Reflections from Agnes’ 2 months in Osh: Activism in a shrinking space for civil society (and a little bit of friends and food)

1 week after arriving in Sweden again after two months in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, I am back in my collective in Stockholm, at my desk. Looking out the window, into the gray and rainy Swedish autumn, I try to recall and reflect about the time spent in Osh during my residency with Novi Ritm. I can safely say that the most rewarding aspect of the experience was the people. Colleagues, friends, youth and vendors you meet on the street or in the Bazar. Everybody with an enormous curiosity and a willingness to show and teach you their culture – especially the Kyrgyz food! And don’t forget the tea, a given part of any meal. Yum yum.

Traditional Osh food: Mayda Manty (small potato dumplings) and Samsa (filled pastry with different fillings)

However, the professional experience along with trying to understand the context of my host organization, Novi Ritm, was maybe what impacted me the most. First and foremost, Novi Ritm’s capacity to engage young people as volunteers and mentors impressed me. Although Novi Ritm is a small organization with approximately 10 employees, the team is so much bigger. Through Novi Ritm’s way of working, serving as a platform or a gathering place for young people committed to gender equality, youth participation and LGBTQI questions, they manage to make impactful work in a hard climate – that is becoming even rougher. Kyrgyzstans’ increasingly shrinking space for civil society is evident, and political willingness to enhance governance control over the sector is present in several levels of society. The latest advancement was the passing of the first reading of the “Foreign Representatives Bill” in the Kyrgyz Parliament, Jogorku Kenesh. The bill has to pass three readings before being sent to the president for signature into law, but the approval of the first reading quite clearly represents the parliament’s stance on the issue. Despite this, Novi Ritm continues organizing young people and implementing projects in the south of the country, for a peaceful, democratic and equal Kyrgyzstan where everyone’s voice is heard and where there is no place for discrimination. And although the future seems to bring a harder climate and circumstances, they do not stop.

During my time spent in Osh and with Novi Ritm, I participated in several events organized by the organization, ranging from movie nights, quiz nights and conferences. It is a unique way of getting to know people, the culture and norms. It was also a crucial aspect of my learning experience, which taught me a lot about how to work with young people as a target group, motivating young people and, not least, cultural sensitivity. Central Asia, and specifically Kyrgyzstan, was for me uncharted territory when I arrived in Bishkek a bit over 2 months ago. This experience has certainly contributed to my ability to analyze and adapt to different cultures and norms, and making suggestions and implementing initiatives with consideration to local circumstances and sensitivity towards the organizational culture and capacity. I’m so grateful for my colleagues at Novi Ritm, who took the time and dedication to explain power relations, customs and cultural aspects to me, contributing to both my own development but also to taking better initiatives adapted to the organization and the context.

Novi Ritm team after the realization of a successful International Day of the Girl conference in October

In September I held a discussion group about women’s participation in the labor market at the office. Me and the 8 participants were having a lively discussion about gender inequalities, barriers to women’s career advancement, discrimination and gender quotas. “But… does this happen in Sweden as well?” one participant asked. I directly answered “Yes”. The curiosity is back. Discussions on different types of feminism, and inequalities in different contexts arised. As for the future, many participants share that they want to study abroad, in Europe or the United States, and then find a job there. It sounds very exciting, I confirm, and I sincerely hope they all will get the opportunity to go and fulfill their dreams. But I also hope they will choose to go back to Kyrgyzstan – because in order to create an inclusive, sustainable and democratic Kyrgyzstan, the country will surely need them.

Discussion group about women’s participation in the labor market at the office of Novi Ritm

Despite this, and to connect to the beginning of this post, Kyrgyzstan for me will not be foremost remembered for their current political climate and the hardship faced by civil society. It will be remembered for brave and inspiring people, interesting meetings and hospitality – and I am sure I will have good reasons to come back.

/Agnes, Resident at Novi Ritm, Osh, September – October 2023