Surviving economic hardships through Kazakhstan's ‘toi business’

A group of professional dancers at a wedding toi. Photo by Nazerke Kurmangazinova. Used with permission.

This article was written by Dinara Abildenova and Zarina Adambussinova for as part of “Regions of Kazakhstan,” a project that explores the various manifestations of inequality among regions and large cities of Kazakhstan. An edited version is republished on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement.

Toi,” in Kazakh, is a general term for an organized feast, such as a wedding, a birthday, or an anniversary. However, the modern understanding of the term encompasses much more than the traditional celebration of certain stages of a person’s life, but also jubilees and other professional or familial milestones.

Toi celebrations have been heavily criticized — especially weddings deemed to be too large and too expensive. These lush feasts, in fact, are often paid for with loans, because they host hundreds of people in restaurants, rent limousines, set up concert-like entertainment, hire an “army” of photographers, and more. But why does this happen? Our research suggests that commerce related to toi events has become one of the few ways for residents of small towns to make a living in the absence of proper employment programs.

Economic and social functions of toi in small towns

Toi is a massive industry. For some people, this business might be the only income, for other it is a much-needed additional source of cash. Either way, the toi business lies at the intersection between the formal and informal economy. For this article, we visited two regions: Zhetysu (total population: 698,700) and Zhambyl (total population: 1,216,000).

Zhetysu and Zhambyl are predominantly agricultural regions (in Zhambyl, the chemical industry is also an important economic sector). But not everyone has access to jobs in these sectors. After the regional capitals of Taraz and Taldykorgan, the largest urban settlements are dwindling single-industry towns (also known as monotowns), where unemployment is rampant. For the locals who are unemployed or underemployed, therefore, the toi industry is an opportunity to make ends meet and feed their families. Although the official unemployment rate in 2022 was only 4.9 percent, the real unemployment rate can reach up t0 20 percent. This is especially true for the two regions we visited. According to the Forbes Regional Competitiveness Index, which assesses the socio-economic situation in all 16 regions of Kazakhstan, they come in the bottom four and show a high proportion of self-employed residents.

A woman with a doll in Kazakh traditional costume. Photo from Dinara Abildenova's archive. Used with permission.

In the Zhetysu region, we interviewed some toastmasters who were afraid to answer our questions because they thought we were sent by the tax office. In most cases, the toastmaster job is a second occupation, alongside their main employment in, say, civil service. Most, however, do not register as individual entrepreneurs. This also applies to local businessmen profiting from the toi business.

In Zhambyl, the toi industry has also become an informal lending mechanism. One of our informants said that if one needs, for example, to carry out house repairs or solve a household financial issue, they can organize a toi. A toi for 150 to 450 guests (always including guests from big cities) in towns with 25,000 inhabitants costs an average of KZT 1–1.5 million (USD 2,200–3,400). The organizer can order most of the services related to the toi either on credit or with an oral promise of repayment. After holding a toi, the organizer collects an average of KZT 2 million (USD 4,400), which allows them to repay any loans or debts and make a small profit as well.

In Zhetysu, however, toi celebrations do not always bring in additional income for the organizers. In some cases, the revenue is only enough to cover the expenses. In both regions, parents organize a toi for their children in an attempt to recoup the cost of their presents. A resident of Zhanatas told us:

For us Kazakhs, a toi is a kazyna (Kazakh for ‘treasure’). After you’ve attended several, you can also host your own. Of course there are some people who don’t interact with many other people, but this didn’t happen here. People check how much they spent and how much they got back.

In Zhambyl, during each toi, one of the organizer’s relatives usually keeps a record of who and how much they donated in a special notebook. In some cases, donors write their names in gift envelopes. In this context, a monetary gift is essentially a zero-interest loan, with a moral obligation to be returned.

In monotowns, a toi is also a source of entertainment, one person in Zhanatas told us, “We don’t have places to dance or listen to music, especially for young people.”

Furthermore, during a toi, people exchange news, maintain social ties with distant relatives and the community, and make new acquaintances.

Improved quality of life takes the toi industry to the next level

The development of the market economy and the economic boom of the 2000s led to toi being celebrated in restaurants. Previously, these celebrations were held at home, in yurt tents in the backyard, or in school canteens. The shape and the size of the gifts changed as well. Bringing an envelope with cash is now more desirable than the old-fashioned gift of a carpet. In Zhambyl, the gifted amount varies depending on kinship: close relatives would pay at least KZT 40,000 (around USD 90), distant relatives can settle at KZT 20,000 (around USD 45), while colleagues and friends can pay as little as KZT 5,000 (USD 12).

Carrying out the uzatu-toi (a kind of farewell to the bride celebration) in restaurants represented an important change in traditions. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, marriage by kidnapping (in Kazakh, “alyp qashu”) was popular, and the bride’s farewell was rarely held at her home. Despite being a criminal offense punishable with a lengthy prison sentence and criticized by the majority of people, bride kidnapping for marriage purposes is a practice that is still found in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But an improved economic situation later prompted families to show off their status. Thus, a marriage by kidnapping came to be associated with financial trouble on the bride’s side. By holding an uzatu-toi, the two sides now establish an even financial relationship.

A bride at kyz uzatuu toi. Photo from Dinara Abildenova's archive. Used with permission.

The restaurant hall designated for toi (in Kazakh, “toikhana”) can be considered a separate phenomenon of the toi industry. Not just a space with catering, the toikhana is a turnkey facility for family celebrations, providing a wide range of services. Besides being a key employer for the toi industry, the toikhana also sets the trends in celebratory rituals, including the menu.

Toikhana halls have spread to every corner of the country, even in remote villages. In towns of 25,000 people, such as Zhanatas or Kordai (at the border with Kyrgyzstan), there are at least three large toikhana halls. In the village of Saryozek, with a population of only 12,000, seven out of 12 restaurants are registered exclusively as toikhana halls. In some cases, these restaurant halls are built from scratch, while sometimes, they are located in former Soviet administrative buildings.

The toastmaster, singers, dancers, musicians, photographers, hairdressers, make-up artists, seamstresses, and drivers are the main protagonists at toi celebrations. And for each bit of clothing or performance, there are even more services to book. The scale of the celebration and the variety of guests, gifts, and services all depend on the package the organizers buy.

In the context of peripheral towns, the toi business is not a mere revival of old traditions. In fact, it has come to represent a way for local populations to adapt to a changing economic system. The thriving toi business is a prism through which it is possible to read the complexities of the present, namely chronic unemployment, underdeveloped infrastructure, and strategies of survival under capitalism.

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