Afghan nomads question benefits of democracy
The Kuchi have one of the highest illiteracy rates in a country where half of all men and eight in 10 women are illiterate. They also have a high rate of amputees from landmines from their wanderings over strategic plains.
Mohammed Akbar frowns and shrugs helplessly as he points to his few remaining sheep foraging in the dustbowl by the highway to Kabul just outside the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
"I look at them, I feel sad. I remember the sheep I had," he says as his young daughter plays in the trailing end of his long brown turban. Akbar once had 400 sheep and was a rich man by the standards of Afghanistan´s Kuchi nomads. Now he has just six.
Seven years of drought killed most of the Kuchis´sheep and camels around Kandahar and threatens a way of life dating back thousands of years. The Kuchis worry it could end their wanderings and tie them down on the fringes of cities, desperately hoping for a few days´work.
Afghanistan`s 12 million voters choose a Wolesi Jirga (House of the People) on Sunday, the first parliamentary polls since 1969. But the Kuchis care more about rain and sheep than who rules in Kabul, or even in the provincial capital of Kandahar.
"For me, what is the difference? What is democracy?" asks Sardar Khan, who doesn´t know how old he is but could be anywhere between 50 and 70. "In the time of the Taliban we were poor Kuchi, if this democracy comes, we will still be poor Kuchi."
On Sunday, this group of nomads will trek 10 km (six miles) there and back in temperatures close to 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) to queue and vote for 10 seats reserved for the gypsies in the 249-member Wolesi Jirga.
Not because they feel it will make a difference but because, they say, the police will force them to vote as they did in the presidential election last year that returned Hamid Karzai, whose base is in Kandahar.
"We don´t see our future, we don´t know if it will be good or not," says 40-year-old Mohammed Khan as the moon rises over the stark imposing shape of Showqamdam Mountain.
"We don´t know the benefits of the election. Election -- what does it mean?"
For thousands of years, the Kuchi have been shepherding their sheep, goats and camels between the mountains and the harsh, hot desert plains with the change of seasons.
No reliable estimate exists for the Kuchi population, but some researchers say they make up perhaps three million of Afghanistan´s 24-28 million people.
Up to 600,000 have registered to vote, but their nomadic lifestyle means they are not entitled to cast ballots in elections for provincial assemblies also being held on Sunday.
The Kuchis live and travel in small extended family groups, some with little more than a patch of canvas strung up over the dusty earth, others with a tent or quiltwork of patched material over crude mudbrick half-walls and the bare dirt.
They are surrounded by their animals. Their clothes are tattered, torn and filthy, the children barefoot, hair matted and skin crusted with dust. The women do not cover up with the burqa.
Because of their lifestyle, the Kuchi have one of the highest illiteracy rates in a country where half of all men and eight in 10 women are illiterate. They also have a high rate of amputees from landmines from their wanderings over strategic plains.
That lifestyle may be changing forever. The drought that ended barely nine months ago ravaged their camel, sheep and goat herds. Some, like Sardar Khan who once had 50 sheep and Mohammed Khan, who had 40 and four camels, have nothing left.
"Before the time of drought, we had sheep. We had everything," Sardar Khan says. "Now we don´t have anything."
When Sardar Khan is asked what he wants for the future, one of the group of men watching yells: "Give us sheep." Everyone laughs. But there is a tinge of desperation.
Now, the Kuchi survive on on-again-off-again day work laboring on construction sites or building roads funded by the aid money that has flowed in since U.S.-led forces ousted the hardline Taliban in late 2001.
This year, for the first time, Akbar might not make the annual migration.
"When we had sheep and goats, we were going to the mountains every year," he says. "Now we don´t have any sheep, we won´t go. We have to stay here where there are jobs."
Von: 15 September 2005, http://www.leadingthecharge.com, by Terry Friel