As a Peace Corps volunteer, money can be a contentious topic. On the obvious front: I have to make $250 cover my living expenses for a month. Fortunately, Kyrgyzstan is a pretty cheap place to live, and I can’t really whine about being short on cash. So, while I could go into detail about the price-based analysis that goes into my instant coffee habit or how cool it is to pay $0.25 for my daily round-trip commute, there are way more interesting things I’ve observed about money in the last year that I can share here.
Georgetown required all students in the School of Foreign Service to take four semesters of economics. I rolled my eyes through all four classes, but living in Kyrgyzstan has forced me to reconsider the real-world value of international trade and finance theory (and I’ve also had to glance back over my notes on international economics).
Kyrgyzstan’s currency, the som, has been rollercoaster ride over the past year and a half. When I first visited Kyrgyzstan in October 2014, $1 = 55 som; in April 2015, when I first arrived with Peace Corps, $1 = 60 som; in January 2016, at the som’s lowest value, $1 = 75 som; and now, in May 2016, $1 = 68 som. The som’s value been all over the place, and there were several days this winter when I’d leave work with significantly less buying power than I had when I arrived in the morning. People with actual economics knowledge think the currency fluctuations are connected to Kyrgyzstan’s recent accession to the Eurasian Economic Union and Russia’s own economic struggles, but I hear less about the impact of the ruble or other neighboring currencies than about the dollar. This makes sense, given that a lot of import/export businesses deal in dollars, and at the more local level, many people have taken out mortgages or loans in dollars. When the value of the som falls against the dollar, these people lose money on their investments. With few natural resources relative to its oil-rich neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has never been a super wealthy country; people don’t have money to lose over technicalities of currency exchange.
The currency troubles of the last year are nothing compared to the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Kyrgyz people have developed creative strategies to deal with economic uncertainty over many decades. Gap groups, sometimes known as chernaya kassa and sherine, are rotating savings networks that are especially popular among women.
Gap groups usually consist of 6-12 women, one of whom serves as the leader and sets rules, takes care of accounting, and manages the calendar. The group meets at set intervals, usually once a month; at each meeting, members contribute a fixed amount of money (I’ve most frequently heard 1000 som, $14.70). According to the calendar, a different woman hosts the gap group at her home, treating the members of her group to a multiple-course dinner and drinks. When a woman hosts the gap group at her house, she collects the lump sump payment.
Any one woman might be a member of several different gap groups – one with her family members, another with her colleagues, and yet another with her neighbors. Zulfiya Tursunova considers these savings groups a source of empowerment. Her academic work focuses on Uzbekistan, but the situation is similar in Kyrgyzstan: women here are often limited in choices because of gender-based, patriarchal economic norms. Gap groups give women (especially younger women) a sense of autonomy and agency, both in social and economic terms.
A woman’s monthly salary (whether she’s a teacher or works in the informal agricultural economy) is rarely enough to invest in a big purchase, and it can seem impossible to save enough for a cow, a computer, or a wedding when there are regular household expenses to account for. By investing 1000 som a month into a gap group, a woman can then receive anywhere between 6000 or 12000 som at one time. Sure, she could eventually save 6000, 10000, or 12000 som on her own, but the gap group model complements the collectivist culture in Kyrgyzstan and ensures that a woman’s family or neighbors are also benefiting from this saving.
Cholpon Eje, my host mom in Issyk-Kul, invited me to her neighborhood gap meeting in April. The 12 women of the group made their way to Venera Eje’s house, where we ate salads, cookies, manty dumplings, and cake for hours. Every woman gave a short toast (a toast means a shot – you do the math: that’s a lot of vodka), wishing everyone in the group a successful tourist season and giving special good wishes to Venera, who would take home the pot that month. By the structure of all gap groups, it’ll eventually be my host mom’s turn to host — I can’t wait for that, both for the social reasons (party at our house!) and for the economic benefits Cholpon Eje will enjoy.