Mastona Bekova (left) and her brother Hofiz proudly show the wheat shoots that will be made into Sumalak, a sweet, green confection that symbolizes the New Year Day celebration called Navruz
For a sister and brother in eastern Tajikistan, the Central Asian New Year celebration brings art to their WFP school feeding programme and their father home from Russia.
Mastona, 10 years old, and Hofiz, 9, are siblings in a family of seven who live in the village of Kalai-Sheikh in the eastern Rasht Valley of Tajikistan. For them, the most exciting day of the year is March 21, the New Year’s Day of Central Asia. Called “Navruz,” the holiday marks the vernal equinox, heralding the arrival of spring with its prospect of longer days, warm weather and fruitful gardens after a hard winter of heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures.
In Mastona and Hofiz’s school, the preparations for Navruz begin with the production of a special dish called Sumalak. In each class, the children put wheat seeds on a metal plate, water them, and watch them grow into tender green shoots. At home, their mother is doing the same thing in larger quantities in order to make Sumalak, a kind of jam cooked with the wheat shoots, flour and water. Making Sumalak, the dish that symbolizes Navruz, is a festival in itself, as the women in the family gather around the wood fire to sing and tell stories.
This year, Mastona, Hofiz and their classmates marked the approach of Navruz with a helping hand from WFP. The primary grade children, who get a hot nourishing meal in school thanks to WFP, participated in an art competition. The children were given paper and crayons and asked to draw what the WFP school feeding programme means to them. WFP invited all of the 1,800 schools enrolled in the school meals programme to send in their pupils’ drawings and the Country Office chose 12 of the most colourful and interesting pieces, one for each month of the 2012-2013 New Year. (To see these drawings, please click on the related photo gallery.)
Mastona, a gifted artist, tells WFP that drawing is one of her favourite hobbies. Although her picture was not among the final 12 selected in the competition, she enjoyed the singing and dancing on the last day before the holiday, and admired the “Navruz princess,” the pupil chosen by the teachers to wear fancy dress and lead the school festival.
On the days leading up to Navruz, the women in the Bekov household do a thorough spring cleaning, and open all the windows to let in light and fresh air for the first time since winter. On the day itself, Mastona and Hofiz will wake up and put on beautiful cleaned and pressed clothes. Meanwhile, their mother is spreading a tablecloth and putting out sweets and fruits in anticipation of the day-long trickle of friends, family and neighbours who will visit to chat, feast, reminisce and celebrate Navruz.
The greatest joy of all for Mastona and Hofiz on this holiday is the return of their father, Firuz Bekov, from Moscow. Firuz is one of the half-million Tajik migrants in Russia working as labourers to send money home to their families. Mastona and Hofiz do not see their father for almost a year at a time because what he can earn outside Tajikistan is more important for this poor family than having the family together. That is why Navruz, for countless children in Tajikistan, is the most exciting day of the year.