Once upon a time, there lived an old man and his wife. They were well respected in their village and loved by all, but sadly had no children. One day, the old man decided to embark on a pilgrimage, and after doing many good turns for those he met on his journey, he found an orphaned boy whom he and his wife raised, imparting all of their goodness and knowledge to him and living happily ever after.
This is an abridged version of “A Father’s Wisdom,” a traditional Kyrgyz fairy tale that has recently been published by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service as part of an audio collection for children. Much like fairy tales from Europe or any other part of the world, it provides moral instruction for children through a classic story about good triumphing over evil, and happiness coming to those who are good to others. What’s unique about “A Father’s Wisdom” and other Kyrgyz fairy tales is that they are helping preserve a language under threat.
Kyrgyz is spoken by only about four million people worldwide. Around 20 percent of ethnic Kyrgyz consider Russian their first language after years of Russian influence under the Soviet Union, according to RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service Director Venera Djumataeva.
“A Father’s Wisdom,” a favorite of Djumataeva’s, is among the more than 100 Kyrgyz language fairy tales that make up a collection of children’s stories read by Kyrgyz Service journalists and local Kyrgyz celebrities and published on the service’s website. About half of them are original Kyrgyz tales; the other half are popular children’s stories from other countries that have been translated into Kyrgyz. All of the stories have been adapted for radio with different character voices and sound to liven up the narration.
“We have been hearing for years from Kyrgyz families living in Russia and the United States that they have trouble finding children’s books in Kyrgyz,” said Djumataeva.“We wanted to help them teach their children the language, so that’s why we started recording the fairy tales.”
The collection was launched in 2013 with 60 recordings to mark the 60th anniversary of the Kyrgyz Service. This rare trove of national and linguistic heritage continued to grow and was later discovered by former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva, who now leads the Roza Otunbaeva Initiative, a foundation that promotes Kyrgyz education, art, and culture. The group took 30 of the fairy tales from the Kyrgyz Service’s archive and reproduced them on CDs, distributing 1,000 of them to schools in a rural part of the country this year for International Children’s Day on June 1.
“Research shows decreased contact between parents and children, and a decrease in the culture of reading books to children before they go sleep,” read a statement on the Roza Otunbaeva Initiative website. The fairy tale project “is created to urge parents to spend more time with their children.”
Herself a mother, Djumataeva knows firsthand how difficult it is to find books to read to her children in Kyrgyz, and plans to continue expanding the collection for the benefit of Kyrgyz speaking parents everywhere.
“There are so few Kyrgyz language books anywhere, and very few good children’s books,” she said. “I hope this can help children hear their language more often.”