An extract from award-winning novelist Marion Molteno’s new book, Journeys Without A Map: A Writer’s Life, published last month. From the mountains of Tajikistan to remote parts of Africa, she traces the roots of the fictional worlds she has created in her novels.
I am in Qurgon Teppe, a small town in the south of Tajikistan, near the Afghan border. It is a land of awesome mountains and sudden fertile valleys, harsh deserts and ancient cultures. It is the late 1990s and Tajikistan has just been through a devastating civil war. For 70 years this was part of the Soviet Union, whose institutions dominated all aspects of life. Then that suddenly imploded, war broke out, the economy collapsed.
The Tajiks I am working with reflect in themselves the complex history of this society. Their grandparents lived through traumatic changes — mass deportations, famine, Stalin’s worst excesses, the tragedies of war. Many of their parents came from the mountains, forcibly relocated here to provide labour on the cotton-growing collectives, deserts turned productive by Soviet irrigation schemes, under constant pressure to fulfil production targets set in Moscow. The women my age and younger grew up through an education system that gave them opportunities they would previously never have had. Until things fell apart they worked as teachers, youth workers, administrators. With the sudden end of the Soviet Union people who had long been critical hoped for democratic reforms, but when the new state of Tajikistan held its first independent elections, the same ex-Soviet rulers were returned to power through rigged elections. Mass protests filled the centre of the capital, Dushanbe. The panicky government armed its supporters and played on regional loyalties. When state structures crumble and violence is at your door, people retreat into clan and family, and attack out of fear of being attacked. Hundreds of thousands fled, into the mountains, across ice-bound rivers, to exile or death.
Being here confronts me with aspects of human experience beyond any I have previously been exposed to. The survivors have been coming back, to find their homes taken over by others. Often it is just women and children — their men have been killed in the conflict. Save the Children, the organisation I work for, is here in the districts most affected, has channelled international funding to support women with the means of starting again: seeds, tools, cows. Now the programme director, Bronwen, and her team of Tajik staff are considering how to support recovery of the part-devastated school system, and I have been asked to help.