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.