It’s been so long since I posted a blog that I’ve almost forgotten how to do it. I apologize for this. There are lots of things to talk about every day. After two weeks, I’m pretty swamped. I’m just going to list a few brief things that I’ll maybe get a chance to discuss later.
1. Collecting data has taken some twists and turns. At the time of my last posting, I was leaving for the outer regions to survey about 150 clients. I entrusted the surveying of the remaining 200 clients in Baku to the local credit officers. They assured me that everything would work out just fine. So I spent the week collecting data with local credit officers and sleeping in old creaky beds throughout western Azerbaijan. I was amazed at how creative and accommodating the FINCA staff was in the outside regions.
When I returned to Baku, I found that the staff in the outside regions wasn’t the only group who had been ‘creative’ in the data collection process. The Baku staff presented me with a stack of about 175 completed questionnaires. As I sorted through them and entered the data, I became somewhat suspicious. It became apparent that at least some of the credit officers had taken responsibility to collect data because it’s obviously a little easier to invent statistics than to survey clients. It was kind of awkward explaining this problem to the staff, because they look at each other and go “who, me?” It must have been somebody else! Obviously no one will fess up to the offending questionnaires, though, so I just have to filter them out of the data set. I accept full responsibility for this problem. I new the risks that credit officers would have overactive imaginations, but I am genuinely trying to find the most effective method of gathering this data. In the future, we’ll have to provide for more oversight.
2. One might think that I’d be somewhat frustrated because I’ve gathered some biased data that I’ve got to carefully filter, now. I’ve been too busy with another project to give my biased data any more than a few passing thoughts. I’ve recently discovered that FINCA conducts at least two other clientele surveys in NIS countries that collect exactly the same data that I do. In addition, this data is collected every credit cycle, and there’s a veritable mine of it sitting on the back shelf of this office. While I’ve been out breaking my back trying to explain a questionnaire to clients in languages I don’t speak, at least half this data has been waiting unexplored in a back room.
It turns out that in order to approve clients for successive loans, FINCA conducts ‘business checks’ of every client before the respective loans are approved. I’ve spent the last week digging through old FINCA archives, and I’ve put together a small database of FINCA clients. I’m kind of pushed for time to get some creative solutions on the table before I finish the summer. FINCA plans on using something from this tool in Kyrgyzstan this December to implement in their office as they make a transfer to becoming a joint stock company. I’m not sure whether I’ll work on that project over there, or not, but just the thought of spending December at 10,000 feet in central Asia makes me shiver. Too bad I never learned how to ski in Utah… I hear Kyrgyzstan has some great resorts.
3. Updates on my Chechan friend. Tarlan has been living in my apartment, for the past week. He was arrested while I was away in the regions. As a side note, anyone traveling to the NIS should make certain to keep their passports on their person at all times. They don’t have a history of respecting civil rights, here, and police can search you for looking at them funny. My first missionary companion was literally strip searched in the St. Petersburg subway because he was dark-skinned, and looked like a terrorist. Anyway, Tarlan was arrested and tossed in the slammer because he had no documentation. It didn’t help that he was just paid and had $200 on him. They relieved him of this financial burden, as well as of another $150 which served as a bribe that his friend paid to get him out three days later. He was subsequently evicted from his apartment for delinquency on rent payments. I'm trying not to complain about my own financial difficulties.
4. Now for updates on the local political environment. This place is a fiasco, and no Americans know about it. My suspicion is that Uncle Sam actually works to keep it out of the media, because Baku is an up-and-coming oil powerhouse, and they want to keep things stable, here. I’m not much one for conspiracy theories, but here’s the story:
Once upon a time there was a kingdom called the ‘Soviet Union.’ The Union was ruled by a set of nobles called the ‘Communist Party’. The Communist Party was controlled by a council of regional princes. This council was called the ‘Polutburo’. The Politburo had the final say in everything that involved anything in the kingdom. One of these princes was from the fiefdom of Azerbaijan. He controlled everything in Azerbaijan from oil drilling to orange plantations to Caspian Sea caviar piracy. His name was Heydar Aliyev. Heydar was not just a Communist Party man, he was a real live party man. He was twice indicted for sexual assault, but was never brought to trial. He was the perfect ‘yes man’, an ideal lackey. But then the last king of the Union, Mikhail Gorbechev, got sick of Heydar’s shenanigans, and kicked him out of the Politburo.
Heydar spent a few years cursing Mikhail’s name and his policies that brought an end to the kingdom of the Union. Each cloud does have a silver lining, however. In Heydar’s case, the lining was red, green, and blue (the Azeri national colors). Heydar quickly took advantage of Azerbaijan’s new-found independence, pulled some strings from his old mafia, that is communist, connections, ran on an Azeri nationalist platform, and was elected ‘overwhelmingly’ as Azerbaijan’s first president.
From that time forward, Heydar found the new smaller kingdom of Azerbaijan to be much more to his taste. He was now the only big dog around, and didn’t seem to mind that the block had drastically reduced in size. Heydar reigned over some dark times in Azeri history. These included a war with Armenia that resulted in the Armenian occupation of a large part of Azeri territory, strict persecution (including public beatings) of opposing political parties, and massive inflation and economic instability. Heydar managed to maintain a positive outlook, though, and consequentially, everyone else did, as well. I was constantly amazed at the public support afforded the man. As I drove in outside regions, I observed villages and roads in obvious decay: roads were unpaved and crumbling; families lived in small concrete barracks. In spite of these limitations, the government could still afford to post large signs the size of US-interstate ads with smiling pictures of Heydar along with choice selections of his inspirational quotes.
When I was here last year, Heydar was getting old, and many were hoping that he would not run for another (unconstitutional) 3rd term. He was reported to be interred in a hospital in Chicago, and unable to campaign. He was, however, fully capable of endorsing his son’s (Illham) presidential candidacy. Heydar passed away peacefully in America before the election ever arrived. Last fall, election observers were up in arms as public beatings of opposing political groups continued, and large trucks of thugs drove around Baku stuffing ballot boxes at election time. To the wonderment of all, 99% of the electorate voted for Illham. So now we have a dynasty.
I’ve noticed, this summer, that the sign boards around the country have been updated. Illham now ubiquitously smiles at the Azeri populace, usually hand-in-hand with Pa. He even has a new website, and I took some pictures of the signs. I’ll post more, later, as well as some jokes that people tell in hushed tones about Heydar and his son.
5. I was able to find another good friend from last year. I went fishing last summer with a couple of super nice old Azeri guys in the small town of Imishli. I found one of them, and arranged to meet him. At the end of a tiring day, my friend pulled up in a battered old Volga sedan, and hopped out of the car. He came up to me, kissed me on both cheeks, and invited me over for dinner. I spent a wonderful evening with him and his family.
I wanted to include this thought because I really felt that this is a good man, and that he is a great representation of what a respectable religious Muslim man is supposed to be like. He reads the Q’uran every day, and keeps a small copy in his shirt pocket. His family obviously loves him, and I saw no indication that either his wife, daughters-in-law, or granddaughters feel oppressed by him in any way. Their service and respect for each other was obviously mutual. His perspective on family and gender roles is in many ways similar to my own, and I think that it would be very beneficial for Americans to better understand this. I hope that I don’t renege on my promises to keep in touch with him.
6. I am thoroughly enjoying myself, this summer, and I’ve been pondering the previous comments of an old high school friend who suggested, (and I quote): “I think you like the former Soviet Union because you have dark hair and can blend in with them.” While I can blend in with the Azeris, this is certainly not the case in Russia, or central Asia. This suggestion comes from someone who remembers how much I did not fit in when in High School. In all honesty, I can't quite figure out why I like traipsing about the former Soviet Union. I've tried to answer this question fairly candidly. Perhaps I have an affinity for the culture, or the language. It's also occurred to me that maybe I'm more of an oddity or celebrity in a foreign, less-developed country, and I like the attention. So although I hate to admit it, perhaps it's vanity.
There are other thoughts that I've wanted to get down, but I’m worn out, for now. I suppose this monster blog is my pennance for two weeks of no postings. I should be ready to come home, pretty soon. I think I’m getting a little tired of all the traipsing.