Sun, Jan 13, 2013 - Page 9 News List

War halts traditional nomadic way of life for Afghan shepherds

Thousands of Afghanistan’s Kuchi farmers have had to abandon their wandering lifestyle despite a lack of other employment and a nomadic mentality

By Emma Graham-Harrison  /  The Guardian, KABUL

However, few Afghans, in government or outside it, appreciate that role.

“Meat from Kuchis is a very low proportion of what you see in the shops, especially in the winter,” said Sher Ali, 51, who started in the trade aged 10 and owns a shop on Kabul’s butcher street.

His attitude is part of a larger problem of disregard for the Kuchis; although the livestock trade can be highly lucrative, their lack of education and the enforced simplicity of a nomadic life means they are often looked down on as stupid, dirty or backward.

The Kuchis are guaranteed 10 seats in parliament, but official positions are dominated by settled members of the group. Those who still live a nomadic life are marginalized even for a country where millions of people have minimal interaction with the government or any services it provides.

Few have birth certificates or other identity papers, needed for everything from land requests to school registration or medical care. Only four out of 100 Kuchis are able to read at present; many are keen for their children to be better equipped for modern life.

“We worry about our kids, we are like blocks of wood, with nothing in our minds,” said Gul Agha, a 50-year-old elder from a camp of Kuchis petitioning the government in Kabul for land to settle permanently, in part so they can be nearer clinics and schools.

His group of about 75 families have been waiting more than two years in the capital, scraping a living by sorting rubbish for recyclable scraps.

About 18 months ago, they were promised land in nearby Laghman Province only to be chased off the site by armed police; five Kuchis were killed in the clash. They returned to Kabul to ask once more for help, camp residents say.

That said, not everyone is keen to leave their tents. The livestock business can be very profitable, and some enjoy the freedom of a wandering life.

“If you offered to make me a king, or give me back some sheep, I’d rather have my sheep and my old life with them,” said Malik Durani, 46, who lives in the camp of Kabul petitioners.

Many educated, settled Kuchis dismiss the longing for the traditional way of life as nostalgic sentiment peddled to foreigners, or worse.

“These are businessmen who have part of the market cornered and don’t want competition from other Kuchi,” said Haji Sher Ali Ahmadzai, a member of parliament elected to one of the seats reserved for Kuchi.

“Of course it is better to settle down,” he said, waving at his warm, well carpeted office. “In the tents they don’t have a bathroom, a stove, nothing.”

There are serious political and economic concerns about trying to accelerate an enormous lifestyle shift in a country short of land and jobs for its urban population.

Jacobs supports finding permanent homes for those who want to settle down, but warns that a rush to end the nomadic lifestyle of all Kuchis would create problems in a country that has to import a significant amount of food.

“Trying to settle your nomadic populations, you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot, you’re going to have to start importing meat from other places,” Jacobs said.

“Around 70 percent of the sheep and goats you see in the major livestock markets of Afghanistan comes from the Kuchi, and they only make up about 5 percent or 6 percent of the Afghan population. So it doesn’t take a maths whiz to work out that maybe we should find a way to let the people who really want to raise their livestock this way, do that,” he said.

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