The Greatest Gift

“Your sheep is waiting for you!” Mr. Omar, a staff of Shuhada’s Bamyan office, called after me as I got out of our van. My yet unnamed sheep – carelessly tucked away in the back of the vehicle – groaned in agreement.

It had been an odd day. A wonderful, odd day.

The Shuhada staff had taken me to a village, far out of Bamyan city – called Kamity. It was located on a mountain bordering Wardak province.

“It is the poorest and most remote village in Bamyan,” Hamid said on the bumpy ride over. “Because it’s so remote – NGOs generally don’t work there. We’ve built a school, are building a clinic, and have implemented literacy and fruit tree plantation projects there.”

I nodded, and looked out of the window. The vibrant mountains were almost familiar by now. As were the rows of mud houses carved out of the sides of hills, the potato fields, the unpaved roads, and the women and children balancing jugs on their heads. Familiar, but no less striking.

A few hours later, we pulled up to the village. With my laptop, DSLR, and slippery, sparkly sketchers – I hiked up a steep hill with the rest of our group. Atop the hill was a small school – and a group of men were waiting for us in a line.

“Salaam, Khoob hastid, Chetor hastid?” they all said, shaking hands with the rest of the Shuhada staff (who were all men). I held out my hand to one of the staff. He looked at it for a second, and then instead put his hand on his heart and welcomed me.

“Right,” I thought. “No shaking hands with a woman.” I’d taken for granted the liberalism of the Hazaras, and my “foreigner-exempt” status. Comparatively speaking – the Hazaras are more open, with respect to women, than Afghanistan’s other major ethnic groups (Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks). There are far fewer burqas in Bamyan than in Kabul, and women allow you to take their photographs here (although they generally look down when you do so). Liberal is still too strong a word – however – because many of the same problems, forced/child marriage for instance, exist in the communities I’ve visited – as elsewhere. From what I gather, from the conversations that I’ve had with villagers, students, NGO workers, and government officials, there’s a definite willingness amongst many Hazaras to let women be educated and take on an active role in communities. The problems are of poverty and access.

The staff guided us into a classroom. The benches and tables were made out of unsanded plywood, and the cracked glass in the windows was taped into place. The six, young men on the school’s staff all had deep lines in their foreheads and around their eyes from working in the sun. Their cheeks were burnt red. After Hamid and Mr. Omar introduced me, I pulled out my notebook, and started asking them questions. When I asked what they thought of the foreign presence in Afghanistan, a few broke out in laughter.

staff

“If a school burns down in the southern part of this country,” an angry staff member spoke out, “then the US will – 100% – rebuild it. If a school burns down here – nobody will care. The PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) just sit in place, drinking tea. They only work in the center of the city, they’ve never visited our village.”

“I think at one point they came and gave one family a lantern and a bag,” another said with a smirk.

“The bag probably had at least a few notebooks and pencils in it,” Hamid whispered to me, nervously. The PRTs have actually been really helpful with Shuhada’s projects in Bamyan. They’re currently reconstructing parts of Shuhada’s orphanage in Bamyan City and are funding Shuhada’s teacher training courses.

After I was done speaking with them, I asked to see some of the classrooms – particularly the ones with older girls.

The took us into the 8th grade classroom. There were only 6 students — 3 girls. When I entered, they put their white headscarves over their mouths, and looked down at their desks. I said salaam, and they said salaam back – not looking me in the eye. The six male staff crowded into the side of the room with the boy students. They stared at the girls, as I approached them to ask questions. It was clearly an uncomfortable situation, and I asked if the men (minus Hamid) could leave so I could speak with the girls alone. They refused.

“They can answer your questions in front of us,” the teacher replied.

That annoyed me. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to ask the girls any questions that would elicit an honest answer – or any answer at all with the men hovering. So I said thank you, and we left the school.

We walked down a steep gravel slope to the local mosque – and I cursed my stupid, sparkly sketchers. I’d spent the previous Saturday climbing up Shar-e-Zuhak (a mountain that houses the ruins of an ancient city), and ended up crab-walking much of the trek down because my shoes kept slipping on the loose rocks. “Cleets,” I thought. “Next time, cleets.”

Mr. Omar led us into a mosque with the most colorful interior I’d ever seen. The frames of the windows were bright green, the mats that lined the floor were a red and orange floral print, and the bottoms of the walls were painted cyan. Intricate black and gold tapestries with portraits of Hazrat Ali riding triumphantly on a steed were hung across the walls. The women, who took up the right side of the room, were the brightest part of the decor – adorned in magenta, teal, blue, pink, and orange headscarves draped tightly across their heads and mouths. A chubby baby crawled around in a neon green elf-hat, with orange, red, and blue tassles. The men, who sat on the left, were markedly at odds with the scenery – in brown khurtha pajamas and checkered turbans. The village elder sat between the men’s side and the women’s side in olive green, counting his prayer beads.

women

oldman

baby

Hamid, Mr. Omar and I sat cross-legged across from the group. We, again, introduced ourselves – and I started up a conversation (with Hamid translating).

“So there’s no electricity in this village, and the roads are closed during winter because of the snow?” I asked.

The group nodded.

“And you’re farmers – so you don’t have any work to do then?”

They nodded again.

“So what do you do – when winter comes?”

“We spend our days and nights staring at the sky and sleeping. We mostly sleep,” the village elder replied. “And if we have to go to the hospital, we take the sick person on a donkey into Bamyan city – hours and hours away.”

Aside from the clinic Shuhada was currently in the process of building, the villagers essentially had no access to healthcare. The trek to Bamyan City was very long, even by car – and they certainly couldn’t afford anything more than a donkey. In the rough, prolonged winters here – the likelihood of them actually making it into the city to the hospital was next to zero.

I then got into the question of human rights. We (being the international community) love to sponsor “human rights” workshops in Afghanistan – in which trainers hand villagers, or elders, or whoever a book on what “human rights” means (drawing upon the Universal Declaration, the Afghan Constitution, and Sharia law – and CEDAW, if its specific to women). These workshops are meant to change both perception and action in communities. I’ve been extremely skeptical of the effectiveness of these workshops – and genuinely want to be persuaded otherwise. But coming to a vague understanding of the fact that you deserve more than what you have (based off of international norms) doesn’t – of course – mean you’ll actually try to get what you deserve. These workshops generally last only a few days – and I think it’s nothing short of unreasonable to expect that they’ll have a lasting impact on people’s behavior and actions, given the limited timeframe.

“So what does human rights mean?” I asked the crowd.

There was a long pause, and then a women in the back shouted out, “It means that men and women are equal!”

“Ok,” I said, “And has knowing about your rights changed anything about the way you live your life?”

That question elicited no response at all. Perhaps the essence of it got lost in translation.

I then spent some time interviewing the community elder – and will post the transcript (which is essentially a takedown of the Community Based Savings Group model I praised earlier) next.

Community Elder: Mohammad Aslam

elder

The room cleared out – and the village elder, Mohammad Aslam, invited us to his home for lunch. Mohammad and his wife had prepared a generous meal for us. Several naan, bowls of yogurt, fresh butter, and a drink they call doh. Hamid asked about a portrait of a young child in an army uniform, hung on a wall.

“That is my son,” Mohammad said. “He fled to Iran during the time of the Taliban. This entire village – my home, my mosque, everything – was burned down by the Taliban. We all fled to Behsood – climbing over this mountain,” he pointed out the window, “to get there.”

We continued talking for a while, about the war, the neglect of this village, the struggles of its people – until Hamid looked at his watch and said we had to go.

“We have a gift for you,” Mohammad said, looking at me.

He led us down a stone staircase, out onto the mountain. There, a man in a grey turban with a pointy mustache was crouching near the ground – hugging a black and white sheep.

sheep1

“They’ve given you a sheep,” Hamid told me.

“For coming to visit us. We don’t have visitors from America, and we appreciate you coming here to ask us about our lives, and our difficulties,” Mohammad explained.

“Oh my God!” I said to Hamid. “A sheep! That’s so awesome!” Even though the gesture was serious, I couldn’t hold back my laughter.

I expected, of course, that this gift was purely symbolic.  That we’d say thank you, and leave the sheep with the community.

“Should we take it? We shouldn’t take it, right?” Hamid whispered to me.

“What?” I said – startled, “What, no, of course not! Are you serious? What on earth would I do with a sheep? Take it back to America with me?”

“They’re saying they’d be offended if we didn’t take it,” Hamid told me. “This is a part of their culture – they don’t let guests leave without a gift.”

Hamid was right. Mr. Omar was surrounded by a group of elders, attempting (failingly) to convince them that we appreciated the gift, but would like to leave it with the village. The negotiations went on for about 10 minutes, but the elders wouldn’t budge.

“Ok,” Mr. Omar said, “We have to take the sheep. They’ll be upset if we don’t.”

“What!? Where are we going to put it?” I asked.

“In the back of the van,” Hamid sighed – as he opened the trunk. One of the elders picked up the sheep and lifted it into the van. The sheep struggled and groaned – trying to jump out. It didn’t succeed.

We waved goodbye to the villagers, thanked them again for their gift, and started the 2.5 hour-long journey home. Every few seconds, the sheep hemmed and hawed in protest of its new owner. I couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity of it all. This was – without question – the best gift I’d ever gotten.

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About Afreen

I'm a Masters student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I'm spending the summer in Afghanistan working for a women's rights organization, and documenting their initiatives in central Afghanistan.
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4 Responses to The Greatest Gift

  1. Andel says:

    and for the rest of your life, all gift-givers will have a hard time topping this one 🙂

  2. Ricky baum says:

    Wow. Did you name the goat? Also, did you ever consider just grabbing the hand of one of those men and shaking it vigorously?

    • Afreen says:

      ha – the goat went straight to another villager on the outskirts of bamyan city. don’t think afghans name their sheep. and no – i try to not offend the people i’m interviewing 🙂

  3. Jasteena says:

    I have been there.. bringing a sheep home in the back of my car.. will never forget the small.. You go girl!

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