Mongolia Monday- “Ikh Nart Is Our Future” Update

I’ll get back to The Camping Trip, but I really want to share the news on the women’s felt crafts collective. Notice the change from “cooperative”. There are a number of words used in Mongolia for legally constituted groups, each of which has different requirements. I need final confirmation from him, but my scientist friend Amgaa, who has been instrumental in helping me help the ladies, believes that this is the correct term, which is almost surely a holdover from socialist times.

Stuffed toy camel in progress

I spent a fun and productive week at Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve. There will be more about my argali and ibex sightings in a future post, but for the moment I’ll just say that I finally, after five trips there, got the reference photos I’ve really wanted – both species in great light and close enough for me to really capture details like head structure. Paintings to follow.

I’ve been so anxious to see Boloroo, the collective director, the other women and to find out how things are going for them.

Boloroo and Tuvshin

I’ll quote from my journal:

Tuesday, August 10-
Great reunion with Boloroo and some of the other ladies. Learned that what started last year with 14 ladies from one Bag (the smallest administrative unit in Mongolia; “bag” means “small” in Mongolian) has now expanded to 30 members in four of the five bags in the soum (the equivalent of a county). Some of the new members came along and it was fun to meet them.

Tuvshin (Boloroo’s son, my little buddy from last year) is now a sturdy almost 2 year old. One lady who was pregnant last year came with her baby and husband, who brought a nice little ibex carving to sell. (I’ve got a probable donor for good quality steel carving knife blanks. I’d like to encourage the men, too.)

Two folding tables were set up and covered with lots of merchandise. The collective has expanded beyond felt crafts, too. One lady now has a knitting machine and brought a variety of tops and sweaters to sell.

Crafts

Selenge (the research camp manager and my translator) had me explain it all to the Earthwatch volunteers. By close of business, close to half of what had been brought had been sold.

A wonderful follow-up in every way to last year’s launch.

And customers

I was also able to have a private meeting with Boloroo, Selenge translating, about ideas for the kinds of things I think would sell in the US and some possibilities I’m working on for sales outlets. Many of the women will be perfectly happy to make slippers, stuffed toys and small, simple items to sell to visitors who come to Ikh Nart. But I’ve seen a level of talent and creativity in some of the women that I want to encourage. They can take their work, with practice, to a very high level of fine craft and therefore command much higher prices.

I watched Boloroo switch from visiting mode to business mode and am really impressed by how thorough and professional she is. I am so very fortunate to have gotten involved with a group that has her as the leader.

One of the new members and her family

I had also brought over a stack of sketchbooks, plus pens and pencils, so that young local artists would have the materials they need to create designs for things like purses. I believe this is better  than having a westerner like me do them, although I’ll be happy to help if asked.

Office interior

The following afternoon, I visited the soum center, Dalanjarglan, for the first time. Boloroo was there and we got to spend three hours together. She showed us the collective “headquarters”, a small free-standing building which used to be a gas station. It turns out that she bought the building herself. Amgaa had a banner sign made and donated some large informational posters from a past presentation about Ikh Nart. These have been hung on the interior walls. I saw the felt presses and they are clearly getting used regularly.

The felt presses

I had also paid for training earlier in the year in UB for Boloroo and one other lady, Lhagvadelger, the Bag Governor’s wife. Boloroo is now doing training herself. I also learned that there are four more levels of training available, so I will be looking for funding to cover that in the future.

Boloroo and I in front of the "Ikh Nart Is Our Future" office building

In UB a couple of weeks ago, I paid a visit to Tsagaan Alt, a store run by the Mongolian NGO from whom we got the felt presses and training. Everything they offer is of very high, consistent quality. Eventually, the collective will be able to sell their work there.

Selenge is going to try to keep up with what is going on with the collective and send me occasional reports.  Stay tuned. The ladies are clearly just getting started.

Mongolia Monday- The Saga Of The Scissors

When I went to Mongolia last July on my AFC Flag Expedition, I knew that arrangements had been made to meet with some unknown number of women at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve research camp to talk about helping them set up a felt crafts cooperative. I sorted through all my sewing stuff and came up with a pretty good-sized bag of needles, thread, notions and one extra pair of very good sewing scissors to donate to the cause. You can read about the meeting and see photos of the four intense days I spent with the women here.

The scissors, I found out late on the third day, were very, very, did I say very, popular. I was asked during a last meeting of everyone, if I could get more scissors. Sure, I said, how many pair? One for everyone, so 20 pair. I knew I could figure out some way to do this, so I said yes.

Then a burly man in a del, clearly one of the herders who had spent most of his life out of doors and who had quietly come in and was sitting by the door, raised his hand. Through my translator, he shyly asked if it would be possible to get 21 pair. His wife hadn’t been able to come to the meeting, but he would like to give a pair to her because it would make her happy. Yes, of course. I still choke up a little when I remember him sitting there in a ger full of women (Mongol women can be formidable), summoning up the courage to ask a total stranger for something for his wife.

My gift scissors being used to cut out the fabric for a del for my husband. The women made two, one for each of us, in three days. Notice that there is no paper pattern. The skill to make these traditional Mongol garments is either passed down or there are classes where it is taught.

Then, during a series of “competitions” that celebrated the end of the meetings, everyone divided up into teams to do skits. One team did theirs on where the scissors were because everyone was wanting to use them.

I think what is being said is something like "I need to cut this. Where are the scissors?"

Fast forward and I’m back at home. My husband generously offered to donate the money to purchase the scissors through his company. I got on the internet and in touch with one of the staff people at the Denver Zoo Foundation. It turned out that a fabric store chain had 8″ Gingher sewing scissors on sale at a very good price. Sewers know that Ginghers are about the best you can get and that’s what I wanted the ladies to have.  So they were ordered and delivered to my contact person at the Zoo.

Next was how to get them to Mongolia. We’d hoped to send them over with someone, but no one was going in the near future, the scissors weighed a fair amount and, with security being what it is, we felt like it was a lot to ask for someone to take them on a plane, even in checked luggage.

The Director of the Conservation Biology Department, which is who I work through, said that the only reliable way to make sure they got to where they needed to go was via FedEx, so that’s what we did. That cost over $400. My husband had included $100 for shipping in his original donation and the Zoo picked up the rest. So far so good.

The scissors arrived at the airport and then it got complicated with customs paperwork that none of us knew had to be done ahead of time. More fees, which my husband covered. But the scissors were in UB and in the possession of the right person, who would make sure they got to where they needed to go.

All along I’d had this vision of the scissors arriving in the winter when the women didn’t have as much work to do, so would have time to make felt items to sell this summer. And it would be cold and things would be difficult, but maybe this would be a nice mid-winter surprise. And I would be announcing that this endeavor of my Art Partnerships for Mongolian Conservation had been successfully concluded.

Unfortunately, this winter has turned out to be what the Mongols call a “Zud”, heavy snow and extreme cold, as in below -40F, which is a “normal” winter low. Haiti has the world’s attention, deservedly, but for those of us who care about Mongolia, there is a crisis happening there, too. I wrote to the scientist who goes to Ikh Nart every month and who is going to deliver the scissors, asking how my friends are. His reply was that he hasn’t been able to contact anyone, but will let me know when he does. I suspect that he can’t even get to the area right now. Conditions may not improve until April. I know that the Mongols are resourceful people and they’ll help each other through this, but I am concerned. I’ll be very glad when I hear that everyone is ok.

I’ll post as soon as I have news. In the meantime, I’m making my plane reservations for the next trip in July/August.