I was born into a poor family, but despite all the hardships, my parents always tried to teach us the right things. My father would always tell us, «Be a teacher, be a doctor,» because back then those were prestigious professions. I, of course, became a teacher, but deep down, I knew that my true calling was to be a fashion designer, unfortunately, it didn’t work out. I think the fact that all the girls in school wanted to dress like me says a lot. It was easy for me to sew something for myself, so one day I made a skirt out of the simplest fabric and in the simplest way possible, and my classmate liked it so much that she traded one of her expensive dresses for it. At that time, an ordinary steppe girl like me didn’t know that there were separate institutes for this profession. I thought that tailors did this job, and it seemed to me that it wasn’t prestigious.
When I think back to my childhood, what comes to mind is the homemade bread baked by my mother. The dough always rose perfectly. She would break off a piece for each of us and spread it with homemade butter, which melted instantly. We tried not to spill a drop because it was delicious. I also remember the scent of the steppe, so familiar and free. I studied in a boarding school in the fifth grade, and during summer vacations, I would come home. At that time, our whole family studied in the boarding school. When summer came, my father asked me to herd the sheep. My mother gave birth to 13 children, many of whom died in infancy, and since the older ones were all girls, the responsibility fell on my shoulders. I would wake up early, and by six in the morning, I would be herding the sheep. Sometimes, I think, if I were a little more talented, I would compose songs like Michael Jackson in that quiet steppe. It wasn’t difficult for me to herd the sheep because they were accustomed to the word «shoo,» as soon as they heard that word, they would become obedient and immediately return. By noon, we would return home, and my parents would greet me. We would sit under the open sky, drink tea, and eat beshbarmak.
Well, not all of my classes were in boarding school. I actually started first grade in Kalinin, where I completed elementary school. I remember in third grade, me and my relatives — Nursaiyn, Aisulu, and Amentai — were held back for another year. I’m not sure why, as we were doing well in our studies. Anyway, all of us Sexembaevs ended up repeating a grade. Naturally, the second time around, I was an excellent student. I always tried to be diligent, and I only had two B’s on my report card. I think God blessed me with intelligence.
I remember a funny situation with Aisulu — we were classmates. After we finished the school year, when someone asked her, «How was school?» she replied, «They told me I’m worse than Bakyt.» Another funny story happened when my younger brothers were in school. When my sisters and I were in school, our parents were often invited to parent-teacher meetings, where they would praise our academic achievements and say, «We want to commend you for your daughters’ performance in school, but you never come to see us.» But then, they would only call our parents for complaints about our brothers’ behavior and grades. That’s when my dad would say, «Oh, if only I had ten daughters instead of one son.»
My dad, Syzdyk, was a very talented man. We lived in a clay house in the steppe. When it rained, sometimes it would flood our house. I remember one time after such an incident, the chief, named Rafik, came to visit. He was accompanied by a zootechnician and a manager. Knowing that Rafik was Tatar, my dad sang to him in Tatar about the problems our family faced and the hardships endured by shepherds in general.
«Исəнмисиз, саумысыз, Рəфик нигə келмисиз? Исəнмисиз, саумысыз, Қандай йағдай биздиң йақта Көзбəн нигə көрмисиз? Балағанны салғансыз
Путь Ильичтің боқтығы.
Сиксəн йирдə сиксəн тишқалғансыз.»
He laughed at first, but then felt ashamed. Before leaving, he decided to make amends and gifted my father 5-6 sheep.
One of the most memorable historical events for me was a rally of Kazakh youth in Almaty. Many of my peers reevaluated their values during that time. It was a terrifying event because we suffered in our own country. I witnessed unfair treatment based on nationality multiple times. I remember when I was a student at a pedagogical college in Pavlodar, our teachers would call us «kalbits» (an offensive name for Kazakhs as ethnic group) and give us lower grades. However, there were also those who were just and honest, regardless of our origins and nationality. Deep down, I always had a rebellious spirit, but perhaps it is inherent in our people to remain calm. Maybe that’s why our country didn’t have the same wars as other former Soviet countries.
Even in Independent Kazakhstan, I often witnessed nationalist attacks towards us. Many would say things like, «Where would you Kazakhs be without Russia? You rely on them for food.» However, we later realized that our country’s economy allowed us to sustain ourselves. I was incredibly proud when our national currency was introduced.
As time went on, we grew older, and each of us started our own families. My husband’s name was Kairbek. Although we were different, I always felt comfortable with him. While I was busy with work, he took care of the house and the children. He never blamed me for it. We had our ups and downs, but by the time we officially divorced, we were both 50 years old. In our younger days, there were many misunderstandings between us. I remember his sister always reminding me that I came from a poor family. He was housewifely, and when we lived together, there was always enough food in the house. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, and I think the lack of love from the beginning played a role. He stole me away, I didn’t know him, but I was told that I was marrying into a good and wealthy family, so I stayed. We had nothing in common. When I would read books, he often told me that I should know the price of onions and other household items.
In the 90s, especially, it was tough. We had already separated by then, and salaries were constantly delayed. We had nothing to live on. I had become so used to my husband taking care of everything that I let everything slip. I owed money to all the utility services, and we often had our electricity cut off. The kindergarten where I worked had many layoffs. It was a difficult time for me, and that’s when I turned to God. I found answers to all my questions, and I forgave myself for many things. But the hardest part was letting go of the fact that I couldn’t protect my family for the sake of my children. However, I later understood this thanks to God. Despite everything, we have lived a good life. We once dreamed of having children and our own home, and now we have it all. This means that many of our dreams come true. And most importantly, I have found support and inner peace.
Author: Baktyly Syzdykovna Seksembayeva
Interviewer: Dilnaz Kabysheva
Editor: Kymbat Kalieva