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Why UN Resident Coordinator in Kyrgyzstan wears chapan and doesn’t drink kumys

Ozonnia Ojielo arrived in Kyrgyzstan in October 2017, when he was appointed the UN Resident Coordinator in the Kyrgyz Republic. He was born in Nigeria; his childhood fell on a difficult stage in the life of this African country — the civil war. It formed his views and attitude towards the world, which eventually led him to the UN.

— How did you find yourself in Kyrgyzstan?

— When there were vacancies for the post of Resident Coordinator, I submitted application to such countries as Papua New Guinea, Malawi (Africa) and Kyrgyzstan. At that time, I was the head of the UNDP Conflict Prevention and Recovery Division in New York, and there were about 70 countries in the area of my activity, including Kyrgyzstan. After the events in 2010, the department for which I worked sent a certain budget to the republic. I was relatively well informed about the situation in Kyrgyzstan, understood the politics, sent a Peace and Development Advisor to improve the potential of our partners in Kyrgyzstan. But I thought that I would be sent to Malawi, because I am from Africa and I knew more about this country. Then I learned that the Secretary-General, exactly he considers the profiles of applicants for this post, wanted me to go to Kyrgyzstan, as he was convinced that my knowledge, experience and skills would be more useful in Kyrgyzstan.

— What exactly did you know about Kyrgyzstan and did your knowledge prove correct when you came here?

— Being in New York, I focused more on politics, the challenges that Kyrgyzstan faces, on how we can make a contribution to resolving development problems. What I did not know about were the people, ordinary residents of Kyrgyzstan, whom I met after my arrival. And this is an absolutely amazing experience.

— What surprised you in Kyrgyzstan when you arrived?

— The first thing that impressed me was the sincere desire of people to find out about me; my presence always causes great interest and curiosity. But, for example, in many parts of the world, even in the United States, where my family lives, if you go to some districts, this may cause in residents not very positive feelings close to anger, mistrust, because you have a different skin color. There is not the case here. I see curiosity. They start talking to me, wondering where I came from. This warmth is obvious. It lets me know that I should feel at home.

— Once we are talking about Nigeria. Is there something in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan that reminds you of your hometown and country?

— In fact, there are a number of things that remind me of Nigeria. The first is the ceremony of cutting the cooked head of a sheep. We cook it separately from the rest of the carcass, adding various herbs and spices, and we are look forward to eating it.

The second, which is very similar to Nigeria, is plov. It reminds me very much of jollof rice dish. It is cooked both with meat and without it, with vegetables.

— Probably, plov is your most favorite dish in the national cuisine, but what other dishes do you like?

— The first is manty and boorsoks. They were a favorite food for my children, when they were here. I first tried horsemeat in Kyrgyzstan. I did not know what to expect, but I really liked it. When I was eating horse meat, it was an initiation into the culture of Kyrgyzstan for me.

In order to feel the culture, the way of life of the people, a person must do the same like the locals.

Ozonnia Ojielo

And the third thing that struck me here is a bathhouse. It was a great experience for me: first to sit in a sweating room with an extremely high temperature inside, and then jump into cold water. It cleanses not only the body, but also the spirit. I took part in such a practice for the first time in Kyrgyzstan.

I also liked the toast culture very much. When people propose a toast sitting at the table, they tell sincerely what they wish their friends, relatives, close ones, and in the wishes they mention families, well-being, success in career and life. And although this is repeated every time, I see that people do it very sincerely. And it is also a unique experience and practice for me.

— Is there something in national cuisine that you did not like or you are afraid to try?

— There is not, really. I have extensive experience in staying in different parts of the world, I have tried different dishes. I generally like to try something new. There is only one thing that I did not try — kumys. But it is even due to the fact that my body reacts in a certain way to dairy products.

— Let’s return to culture. You often wear chapan, including at official events. Is it such a diplomatic gesture — an attempt to please the local population or do you like these clothes?

— No, this is not a diplomatic gesture. I repeat, I believe that a person, staying in another country, must fully accept its culture. Kyrgyzstan has a great potential in the field of garment industry.

I have 20 classic suits, 10 safari suits (national clothes of Nigeria) and three chapans made in Kyrgyzstan.

Ozonnia Ojielo

They are of very good quality; they have an ethnic element. But, unfortunately, the market is limited only to Kyrgyzstan. In the fall of 2018, I was in New York, where 121 permanent coordinators from around the world gathered. I was wearing a long chapan, and 50 of my colleagues expressed a desire to buy the same chapan.

But we faced with a problem during transportation. Custom-made chapan can cost up to $ 250. Shipping would cost other $ 150.

Ozonnia Ojielo

As a result, my colleagues could not order chapan. I realized that we should work with the government of the Kyrgyz Republic, representatives of the garment industry on transportation of products abroad and bringing them to the global level.

In Nigeria, our officials, members of the Government, spend 95 percent of their time in the national safari suits.

— You said that before your appointment in Kyrgyzstan you had some knowledge about the country, but you had no idea about the people who live here. What has fascinated you in close acquaintance with the local population or, on the contrary, disappointed?

— Kyrgyzstan has a very favorable environment for UN staff to contribute to the development of Kyrgyzstan.

Being in different parts of the republic, I see a desire to help the country in the eyes of the people. I see the passion.

Ozonnia Ojielo

And the UN is here to help make a difference, to accompany the country on the path of its development.

And I do not perceive the word «disappointment»; on the contrary, I use the word «opportunity». A problem is an opportunity for development. Each country has its own development dynamics, and the UN mission is to help achieve development and change.

— You have visited all regions. Did you have a favorite place in the country and Bishkek, where you would love to go or which you would like to visit again?

— Everyone, probably, has such a list. I like the ethnic complex in the suburbs and Chunkurchak. There is a good atmosphere, which is provided by ethnic ornaments, exhibits of the history of Kyrgyzstan, nature. I love jazz, I often attend performances of jazz artists in Kyrgyzstan. I would also like to mention the restaurants of Bishkek, there is always a wide variety of dishes.

I liked Issyk-Kul lake, of course. It is actually very beautiful there. But I would like to note that there are such places all over Kyrgyzstan. It is very beautiful when you drive somewhere by car through the high mountains. It is breathtaking.

— Do you miss something in Kyrgyzstan?

— This is mainly in the field of cuisine. There are no plantains (member of banana family). They are a little longer and very tasty. When I was at home in New Jersey, I have bought a large amount of them, brought and froze them. I hope that it will be enough until the next trip.

I miss okra. There is a wide variety of vegetable soups in my national cuisine. We also cook a lot of beans. When I saw many kinds of beans in the bazaar, I was surprised and glad because I could cook.

In general, there are enough vegetables in Kyrgyzstan. I can find almost everything I need in supermarkets. I really like buckwheat, it is very healthy. I don’t honestly know why it is not always loved in Kyrgyzstan.

— You’ve been in Kyrgyzstan for two years. Has something changed for the better or worse during this time, and what would you change in Bishkek?

— I like that there are many parks in Bishkek. A new park was opened on the Southern Highway, and when the weather is clear, sunny, many families with children walk there, the youth. In Nigeria, unfortunately, there are a few parks; they were privatized, multi-story buildings and concrete structures were built there. I like to walk in the parks, between the trees. But, unfortunately, the air quality in Bishkek leaves much to be desired. It is necessary to work in this area.

I like that Bishkek is a vibrant city, it has a lot of youth, families with strollers. This means that the city will grow and develop.

Ozonnia Ojielo

In addition, Bishkek is adaptive, it is constantly changing, and an ordinary person is not bored here.