Road to the Games is a series of articles profiling Ismaili athletes from countries around the world, and the journeys they have undertaken to reach the Golden Jubilee Games. The series is being published in the run-up to the Games, which will take place between 23 – 29 June in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Tajikistan Jamat is being represented by 37 athletes at the Golden Jubilee Games in Nairobi. They will participate in basketball, wrestling, and chess, among other events. But the Tajik Ismaili women's volleyball team, composed of players from the Badakhshan regional team, has a particularly interesting history.
Established in 1957, when Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union, the Badakhshan women’s volleyball team successfully contended regional and national competitions. Following Tajikistan’s independence in 1991, the team prepared to compete in international tournaments, but their ambitions were curtailed due to the civil war from 1992 to 1997. The team, however, was unrelenting, and found in volleyball a refuge from the world.
“During the difficult times, volleyball was the best practice for us to forget about our sorrows and believe in peace, stability and our future victories,” recalls team member Fotima Sabzalieva. “We were practicing in very severe conditions, no heat or electricity in the gym and only four volleyball balls for the team of 20 people. However, we kept alive the dream that one day we could represent Badakhshan on an international level.”
Their perseverance and dedication to practice helped the team to maintain their competitive edge. The team recruited and trained new members, many of whom later represented Tajikistan at the Central Asian championships, as well as at tournaments in Qatar, Iran and Russia. In May of 2008, the Badakhshan team clinched Tajikistan's National Volleyball championship, overcoming five strong competitors from other regions of the country.
Team member Khairinisso Davronova remembers that competition being particularly difficult, and attributes part of their success to the support they received from the crowd.
“We had the support of our Ismaili community from Badakhshan,” she says. “The last moments of the game when the score was almost equal, some Jamati members of the crowd began cheering for us loudly. It was a very touching moment for us and motivated us to really push for a win.”
Players also credit the coaching of Mr Beknazar Mavlonazarov, a former professional volleyball player who has been with the team for years. “It's not easy to coach a women's team,” says Mr Mavlonazarov. “Sometimes I have to shout, to see tears, to manage internal conflicts, but ultimately we all have the same goal.”
According to Mr Mavlonazarov, the team has received numerous invitations to compete in international championships, but financial constraints limit their participation. The chance to go to Nairobi is, therefore, very exciting. Most of the team members have never travelled outside their home country.
The Tajikistan women`s volleyball team practices in preparation for the Golden Jubilee Games. Courtesy Imran Saleh
“We all feel highly honoured to represent the Tajik Jamat here for the first time ever,” says Sabzalieva.
But, recalling the isolation of decades past, teammate Ganjina Imronshoeva looks beyond the competitive element. "For many of us, more important than competing in the tournament is participating with our Ismaili Jamat.” she says.
“This is a chance for us to learn and exchange – with our Ismaili brothers and sisters – our culture, traditions, customs. Our communities did not have links for 70 years, and now we have a chance to build bridges of understanding and cooperation. This is our big hope.”