Saturday, 21 November 2009

Mongolia - Education and Ethnicity in Western Mongolia

As part of my learning about Mongolia I'm reading Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia by Louisa Waugh.

Being a bit clueless about Mongolia when I ordered this book, I was surprised to find that Louisa's year was spent in the majority Kazakh village of Tsengel in Mongolia's most westerly province, Bayan-Olgii. Still, I'm learning about Mongolia, not just the Mongol people, and I sometimes think you can learn a lot more about a country through the eyes of it's minority populations.

Louisa spent two years teaching in Ulaan Baatar before moving to Tsengel and she suddenly finds herself, fluent in Mongolian, but totally lost when it came to Tsengel's two main languages, Kazakh and Tuvan. She can still use Mongolian to communicate, of course, but people will ultimately want to go back to their native tongue, especially at family gatherings and social occasions.

She is befriended by a Tuvan family and unwittingly is deemed to align herself with the Tuvans/Mongolians in the village rather than the Kazakh majority. I'm at the part where she's starting the new school year in September and has moved in with a Kazakh family, so as not to be seen to be taking sides, but also to learn something about Kazakh culture.

Interestingly at the school where she teaches, students are segregated into language groups. Kazakh and Mongolian. The Mongolian group includes the Tuvan students, who are culturally and linguistically related. I guess there are practical reasons for this but, thinking of a context like the one in Northern Ireland, I can't help thinking that segregated education is a key factor in institutionalising cultural differences, rather than inspiring students with a sense of common citizenship (regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds). In the case of Western Mongolia, it also reminds me of Soviet models of education and the way education was segregated in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where I taught for two years.

Most people in Samarkand speak Tajik as their first language, with the national language, Uzbek, being spoken by a minority as their mother tongue. It's hard to quantify this, as most people speak both languages and are bilingual and often trilingual (Russian being a common denominator).

I learnt Russian, as a more accessible language, but I also picked up some Tajik (from friends) and Uzbek (from the telly), both of which I've since forgotten. The schools and university in Samarkand were also segregated into Uzbek groups and Russian groups, with most Tajiks studying in the Russian group. It always amazed me that there was no Tajik group, despite the fact that this is the majority culture of the city, but I guess there's an ongoing denial of Samarkand's status as a Tajik city, which owes its legacy to the stalinisation of Central Asia. If you want to study in a Tajik group, then you need to go to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.

The tension Louisa feels in the village, between the Kazakh majority and the Tuvan minority reminds me of the tensions that simmer in a lot of countries, I'm thinking of the Serbs and Croats, Northern Ireland, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Western China). They can simmer for a long time, occasionally coming to the boil when political interests stoke up resentment or feelings of discrimination finally bubble over.

Image credits:
The Mongolian flag is from
I love the photo of the Mongolian signpost which was taken by flickruser Steve Burt who is from Portland, USA. Thanks Steve for sharing this image with us using the Creative Commons License!

The Mongolian script is from Wikimedia Commons and therefore copyright free. It means Mongol Khel, literally Mongol person.

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