I witnessed a couple of young people who had been at Manas for one or two weeks. Compared to the regulars they seemed fairly helpless. The other villages who are mobile under the guidance of a housekeeper, workshop leader or the farmer run the household, do the cooking, clean the house, work in the felt workshop and in the garden, milk the cows and two of them work as herders taking the cattle and sheep out to the steppe and bring them back more or less independently. And of course they care for each other and in particular the four who are wheelchair bound, three of whom are physically incapable of feeding or dressing themselves. A few years ago these young people were equally helpless and it has been a long journey of learning. Their language skills, their mobility, their social awareness, their development as people is astonishing. Anyone who thinks that people with disabilities are not capable of learning and developing need only look at the biographies of these young people. That is part of my task to document and explain this development.
Three villagers

A wonderful example of learning through participation in a community of practice

Whilst I was in Kirgistan it became apparent to me that the approach being used by the Manas Social Village is one of learning through participation. This applies to the people with disability and to the young volunteers – invariably former Waldorf students. They arrive and are given time to watch and join in when they feel able. They learn how things work there, what needs to be done, when things happen and so on. Soon they fit into the pattern of life and work. Once they have become participating members of the community they can innovate, introduce new ways of doing things and so things evolve within the community. The whole community takes quality time to reflect on the previous week and look forward to the coming week. Everyone can say how they feel, what they need, what they like and so on. So the tasks are shared and everyone feels seen, heard and accepted. The co-workers meet separately in a collegially way to plan and discuss. Whilst I was there, two people from the Support Foundation from Germany were there and there were joint planning discussions. Also whilst I was there a Japanese business man who runs a large charitable foundation in the health sector visited and committed immediate funds to complete the fence surrounding the property to protect the gardens from the nomadic cattle and sheep who are used to grazing there (an ancient incompatibility between nomads and farmers- though one here that is friendly.

My visit in the village was deeply rewarding- in spite of snow and frost, no running water or flush toilets and frequent interruptions of electricity, mice in my suitcase, sleeping on an ancient sofa (probably the home of the mice, though I didn’t look too closely). I feel grateful for what these people offered me in terms of their openness and – despite language barriers- humour. Next time, I will try to visit in the summer, which I am told is beautiful.

Martyn October 2016