As the world focuses on Afghanistan today: President Obama’s historic visit and discussions about the future of the country, our Chief Executive visits the region and reflects on World Vision’s work assisting communities there.
Afghanistan. For the rest of the world it is images of conflict and insecurity that come to mind at the mere mention of this country. After only three days here it’s crystal clear that the real Afghanistan is something altogether different. A place of incredible history, of spectacular natural beauty and of extraordinary people rich with potential. From the majesty of mosques and citadels that have been trod by Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great. To fields of flowers rolling down gentle green hills, above valleys where peaches and pistachios flourish. To a democratically elected local leader wrestling with the challenges of getting children into school, of bringing greater equality for women, and protecting young men from the perils of trafficking. These are the images that today brought to us as we travelled from the bustle of the city to the calm of the countryside.
Struggling with the basics
I’m writing this in the dark, quiet of the World Vision office come guest house in this small, dusty provincial town where the electricity generator’s just gone off for the night. It’s a more conservative area than the city, with few women visible outdoors and those that are completely veiled. Far more turbans and beards too – closer to what one colleague describes as ‘the beard growing capital of the world’! The faces are even more diverse than we’ve seen elsewhere – Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turkmens, Uzbeks and the nomadic Kuchis. As we walked through the winding, bumpy streets we passed carpet saddled horses, donkeys and motorbikes, great piles of wool, and lines of plastic bottles filled with fuel. Driving up into the hills above the town we can see them clothed in meadows of grass and poppies (not the opium producing variety) here for just 3 or 4 months of the year between the snows of winter and the harsh heat of summer.
The basics of life are not easy here though. Villages of mud brick hewn out of the side of the hills, donkeys ploughing the briefly fertile land on the steepest of slopes, children walking 2 hours or more to carry water from the river to their homes. Drought for much of the last three years, interspersed with flash floods down dry river beds. The local Shura (council) leader tells me that and “there’s not enough work or ways to make a living here, we are losing our sons – they are leaving us”.
The forgotten place
World Vision have been working here for years and a local colleague tells me “World Vision is leading the green revolution in this area – fruit trees, soya beans, saffron, pistachios. Bees too, and a women’s carpet co-operative.” He says that “it’s been a forgotten place, it’s taken time for communities to know us and trust us, but now we are friends and so much is happening”. We met Habib who proudly showed us his field of young pistachio trees “this will bring a huge change for my family, they are drought resistant and if we care for them for 4 or 5 years there will be nuts for 200 years”.
The desire for change
The local Shura leader invited me in for my first cup of tea in an Afghan home. I listened gripped as Mohamed told us the story of his family, community and the trials and tribulations of leadership. With 6 of his 7 children daughters, his desire for change for women is very clear “I want them to be doctors, teachers”. He describes vividly the trap that many young men of 16 or 17 fall into, in the hands of traffickers they are tempted away to find work in Iran and all too often fall into drug addiction. As Mohamed thanks World Vision for our support, he invites me to stay at his home for the night. I know what our security officer (and my family!) might say about that, staying in this mountain village an hour from the provincial town itself firmly in the ‘red’ security zone. Mohamed reading my thoughts tells me “you would be safe here, I have 4,000 people following me, no one can touch you!”