Aiman and Sanakhbai

Aiman was born in the ‘countryside’ to mature nomadic parents and was one of 9 children. She moved from her family Ger, in the middle of nowhere, to a small and remote village to attend school. Aiman can read and write but left in year 4 because she was bullied by other pupils. Her partner, Sanakhbai, was born in a village in the ‘countryside’ to mature nomadic parents and was one of 11 children. He does not read or write because he left school after one year due to bullying. Height discrimination can lead to ridicule in childhood and discrimination in adulthood.

Nations and societies are predisposed to laugh at people who look different. People with dwarfism have normal intelligence and lifespan but often experience negativity as a result of fallacious stereotypes, myths and inferences commonly associated with the condition. All forms of modern media often make fun of people whose height is out of the normal range. Hence, short statured people are often portrayed as being unsuccessful in career, romance, and life in general. Consequently people with dwarfism around the world face many challenges in their lives and are constantly fighting for equality and against discrimination.

Sanakhbai and Aiman knew they had the ability to lead independent and productive lives but needed a partner to make their hopes a reality. Finding a life partner is difficult for people with disabilities. Aiman and Sanakhbai are ethnic Kazakhs and there are various forms of arranged marriage in Kazakh tradition. Their families searched for potential partners in distant villages thus maintaining the custom of matchmaking, following exogamic rules, religious norms and other clan/tribal constraints. Their first arranged meeting was a success and Aiman remembers “I really liked him straight away thought he was the man for me”. Sanakhbai was also very enthusiastic and self-consciously admitted lying about his age at the time “I was ten years older than Aiman and really wanted her to marry her”. Aiman smiled and said “It wasn’t important to me”. Sanakhbai’s parents negotiated the amount of ‘kalyn mal’ (bride price) and they were married.

Aiman and Sanakhbai outside their adobe home on the outskirts of Altai.
Sanakhbai and Aiman.

Soon after their marriage Aiman and Sanakhbai moved to Altai village, population 3,500 people, because it had greater resources than the villages were they had lived in. Their small three roomed mud-brick home is situated on a hillside on the western side of the village. The house is always clean, tidy, and uncluttered, possessing only the essential stove, washing machine and a sink, and sparsely decorated with simple ornaments and family photographs.

From the very beginning Aiman recalls how they were warmly received. “As soon as we arrived people I didn’t know came to me and said ‘Welcome to our village . . . if there is anything you need let me know’, which surprised me and made me happy”. They now have two children, a daughter called Altingul aged 11 years and a boy called Unhamedjan aged 8 years.

I asked them to show me their most memorable or important photograph. Aiman picked out a photograph of her family. As a rule, patriarchal marriage predominates among the Kazakhs and it’s traditional that the woman leaves her family and sets up a Ger with her husband’s relatives. The image she showed me was of members of her family. “I really liked my relatives and the photograph brings back happy memories . . . . It’s important to me because two of them have died”. Eight year old Unhamedjan rummaged through the box and found and old family photo “It’s got my mother, father, and sister in it, and they are my family” he proudly asserted. A group of visitors arrived and sat down at the table just as Sanakhbai was telling me he didn’t have a favourite photo. There was loud laughter from the visitors, who I later learnt were members of his family, and Sanakhbai sheepishly went into the bedroom and brought back a gold framed photograph of Aiman and himself taken on their wedding day. “I’m lucky to have met Aiman. She brings joy into my life” he said.

Sanakhbai and Aiman with their children Unhamedjan and Altingul.
Best bowels and luxury items stored in a cabinet.
Washing machine and wash basin area.
Aiman and Unhamedjan choosing their favourite photographs from the family album.
Sanakhbai with his guilt framed wedding photograph.

Whenever I visited the house it was full of guests usually chattering and laughing. Some were family visiting from the ‘countryside’, some were teachers or neighbours, and some were children who were staying with them whilst their parents tended their goats and yaks. The families paid Aiman and Sanakhbai for taking care of their children in the form of food such as dried meats, which was an important source of income since their monthly grant from the Government was about £35 and not enough to live off.

Aiman is highly skilled in needlecraft and traditional embroidery which often make up the walls of Gers. They are often given to family members as wedding gifts and therefore form a very real and present reminder of family ties. These hangings are hand stitched and can take months or even years to painstakingly work to complete. Aiman’s designs were colourful and distinct and I bought two cushions (I’m sitting on one now) and a small wall hanging. Sales from her embroidery work provide coal for the fire to heat their home over the long winter months.

They are a lovely family who are both respected and well-liked. The villagers support them when necessary and the family contribute to the well-being of the village. The Altai community provide for the needs of people with disabilities but in this instance Sanakhbai and Aiman are the community.

Living in one of the remotest and poorest places on Earth this family, treated with fairness and equality by community, has lessons for humanity. What matters most to Aiman and Sanakhbai and contributes most to their happiness is not wealth or status or power but well-being generated by social relationships and good health.

Relatives – brothers and sisters and their partners who dropped in to say ‘hello’.
Aiman makes tea for her guests.
Relatives have tea and baursaki (a fried flour dish) and manti (a small moist pasty) whilst joking amongst themselves and passing on information about other relatives.
Aiman with some of her exquisite traditional needlecraft.
Sanakhbai fetching water. Long winters and limited resources make life physically demanding.
Aiman and her daughter Altingul in the local shop.
The trip to the local shop is a good time to say ‘hello’ to friends and exchange information.