A Cell Phone and a Gold Rush On the Mongolian Steppe Globalization Meets Local Culture
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At first, he had trouble learning to ride. But by the time he was seven, Jiigee had figured out that the horse was more frightened than he was, and showed him who was boss. After all, a Mongolian boy must be a good rider. Especially a Mongolian shepherd boy on the steppe.
Jigjidsuren, known as Jiigee, was born in 1985 in a corner of the Bat-Ulzii district of Uvurkhangai province, central Mongolia. His parents were nomadic shepherds, so the exact place of his birth is not entirely clear, but it was not far from where he lives today: Mongolian shepherds no longer move long distances, only a few kilometres depending on the pastures and the seasons. Jiigee has always lived among these gentle hills, green in the spring and white in the winter, where the temperature can get as high as 35°C in the summer and as low as -40°C in December; where the nearest neighbour lives kilometres away and weeks can go by without seeing a stranger; where life is lived much as it has been for centuries.
No, I didn't go to school. My father needed me here, working.
Mongolia's few illiterate children come from shepherd families who live far from a day school and who can't or don't want to go to boarding school. When Jiigee reached school age, his father was sick and he was needed to help take care of the flocks. So Jiigee's education was in herding.
The first thing I learned, when I was five or six, was how to tend sheep.
And what's the key?
The most important thing is to fatten them up. My father showed me the places where they eat best.
Jiigee says that a good shepherd has to know about diseases, which grasses are good for sheep and which are not. And how to protect the flock from cold, wolves and thieves. There seem to be fewer wolves than before, he says, and more thieves. He has often had to shoot at wolves, and a friend recently had around a third of his flock stolen. That didn't use to happen, Jiigee says. Jiigee's father also taught him that the sheep must love and respect – not fear – their shepherd. When the sheep see him, Jiigee says, they come to him because they know he will take them to water and food. A dog is not always a good thing; they scare the sheep. When he was eight, Jiigee was promoted to the next grade: cows are calmer and more serene, but his herd would sometimes mix with another and he had to recognize and separate his animals. The next year, he started looking after horses, which are faster and more restless, but also easier: they all follow the stallion who leads the herd.
And that was the last step?
No, then come the goats.
Not until the end? The goats are the hardest?
In the spring, when the kids are born, it gets tricky because sometimes goats don't take care of the kids, and we have to do it: we have to bring them to their mothers so that they eat and don't die on us.
And which animals do you prefer?
The goats and the sheep. They are the ones that need me most. I have to save the little ones, look after what they are eating, be careful when the wolves come. Sheep expect a lot of you, they ask for a great deal.
When Jiigee was ten years old, his father died, and his older brother and mother took charge. His brother married and had two daughters; his mother moved to the town. Jiigee's life, meanwhile, went on as it always had: he took care of the animals, saw his friends – the sons of neighbouring shepherds – and had a good time every once in a while at a party, a wedding or by travelling down to the town, twenty kilometres away.
When he was around eighteen, Jiigee's mother and brother said it was time he married and had his own family, his own ger, his own animals. Jiigee liked the idea of being independent but he is shy, and on the steppe it's not easy to meet girls. A friend tried to help him, his mother looked into it, but it didn't work out. Until a spring day over two years ago.
Jiigee was chasing stray horses, thirty or forty kilometres from home. He stopped to ask some shepherds if they had seen the horses. They said they hadn't; but in their ger Jiigee had seen a girl who caught his eye. And she looked back and smiled at him.
Marta was nineteen; a few days later, Jiigee saw her again, and then again and again. When the summer started, Jiigee invited all his friends and relatives to come with him, so that Marta's parents would see that he was worthy to be their son-in-law. Jiigee and Marta were married a month later, and very soon she got pregnant.
Your life has changed a lot, hasn't it?
Yes, very much.
For better or worse?
For the better, definitely. Now I have my own things, and I find life more interesting. I have more responsibilities, I feel more like a man. And when my daughter Byambadolgor was born I was so happy. Two years ago I was just a single man, but now I have my ger, my family, my animals, my child who will follow in my footsteps. Now I am really a man.
His mother and brother gave him the animals that were his due and helped him to build his ger. The ger is the centre of Mongolian shepherd culture: it is a round tent about six metres across assembled on a structure of painted wood, with a conical roof and a decorated door. A ger can be put up or taken down in a few hours, and it contains everything the family owns: an iron stove in the middle for heating and cooking; a couple of beds against the wall, which serve as seats by day; wardrobes, the mirror, family photos, a small altar and a clock. In Jiigee's ger there is also a small television set.
I have electricity because I have that solar panel outside. I traded a cow for it. So when there is sunlight, I can watch TV and use this lamp.
A year ago, Jiigee bought a cellular phone and he says that it has made his life much better: now he can talk to his mother in the town, and to relatives and friends. Mostly, though, he has discovered that it can help him earn money. Last March, the merchant who buys Jiigee's cashmere offered a low price, as he always has. But this time, Jiigee called friends in town and they told him the market price. The merchant paid up and Jiigee felt great: he was no longer a poor foolish shepherd, an easy mark for city slickers.
The ger smells of meat and tea with milk: a stranger is greeted with smiles and something to eat. Hospitality is a basic obligation among nomads. Jiigee says that tomorrow they are going to take the ger down and look for summer pastures. The steppe belongs to no one: everyone finds a place and leaves it when they're done. Jiigee says if they arrive somewhere and find it occupied by another family, they have to keep moving.
There are never fights over places?
No, what for? There is always somewhere else to go.
Jiigee's days are regulated by the sun and the seasons. He wakes at dawn, eats breakfast – tea with a lot of milk and salt, and a piece of meat or cheese. Then he lets out the sheep and goats and cleans the fold while Marta milks the cows. At about 8 am, he goes uphill with the sheep and goats. Those hours are fairly calm. He lies down on the grass and looks at his animals; he dozes off or thinks about things; how he will make his flock grow; how much wool he will sell this year; what his daughter's life will be like.
Do you want her to go to school?
Yes, of course.
But you didn't, and you are doing well… Why do you want her to go?
If you don't go to school, you can live a life like mine, taking care of animals, living in the country. But I would like my daughter to study and learn many things. I would like her to be able to live in the city.
Do you think her life will be better if she goes to the city?
This life has many risks. It is sometimes so cold that the animals die and you don't know what to do. Besides, in these past few years it has rained less, so everything is drier. Our life is getting harder and harder. If my daughter studies, she will be able to lead another life, an easier one. I have never been to the city, but friends have told me, and I have seen it on television: in cities, life is easier, there are so many things. There is flour, sugar, rice, gas, clothing. People have new things, live in houses with electricity. Here it is not easy to buy things. When someone goes to the city, I ask him to buy me what I need.
And you don't want to go to the city?
I am not educated; I have none of the skills that would allow me to get a job in the city. It's better for me to stay here. I like my life here. I like my animals. I like knowing that they need me.
But there is work to do. In March the goats must be sheared, and later the sheep. In the fall, creams, cheeses and fermented milk will be ready for the market in town. As night falls Jiigee and Marta have supper –a noodle soup, boiled meat, tea – and watch a little television: the news, a debate, a comedy show. At about 11, they go to sleep.
What differences are there between your life and the life of your father?
When my father was alive there was enough water. The grass grew well, the animals always had something to eat. That's no longer true, and that is bad. But when my father was alive there was no electricity, no cellular phones or cars.
Which of the two times do you prefer?
I prefer my father's times, because nature was much better then. It rained more, there was less wind, the animals found good grasses as early as March. Now there are none until June…
And why is that happening?
Because of the gold mines. They used to be forbidden. Now there are gold mines everywhere. They are sprouting up like mushrooms, and they are really destroying nature. They consume too much water, and ruin too much land.
Jiigee is worried: he says that if they don't stop mining, the life of shepherds will get harder and harder.
There will be fewer and fewer shepherds and more and more miners, and poor people.
You don't want to be a miner?
No. I don't know anyone who has gotten rich looking for gold. Usually, they find just a little, enough to survive…
And do you know anyone who has gotten rich as a shepherd?
Yes, of course. Herding makes people richer and happier.
How? What's your plan?
I will increase the number of animals. I have 160 now; I will be able to sell more animals each year and eventually buy a truck; all I have now is a motorbike. I need money so that my children can live well.
What would you most like to own?
A jeep. With a jeep I could bring more water and wood, move my ger… Life would be much easier with a jeep.
But a jeep is for working. Don't you want something for pleasure?
Yes, a horse. I'd like to buy a fast horse to win the town's race.
Jiigee's eyes light up as he says this. After all is said and done, he is a Mongolian shepherd.
Between 2000 and 2003 nearly half a billion mobile phones were added to the global network in developing countries alone,1 and over a quarter of a billion people in developing countries now make use of the Internet.
Young people have grown up with the new communications technologies, and they are often the first to find new uses for them. Access varies widely, but young people are 40 per cent or more of Internet users in a range of developing countries.3 In Indonesia, a little over 20 per cent of the total population has access to the Internet, but markedly more in the 15-19 age group.
The experiences of young people in developing countries show that the Internet or mobile phones are having a profound impact.5 They have already changed youth culture and consumption habits, and attitudes to citizenship and activism. Their interactive and decentralized nature offers possibilities for education and employment; and, as Jiigee's story shows, opportunities that traditional communications cannot match.
Instant communication opens the world to young people – but it also sets them apart from traditional society, and sometimes in conflict with it. The values of the new youth culture are not always in harmony with established ways of thought and action. The challenge is to find the balance between the two cultures.
Globalization in its different guises – not only new technologies, but open market economies, the rise of entrepreneurship and the trend towards more democracy, has brought greater freedom of choice; but it has also increased inequality and insecurity for today's young people.7 Although they adapt more easily to globalization and what it has to offer, many young people have not benefited, especially in developing countries, where inadequate education and poverty hold them back.
Young people do not reject globalization as such, but they are voicing concerns about some of its consequences, including environmental degradation and the unequal distribution of income and wealth. In the past decade, their concern has gone global. Coalitions of non-governmental organizations, student groups, political organizations and civil rights activists are asking for a more equitable distribution of opportunities and benefits.
Jiigee's story shows that poor and traditionally disadvantaged populations can benefit from new technologies. A similar story could be told many times: in the Indian state of Kerala, for example, fishermen use text messaging to find out where to land their catch for the best price. In some countries, reproductive health programmes text information on HIV prevention to young people.
New technologies can spread knowledge and information, provide avenues for employment and education and increase young people's opportunities for participation. The Internet is a window through which young people and their cultures get new ideas and values: but much more effort is needed to close the "digital divide" and let more people access the new technologies.
"If my daughter studies, she will be able to lead another life, an easier one. I have never been to the city, but friends have told me, and I have seen it on television: in cities, life is easier..."