I stood face to face with a hefty white man in a golden studded robe. He wore a matching fez atop his head, and stared back at me – his face alight with golden-studded joy. It was a portrait of the Aga Khan – the leader of the Ismaili (a small, ultra-(ultra)-liberal) sect of Islam. Propped up inside a dark mosque built out of mud in a village in central Afghanistan, the bejeweled Aga could not have seemed more out of place.
Hamid, an extremely patient Shuhada staff member – who’s been forced to accompany me everywhere due to his English skills, broke my mesmerized stare.
“The women from the Khalo valley are here, but we are still waiting for the women from Lowh,” he said.
Hamid and I had spent the morning driving through treacherous red mountain passes, on what one might erroneously refer to as roads. We’d travelled two hours outside of Bamyan city to a village called Iraq – so that I could attend a Community Based Savings Group meeting, and interview the women involved in the program.
The Community Based Savings Group (CBSG) model is one I’ve studied, which is why I was intrigued to see it in practice. In regions with no access to a formal banking system – this model enables villagers to create their own bank. Individuals in a village form a group – and each contributes a small amount of money per meeting (usually no more than 50 – 100 Afghanis, which is equivalent to 1 – 2 USD). They then pool this money, and – if someone in the community needs a loan – the group determines whether the individual is reliable, and whether his/her needs are worthy of the money. If they decide to give the individual the loan – they set up a repayment timetable – with a 2% interest rate per month. An NGO facilitates the trainings, provides these villagers with balancing books, and oversees meetings in the initial phases. The goal – as with all development projects – is to devolve power entirely to the villagers over time. It’s a great model, which – if it works – imbues women with a sense of responsibility, and (ideally) enables them to finance their own projects without depending upon men in the community.
There were two villages participating in the CBSG meeting. Lowh was the exemplar, the group that had – more or less – effectively implemented the model. Khalo was there to see what a successful meeting looked like.
Twenty women from Khalo village shuffled in – and sat down lined up against the back wall – directly across from me. They wore bright, patterned headscarves and clothing, and beaded jewelry. They stared at me, in unison, and in silence. My Dari is pathetically inadequate – so I couldn’t do or say much to break the prolonged, awkward silence.
“Salaam! Khoob hastid? Chetor hastid?” (how are you, how is your health). With that – I was out of introduction fodder – and defaulted, “Ap lohg Urdu meh bhat kar sakthey?” (Can you speak Urdu?). Which was met with blank stares and half smiles.
The community elder of Khalo village walked in last and sat down cross-legged on the floor. He was a short, very old man, with a salt and pepper beard that he had combed to a point. He was decked out in olive green – turban, coat, and khurtha pajamas, and wore a giant turquoise ring and a fake gold watch. He smiled and nodded at me.
After another 15 minutes, the women from Lowh village showed. They sat down in a circle, and pulled out their giant balancing books. Without pause – the head of the group – a determined-looking 18 year old, crouched over the books and read off the minutes from the previous meeting. She then called each woman’s name – and they each threw a few bills into the middle of the circle, which the group’s treasurer collected and counted.
After the meeting was over – I was able to speak with the women as a group, and ask them about their challenges, their needs, and their thoughts about ongoing development projects.
“Illiteracy is our main problem!” an older woman with a high-pitched voice chimed in.
“We can’t afford to send our children to schools!” another yelled.
“They taught us how to make handicrafts – but we don’t have a market to sell them in!”
I scribbled down the list as quickly as I could. The answers kept coming from all sides of the room.
“Most of all, we want peace, development, and prosperity,” said the sage elder – bringing the raucous conversation to a close. “We are grateful for everything the international community has done for us. But this is what we need.”
The staff then rolled out a red tarp – and we had lunch. Two legs of chicken in a bed of rice – shared between 3 people. I poked at my chicken with a fork – foolishly trying to avoid touching it so as to not spread germs to my co-eaters. The woman sitting next to me licked her fingers – and took the meat off of the bone for me.
After lunch was over, and after I had interviewed the community elder, I began packing up my things. Hamid was anxious to get back to Shuhada, and I had already abused his generosity for the entire day. As I was zipping up my bag, four of the younger girls from Lowh village approached me, holding hands.
“They have a question they want to ask you,” Hamid said.
“Will you come see our home?” a tiny, beautiful girl with a round-face asked me. She was fourteen – but looked about 7, or 8 at best.
“Yes!” I said – but taking into account poor Hamid, I added, “although I can’t stay for very long.”
We raced through potato fields, jumping over creeks, and clearing away brush with our hands. We ended up at a set of homes made out of mud – with heavy wooden doors. The yards were strewn with straw and smelled of manure. One of the girls pushed open the door to her home, and led us inside.
Thin, worn pillows lined the walls, and bright orange curtains were hung across the windows. There was a mantle full of old cassette tapes and radios, and – of course – several portraits of the ornate Aga Khan. It was nice, I thought – as I continued to scan the décor.
An invitation to a village home and a Kennedy school econ lesson realized. A very exciting day.