Dirt Roads, a Donkey and a Life Transformed

This is a short story I wrote and was published in “Drinking Camel’s Milk in The Yurt” which you can purchase on Amazon by clicking on the link.  I hope you enjoy.

I have always had a place in my heart for unwanted children. I am a single mom to two US-born bi-racial children through the miracle of adoption. As a little girl I dreamed of living on a large farm filled with children and animals. Being an artist I dreamed in full color and I envisioned children of many ethnic groups learning about life through gardening, animals, and life on a farm..

Due to many detours in life, that dream had been shelved – until I heard about a group helping to put on a camp for orphaned children in Kazakhstan. Crazy as it seemed, I knew in my heart that I had to go. The faces of the children shown on the screen were the same ones I had dreamed of as a little girl. My decision led to an 18-day trip that changed the course of my life.

As I boarded the plane in October 2000, I was all of a sudden filled with panic. What was I doing? Why was I leaving my own precious kids to go halfway around the world? I didn’t know anything about the land of Kazakhstan. What had I agreed to? After what seemed like days of travel, the plane landed in the middle of the night. Things had surely improved since Kazakhstan’s independence, but the old airport in Almaty was so different from anything I had ever seen in my limited travel around the US.

I stepped down off the plane and onto the tarmac. Military personnel stood with large guns. I hadn’t a clue which kind, as guns are not something I encounter every day. But my most vivid memory of that night is of looking up into the vast sky and seeing the millions of twinkling lights shining upon us. A flood of emotion poured into my heart as a gentle breeze blew across my face. I was home – a land where I belonged. I was surprised by the feeling. The smells, the sight of armed men, the sounds of an unknown language did nothing to take away that feeling of being in a place I had long missed. The seeds of love for Kazakhstan in all its majestic beauty and contradictions were planted that night.

Before catching sight of the orphanage I was beyond tired. I was hungry, aching from head to toe. Fortunately the majestic mountains and sweeping views of the steppes kept alive my excitement. After a grueling 10-hour ride in a van loaded full with passenger and supplies, we pulled into the Ulan Orphanage in Taraz. As we rounded the corner, we were greeted by more than 150 children standing out in that cold October day, waving and cheering as we came to a stop. I stepped out of the van, all my weariness leaving me as I was greeted by smiling faces. As I shook their cold hands, my heart melted and was captured forever. 

Every human desires their life to matter, their story to be known. I could tell you stories about so many of the children, but this story is about Oldana, a waif of a teenage girl with a big smile and a love for dancing. Her graceful movements were a stark contrast to the sadness her eyes held. She was shy and hung back, unlike most of the children who pushed and shoved to be near the Americans. These children were so desperate for love and attention they clung to strangers.

By  2009, I had relocated to Kazakhstan to live and work with the children. My own children were adults by this stage.  I wanted to do what I could to assist the caregivers in preparing their Kazakh charges for life outside the orphanage.

Oldana had left Ulan in 2002; the children ‘graduate’ at age 15 or 16.  What a surprise then to be called down from my office a few weeks after my arrival to see her standing at the reception desk! She was still tiny and the lines on her face were that of a girl more than twice her age, but her beautiful smile lit up her face as I came down the steps. For a girl so frail, her hug was tight and strong. Her hands were calloused, but her face shone with joy. She had heard from the other children that I had moved to Taraz. She wanted me to come see her house, meet her children and husband. It was hard to imagine this young girl with girls of her own.

The following week, my Kazakh colleagues, Assel and Aben, and I took off to find her house. When she had given directions they had seemed fairly simple. The day was bright and sunny and I expected the trip to be short and easy. However, I should have remembered to expect the unexpected.

Most Westerners can’t begin to imagine the state of the roads in Kazakhstan. Though some major roads are improving, most of the back roads are full of potholes and driving them involves dodging livestock, donkey carts, pedestrians and the other cars, who drive like they are the only ones on the road. 

Oldana’s directions had suggested only two turn-offs, but the actual trip had a lot more turns to it. We persevered, and the road started to become more like a path between houses seemingly placed at random. We stopped at intervals to ask bystanders for help. No one seemed to know of Oldana, but all said we were on the correct road.

The village was divided up into three areas, each with the same set of road names. The streets were unnervingly narrow, but Aben assured me the car would fit. As most of the inhabitants didn’t have cars, I guess the road width didn’t matter. The houses were dachas: small, mud brick homes with white painted plaster and sky blue metal roof and trim. They were originally built by city folk to escape the summer heat and to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

Spotting an elderly woman, we stopped to ask directions. Victoria, a small woman with gray hair swirled up in a bun, had a welcoming smile. If she was surprised to have an American at her gate asking for directions she didn’t show it. Instead she graciously invited us in for tea; the warmth with which she greeted us surprised me. She showed us around her humble home and we shared the details of our quest. In response she jumped up and started clipping grapes that hung ripe from the arbor above and gathering tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden – to share with Oldana. She assured us that Oldana did not live on this street, but encouraged us to head to the next area of the village with a street of the same name. Our visit with Victoria was an unexpected but delightful detour. As we backed the car down the path (it was too narrow to turn around) she stood waving with a big smile on her face.

After a few more detours, we were told to go down the large hill on the left, turn right at the fifth road and we’d find her house. Once we had figured out what to count as roads, we found the narrow path that led to Oldana’s house.


She and her husband, Daurin, also raised in the orphanage, were trying to build a life for themselves. Despite the odds against them, they were working hard to make it. They had scraped enough money together to buy this small dacha that measured five by seven meters and was in disrepair. The plaster was crumbling off the walls and the patched metal roof revealed daylight when looking up from the inside of the house. The small plot of land lay barren and muddy. An old metal barrier encircled a well with its  beat-up rusty bucket attached to a rope. The only other thing in the muddy field of a yard was an outhouse at the back of the property that leaned precariously to one side.

As I looked at Oldana’s tiny frame, she holding her youngest, I was touched by the look of accomplishment on her face. There was hope in her eyes that life for her girls would be better than what it had been for her. Hope is not something you find often in orphaned children. Kazakhstan’s statistics tell a bleak story for these children, with less than 10 percent managing to build a life for themselves and many dying within the first five years of leaving the orphanage. And yet before me stood one young woman working hard to build a life for herself and her family.

Some Americans may have looked around and seen utter despair and poverty. What I saw was great promise and potential. Looking into the neighbor’s yards I saw apricot and apple trees. I saw the remains of summer gardens, a good indication that the dirt was fertile. Even though the house obviously needed many repairs, it seemed to be structurally sound. My mind was whirling with the possibilities of what could be done here, although I was also mindful of not taking away their sense of accomplishment.

All their money had gone into purchasing the house, leaving no funds to repair the roof. Winter was coming and they had their two young girls, Eliana and Diana, to look after. After some discussion it was decided that Daurin would provide labor and I would get supplies.

A couple weeks later a work crew of six men, American and Kazakh, showed up to replace the roof. They were able to remove and replace the rotten timbers and install the new metal roof. By nightfall the only task remaining was to finish off the gable ends and trim. I often wonder what the neighbors thought and, more importantly, what Eliana and Diana thought of having their home invaded, torn apart and then put back together. We brought a picnic lunch for all to enjoy and, typical children, the girls enjoyed the chips and cookies as much as the kielbasa and bread. The girls call me apa,,which is Kazakh for grandmother.

The following spring they put in a huge garden, including flowers, to make the place look beautiful. During one visit I noticed an old donkey cart and got excited, thinking they had bought a donkey.

“No,” was the answer. Daurin had found the old cart and was working on repairing it in the hopes of one day having a donkey. Seeing all the hard work they had done, the initiative they had shown, a friend and I talked over the idea of giving them a donkey as a gift. Friends of mine donated the funds and plans were made to meet Oldana and Daurin at the animal bazaar, a mostly male affair.

Daurin had never been to the animal bazaar, nor had he ever bought an animal. If he had grown up in a typical Kazakh home this would have been commonplace. It isn’t unusual to see a small car driving down the road with a live animal (often sheep) tied up in the backseat or in the trunk. The family will then slaughter  the creature for a special celebration.

As we walked down the hill to where there were donkeys gathered, I could see the hesitation on Oldana and Daurin’s faces. I wanted Daurin to take the lead in purchasing his donkey and fairly quickly he had pointed out a young colt. Then there was the matter of getting the donkey home. I have a friend in Kyrgyzstan who had once delivered two donkeys to a family using the marshuka (local minibus), but I was pretty sure that wouldn’t go over well in Taraz. We had a SUV-like vehicle and I figured the donkey could sit in the back, but my co-worker didn’t think that was a good idea. Daurin went off in search for a truck.

In Kazakhstan bread is taken from the bakery to where it will be sold in small trucks. The truck beds are covered and there is a small door at the back. This is exactly the kind of truck Daurin found to haul his donkey home. (I found myself imagining these trucks were used to haul animals on a Sunday and bread the rest of the week.) Oldana and Daurin bade goodbye after giving hugs and words of thanks.  I couldn’t wait to see what they would do with their new donkey.

I was astounded the next time I went to visit them. Daurin had used the donkey to haul dirt and straw and was manufacturing mud bricks. He had sold some to neighbors, but mostly he had used them to improve their home. I felt like a proud mama as they took me around their place and shared with great pride all they had done. Oldana showed me how they had expanded their home by adding a small room. Daurin beamed as he opened the door to his new outbuilding to reveal the contents: coal, wood and canned vegetables from their garden. I didn’t have words. Tears slid down my cheeks as I surveyed all that they had done.

My journey to Kazakhstan in 2000 opened the door to a life I could never have imagined. With this came an opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself, to be humbled by the generosity and kindness of people half a world from where I started, and to find a place to call home.

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