Here is part 9 of my blog ‘A personal reflection on ‘serving in Afghanistan’’ – if you missed the earlier parts, here they are:
:: part 1
:: part 2
:: part 3
:: part 4
:: part 5
:: part 6
:: part 7
:: part 8
This week a friend of mine who worked in Afghanistan is sharing her experiences. Living in Afghanistan takes some adjustment. Maybe it is something you could prayerfully consider or there are people you know who may do so. Living in Afghanistan right now is not for the faint hearted but certainly God continues to call people if we are willing to hear him. I know myself that my last term of service was not something I particularly wanted to do and I wasn’t considering it seriously but then I prayed and with initial dismay I started to feel it was something God wanted me to do. It was the most challenging experience of my life but when God calls I do believe we should respond. Dare to pray and ask God!
Kabul in summer
The summer months were unbearably hot. In the areas without electricity there were no fridges or freezers so food would not keep for long. There would be no air conditioning or electric fans to keep the rooms cool. The heat in August was stifling and the only way to cope was to stay indoors away from the windows and usually with the curtains drawn to keep the sun out. Early morning was the only time that work could be done comfortably, usually immediately after the early morning call to prayer. Often I lay in bed early in the mornings, listening to the call to prayer emitting from the nearby mosque signifying the moment of day break when a black thread can be distinguished from a white thread, and all male Muslims, rich and poor, are summoned to attend morning prayers.
The sun rose, and therefore daylight began, much earlier in the summer months and therefore provided a few hours of comfortable temperature before the intense noon heat built up. If people did have to go out they tried to go as early in the morning as possible and always walked on the shady side of the road. Trees provided shade, so did high walls as long as you were on the side away from direct sunlight. People learned to look for the shade and if there wasn’t any to be found they would use umbrellas to create it. Seeing umbrellas being carried on a summer’s day with no sign or possibility of rain seemed strange at first, but when we realised why they were using umbrellas, it seemed to be common sense. If students didn’t have an umbrella they would hold their books aloft between their faces and the direction of the sun to try to protect their faces.
But there was work to be done whatever the weather.
In the poorer and more traditional families the women and children would often produce some hand made products for sale in the market place. We foreigners were potential customers for other ladies who visited us with a bundle of handmade embroidered products which were tied up in a larger cloth. They had made these items at home and for many years had sold them to the foreigners they knew. It was exquisite work, fine stitches and intricate designs which were traditional patterns which the women knew by heart. They had learned them from their mothers. I and many other foreign ladies used to buy some of their products which I then took back to the UK and distributed them as Christmas presents to family and friends. Sadly, these embroidery women always had more items in their bundle than they could sell and had to take them most home with them again.
Yet these poor women had spent time and money for fabric and materials in producing something that they had hoped and planned to sell door to door to foreigners and which they hadn’t been able to sell. That was money wasted that they could ill afford to spend. Their means of earning an income was dependent on the kindness and sympathy of foreigners to buy things that we didn’t need.
This situation had arisen because at that time the presence of an increased number of foreigners, all with plenty of disposable income to spend, meant that a new market had emerged. Some, well-meaning foreign women had taught the local craftswomen to utilise their embroidery skills to produce decorated western style of products such as tablecloths, cushion covers, simple embroidered blouses, decorated shoulder bags, bookmarks and gifts with the intention of buying these items to take and sell in the West. Suitcases full of handmade Afghan products left the country to be sold, or given away, as souvenir Afghan handicrafts in UK, US and elsewhere. The practice of encouraging a minority of local women to produce articles and trinkets intended for the foreigners was I felt unfair and unsustainable and I’m sure cost the women more than they earned from the practice. I began to wrestle with this issue.
One of my embroiderers named Nooria (not her real name) had two teenage daughters aged about 15 and 17, and one small son aged about 5. Over the years she had become one of my more regular visitors. She told me that her daughters spent all day every day making embroidered items for sale. Their work was exquisite, but that’s not the point. I told the mother that there was an adult literacy class starting near her house. It was two hours a day for five days a week, and it would give her daughters such an advantage in life to be able to read and write. Nooria was horrified and said that was not possible because she relied on her daughters to produce these items which she walked from one foreigner’s house to the next one to try and sell. I said it is only two hours a day which left another six or more for embroidery work, but still she refused to consider literacy as important for her daughters. This mind set is the biggest barrier to women’s education in the poorer and more traditional families – the fact that literacy is not appropriate for women.
I regularly met with local Afghan ladies who called at my house. I had an egg lady called “Khalida” who came every week from whom I bought lovely fresh eggs. I once asked her how many chickens she had. “Oh my chickens don’t lay many eggs,” she said, “I buy the eggs from someone for 6 Afs and sell them for 7 Afs.” That meant 1 Af profit per egg. (local currency at the time 100 Af = £0.89)
“How many eggs do you buy?” I asked. “About 40,” she replied. I then realised that she walked around the neighbourhood for hours selling eggs for the equivalent of about 37 pence a day profit. Her husband sold vegetables from a hand cart by the side of the road all day every day for about 40p a day profit. They had seven children. Resourcefulness and endurance is the only way families like this could manage. There are so many families who live like this and the recent covid lockdowns (though the Afghan government didn’t continue to enforce them) initially saw many unable to earn.
There were times when it was obvious how much these ladies relied on their earnings from selling embroidery to foreigners. I had learned that it was better to give these people the dignity of being able to earn their own living, however small that may be, than to merely give them what we think that they need. One year, on the first day of Eid which is a major religious event, “Sarai” arrived unexpectedly at my house. She had brought two embroidered coffee table cloths that I had expressed an interest in the week before. Then I realised why she had come. Every family needs to have extra food in the house to entertain visitors and she apparently had no money. There are two festivals every year which the Afghans call Eid. One is Eid-e Ramazan (in Afghanistan it is pronounced Ramazan not Ramadan as in the rest of the Islamic world) – it is a religious observance and is governed by the sighting of the actual moon. It is a three day holiday and every family looks forward to the opportunity to feast and visit relatives free from the obligations of fasting during daylight hours. But celebrations cost money.
These Eids are required by custom and tradition, therefore the family has to save or borrow enough to pay for new clothes and all the essential food. This is the busiest time for tailors and clothing shops, and also the most profitable. Eid always requires new clothes.
I bought the embroidered coffee table cloths from Sarai even though I didn’t need them and talked with her for a while. But she was in a hurry to go, so I wished her a ‘Happy Eid’ but wondered if for her it would be happy as she worried about how she would feed her family next week when Eid was over and all the ‘special food’ had been eaten.
There are many kinds of poverty in Afghanistan; physical, spiritual, educational, emotional (since many have been through so much trauma)….and more! Who will go to “be’ with these people?