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Mongolia: I drew the job lottery bonus ball

Mongolia. Once upon a time it was called “Outer Mongolia”. In 1921 the people of Mongolia lost the epithet ‘Outer’ and won their independence, shaking off Chinese imperialism. However, the very name still manages to convey an air of mystery, of exoticism, of adventure.

Ever since I was a child (and there are many who would claim I still am) I have been fascinated by the concept of Mongolia. I’m sure it must be one of those places that everyone wonders about, and yet very few people actually visit.

So, as the lottery that is my job with the Emergency Section in Save the Children drew its numbers in July, it turned out it was a Roll Over week and I had the bonus ball. I was being sent to Mongolia for three months.

But, of course, an interesting deployment for me meant that I was heading towards suffering. Mongolia has harsh winters. But last winter (2009/10) was the coldest in most people’s memory. Temperatures dropped to -570C and very heavy snow fall, compounded by a summer drought when very little pasture grew, meant that livestock struggled to find enough fodder to eat. This drought-heavy snowfall combination is called a dzud.

Over 8 million animals froze or starved to death in the 2009/10 dzud — that’s well over 20%. Given that over 30% of the country’s population are from herder households who rely solely on their animals, this loss has had a huge impact, destroying livelihoods across the country.

Some parts were more affected than others, meaning that some communities suffered even greater devastation: 43,500 herders, people who would previously have owned over 250 livestock, lost every single animal.

And, as ever, children were amongst the hardest hit. In such a huge country (the 19th largest), with such a tiny population (137th most populated) it is no surprise that Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world.

For centuries (once they’d given up the vanity of empire under Genghis Khan in the 13th century) Mongolians have lived nomadic lives, tending to their herds of cows, yaks, horses sheep and goats. Always on the look out for the best pasture, they perfected a routine of moving with the seasons.

But this nomadic life is not great if you want to go to school. And, after a few dzuds over the last 10 years, families are increasingly keen to educate their children so that they don’t need to rely on herding — an increasingly precarious livelihood. So schools accept boarders, or dormitory students. Although a far cry from the boarding schools in the UK, these structures offer the same things: basic shelter against the elements, three meals a day and an opportunity to learn and develop.

But during last winter’s dzud many schools ran out of fuel for the heating systems, couldn’t afford basic hygiene items for the students due to localised inflation, and were shut off from the outside world after such deep snowfalls.

In February (well before I got here), Save the Children distributed food, fuel, hygiene items and warm clothing to 24 schools and 19 kindergartens, reaching over 14,000 children.

The project I’m working on aims to ensure that children from herder families are able to continue their education this academic year — which started on 1 September. We’re distributing hygiene and classroom kits to the most affected schools and students. Yesterday I came back from a trip to two rural areas.

The people are unbelievably hospitable — it was all I could do to stop them force feeding me mutton and pouring vodka down my throat five times a day. (It’s important, I feel, to be culturally sensitive and to accept most food and drink offered to you;  culturally sensitive, but hugely unhealthy.)

And Mongolians have a great sense of humour. For example, my colleague Loki, a very bright and able young woman who is the logistician for the project speaks very good English and often translates for me. She is prone to slipping in a short critique of what I ask her to translate just before she translates it. For instance, I’ll say something and she’ll precede the translation with “well, I think that’s a stupid question, but….”. Of course, she’s right.

And the countryside, the main aspect of my ‘concept’ of Mongolia, does not disappoint. Wide open spaces; monumental mountains; lush valleys with wild horses sparring in the river; undulating deserts; and not a person for miles around. The capital city Ulaanbaatar, however, did not fit my ‘concept’. A city with some 1.5m people, it has a lot of cars (not moving quickly); six-storey department stores and Ikea outlets. I’ve even joined a gym, which should help with the mutton and vodka intake.

Disasters always come in parallel. That’s a sad reflection on the frequency with which people around the world have to face emergency situations. The Government of Mongolia declared a state of emergency in January, days after Haiti was hit by an earthquake. Throughout the summer Niger faced an increasingly deadly food crisis. And more than 17 million people in Pakistan are facing severe flooding – that’s more people than the 2004 tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the Haiti earthquakes combined.

And while the people suffering should not be thought of as competing for assistance, it is important that we remember not to forget those people, and those children, who are not in the headlines. This is particularly true of Mongolia, as we approach the winter months once more.

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