The Little Girl Selling Sunflower Seeds
I saw this little girl on a frosty winter day in front of the bridge to Ashgabat's Peace district. After that moment, she never left my eyes. It was early morning and people were rushing to work. The little girl with her child's chair was standing next to the bridge; not just standing but selling fried sunflower seeds. Skinny, seven or eight years old, instead of lying in a warm bed on early mornings or collecting her books to go to school, she was selling sunflower seeds at the bridge on a freezing winter morning. The cold wind flew through the little girl's coat to her thin chest and came to freeze her little legs. She was standing on the spot and jumping on the toes and heels of her shoes. Her headscarf bending showed her even poorer and weaker. I could have passed her without noticing or if I did might have ignored since lately there have been more and more children selling sunflower seeds. Children begging and showing hands was not a rarity either. People would be happy as long as their own children were not hungry, what other people's children did or how they endured did not concern them as much. But I couldn't pass that child. The truth is that she didn't let me walk on.
“Uncle, buy some sunflower seeds” she said. For some reason these words shocked me and I froze. The way those words were spoken sounded like she was asking for help. A little girl standing with thin clothes was impossible to merely pass by for a man with a heart. But people went just straight past. I hurriedly asked her the price of the sunflower seeds and checked my pocket for money. The darkness on the little girl's face cleared instantly.
“A big cup for 1000 Manats and smaller ones are for 500 Manats. None of them are empty and they all taste good” she said.
I asked her if she made the cups, seeing boldness in her. “Or did your mom make them?”
“The small ones I did and my mom made the big ones” answered the little girl. “Which one do you want, the big one or small one?”
I said I would have the big one; seeing the happiness on the child's face I asked her to double it. She reacted quickly and seemed like she lit up. I gave her 2000 Manats that she put in her inner pocket just like an adult.
While I was placing the paper cones of seeds in my pocket I asked her without thinking “Aren't you cold? Your mother should be selling these, you might get sick”. As soon as the words were out I was worried that it would either embarrass or torment her. But the little girl answered brightly:
“If I could sell them all faster I wouldn't get cold. My mother's selling sunflower seeds too on that bridge over there.”
I could have left but again I couldn't keep my tongue behind my teeth.
“Down there, near the bus stop, beside the newsstand there are more people and the wind is blowing less too.”
“My grandma is there. She's helping us till my father gets a job” she replied sadly.
Only after that, when I couldn't find anything to say, I walked on; I had also been jobless for four years already. I also had three brown eyed children like that little girl. To keep them from starving I was out driving and picking up hitch-hikers from early morning to late at night. This dragged me into even deeper worries than that little girl. Picking up my car from the car parking, I drove from one end of the city to another. First I have to earn money for the fuel, I thought, then I have to make more money to buy a couple of kilos of meat for home and then my younger son's shoes were ripped and would have to be replaced. There was no time to rest as long as it was light.
Late that evening I parked my car in the usual place and returned home by bus. Near my home I got off at the bus stop that I was telling the little girl about. When I came to buy the Literature and art newspaper, I saw an old woman sitting in front of newsstand, the little girl's grandma.
The newspaper was no good. After I crossed the road I had felt regrets and asked myself: “Why did I buy this newspaper? I should've bought sunflower seeds from that old woman instead. Then at least I would've helped her”.
I told my wife about my thoughts when I came home. She replied “You are like a child. Who of the all unemployed people will you manage to help? Also they say now that sunflower seeds are a good business, a lot of people can't afford anything else. Last time I went to the Sunday market, the bus was full of women buying bags of raw sunflower seeds. They said that they clean, prepare and then sell them.”
Few days later when I was driving my car through the city I started noticing the number of sunflower seed sellers. They were in front of stores, beside bus stops, in market places and anywhere people might be passing, in all weather conditions and seasons they were selling their sunflower seeds piled on old cloths. They were surrounded by sunflower husks, remnants of the best-selling product since my Homeland switched to a market economy.
As a result of this, every time I passed the Peace Bridge I wanted to help that little girl even if my support made little difference. By telling her “Your sunflower seeds are delicious” I tried to explain my actions.
The spring replaced the winter, and my Homeland's transition to market economy was put off for another winter. However there were more and more little girls and old women selling sunflower seeds. People also started resembling those sunflower seed husks, empty and discarded after the pith is taken. I was surprised that no-one noticed that we were all drowning and the sunflower seeds, the little girls and the grandmothers were straws. I wanted to scream “People, please look at these sunflower seed sellers. It's not going to come to any good.” But I managed to restrain myself because no one would understand these yells or at least so I thought.
It was fortunate that my artist friend invited me to see his students” works. I didn't want to go at first, because he was designing a statue of the “Great President”, but I wanted to see the work of this new generation of artists.
I visited the workshop at that evening. And these were the works of future artists of Turkmenistan. They would always give assurance that Turkmens will survive and that the generation is not dying. In front of me there were figures of a little girl and an old woman standing and selling sunflower seeds. The figures were big yet desperate and weak, bringing out deep sadness and a dead end. They were symbols of the period when the land of the Turkmens became independent yet was robbed, the period when unemployment and drug addiction soared, when men couldn't escape their troubles and couldn't bring home any bread, when men depended on the money that little girls and old women made selling sunflower seeds.
“So, how are they?” asked my artist friend and hurried me to hear my opinion. I nodded my head to tell him they were good.
“Perhaps these days will also pass. The little girls who sell sunflower seeds will grow up and study and then become wives. But if we eventually manage to get to those days I would suggest that in the center of the city, where the “golden president's” golden statue now stands, we should put up a statue of a little girl selling sunflower seeds, an example to us all of the resistance to an unemployed or addicted father. A statue of the real heroes of a time when people with more education, opportunities and power did nothing.” I said to myself and not to my artist friend.