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An Ingenious Autodidact in the Mountains of Tajikistan

Nov 29, 2018 | 831 videos
Video by Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis and Maude Plante-Husaruk

Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis and Maude Plante-Husaruk, both filmmakers, were researching their upcoming trip to Central Asia when they first heard a man named Raïmberdi talk about plants. “We stumbled upon a French TV program about [Tajikistan] where Raïmberdi had briefly appeared, and we immediately thought he was a very interesting man and that there was definitely more to his story,” Lacoste-Lebuis told The Atlantic.

Months later, the pair arrived in Tajikistan through the deserted region of the Pamir Mountains. “We started inquiring about the old Kyrgyz man who had built his own hydroelectric power station,” Lacoste-Lebuis said. They didn’t know his name, or even whether he was still living. But they got lucky: A German researcher happened to be traveling through the remote area at the same time. He pointed the filmmakers in the right direction.

Lacoste-Lebuis and Plante-Husaruk’s short documentary, The Botanist, is an elegant, meditative portrait of Raïmberdi, his culture, and his life’s work. Raïmberdi descends from a tribe that lived a nomadic lifestyle in a particularly hostile environment. “Therefore, they were completely dependent on the fauna, flora, and climate of the region,” Plante-Husaruk said.

“Old Kyrgyz people knew how to use plants to make herbal remedies for pains and aches,” Raïmberdi says in the film. “I discovered everything about roots, stems, leaves, flowers, etc., and how to use them … Each plant accumulates organic substances its own way.”  

Living in the Soviet Union, Raïmberdi and his people received regular shipments of goods from Russia. But when the Communist bloc collapsed, Tajikistan plunged into a devastating five-year civil war. Raïmberdi’s region suffered a prolonged famine. Raïmberdi leaned into his passion for botany. He performed comprehensive geographical fieldwork, collecting thousands of plant samples in handmade herbariums. He relied on his self-taught knowledge to identify more than 300 types of plants, providing sustenance as well as medicinal support to his community.

Today, nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s still difficult in Raïmberdi’s region to procure essential supplies such as gasoline, kerosene, matches, and flour. But the enterprising Raïmberdi has made do. In addition to his hydroelectric station, which he made out of an electromagnetic generator he salvaged from the dump, he created a machine to make fire, and other innovative technologies that his family and community rely on to survive.

“It is very surprising to meet someone who has so much ingenuity and understanding of how things work in such a simple, remote, and deserted place that seems resourceless and completely cut out from the world,” Plante-Husaruk said. “Raïmberdi has a wisdom that seems to go beyond the boundaries of his own education, age, and culture. He is one of a kind, and that’s what inspired us to make the film in the first place.”

Plante-Husaruk and Lacoste-Lebuis believe that there is much to be gleaned from Raïmberdi’s story. “I think we can learn from his curiosity,” Plante-Husaruk said. “We can learn how to open our eyes and heart to our environment—to develop humility and to stop thinking that we are above nature. This message is even more relevant now with the extreme climate changes we are to face in the next century.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.