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Rensina van den Heuvel

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Volunteering with ADRA in Mongolia
By Rensina van den Heuvel
Saturday, January 23, 2010

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Volunteering for Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Mongolia for just a week was a rewarding and memorable introduction into Mongolian life.

A Short Time With ADRA- Mongolia
It’s late afternoon, when we drive out to the ADRA  ‘Ger ”camp.  Even my sick belly doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm and I feel like a kid going on my first school camp. The camp is about a hundred kilometres north west of Ulaanbaatar, nestled in a picturesque valley and surrounded by Siberian Pine covered, rocky mountains.

 We had ‘accidentally’ met the country director for ADRA two days prior and arranged to volunteer for a week whilst we waited for our Kazakhstan visas to be issued. ADRA- Adventist Development Relief Agency is an independent humanitarian agency established in 1984 by the Seventh Day Adventist church, for the specific purpose of providing individual and community development and disaster relief.
I had the opportunity to read ADRA’s Annual Review, which had outlined the hundreds of sustainable projects they have developed and instigated. What impressed me most was the practicality and diversity of the projects and their success rates. So many enduring results, so many successful sustainable outcomes and how much of a difference, ADRA projects have made to so many lives. The way in which ADRA operates, is supportive of the Mongolian culture. In other words they do admirable work and leave the Mongolian peoples belief systems in tact. They do not “PUSH” the church and Christianity.

We arrive.
The camp consists of six gers, one is a kitchen, one for supplies and generator storage, a ‘dining’ ger and the rest are for sleeping.
An icy wind blows in, as we park the Land Rover not far from the Gers, unload our chairs and table, put up curtains and set up our camp ready for the next few days.

The kitchen ger is splendid inside, filled with colour and very warm.  I am introduced to the two tiny cooks, Majic and Enkhee.  Both women have warm gentle eyes and thick short black hair. I feel like a giant standing next to them as they both come up to my shoulders. Smiling in greeting they talk in their native tongue, which is soft and lilting with little slurping sounds, like the whispering of the wind around the hills.  To me it sounds comforting, endearing and somehow familiar. Another warm smile and I am handed a small bowl of goat yoghurt.  A fleeting thought about the gurgling noises in my belly gets pushed away as I take a sip.  I’m not letting a little ol’ sick belly spoil one pleasurable moment of my Mongolian experience. The yoghurt is creamy and has a sweet, strong “gamey” taste.

I spend a lot of time in the kitchen ger with Majic and Enkyee for the next week as they cook for five instructors, half a dozen young, Mongolian women and men and sixteen young, male medical students from Singapore. None of the Singapore students and their teachers have ever camped or been out in the wilds like this before. What an experience it is for them as they learn many new skills, such as cutting timber with a cross saw, learning orienteering and watching a goat being slaughtered. (Think I’ll give that one a miss!)
Last night I had woken with a nauseous gut and it’s been progressively getting worse.  The pain is becoming more intense. Though it makes me feel weak and frustrated, I refuse to allow it to spoil my time here.  I try to keep busy helping the women as much as I can with the cooking as well as spending a little time writing, marmot spotting or taking photos.

Two local horsemen come galloping into camp. They ride high in their wooden saddles. Experienced horsemen, they’ve been in the saddle since they could walk.  They ride with such dexterity and skill. The horses are stocky, quite small but very tough. Many of them are cross bred with the Mongolian wild breed, Takhi.'s_Horse

Allen and I don’t see a lot of each other for a couple of days, as he is kept extremely busy fixing everything from generators to car doors now that the Mongolian men have realised just how many amazing mechanical skills he has.
The kitchen ger is the hub for social interaction and I spend most of my time there, watching the women or helping when they let me. I cook some vegetarian food for them and we communicate mostly through role-play and the odd Russian word.
It’s not long before I am peeling and chopping vegetables for their dumplings, which are filled with seaweed, eggs and grated carrots. They soak big sheets of dried seaweed for a few hours before use. It becomes very slimy and looks like wet tyre tubes. 
Gambold, one of the Mongolian camp helpers dances around, sings and makes jokes while he makes dozens of flat breads on the top of the stove.
The stove, which is situated almost in the middle of the ger, is low, rectangular and made from sheet iron. Its flue reaches up and out of the flap at the top of the ger. It has two rings and a circular centre piece, all removable, to allow different size woks to fit snugly into the opening.  It’s very energy efficient. The cooks are using wood to burn, though many nomadic Mongolians use dry dung. Majic offers me some Airag, fermented mares milk. I take just a tiny sip.
 Yuk!…. It’s repulsive and tastes really foul. I’m glad I only try a tiny bit. It’s luke warm and sort of fizzy and sour.
 The women dress me up in a traditional del and set me up to pose with a thermos of Airag for a photo.
 Majic laughs at me, her cute little face crinkling up around her oriental eyes.

One of the young Mongolian helpers is kneading sweet dough.  Huge five kilo blobs of it. After the kneading, he rolls it into long, two inch thick ropes and cuts it into four inch lengths. Each piece is given two cuts, then they are dropped into a huge wok filled with hot oil and deep fried. It tastes like shortbread and is fit for the Gods. Crisp on the outside and like a firm biscuit in the middle. It’s a Mongolian staple and keeps for months because of Mongolia’s extremely dry climate.
Having a stomach ‘bug’ is the worst possible affliction when you LOVE food!

Sometimes during the day when we are cooking, it gets too warm in the ger, then the flap at the top gets opened and they lift the sides up for a breezeway.

Local herders call in each day on their horses to bring fresh milk. Their ruggedly handsome faces are the colour and texture of fine, soft tanned leather.  We sit around on tiny kindergarten size, plastic chairs, drinking tea, trying to communicate amidst lots of laughter in this comfortable, warm and intimate environment.  I feel very privileged to be a part of this.
The day comes when it’s time to slaughter the goat. I love all the experiences but draw the line at watching that one and decide that it’s time for me to explore the nearby mountains.
Some huge eagles fly low, in the hope of grabbing an unsuspecting marmot as I begin to walk, then climb in the direction of the next valley.
Massive boulders are stacked on top of each other like slouching brown potatoes.  Tiny, low growing, succulent plants grow in the crevices, compacted together… competing for space. Little cactus whorls with miniscule segments, so perfect they look as though they are handmade, huddle together like babies toes. From the highest point, I can overlook the valley. The gers are like tiny white spots in this huge vista. The solitude, the silence and the sheer grandeur of the panorama soothes my soul. A light cool breeze whispers shyly into my ear and touches my face with the subtlety of a feather. The sun is shining, blissfully warm in a cloudless, clear sapphire sky.
It’s pure rapture. All is well in my world and I feel grateful.

As I walk back into the camp, Gange is blow-torching the hairy bits off the now dismembered goat. He holds up a leg complete with hoof. I’ll pass on that for dinner. Strong smells of burning hair and flesh fill the crisp late afternoon air.

 I decide that tomorrow I won’t eat anything. My belly’s getting worse.

 I wake up to an appetising breakfast of charcoal tablets. This turns me instantly into an unhappy, miserable wretch but eventually I succumb to Majic’s ministrations and eat some vegetable soup.
 It has rained buckets during night and the valley is now shrouded in thick white cloud. 
Sixteen students huddle around, fussing with their heavy backpacks, preparing for their four day hike and the rain doesn’t seem to dampen their spirits. Feeling so unwell for so many days tests me and I am well and truly “over it”. I want my sparkle back and silently pray to feel vibrant and full of beans again, soon. Gange, plays a couple of Traditional Mongolian farewell songs on his guitar.
Marching off all together, the group sings a loud and jubilant song. Their enthusiastic youthful voices are carried away by wind and eventually distance mutes their sounds completely and the valley becomes silent once again. I watch the group until they become tiny specks on the far off majestic mountains. It’s time for us to depart and I feel overwhelmed by my emotions. It’s hard to say goodbye.
Majic and Enkhee come to the car to see us off and I give each of them one of my scarves, which I bought from Australia. They immediately wrap them around their heads, as they smile for the photos Allen’s taking. As we drive away, I am fully aware that I may never return to this uniquely special place. I am filled with gratitude for having had this experience with ADRA, which has created unforgettable memories. I am also grateful for having met the country director Llewellyn, a dedicated, unpretentious humble man with a soft South-African accent, who replied to my praise of his work…
”Me? What would I know? I’m just a simple farmer.”



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