Friday, 1 June 2007

Happy Alcohol-Free Children's Day

Today is International Children's Day, one of the big celebrations on the Mongolian Calendar. It happily coincides with the formal end of school for the summer, although as I have remarked in the case of my own school, all practical teaching ended about a month ago. As with Women's Day and Teacher's Day, the observation of International Children's Day seems to be one of the happier legacies of the country's socialist past. Preparations at Sukhbaatar Square began on Wednesday night - a giant marquee was erected and, in pouring rain, cables bearing what must have been many thousands of balloons were hoisted around the not-inconsiderable length of the square's perimeter. In one corner of the square a display of different styles of ger and teepee (which is traditional amongst the Tsaatan (Reindeer) people of Northern Mongolia) has been assembled. Walking home across the square after a sunny day Thursday, I noted that every single balloon had already burst.

Exactly what celebrations will take place on the Square today I have no idea. All over the city, however, shops and businesses are closed, so that families can spend time together. My local Nomin hypermarket was open, however I found myself a little less inclined to be good natured towards the younger component of humanity on discovering that no alcohol was to be sold today. No alcohol! Putting my own unwilling sacrifice aside, it is, if you'll forgive me, a sobering reflection on the extent of alcoholism that a great number of children in this country, and indeed everywhere else, have to live with. A few weeks ago I saw a twelve year old girl at a shop buying a loaf of bread and a bottle of vodka. I didn't have the impression that the vodka was to be drunk at a bus stop with her friends - not having yet seen any indication of child-alcoholism here as is found in Liverpool and the UK - but rather that she was running an errand for her parents. A lot of the children who beg on the streets here - and their numbers are escalating with the beginning of the tourist season - must surely be runaways and orphans, but one guesses that a significant proportion are begging on behalf of their families, and that some of the money they get will be buying vodka for their parents. I've only actually been approached on maybe three occasions by adults asking for money, whereas pretty much every time I walk down Peace Avenue at least one child will see me and run up calling "Money, money, money."

An article by Madelene Beresford in this week's UB Post quotes official statistics saying that 35% of Mongolia's 5 to 14 year-olds (60,000 children) currently work. There are many cases where owing to sickness or alcoholism, the children are the only people working in a family. A further piece in the same paper tells the story of a woman and her children recently catapulted to fame after being randomly invited to participate in the reality show called "Lets stay overnight at your house." Their plight, which is surely typical of many other women and children in the country, has touched a chord nationally, and fortunately help for the family has poured in. Briefly, the woman had taken her two children and left the husband who had beaten her and indeed brought another woman into the house. Suffering from a damaged liver, quite possibly as a result of her spouse's ill-treatment of her, she struggled on with her life, getting by on 29,000Tugrik a month (approx $26) state benefits, having to spend 20,000T of that to rent a ger.

Anecdotally, I've heard too many stories here of people struggling against the odds after having been abandoned by an alcoholic husband or father. Family ties are strong in Mongolia, surely much stronger than in the West - but it seems that where those ties are broken, people are left acutely in need. I've heard some speculation on the root causes of men abandoning their families - some tending to blame socialism, and a tendency to turn over responsibility to the state, others see it as a problem arising from the selfishness of a consumer-capitalist society. Whatever the causes, hopefully the plight of Tungalag and her two young children will, having brought more attention to this common problem, generate some agreement and will to change the circumstances for the people who are getting left behind.

In other news, I'm still hoping to get away to the countryside this weekend. Unfortunately I can't make my big trip to stay with a nomadic family and milk horses because my boss at the school, quite possibly out of spite, has insisted that I can't have Monday off and must attend a meeting about the next school year (at which I have not been asked to teach) - for which I'll be asked to make recommendations about the syllabus in order for them to be shot-down and or ignored. I wrote a 5,000 word report with such revolutionary recommendations as 1) for teachers not to actively encourage, indeed to actually discourage students from open plagiarism and cheating; 2) for foreign teachers to be supplied with teaching material. I haven't bothered to suggest that a tiny degree of support from management and colleagues wouldn't go amiss, as I didn't want to make my report a mere record of grievances. I have a blog for that.