This summer I took a commercial flight to a war-zone. Boarding the plane bound to Afghanistan, I was struck by how normal it all seemed. I expected it to be more difficult, but as I discovered little in Afghanistan was as I expected.
I went to Kabul in order to work with Global Partnership for Afghanistan (GPFA), an organization that provides Afghan farmers with the crops, poultry, and agriculture training they need to create a sustainable livelihood.
I landed in the new Kabul International Airport. It is supposedly much nicer than it used to be, though, of course, I never saw how it used to be. Regardless, I did not pay much attention to the facilities because I was fixated on finding my way out. Days before, the Taliban had shot rockets at the airport, and I was not looking to spend much time there.
Riding into the heart of Kabul, I saw surprisingly few scars marking the nearly 30 years of war this city has borne. There were only a handful of bombed-out buildings, and, although the streets wear the evidence of poverty, they also show signs of prosperity. Tin shacks chock-full of one type of ware for sale (wheelbarrows, for example) line the road, but so do large glass and steel wedding halls and brightly-lit, modern supermarkets.
The streets are jammed with cars and these cars are packed full of people. A man swore to me that he saw a family of eight crammed into a station wagon riding with a goat seated in the middle. Aside from the stuffed automobiles, the city bustles with barnyard animals crossing traffic, bicyclists weaving, pedestrians walking, and merchants peddling. It can seem like any other developing world city until you spot the guns.
Afghan national police patrol the city by vehicle. They stand on the backs of trucks, facing the cars behind them, mindlessly pointing their guns towards traffic. Military Humvees pass by with soldiers standing lookout in the latch, also holding their weapons ready. The first time I saw a camouflage-color Humvee next to a cow, I laughed. They both seemed so out of place against the hotel in the background.
Overall, there is a surprising feeling of normalcy in Kabul -- a normalcy that is only accentuated in the provinces to the north where the landscape is so lush with trees that the vista seems an endless sea of green. It is in these cities that many of GPFA's farmers live.
I traveled to meet one such farmer. After calling ahead to see if it was safe, a few GPFA staff members and I drove out of Kabul along a road hugged by patches of trees and farms. When we arrived, we were greeted by a host of children -- some the farmer's and some her cousin's -- and we went to see the crops. Above the winding roots and below the broad green leaves, bright gourds peeped out. We walked through the patch, careful not to step on anything that was growing, stopping to look at two plump turkeys in a wire cage, and then went through the gate of a stone fence to see the orchard. Tree after tree bore fruit ripe for picking. It was a scene of peaceful abundance.
This was a GPFA farm. The three Afghan horticulturists with whom I traveled were GPFA "extensionists." They, like the farmer, were all female.
The organization is unique within the country for its grassroots model. GPFA works with community councils to designate farmers for participation, and provides special programs specifically for women. The organization hires only Afghan extensionists, who routinely visit the farms in the provinces they oversee.
We all sat on some benches alongside the farmer and her children for a long while eating freshly-picked mulberries and talking about quotidian matters -- from farming to the Taliban. Just as we were getting ready to leave, another local GPFA farmer shouted after us. He explained that insects were eating some of his trees and showed the extensionists some leaves flecked with holes as evidence. What, he asked them, should he do about it?
GPFA provides such farmers with countless resources. The organization runs fruit nurseries and poplar woodlots that grow plants to be transferred to individual farms. They provide greenhouses to grow vegetables and cold storage facilities to store crops until the optimal selling period arrives. They also offer tools to farmers, like storage crates and solar fruit drying racks.
But the most important service GPFA provides is in agriculture education. The extensionists run training sessions on farming techniques like weeding, drip-irrigation, and pruning. While I was there, an American engineer finished perfecting a solar drying stand that could be cheaply replicated. These panels enabled farmers to dry fruit or vegetables without exposure to animal droppings. The dried product could then be sold at market. GPFA began planning sessions to show the farmers how to use the panels.
I did not get to spend nearly as much time with the farmers as I would have liked. Many have inspiring stories as well as harrowing tales. I learned about female farmers who had suffered great physical abuse, which is not uncommon in a country where the role of women is so curtailed. (Some Afghan women jailed for "crimes" related to domestic violence, such as running away, prefer to stay in jail because they have no where else go.) It was remarkable to see such women now running their own farms with the aid of GPFA.
It is common in Afghanistan to hear about close relatives recently killed, homes destroyed, and land lost. But there is also a lot of talk that is optimistic about the future. This is particularly true for the farmers in the countryside. GPFA offers them a way to build a sustainable livelihood and these farmers are determined to make the most of it.