Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Water for elephants

We'll give the last word to Ken Doleman, CEO of Swan Valley Credit Union and a partcipant in both the 2010 and 2011 coaching missions to Mongolia.  In this post, written following his return to Canada, he reflects on Mongolia's environmental future and the role of the Zoos Hurd Credit Union in environmental sustainability. 

There is a bridge in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar that rises to broach the river, then descends to ground on the other side – much as one would expect. The difference? The river dried up some 25 years ago.

Credit Union water conservation project. Foreground: Zoos Hurd SCU Executive Director Nara
Global climate change, mining development and changing human resource usage patterns are proving cruel taskmasters for water – something we take for granted in Canada. It appears as increased desertification in the Gobi region and a growing number of dry riverbeds throughout the country where water once flowed. The April, 2010 National Geographic special issue predicts that in 15 years, 1.8 billion people will live in regions of severe water scarcity. Furthermore, glacial loss in the high heart of Asia could lead to the greatest human migration in history. Yes, people follow water.

No, there aren’t any elephants in Mongolia. Yet, water bills in Ulaanbaatar are one tenth of the cost borne by users in Ottawa. In stark contrast, a small credit union in the north-eastern Khentii aimag (province) is facing the future by taking action today.

Ken Doleman interviews Shuraa, an environmental leader and founding member of the credit union.
Their mission: to provide financial and social service for the members to improve their income; and, through these actions to contribute to local economic development. The social component embodies a strong focus on environmental issues that seem to have one thing in common – water. The credit union has fenced in freshwater springs to protect against degradation and provide a secure water source for herder families and livestock. Citizen partnerships following a cooperative model are being supported that now see 8,400 hectares under protection – through forest fire prevention activities; and, the training/promotion of sustainable land use practices.

This concern for community can be attributed in part to founding member Shuraa - a herder and environmental catalyst in the region; and, more particularly, to shared cooperative values. He has seen small rivers and springs drying up over the years. Of water he says simply, “Of course it is very important.”

The Citizen’s Partnership he heads will be sharing best practices for environmental stewardship at an upcoming event in September – having recently won accolades from the government for their work. And he will continue supporting the credit union, whose environmental work is deeply appreciated. After all, he has the future of his 6 children and unnumbered grandchildren to think about.      

The soum or regional Governor predicts that the credit union will triple in size in the near term, thanks in no small measure to its focus on environmental issues critical to the membership. The value of being member-centric!

As we leave the Umundelger soum center for the last time, a sign placed by partners in conservation catches my eye. “Trees follow water…   water is life” it proclaims. Trees, people…   it makes me think of pillars. Pillars like Shuraa and the Zoos Hurd leaders – who by living the co-operative principles and values, are building a sustainable future for their region. In the spirit of co-operation let’s toast their promising future…   with water of course. 

-- Ken (Itinerant Coach)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An interview with Dale Boisclair

When he first arrived in Mongolia in early August, credit union coach Dale Boisclair was interviewed by an Ulaanbaatar television station about the CCA mission.  The interview was conducted in English; it was likely broadcast with either subtitles or a voice-over in Mongolian.  Here is Dale's interview. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A farewell celebration

We returned to Ulaanbaatar on Thursday night; while I had a wonderful time in the countryside, it was nice to get back to the land of internet access and flush toilets (or even toilets with seats!). Had dinner in the excellent Indian restaurant in our hotel, followed by a very good sleep.

On Friday morning, the Canadian coaches and representatives of the Mongolian credit unions they had worked with gathered in a meeting room for a debriefing session on the coaching progran. Many of the Mongolians had travelled from some distance to get to the meeting, and it was interesting to hear their comments on how the coaches had helped their credit unions. After lunch, we were free to do what we wanted; many of the others went shopping, but having not had internet access for three days, I spent most of the time updating The View From Here, checking my Facebook and e-mail and taking it easy.

Friday's debriefing at the hotel

At 6 p.m., we gathered in the hotel lobby to be taken to the State dining room for the farewell celebration dinner. The venue was certainly the fanciest we had seen since we arrived in Mongolia – it was clearly a place that was used for official government functions and the like. The meal was four courses — salad, fish, beef and ice cream — and between courses there were speeches — lots of them — and entertainment. Gregory Goldhawk, Canada’s ambassador to Mongolia, was there and made a few remarks about co-operatives and Canada-Mongolia co-operation. Lydia talked about CCA's collaboration with its Mongolian partners and the opportunities awaiting co-operatives in the future, and  Sarah talked about the coaching program.  All the coaches presented certificates to the credit unions they had worked with, and the Mongolian partner organizations (MCTIC and MOCCU) presented all the Canadians with plaques and cashmere scarves.

The entertainment was wonderful — traditional Mongolian singers, musicians and a contortionist — a beautiful woman who could twist her body in every way imaginable. Apparently, this is an artform that is very popular in Mongolia, and it was a pretty amazing performance. For me, the highlight was the septet of string players who performed on traditional Mongolian instruments — there were a few regular morin khuurs (horsehead fiddles), a bass morin khuur, Mongolian harps, and an instrument that looked a bit like a banjo but was played with a bow. A lovely evening, but not our last lovely evening in Mongolia. But that’s for another post.

The string septet at the celebration dinner

-- Donna Balkan

Thursday, August 18: It's good to be back

After a long night on the train from Sainshand, Karen and I are finally back in UB. And back to all of the comforts and luxuries we usually take for granted. We have electricity, running water, internet – all at the same time! Wow!

After discussing some of our experiences over breakfast with Scott and Dale back at the Puma Hotel, I relaxed and soaked in every minute of my warm shower. Then we scheduled naps until 1pm.

From 1-5pm, we worked hard putting together our report for the Mungun Biileg Credit Union. What a good feeling to have finished putting our thoughts to paper, to help guide the credit union in their growth.

Dinner was delicious (and spiced) Indian food at the hotel’s restaurant.

Tonight I will get a good night’s sleep, so that I can recharge for tomorrow’s presentations.
-- Ramune Jonusonis

Friday, August 19, 2011

Wednesday, August 17 - last day in Sainshand

Today was our last day in Sainshand. We had a meeting with the members in the morning, where Karen and I spoke and encouraged the membership to become more involved in their Credit Union.

What was truly inspiring was the ideas that the ladies attending put forth: how they would like to help the less fortunate in the community, and how the idea of donating to community groups has really taken root in their minds.

This is what makes it worth it! We planted the ideas and they are embracing them.

-- Ramune Jonusonis

A visit to a Kazakh ger

Getting into the Mongolian groove, we met up at 10:00 am to dig further into the questions that Baiteric staff had about credit union operations.  Topics of appropriate loan criteria, sources of funding for operations, the balance between share capital and deposit funds, benefits of Credit Union membership, advertising options and some feedback about audit systems in Canada were covered. 

The depth and completeness of their understanding of the issues in credit union management was a clear indicator of the level of sophistication present within the current management team.  They demonstrated a real thirst to better understand how to meet their goal of 1000 members and 1 billion tugrogs within three years.  It seems the notion of international members was a hot new idea and they plied us with requests to increase our own investment and savings account balances!
A meal in a Kazakh ger
The afternoon was set by an invitation from the Baiteric President (Guljan) to join her at her home in Ulgii.  Finishing off a summer of weddings (two of her children were married this summer) we were ushered into the ger set up in the yard to host the waves of out of town family who came to visit.  What a feast for the eyes as the walls were lined with elaborate Kazakh embroidery hangings, bright coloured carpets covered the floor and colourful bed covers, sleeping curtains and pillow covers were laid out around the ger walls.

Kazakh karaoke?
The Kazakh gers are larger than the Mongolia gers and this was no exception.  As a summer house, there was no stove in the middle, or pole to support the dome of the ger, so there was plenty of space for the long table filled with different appetizers and the many chairs around.  Various members of her family joined the three of us together with the two Baiteric staff.  Her children are all of university age and several of them speak English quite well.  We were treated to multiple conversations in halting English as we learned more about the educational opportunities for young Mongolians, their scholarship and foreign university aspirations and the desire to return to their home soum once education is completed.

Interspersed with soup, more appetizers and rounds of vodka, we addressed some of the specific credit union questions that Guljan had.  We voiced support for the National Credit Union organization and clarified some old perceptions they had.  Given her role in local aimag politics (Guljan is an elected aimag council member) we floated the suggestion of her joining the Board of the National organization to provide relevant rural input into development of the credit union system in Mongolia. 

The afternoon wound to a close with Guljan’s husband’s uncle from Kazakhstan and his rendition of a traditional Kazakh song complete with dombra accompaniment (the traditional two stringed banjo like instrument of Kazakhstan).  Further contributions by Guljan, a song by her husband and a Canadian effort of “This Land is Your Land” added to the Karaoke-like feel of the afternoon.

We parted at 6 pm with promises to get together later for dinner if their final wedding party with the family of the bride would end early.  Alas, it appears the party went on as we never heard from them for the balance of the evening.  Given the constant nibbling through the entire afternoon, we were glad for the break from further eating and relaxed til bedtime harkened.

--Scott Hughes

August 16: Dale Boisclair reports from Ulgii

Greetings from the remote, rugged and more than just a little run down Aimeg capital of Ulgii (or Olgii, depending on which version you use) Our arrival was a little harried but all’s well that ends well. We were originally dropped off at one of the two decent (decent being an altogether relative term)  hotels in town and I was quite excited. It had a great wifi connection, small but comfortable rooms with clean ensuite bathrooms and lots and lots of hot water.

We arrived early and our rooms weren’t ready yet so while they were being cleaned I caught up on a few e-mails all the while thinking longingly of the first shower I was going to have in four days. Then, just as we were ready to unpack, our interpreter got a call from the host organization and said the whole thing was a mistake.......... we were supposed to check into a ger camp on the other side of town. So off we trundled to the Blue Wolf Ger Camp – a collection of small and large gers in a fenced in back yard that has more the feel of an abandoned gravel pit than the open steppes one normally associates with a ger. Oh well, I’m comfortably ensconced in a HUGE five man ger with electricity and sporadic wifi and it’s a short walk to the shower building where there are real toilets and hot showers – what more can you ask for!

Credit Union staff honour their newest members with a Canadian flag

Our actual work here has been with a local credit union that you would recognize as a credit union anywhere. It’s a VERY small office in a hidden corner of a rundown office building but from this location four staff looks after the financial needs of over 300 members. They take deposits and grant loans and they play an important role in the community because many of their members wouldn’t be able to access these services through regular chartered banks. And speaking of members, the credit union’s two newest members are from Canada! Scott and I both opened memberships and I deposited $20,000 MNT to a new savings account and I have the Mongolian pass book and new member coffee mug to prove it!

-- Dale Boisclair

Kharkhorin: co-operatives in action: part two

After lunch at the Beh credit union, we visited another Kharkhorin co-operative, the Zuulun Suvd production co-op.  This is a small co-op -- only nine members -- but it has an enormous impact. Its primary objective is to provide a livelihood for elderly and disabled women, which it does through the production of felt slippers, hats, boots, souvenirs and other products.  The co-op has been very successful, and some of its products have been brought to Ulaanbaatar to be sold.  Another wonderful example of co-operatives in action.

A co-op member cards dyed wool, which will be used to make felt products

Mongolia's rugged terrain makes life difficult for people with mobility impairments, but this woman now has a viable livelihood because of the co-op.

Felt slippers are one of the co-op's specialties: needless to say, we went shopping!

--  Donna Balkan

Kharkhorin: co-operatives in action: part one

We left the ger camp at around 9 on Wednesday and headed for Kharkhorin, where we visited Beh Credit Union, where Gary Seveny and Trudy Rasmuson have been working as coaches. The credit union was established in 2002 with 10 members; as the manager, Dash, put it, "The economic situation here was very poor and we had no access to loans.  So we decided to improve our financial situation by ourselves and opened the credit union."

Dash, the manager of the Beh Credit Union, in the CU office

In front of the credit union: l to r: Ganbold (the CU's accountant), Trudy, Dash, Gary.  The word that can be seen on the blue sign is khorshoo, the Mongolian word for "co-operative".
Today, Beh has over 200 members and more than 100 members have already received loans from the CU.  They have used the money for everything from creating small businesses to home improvements to paying for their children's tuition. The credit union also organizes social activities for its members, and I was particularly pleased to hear that it encourages its members to buy products from other members, thus increasing member engagement in the CU.

More recently, the credit union has started a transportation service as a ancilliary business; and it won an award from local authorities for its contribution to agriculture in the area.  The prize was a tractor, and members can borrow it for their own agricultural activities.

When we asked Dash about the kind of people who join the credit union, he brings out a piece of paper listing all the members by age, gender and occupation, The membership is 51.3 per cent female and 48.7 per cent male, and 42 per cent are between the ages of 30 and 45.  Dash runs down the list of occupations: "One member of parliament, 35 from the soum (local) government, 20 own small businesses, 48 work for private businesses, 16 herders, 10 work in agriculture.....and so on, until he gets to "one student".   We talked about the impact of Gary and Trudy's coaching assignment, and Dash seemed pleased with their recommendations. "I am really glad that people in Canada came here and shared their experiences. It's really helpful for us."

-- Donna Balkan

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tuesday, August 16: "Camping"in the hotel

I’m almost getting used to the constant alarm sound coming from the elevator. For the second day, the hotel does not have electricity or running water. When the power does come back on, it’s only at 11pm at night. So we’re essentially camping out… in a nice hotel…

Today was our second day working with the Credit Union. We met some more of the ladies on the committees and discussed some more ideas for them – including the Canadian practice of giving back to the community.

After a big dinner at a local restaurant, the ladies of the management team had “some entertainment” planned for us…. And it came in the form of a private karaoke room at the back of the building! I’ve never seen so many women having so much fun! Karen and I were serenaded and entertained by both traditional and pop Mongolian songs… sung by the Board of Directors and other ladies from their Lending and Supervisory Committees! What a night! My cheeks still hurt from smiling.
- Ramune Jonusonis

My last day at BEH Credit Union

Morning came early, once again, but today has extra activity at the ger camp. Most of the "residents" are departing for other areas of Mongolia continuing their vacations and explorations. They come from all over the world but primarily Britain, Germany, France and one lone young lady from Washington state, USA.

They each have their own story as to why they chose Mongolia and none had pre-conceived notions of grandeur.

The young lady from Washington state is a fire fighter. She took a sabatical which started the beginning of April 2011 when she tried downhill skiing in Mongolia. She said the slopes were great but the snow conditions were poor most everywhere she went. They do not get as much snow as we in North American ski centers get, therefore the base is minimal and the wind sept snow is crusty to icey. Plus there are no ski lifts. Your manually trek to the top of the mountain and then ski down. Sounds like hard work.

She explained to me that since the snow melted she has been bicycling all over Mongolia and has felt safe on her own. She pitches her own tent each day and really enjoys the mix of solitude and times when she has companionship at ger camps.

Yesterday before she arrived at camp, she had been caught in a storm that started off as sleet and turned to snow followed by a down-pour. It turned the dirt road into a mud pool that lasted about 4 to 5 miles that she had to push her bike with her camping trailer through mud that was well above her ankles. Being a fire man fighting forest fires, she looked very strong and determined. The weather certainly did not prevent her from arriving at her chosen destination.

Stories like hers are repeated by other tourists which make the ger camp quite enjoyable.

Today I picked up the beautifully tailored dale ( a traditional full length garment of distinction) that I had made for my wife. The tailor had me acquire the silk at the market and next day it was ready. In Canadian dollar terms, the silk cost $30 and her tailoring was $20. Bargains like this are hard to believe especially when you see the quality of workmanship and attention to detail of very fine decorative stitching and patterns.

Trudy and I had prepared a presentation of recommendations to BEH Credit Union of where we saw their opportunities to improve and focus. These were primarily where the greatest value could be achieved for the credit union and its members. Dash, the Manager, made notes throughout the 2 hours that we presented. On concluding, he thanked us deeply saying that we had brought forward real options for them to make great strides. He liked everything we presented but also confessed that he personally had some resistance to overcome his "continue as before" comfort zone. We really appreciated this feedback because we have all been in the position that ideas are presented to us and we resist until the seed of that idea germinates and develops within us and wins us over. Dash pledged to try these options because he knew we were bringing him real world experiences and knowledge that was invaluable. I am bowled over by all the credit union people that we worked with because they badly want to attain the success that we have achieved in Canada.

Our team at Beh Credit Union: l to r: Gamboldt, Dash, Jig, Trudy
 As lunch time approached, Sarah Feldberg and Donna Balkan from Canadian Co-operative Association arrived for their own deliberations with the credit union and then with the felt producers co-op.

Mid afternoon we all toured the Erdene Zuu which is the 16th century Buddhist temple in Khara-Khorum. It is a huge temple of at least 25 acres within the temple walls. Our hired guide was eloquent with all the historical information as well as informing us of the proper observance of Buddhist ritual of circling some inner temples three times and our prayers and wishes would be granted.

Spinning the brass prayer drums three times was done by each of us as we travelled through the various temple buildings.

Many of the buildings were now museum type locations with religious artifacts and treasures that each held special meaning and significance. Concluding this visit proved tiring since it is so very large. But before we departed the temple, we visited a Buddhist ger where a wedding was underway and the family members were each receiving blessings. We observed the ceremony but made certain that we did not impinge on the privacy of the family. While we did not understand the words conveyed, we could see the happiness on the family members' faces and that of the bride and groom.

Arriving at the ger camp, Sarah and Donna and their translator were assigned a ger and I agreed to have their driver share my ger which had four beds in it.

That evening after dinner, Gamboldt and Dash showed up at the ger camp dining room with gifts, Airag and vodka. Plus a throat singer to entertain us. The evening was very pleasant and entertaining. the whole camp attended our celebrations and one fellow even entertained us with a few Beatles songs that he had perfected.

The Erdene Zuu monastery

It was the perfect ending to a perfect day in Mongolia.

-- Gary Seveny

Tuesday, August 16: A co-op in the "real Mongolia"

“Now you’re going to see the real Mongolia”, Sarah said to me as we left UB for the countryside.

Our destination was the Batkhani Uguj co-operative in Erdenesant soum, a co-op which was founded just three months ago and already has 90 members. Its home is an abandoned building that had been donated by the soum (municipal authority); the building was in very poor repair, and it was renovated with the help of Australian international development funding. The co-op as created to provide livelihooods for some of the unemployed women in the community, and to give herders an opportunity to have the products of their livestock processed and sold. Felt is one of the co-ops primary products, since it is used to cover gers (the tents that most herders live in) as well as slippers, bags, jewelry and other items. The co-op also does weaving, makes items out of horse and camel hair, and even sells such food products as kuuchuur (fried pancakes filled with mutton) and airag (fermented mare’s milk, a very popular drink in rural Mongolia). It also has a small store which sells basic goods and some vegetables.

In front of the co-op with members and special guests from the local government. Tsolmon, the co-op manager,  is standing between me and Sarah.
A local herder brings felt to the co-op to process
We were welcomed by Tsolmon, the co-op’s manager who explained that she, like many of the members, had been unemployed before starting the co-op. She gave us a tour of the co-op where we learned about the arts of feltmaking and weaving. Felt is a very important commodity in Mongolia, as it is used to cover gers, the traditional tents in which many Mongolians live . While we were walking around, a herder came in wearing a del, a traditional costume which is rarely seen in the city, but is quite common in the countryside. The herder brought in a new supply of felt for the co-op to turn into ger coverings, slippers and other products.

It was then time for lunch, and we quickly learned that Mongolians are probably the most hospitable people on earth. There were a few special guests, including Ms. Bumbuyan, the vice-governor of the Erdenesant soum, probably the equivalent of a Canadian deputy mayor.

Lunch at the co-op. The soum's deputy governor is seated, at centre
The table was laden with all the traditional delicacies I had read about before coming to Mongolia: a platter laid high with various dairy products such as cheeses and dried curds. Kushuur, which were delicious. Rice. And even some vegetables and fruits, which are not that common in rural Mongolia. It was obvious that we were honoured guests, and we enjoyed the meal immensely. There was salty Mongolian milk tea, and my first taste of airag, which actually was better than I had expected, although it was very rich and I could only drink a little.  After lunch, we all gathered in front of the co-op for photos, then headed off with the entire group to visit Altan, a herder who is a member of the co-op board. A visit to a herder’s ger is always a highlight of travelling in Mongolia, and I was looking forward to this new experience. But that’s another story...

-- Donna Balkan

Travelling in Mongolian Time

I’m really excited to leave as our work set the Credit Union up well, and although I really like my coaching partner and interpreter, we have spent way too much time in the same room. At 9 we would be off to our new location and then have a fun day to relax. That’s what the plan is supposed to be. At noon we are still in our room waiting. No call from the host picking us up and no sign of her. I’m not surprised. One wrong turn on the unmarked dirt roads and you could end up in Siberia. We decide to go for a last swim in the river and cool off. We get the call that the car got stuck in the mud and they would be collecting us after lunch. 

We finally get picked up and pack our stuff into a luxury Toyota SUV. Things are looking up... No hold on...No sooner do we leave the village than we have to turn back as our new host Narra has to purchase something at the store. Its now close to 4 and we are finally leaving. We drive like crazy in the dirt, avoiding potholes and multiple dirt paths. At one point our driver decides it’s time to get off the road and drive through a field of grass straight towards the mountains.

Now we are making our own road. It’s a lot smoother then the dirt road however we do have to drive through rivers and bogs. Not sure what we will do if we get stuck. I asked Narra how they managed to get out of the mud. She said they waited for a herder to come along on his motor bike to get a push by hand...however, Narra looks impeccably dressed and is wearing high-end glasses, matching purse and high-heeled shoes. She said she was covered in mud and had to stop and clean by the river and then dry her clothes. That’s why she was late. I guess that’s what we will do also. Just then, a clear plastic bag filled with cream falls on my lap. It’s breakfast, Narra says and then holds it on her lap for the rest of the trip. 
We come across some unusual stone carvings that stick straight out of the land. Narra explains that they are Deer Stones from the Ottoman Empire. Very cool ... you can barely make out the dear carvings.

The mountains are really just large hills with some larger rocks and at a high elevation. We get to our first destination... dinner at a herder’s summer home. Narra says as we arrive “There are many members here to greet us and hot pot is on the stove... You will be expected to make some speeches and possibly sing karaoke please enjoy.”

I was able to sit in the ger and get in a few formal toasts and make my introduction while my interpreter restated everything in Mongolian. I actually see the hot pot before it comes off the stove and they let me photograph the cooking and preparation. The stones help regulate the heat. Once cooked you take the stones out, let them cool briefly and then try to hold them... moving them from hand to hand before they burn through your skin. They are all greasy and slimy from the lamb fat. The hot fat and rocks make your hands super soft. It’s actually disinfecting as well as we are about to eat with our hands, no utensils.

After a delicious dinner (it was!) we start up a generator and turn on the computer and speakers and get the microphones going. People begin to pick the songs and I get myself out of it by being a so-called judge. Close call, not sure if I can avoid singing for the next week

The Mongolians are very persistent when it comes to telling your story through song. First up the young herder and his wife... he begins to sing and the cows all look up and begin to come towards the ger. It seems that a stampede is about to run through our camp any second. The cattle stop about 100 yards away and listen to the singing and appear to be enjoying the show.

-- Bruno Dragani

Bruno Dragani's last day in Binder Soum

The village is filled with excitement as today the credit union will be having its fifth anniversary celebration. Members have been entering a contest all year and they have been anticipating the big draw for some time. In fact, the credit union delayed the draw so that we could be the dignitaries to award the grand prizes: a fully loaded 150cc motorcycle and a satellite dish with all the goodies. They also have a series of cash prizes. Ken and I are asked to make speeches to encourage members to move savings deposits to the credit union and attract more memberships. The event is going to start at 3 pm sharp and it might last an hour. Then we are off to camp overnight and cook “hotpot”. As usual Mongolian time dictates the start of our event. So we are at the town hall at 3 only to find it empty with the prizes all set up on stage. The building starts to fill up at 4 and we get going at 4:30 or 5.

Many of the elders are dressed in traditional Mongolian clothing.

Speeches, a powerpoint presentation, and then our speeches. Both Ken and I present a gift from our respective credit unions to Nassa, the Chair and Executive Director. Neither Ken nor I talked about giving and yet we both brought something small from local artists to present so they could remember us. Interestingly, we both chose carvings of birds. His was a rock carving of an eagle and mine a wood carving of a humming bird. Both artists were Aboriginal people from our areas. After Ken and I are done our speeches, the draw begins and it goes on for at least 2 hours as they start with the equivalent of $1.00 Canadian and work their way up to the grand prizes. I get to pull the name for the winner of the satellite dish which happens to be one of the shop owners who is thrilled. Ken gets to pick the winner of the motor bike. He picks one of the elders who can barely walk or hear. Later he joins us for dinner and presents Ken with chocolates and vodka. He keeps thanking Ken and I’m sure if he could package him up and keep him as a luck charm, he would.

Winner of the motorcycle!

By the time we leave the hall it's beginning to rain and Nassa suggests not camping. Good thing as the bugs would have eaten us alive. We get back to our one room cell in which all three of have been sleeping, eating and working for the last 3 days and are told we will be collected at 8ish. Dinner would be ‘Hot Pot” in the kitchen/pub/nightclub/whatever you want it to be room next door. Hot pot is lamb shanks and other sheep parts with carrots, potatoes and large rocks all cooked on an open fire in a cast iron pot. I never got to see it made, but I am told that it’s a local favorite for Mongolians so it’s likely I will see it when we visit another area. They could use the help of Iron Chefs, as the presentation needs some work. Its heaped into a large mound of meat and fat with a few vegetables and then placed in plates for two to three people to eat from. Yikes... utensils aren’t necessary and I begin to dig in with my hands. Surprisingly it’s also my fav. It’s cooked perfectly and the meat falls off the bone. Probably the best lamb shank I have ever had. Here they call all the meat we are eating mutton, but I keep correcting my Mongolian friends that it must be lamb because it’s so tender and tasty. It also sounds better to me… I going to write in and get the next Hell’s Kitchen to be filmed from Binder Soum. It’s shocking that something so unappetizing can be so good to eat.

Hotpot with rocks!!

The dinner is basically a private function, but people keep coming in and looking at what’s going on. At about 10, I realize they want us to get out as the place needs to transition into a night club. By this time we have had so many toasts and words of kindness that a night club sounds good to me. We begin dancing and enjoying all the new people who join the party. That lasts until 1 pm and then off to the credit union to finish the night with rounds of Mongolian signing. They should really have a Mongolian’s Got talent show as they can all sing so confidently. This lasts until 2 am and our host sends us to bed. I can hear them still going well after I settle in to a good nights sleep. Nassa tells me the next day that they left at 4 am.

-- Bruno Dragani

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Scott and Dale join a credit union

 Our first day with the credit union in Ulgii was a great introduction to the size, scope and aspirations of this fairly young credit union.  Seemingly well managed with a healthy governance structure and balance sheet, the questions focused on methods for member growth and competing with other local banks.  Given the regulatory restrictions on direct advertising for credit unions in Mongolia, we raised some ideas about news stories of credit union events, member referral reward programs and community project support as other ways to spread the good message and increase new member acquisition.  These ideas were definitely new and there was a healthy dose of scepticism from the Baiteric staff, but with continued persistence in describing how these can be effective and relating the Canadian experience they softened with time.

Scott receives a mug for becoming a new member
In a move to directly impact new member acquisition, Dale and I signed up for accounts in the credit union and place our funds into both member share accounts and deposit accounts.  The excitement was tangible as our host Mr. Sauhan (Baiteric’s accountant) leapt to prepare paper work and diligently request passport and other identification.  A proud moment it was as he handed over our new member mug (a Baiteric imaged coffee mug – a gift for each new member) and the pass book for our new accounts.  The event demanded a christening of the mugs and a celebration of the account opening so a round of vodka ensued to mark the occasion.  This, combined with our horsemeat snack (seemed always available) set us up for a great rest of the morning!

We lunched at the nearby Turkish restaurant (were we really that far west?) which seemed the only place in Mongolia which does a nice grilled chicken.  Leaving the tough questions for the next day when the President would join us, we toured the town further, checked out the local museum and joined our Baiteric compatriots for dinner at the other nice restaurant in town.  They begged off early to attend yet another gathering related to the same wedding as Saturday night with promises to meet again in the morning.

-- Scott Hughes

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why don't we have politicians like this in Canada?

This afternoon (August 15), I went with Lydia, Myagaa (the executive director of the Mongolian Cooperative Training and Education Centre...aka MCTIC)...and an interpreter named Ganbat to the Mongolian parliament.  We had a meeting with a the Vice-Chairman of the Mongolian parliament...the equivalent of the Canadian Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons.

Our visit to Parliament:  l to r: Myagaa, Donna, Lydia and Enkhbold

But Enkhbold Nyamaa is not just any politician.  He also happens to be the president of the National Mongolian Cooperators Association (NMCA), the apex organization which was created just a few years ago when the country's sectoral co-operative federations decided they wanted to get together to speak with one voice. The first thing we discovered is that the interpreter wasn't really necessary -- Enkhbold's English is fluent. The second thing we learned is that Mongolia's long-awaited credit union legislation, which was drafted with the help of a CCA technical co-operant and has been seven years in the making, will likely be adopted this fall.  And the third thing we learned was that the co-operative sector has a strong and effective advocate in the Mongolian parliament.

Like many of the co-operators we have met in Mongolia, Enkhbold sees the country's rapidly-growing mining sector as an important opportunity for co-operatives.  The mining industry needs services: and who better to provide those services than co-ops?  "The mining sector is developing very fast; it is the engine for the rest of the economy," he told us. "But the mining companies don't do the small things that co-operatives can do."

Tomorrow morning, Sarah and I head off to the Mongolian countryside, while Lydia remains in Ulaanbaatar for meetings with a variety of stakeholders.  More to come...internet access willing.

-- Donna Balkan

16 "crazy ladies" = Mongolia's first credit union

The way Batta T. tells it, Mongolia's first credit union was started by "16 crazy ladies". Batta is the Chief Executive Officer of the Mongolian Confederation of Credit Unions (MOCCU), a Moncord Credit Union board member and a 2011 graduate of CCA's Women's Mentorship Program.

This morning, Sarah and I went to visit Moncord, which was established in 1996 (Mongolia's CU movement is very young) and today is the country's largest in terms of membership and second-largest in terms of assets.

Batta (right) and Moncord board chair Daria at the CU

The "16 crazy ladies" were members of a women's economic club that were concerned about the problems women were having obtaining loans for their small businesses. After a month of training by two credit union profesionals from the Philippines ("We met in shopping centres, cafes, wherever was convenient", they started writing Moncord's bylaws...and the rest is history.

The visit to Moncord was not just a lesson in CU history, it was also an opportunity to find out about the concrete results of CCA's coaching program. Last year, CCA coaches Trudy Rasmuson (who is on this year's mission) and Martin McInnis (who couldn't make it this time around) spent the better part of a week with Moncord and today,they have already implemented many of the coaches' recommendations. They have improved security at the CU, revised the loan application forms, and made changes to the way loan applicants are evaluated. And most importantly, they have incorporated all the recommendations into Moncord's business plan, so that these reforms are an integral part of their planning and operations.

How exciting to witness the impact of CCA's work first-hand!

-- Donna Balkan

First day at BEH SCU

It was a really cold night making sleep a little sporadic. The ger camp has tourists and travelers coming and going each day. It is a pleasure talking to them  about their vacations in Mongolia and where they are from.
Through the night, someone tried to get in my ger at about 4 am. I awoke and spoke that this was my ger and the person left without a word. My ger door doesn’t close properly and I tie a string around the  bolt and frame to keep the door shut. I had shown this problem to the owner last night and she will have her father fix the door today while I am out.
I was the first to get to the showers this morning at 6:30 am. The showers have a very small heater mounted on the wall that heats the water as it flows through to the shower head. Yesterday it did not work very well and I had a cold shower. Today it work marvelously and I had a hot shower. Actually too hot.  However, when the outside temperature is in the 45 F range, you take all the heat you can get to get the chill out of your bones. At about 9 am the temperature will rise to about 60 F and get better by mid day around 78 F.
Gambold was the most punctual Mongolian we met. He was always at least 10 minutes early. We spent the day from 10 am to 6 pm at the credit union actually doing the work we had planned and the staff were really anxious to cooperate with us.
At the end of the day, Dash took us to see a few sites and then we returned to our ger camp for dinner and an early night to bed.
-- Gary Seveny

Helping to see

The Chinggis Khaan statue
There is a valley 210 kilometres east of UB, that leaving payment behind, winds about the same distance north. It is a wide expanse, bracketed by mountainous steppes. At the northern end along the Onon River lies Binder soum (soum is akin to a rural municipality) which is the soum center – and fabled home of the Great Emperor Chinggis Khaan.

An intensive day’s work at the soum’s credit union is behind us. After a refreshing swim in the Onon our good natured host and credit union leader Nasaa (his `short` name) is anxious to share the treasured history of his homeland.

Moving across the plain, we arrive at the first of two monuments we will visit. One of three bodies of water mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols yet remains. Such is the deep history of this place. We are standing on the spot where 805 years ago (don’t get me started on the difference between a country and a civilization), a Mongol named Temujin was proclaimed Chinggis Khaan, uniting the Mongol tribes and forever changing the course of history across Asia and Europe.

A marker from an American archaeological expedition attests to the authenticity of the site. Most striking, is the inscribed stone monument that rises to dominate the small fenced compound - dedicated by the Mongolian people. At the moment it is an eerily quiet place, the sun readying to set.

Monument commemorating Chinggis Khaan's birthplace, with the valley and lake in the background
Distracted, I now notice our host has prepared a toast for each present – in true Mongolian tradition, with a popular vodka. We toast, yet it somehow seems an insufficient expression of respect. I have nothing with me, save the better part of the generous toast provision… so I do what pilgrims might do. Walking over to the monument, pour out my drink on it. This appears to resonate with our group, as they follow suit.

We now move to a small hill, with the valley spreading out before us. This was the birthplace of Chinggis Khaan in 1162. “Imagine what this would have looked like,” I ask my host and interpreter, “when Chinggis and his army were here.” Their eyes lit up as we filled in possible details of the scene. Yes, it would have been epic!

The next afternoon we are asking Nasaa and his staff to see again… this time it is their credit union’s future. And it is much more than a visioning exercise. It yields concrete strategic goals, objectives and accountabilities. They are a committed and talented group, serving their growing membership well. And the hospitality we experience is both genuine and generous.

Did I mention I am now somebody’s hero? Yes, thanks to being allowed the honour of drawing the winning grand prize entry in a yearlong campaign run in conjunction with the credit union’s fifth anniversary celebrations. Evidently the old herder and I are now friends for life. I hope he enjoys his motorcycle…

It may be challenging, but being an international development coach is an enriching experience. Personally, I think every Canadian credit union CEO should do it. As I leave Binder soum though, I just can’t seem to get Bob Seger’s refrain from Turn the Page out of my head.

Itinerant Coach (and occasional pilgrim)

August 14: The road to Udurkhan Kentii

On the way to our new site Undurkhan Kentii...which is still about 220 km away from Ulaanbaatar. It doesn’t seem like a far distance yet it’s another world in the back country. The dirt road system is so bad that it could take days to get back to UB. On the way to Undurkhan we stop and visit a few members' Gers and are treated with the traditional milk tea which is one speck of black tea in warm milk. Yuk… I take a few sips and decide that I have become lactose intolerant for the rest of my stay in Mongolia.

...spinning a prayer wheel, not generating power

The gers are really cool. All of the ones I have been to have flat screen TV’s, satellite dishes and generators or power that they take directly from a power pole. They all have computers and cell phones. It’s so weird as they seem to still do so many things in the traditional way and prefer their gers over wooded structures. Cow dung is stacked and drying next to the ger as it will be used as a heat source by burning it in the winter.

Mongolian saddle

Bruno in the saddle

We make our way to the next Ger and this time I get to ride the owner's horse. This horse seems really small when you are on it. They are really nice to ride and have a smooth gait. Now I have ridden a horse in Mongolia. Not many people can say that.

I’m also treated to some of the social programs this Credit Union is doing. One is water conservation. We stop at a corral-like structure surrounding a small amount of water. It’s a natural spring and the water comes up from the ground in a small amount. It provides a water source to all the herder families in the area. It has to be protected from the animals as they will trample it down to a mud pit.

We arrive in Undurkhan and see an actual 'hotel' sign. We check into our adjoining rooms with a shared toilet. Ken and I still have to share a room but at least we have a room for Mongo. However a shower is only available at the public shower house. The shower room turns out to be a real treat. It’s absolutely spotless and disinfected after each use. It’s the best hot shower I can remember having.

Is this hotel five-star??

Hmmm...maybe not

Clean and fed, we return to our room and people keep poking their heads in. I try to lock it but there's no lock on the exterior door. Later the housekeeper comes by and lets us know that the hotel is full and our water closet is the main one for the hotel. She then hands us a padlock key for the toilet and locks our bedroom doors. All night long and all morning it was a steady parade of people using our so-called sink. I finally get out of bed, open the door between our adjoining rooms to get to the water closet and find her outside my door. I’m just in my undershorts, but she had no issues with that and takes my hand leading me to the sink to show me how clean and shiny she has kept it. So I wash my face and then go over to the toilet room. She unlocks it for me, throws a bucket of water into the toilet and flushes. Then she lets me in and points to how clean it is. She then shows me the incense and matches and shuts the door. I then realize she must have been outside my door all night guiding each person through the same ritual and cleaning after each one. That’s why it was so noisy.

-- Bruno Dragani

Monday, August 15: Ramune and Karen meet with the Mungunbiileg CU

Today we had our first session with the Mungunbiileg CU. Karen and I met with three ladies from their Board of Directors: Inkchin, Tumro and Soogee (I apologize in advance for my feeble attempts at spelling Mongolian names).

They presented the history of their CU and some of its structure. The remainder of the day was spent asking more detailed questions about their practices and procedures, membership base and future plans.

We began relaying some information which they found particularly interesting: promotion of children’s savings accounts, risk-rating models and risk-based pricing.

Working in Mongolia is a funny thing. Although Tuul is doing a fabulous job, I am sure that some things get lost in translation. For example, Karen or I will say 1 sentence and then Tuul will translate, speaking for 2 or 3 minutes. Alternately, we will ask a question, Tuul will relay it to the Board. The Board will then discuss it rather passionately for 5 minutes, and Tuul will respond “Yes” to us. It’s hilarious to think about, sometimes.

After a brief tour of the Sainshand city post-dinner, we went back to our dark hotel rooms. The electricity had been out since approx. 1 pm. So, to keep ourselves busy, we did some yoga. Tuul was interested and wanted me to show her some of the yoga that I do back home. So Karen supervised and commented on our form (from her water yoga experience), while we wriggled and balanced and downward-dogged in my candlelit room. Considering the A/C wasn’t working, it was a pretty good replication of a hot/moksha yoga experience!

-- Ramune Jonusonis

A visit to the black market stalls

Today we commence our work at BEH credit union. `
We met Dash, the Manager, Gambold, the Accountant & Loans Officer and Solungut, the cashier. All the employees seem to be able to do each other’s job and answer most any question competently. As we gathered for our information meeting in the one room office of the credit union, several members came in and some joined our discussions particularly Board members and Committee members.
From a work perspective, the day was very rewarding as we accomplished much. It is clearly apparent that there are some “strange rules and ratios” that we do not comprehend the need or value for. Perhaps it is because they are new in their development of the credit union system and being very cautious. We will arrive at conclusions and recommendations over the next two days.
During our lunch break, Gambold took us to the black market where I bought several meters of silk at a great price. I took this to a seamstress who is making me a traditional dale to where at home. We visited several merchants and saw how they make their wares and the marketing they do.
At the end of the day, we visited a monument on the top of one of the mountains that overlooks the town. It is a tribute to Mongolian history of its empire over 1400 years from the sixth century to now. Three huge mosaic panels displayed maps of Asia and Europe showing the vast expanse achieved by Genghis Kahn as the most accomplished empire builder and another panel showed a lesser expanse with the third panel showing this century and how Mongolia shrank from greatness.
The sights from this mountain top were spectacular and there were several merchant selling their wares. Of course I am many tugriks lighter but the gifts will provide long lasting memories.
We returned to our ger camp for dinner and then a relaxing night.

-- Gary Seveny

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Donna arrives in Ulaanbaatar

After many many hours on airplanes and in airports -- I left from Halifax on Saturday morning at 6:30 a.m. and arrived in UB at around 10:30 on Sunday night Mongolia time -- I am finally here!

We were picked up at the airport by Myagaa, the executive director of the Mogolian Cooperative Training and Information Center (MCTIC), CCA’s partner organization in Mongolia, and Amara, a MCTIC program officer. In true Mongolian fashion, “Myagaa” and “Amara” are short forms of their real first names, and that’s what everyone calls them. Although Mongolians do have last names, they are rarely used, and many Mongolian business cards include only a first name and the first initial of the last name. (For example, Amara is listed on our itinerary as Amarajargal B. and Myagaa is Myagmar-Ochir T.) So different from Japan, where I spent two weeks being referred to as Barukan-san (a Japanese pronunciation of “Balkan” with the suffix “san”, used in names as a sign of respect). I am very happy that I will be called “Donna” throughout this trip!

The airport is about half an hour away from downtown UB; because it was dark, I didn’t get to see much, but it is clear from all the bright lights that UB is a large, modern and very cosmopolitan city. The advertising billboards along the road from the airport were a mixture of Mongolian with a surprising smattering of English. As in Seoul, where I spent about 5 hours in the airport waiting for my flight to UB, it is clear that English is used a lot in business, even though not everyone speaks it.

Our hotel is the Puma Imperial, right downtown just off S├╝khbaatar Square, an important focal point for navigating the city. The square commemorates Mongolia`s “hero of the revolution”, Damdin S├╝khbaatar, who declared Mongolia’s independence from China in 1921. At the centre of the square, there is a large bronze statue of another Mongolian hero: Chinggis Khaan (normally referred to in English as Genghis Khan). Eight centuries after he led the Mongols to become the greatest known empire of that time, Chinggis Khaan is still very much revered in this country.

It was good to get to the hotel. Although my room is small (when was the last time I saw a single bed?), it is clean and comfortable. And most importantly for me, the internet access is excellent. I called my husband Jim on Skype when I got in and he sounded like he was just around the corner. Then I went to sleep for the first time in about 24 hours. The single bed notwithstanding, it was fantastic!!!

Today we will be visiting several credit unions, having lunch with the board of MCTIC and visiting the Mongolian parliament. Today’s Mongolia is one of the most democratic countries in Asia, and I get the impression that Mongolians are quite proud of that fact, having emerged from first Chinese, and then Russian domination. The adventure begins!

-- Donna Balkan

Sunday August 14: A watermelon farm in the Gobi Desert

Today we woke up at 3am and left the hotel in a mini-van, together with a few of the ladies (+ friends, grandmothers, children) from the Credit Union – whom we had met last night. In typical Mongolian fashion, our entire entourage turned out to include approx. 15 people altogether!

We bounced through the desert for 2 hours, while my head bobbed in and out of sleep. I wasn’t sure if we were merely driving until the sun came up – or heading for a specific destination. Eventually, we arrived at the foot of a large hill. There was a sacred path of prayer that led up the 100’s of stairs to the top, dotted with “ovoos” (shamanistic rock piles where people pray). We had 10 minutes to climb before the sun was expected to rise at 5:30am.

After a few quick stops and rests, we made it to the top – very slightly out of breath. As the sun was beginning to peak out from beyond the horizon, we made our offerings at the ovoo – including cookies, birdseed and (you guessed it) a few shots of vodka for good measure.

Although the morning wind was cold and sleep was still tugging at my eyelids, the view was spectacular and definitely worth the climb! We stood at the summit for 20 minutes and took photos, then began our descent.

Midway down the hill, we burned incense and made wishes – as is the custom.

At the base, we all piled back into our 2 vans and continued onto the Khamariin Hiid Monastery further in the desert. We had a tailgate breakfast of sliced sausage, cucumbers and bread – which were a welcome change, since we had strictly been eating various combinations of rice and mutton for the past week.

After a tour of the World Energy Centre, the monastery and various stops at the holy caves, we drove to a nearby ger (aka “yurt”) tourist camp which is owned by one of the CU members. We were escorted to the deluxe brick ger. And it really was deluxe. It had 2 plush sofas, a king-sized and single bed, a television and a mini-fridge – in addition to a private bathroom with plumbing! Definitely a tourist ger rather than the typical types we had seen in the villages.

However, we were happy to be told that we were there with the sole purpose of napping. So nap we did. After 2 hours we were called to have lunch in the central building: “buuz” (mutton dumplings) and mutton noodle soup. Afterwards, we chatted with some of the CU’s ladies’ daughters in English. It was good practice for them, and it was nice for us to get to know our new set of friends in Sainshand.

On our return trip to the city, we made one last stop at a farm. That’s right… there is a farm smack dab in the middle of the Gobi desert! A few in fact. The one we stopped to walk through was predominantly a watermelon farm. Mmmmmm… my first piece of fruit since we left UB. It was mouth-wateringly delicious!

-- Ramune Jonusonis

Saturday, August 13: Travel day

This morning we left Ugtaal and drove the 80kms to Choir in a Russian “Jeep”. Unfortunately, the Russian Jeep broke down. Fortunately, it was within the last 5kms of the trip. We were on the outskirts of Choir – and the driver’s wife’s sister was able to come pick us up. She is, very conveniently, a taxi driver in the town.

Our 3:30pm train left on time.

And 5 hours later, we were in Sainshand. It is a much bigger city with more of the amenities we North Americans are so used to. For example, I was elated to be able to enjoy running wayer (and therefore, to shower) for the first time in 5 days. And having internet access again is certainly a bonus as well.

Nonetheless, our experience in Ugtaal was very positive and we are forever greatful to the people of the town for welcoming us so warmly into their community! We are truly lucky to have been able to experience their culture - and roughing it certainly made us appreciate all of the luxuries we take for granted in our day-to-day lives.

Tomorrow, we will be waking up at 3am to head out to watch a Gobi desert sunrise…

-- Ramune Jonusonis

August 13: thoughts from the road

 Our newest blogger is credit union coach Dale Boisclair, whose personal blog can be found at http://www.dboisclair.blogspot.com.

I was told once that music is the international language - and I’m sure I heard or read somewhere that math is universal regardless of language or culture. Well, I have one more to add. An activity practiced and enjoyed by everyone, no matter where or when, and that’s fishing.

Yesterday was a full and busy day. We reviewed endless financial statements and offered our insight and advice on a broad range subjects. It’s interesting and rewarding work but exhausting because everything has to be done through an interpreter and things have to be confirmed and reconfirmed in order to ensure the message isn’t lost somewhere in between. But at the end of the day our Kazak host’s surprised us with an impromptu fishing trip along the banks of the most amazing river I’ve ever seen. Not for its swift running current or any real claim to fame but for just being. It was the most idyllic, peaceful setting I’ve experienced in a long time and could have been pulled directly from the pages of a Mongolian tourist brochure. And as I was sitting there with my new Kazak friends, eating freshly caught pan-fried fish and drinking vodka halfway around the world almost on the Kazak/Chinese/Russian border, it was more than a little surreal. Sometimes the world is a very interesting place indeed and the path we travel takes is in places we would never imagine.

Next stop..... Bayan Ulgii – where I REALLY hope there’s running water!

-- Dale Boisclair

Saturday, August 13, 2011

August 11: Trapped in a Mongolian wedding

Today we had a more relaxed day planned for us.

In the morning, after a breakfast of rice and mutton (surprise!) and milk tea, we walked through the village – our unofficial “tour”. We saw 2 gas stations, the governor’s greenhouses (which is why the odd cucumber and carrot has appeared on our plates, from time to time), the local hospital, school and bank.

What struck me as odd is the number of abandoned buildings. For example, the governor’s offices recently built a new building (which is where we have been having our meetings with the CU management) for its offices and abandoned the old building across the road. There is also an abandoned restaurant a few doors down.

Additionally, we were told that the majority of post offices in Mongolia’s smaller villages are now going bankrupt – because of the widespread us of cell phones. Everyone has a cell phone! Even during our meeting with the CU’s management team yesterday, it seemed as though someone’s cell phone was ringing or beeping or buzzing every few minutes.

So I expect there will be an abandoned post office in the near future as well.

After our tour, we were due to attend a wedding ceremony at 11am. The bride and groom’s parents were CU members, and had invited us to participate. So Karen and I were dressed up in “dales” (traditional Mongolian attire) and driven over to the parents’ home with Tuul.

During the first day of the ceremony, only the close family attends. The entire ceremony takes place inside the family’s ger (which I imagine was specifically built for the wedding, since they also owned a small brick home) and approx. 80 people all cram into the small tent to watch, eat, drink and sing throughout the entire day.

When we first got there, a long procession of gifts was flowing into the ger. Every family attending traditionally brings a cured sheep to give to the young couple. And when I say “sheep” I mean “sheep” – the entire sheep, and nothing but the sheep. The whole sheep is carried into the ger on a large wooden board, with the head resting on top. When we first poked our heads into the ger, we must have seen 25 sheep laid across the floor on the left side. The right side was filling quickly with other gifts: flat screen TV’s, rugs, glassware, ceramics. Someone later mentioned that they had brought a washing machine for the couple, but it was too big to bring into the ger.

We had to wait until the gift-giving was over and everyone had arrived before the cermony was to begin. After an hour of sitting in our car, we were told to again enter the ger. By now, all of the sheep and gifts had been cleared out and there were some benches and small stools set up to accommodate the guests. We got prime seats, near the front of the ger – behind the bride’s mother.

The ceremony began with a blessing of the ger. A man chanted traditional words and gently touched the walls, ceiling and floor of the ger with a sheeptail-staked stick. Then there was some traditional singing. The entire time, a few girls were passing bowls of airag around to everyone. We would sip our of politeness, and pass our bowl back to the girl.
--Ramune Jonusonis

August 10: Ramune and Karen meet with their Mongolian CU

Ramune Jonusonis
Today was a busy day.

I went into the meeting with the “management group” of the credit union this morning without knowing what to expect. There was a short introduction by one of the Board’s representatives, after which Karen and I essentially had the floor.

We asked many questions in our attempt to get a better understanding of how this particular CU functions and where they feel they need help. As it turns out, they were hoping that our consultancy would be more of a formal training session for their Board, lending committee and supervisory council.

But, without a set agenda in front of me, I found it hard to gather my thoughts and ask specific questions that flowed with some sort of theme.

Luckily, Karen was seasoned enough from last year's experiences and did most of the talking at the outset. I became more comfortable later in the afternoon, but still took a backseat – allowing Karen to navigate the overarching themes.

Essentially, there are some difficulties which the credit union is facing – because of their circumstances in Ugtaal. For one thing, they have a lot of cash to work with. But since the majority of their members are “financially capable”, they do not have much loan demand.

Nonetheless, Karen and I have already begun thinking of some of the recommendations we can make.

Tomorrow, we meet the membership…

-- Ramune Jonusonis

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Random thoughts from Mongolia

I’m back in Mongolia on a follow up visit to my original coaching assignment last year. This time around I’m working with Scott again and we’re out in the remote western area of the country working with small rural credit unions. Our role is to offer whatever advice we can to assist credit unions and cooperatives in their struggle to lift people out of poverty through the co-operative model.

I’m writing this now (Thursday) but it won’t actually get posted until I’m back in an area with internet access. No such luck here. “Here” is the Soum (small town) of Tsengel, which is a small hamlet of approx 1,000 people in the far western Aimeg (province) of Uglii. I flew into the Aimeg capital of Baya-Uglii on Wednesday on the once weekly flight. Scott and I, our interpreter, a few Mongolians and WAY too many pushy, rude and loud, middle-aged European tourists landed on a dirt strip at a small post-Russian airport only five hours late from UB. The tourists and literally mountains of their hiking gear were whisked away by waiting guides and Scott and I were picked up by our contact in Tsengel and made our way approx 80 klm overland by land cruiser. A very looooong 80 klm on dirt roads that ranged from fairly smooth, to rough, to VERY rough to just two vague outlines in the dirt and grasslands.

Last year I was in a business class hotel in UB for the entire time. This time though, it’s a little different. So far there’s electricity but it’s sporadic and the wiring has a definite ancient Russian flair. I’m staying in what can charitably be called a hotel – at least that’s what the Mongolian sign says – but it feels more like a dilapidated hunting lodge. There are four rooms with four single Russian army cots in each room and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. There’s a small alcove in the hall that has two wash basins but there’s no door for privacy and there’s no running water – just a pot that the cook fills with hot water in the morning. The rest of the “facilities” consist of a VERY basic outhouse out back, but because we’re on the border of Kazakhstan all the toilets are “squat” toilets so the outhouse just has a strip of flooring removed in the middle - no actual commode. Oh well, my legs get a good workout while I’m balancing to.... never mind! Throw in a large communal dining room where we hang out in the evening and the Kazak family (yes, the entire family) that takes care of the kitchen and runs the place and it’s like something out of Three Cups of Tea.

So....... no running water, sporadic electricity, no internet (although all the Mongols and Kazaks are running around with smart phones and seem to have no trouble with cell coverage!) and accommodations that at best can be described as rustic. Pretty crappy, right? I should be hating it, eh? Well, nothing could be further from the truth! Yes, I’d REALLY like an actual toilet and some nice hot water but if this is the price to be paid for seeing some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever experienced, or visiting a far off exotic land I’ve only ever seen in National Geographic, then sign me up!
Dale (left) in a ger with his coaching partner, Scott Hughes

Today we spent the morning in meetings with the chairman of the board of the local co-op. An amazing man doing incredible things for his Soum. The co-op has an education program to teach better land use techniques and is actively pursuing a new crop management and animal husbandry program to increase yields and finally store fodder and grain over the winter so this Soum won’t be devastated by another harsh winter. He’s also running the local credit union, a herdsman co-op and has programs running to test new crops. Amazing. And let’s not forget the hotel – it’s owned and run by the co-op too.

Meeting with the co-operative in Tsengel

In the afternoon we toured a new water irrigation system, looked at his crop management area and then spent an hour with a local Kazak family that’s been hired to maintain one of the crop areas. No tourists, no “put on” hospitality, just a very nice family offering us their home and their hospitality. They’re obviously very poor by our standards but rich beyond measure in so many ways we no longer appreciate or understand. They work hard but their tie to the land, their family and their community sustains and nurtures them and they warmly shared whatever they had available – as is the custom throughout this region. Freshly boiled milk tea, several kinds of cheeses, warm bread and sweets.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I arrived. This area borders China and Russia and is only 18 Klm from Kazakhstan. Most of the population is Kazak and Muslim, not Mongolian and Buddhist. No matter what I expected however, what I found were hard working people going about their daily lives. No Muslim extremism here, just quiet reserved people with a smile for a foreigner and warm hospitality for a weary traveller. And as always, I was reminded that no matter how far you travel the people you meet will have far more in common than differences.

-- Dale Boisclair