Toby A. Cox
Breaking Down the Barriers of Kyrgyzstan’s Traditional Storytellers
Before written records were kept, Kyrgyzstan’s traditional storytellers were the preservers of culture, history, and tradition. They passed down, not only information about historic events, but the emotion of these events, transporting their audience to a different time.
These traditional storytellers are called Manas-chy, which translates to “one who tells Manas.” Manas is Kyrgyzstan’s national hero who embodies bravery, strength, and patriotism.
He is also the protagonist in the epic poem, “The Epic of Manas," which is boasted by many to be the longest epic poem in the world at nearly half a million lines. Manas and Kyrgyz spirituality are inextricably linked, and it is believed by many that the spirit of Manas "chooses" those who will become Manas-chy through dreams.
Manas-chy are usually boys, but once in a while, a girl will step up and accept the challenge – the challenge of memorizing the epic poem and the challenge of breaking down people’s perception of who a Manas-chy can be.
Baktygul is a young woman who accepted both of these challenges.
At the age of three, she recalls being able to recite Manas, not remembering how she was able to do this. Her parents were shocked and told her to stop – it wasn’t for girls. She listened, not questioning the things she was told she couldn’t do or had to do simply because she was a girl. She continued listening until she was 9.
“When I was five years old I wanted to become president of [Kyrgyzstan]," Baktygul said. "My parents told me ‘you can’t be president, you’re a girl…’ I believed them because in my country and other countries I knew, they didn’t have a woman president. But when I was 9 years old, the president became a woman!
"I knew then a woman could be president and then I started to believe that it doesn’t matter if a person is a boy a girl, you can do what you want – tell Manas or go to boxing club – you can do it.”
When she was 12 she started telling Manas again; she won a competition at her school and participated in a national competition. She has been practicing ever since, wanting to one day become a full Manas-chy. In the meantime, however, she is performing what she knows, finding empowerment in the words of the epic poem preserved by hundreds of storytellers that came before her.
“When I tell Manas I feel powerful … I feel that I am changing something, maybe a little thing, in people’s minds, like that a girl can tell Manas better than some boys.”
Baktygul also tells Manas for the generations of storytellers that will come after her.
“It’s not only for me, I’m doing it for other girls too. For the girls who will be born 100 years from now.”