My grandfather Sarsenbay was born in 1905 in Fort Shevchenko formerly known in steppes as Aktetik. It’s a beautiful place located in the southwest region of Kazakhstan and there are currently plans to restore its historic name. During the period of the Russian Empire, the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko was in military exile in the Midai steppes of Mangistau and that’s how the place got its new name. He considered this place good for making a living by fishing and planting trees. The poet also demonstrated the possibilities of ferry transportation through the Caspian Sea to Iran, Azerbaijan and contributed to the development of this area.
My grandfather was the son of a bai, a local rich and aristocratic member of the nomad society. He inherited his ancestors’ generational wisdom and passed it down to his five sons. My grandfather Kake (that’s how we called him) was the firstborn.
His father, Suyeubek, even made a pilgrimage to Mecca back in the day.
In 1916–1917, the Red Army of the Soviet government arrived in Mangistau and persecuted the rich and wealthy (богатых и зажиточных людей) people. My great-grandfather Suyeubek could see hard times that were coming. He asked Kake to promise that he would take care of the four younger brothers and he stepped up to the challenge. One of his brothers was very educated, had studied in Tashkent. Unfortunately, he was arrested and persecuted as «the son of the wealthy». In the end Suyeubek and his three sons were politically persecuted and repressed.
The legacy of the large dynasty lived through my grandfather Kake, his youngest brother and their mother, the only ones who survived. They had to move to Iran. They went through some tough times, Kake worked in trade in Krasnovodsk port between Iran and Turkmenistan to support his mother and brother who lived with other Kazakhs. Unfortunately in 3 years he was caught by the Red Army and exiled to Siberia, where as I remember, from what he told me, he spent more than 5 years. When World War II began, he was sent to war where he fought for the Soviet army and safely returned home at the end of 1945. However, upon his return, he learned his mother had passed away and his wife and children did not survive the famine. The only relative he had left was his brother who had his own family at that time.
Despite these tragedies my grandfather remarried in 1947 and had a son and a daughter who both died from measles in early childhood. In 1951 his third child, my father was born. According to superstition, grandfather believed that he bought his son for a bag of dung and gave him name Tezekbai (which translates as aristocratic, rich person of dung)
Another hardship awaited my Kake, when his wife, who recently gave birth, passed away from an incurable disease. Grandfather was left with a newborn he didn’t know how to care for. By coincidence or destiny (however you want to call it) in the same village there was a woman whose two children recently passed away. Her own husband kicked her out to the streets (literally to the field at that time), accusing her for the tragedy in their family. Sister of Kake asked that woman to breastfeed Kake’s newborn son and she not only agreed, but took the baby under her wing with deepest love and care. Over time together with grandfather they started a family. They didn’t have children other than my father. My grandmother loved her only child, my father, unconditionally, even breastfeeding and nurturing him until he was seven years old.
As my father grew up, he met my mother, started a family of his own, and had children, including me. We all lived together with my grandparents, as one big loving family.
My grandfather Kake was a handsome man, with a straight nose and a fair complexion. My father inherited his good looks and my eyes are as big as his. My grandfather went through a lot of hardships. Sometimes at the table he would talk about his life during and before the war. During such moments, he was especially vulnerable.
Once, he told us that “there would be periods of both joy and suffering from wealth”. Grandfather was a devout man, and he taught us Surah and Hadiths, which he learned from his grandparents. And he even risked his life to pray when religion was forbidden. Whenever I think about my grandfather, I’m overwhelmed with nostalgia and emotion … My Kake, was a true hero. He went through the war, his life hung in the balance, but he fought for our Motherland’s liberation from the Nazis. I believe it was his strong faith and the surahs of Koran that helped him survive the war’s explosions and fires.
Every year, the government would congratulate him on Victory day and present him with flowers and medals. It is such an honor to be the granddaughter of a true hero!
When I look back on my childhood, I think of my grandparents with such fondness. They were the most wonderful people, and they taught us so much with their actions and words. I remember going on hikes with my grandfather Kake, in the spring. He would always put me on a horse and say: “daughter, don’t walk, you will get tired.” And when I did get tired by walking, I said: «Kake, I’m tired,» and he would carry me on his back. He never got upset with us. His favorite phrases were: “so that there are more of you”, “so that you live”, and he never said anything bad.
My grandmother was as kind-hearted as my grandfather. I called her “mom” and she would always refer to us not by names, but «leaves of my only one.» (zhapyraqtarym”) They loved us so much and we felt it every day.
If someone were to ask me who I miss the most in this life, I would say my grandmother. She took such good care of me from a young age, and even set aside a portion of her pension for me which she called “Fatimskie” (Belonging to Fatima?).
As I have mentioned before, in our family names hold a special place in our hearts. Grandfather superstitiously called his son Tezekbay. When the first grandson was born, he gave him the name Kanat, which means «wing» and he meant that «I have wings from now on». The second grandchild, was named Zhanat, which means «my heart is burning.» As for me at birth I was named Lyazzat (a traditional Kazakh name). However grandfather, after some thoughts, decided to call me Aktuime, which means «white button», since I was the only girl and the youngest among my brothers. As a child, I didn’t like the name change and was quite resentful. I kept asking «Why did you change my name?» And once my grandmother explained that I should be grateful, as my grandfather had initially wanted to name me “Konyrau”, which means “the bell”. This made me appreciate my name more, I wiped my tears and said: «Thank God I’m not Konyrau» and stopped crying (laughs).
Sadly, my grandfather passed away at the age of 86, when I was in 10th grade, and so did my grandmother when I was pregnant with my first child, Serik. But their teachings and words of wisdom have stayed with me, and I often share them with my children. I tell them: “Kake advised me that, my mother taught me about this.” So my daughter Ayazhan also knows about the wisdom of our grandfather Kake. The example of life and love of my grandparents has helped me in raising my children, and I am forever grateful for their influence in my life.
Even when I sit with my friends, I share with them the sayings of my grandparents. I can’t help but quote my ancestors and they, in turn, always notice and laugh at me.
It seems to me that the history of our family consists of many small details and even if we are only telling the story of one grandfather, I have many other grandparents whose stories also deserve to be heard. I am proud of my ancestry and who I am. I want my children to feel the same way.
I wanted my children to grow up calling their grandfather «kake» too. I taught my eldest son to say “kake” to grandfather. Unfortunately, my daughter never got to meet her great-grandparents…, but through my stories, she feels like she knows them.
Our story teller Aktuyme came with her daughter Ayazhan for the interview. At one point, Ayazhan interrupted the conversation to share her story:
“Once, when my mother was cleaning the house, she found a photo of Kake. She clutched the photo in her arms and lost herself in her thoughts. I asked: «Mom, what are you doing?» and she replied: «I miss my grandfather.» I didn’t understand: “How can you miss a person who passed away?” So I asked my mom and she explained to me: “Unfortunately, you don’t know what he was like, so you can’t understand me.”
“I once read that “the personality of human beings depends on ancestors, genetics. The life of ancestors affects the behavior and life position of a person because all of this is inherited by DNA.” Now I understand the meaning of these words. If your ancestor dies out of fear, you too will live in fear. And if your ancestors were heroes, then you have courage and heroic qualities. Thanks to my mom’s stories, I know what my grandfather was like and thus i can find myself. I think that I have inherited many qualities from this person. In general, I believe that every person should know the history of his dynasty. I am happy that my parents constantly tell me about my ancestors and genealogy, because the noble personality of my grandfather and his legendary character is a great joy to our family.”
Interviewers: Aktuime TEZEKBAYKYZY and Ayazhan GALYMKYZY
The conversation was recorded by Gulnaz Tulenova
Editor: Ainur Ermakhanova