Friday, October 01, 2010

Guest Voices: Afghanistan: Two Trips, Two Viewpoints … 33 Years Apart

Next up in our series of guest posts from Concern Worldwide, Aoife Gleeson tells the story of Kathy Cicerale. Kathy has an unique perspective on Afghanistan after returning to the country 33 years after her first visit.

In September 1977, Kathy Cicerale, who now works as the Donor Care Assistant for Concern Worldwide in New York, entered Kabul for the first time. The journey marked the latest leg of her backpacking adventure around South East Asia.

The bus trip from Pakistan had taken over 12 hours – but it was a spectacular journey that had taken her through the Kybher pass. The sheer drops, windy roads and snow-capped peaks were both terrifying and exciting all at once. It was a fantastic way to start a trip that was to leave a lasting impression on Kathy.

“As we approached Kabul, we drove by the president’s house, where a policeman took out his rifle and threatened to fire if we didn’t go back. Buses were not allowed in this location because the noise would disturb the president. That was the first time that I was exposed to guns in Afghanistan.”

Thirty three years later I too entered Kabul, by air.

During the years that separated our trips, Afghanistan has experienced a continuous state of civil war punctuated only by foreign occupations including the 1979 Soviet invasion and the October 2001 US-led invasion that overthrew the Taliban government.

Nowadays the Kypher pass is a route considered far too daunting for most travelers, and the numbers of people bearing rifles has risen significantly. Nonetheless, travelling to Afghanistan can still be a quite spectacular trip.

From my window seat on the plane I sat mesmerized by the seemingly endless rolling hills that unfolded below as the passenger to my right spoke: “These were all green when I was a child. The years of civil war have destroyed the trees that covered these hills and so now they are brown and lifeless.”

Indeed, this is not the small bustling city of 33 years ago, that Kathy remembers: “Somehow I immediately felt comfortable with the Afghan people even though it was my first exposure to a very strict and predominantly Islamic culture. You could feel the importance of the Islamic traditions that were deeply ingrained in its people.

“Travelers did not deal with or even encounter Afghan women who were completely covered from head to toe with only a small opening for their eyes. Only on a few occasions did I see a few women on the inner city buses. Initially, the male presence was overwhelming. I was careful to dress appropriately and wore long pants or skirts and long sleeves. Afghanistan was a country where I felt it important to respect the culture, particularly as a woman.” For me, at least on this count, her experience rang true.

Upon landing I was met by the Country Director for Concern Afghanistan and taken to the Concern Worldwide office in Kabul, where I was welcomed like an old friend. Concern has been working in Afghanistan since 1998 and a lot of the staff have been with Concern for years. Many asked after old friends that have since moved on to work in other Concern country programs. While I felt very safe, I did notice a lot fewer people walking around the streets compared with cities in other developing countries.

Kathy explains:”The scene here was very different when I was there. All the western travelers would congregate around Chicken Street where there was lots of bazaars that sold all kinds of stuff. Chicken Street attracted a lot of foreigners because of the cheap hotels, interesting stores, tea shops and crafts and clothing markets for western travelers. Most of the shops were small and had lots of hand crafted items. You could stop for tea, stroll through the bazaars, take photos, and not be pressured to buy or be bothered by people. ”

From Kabul I headed north to Taloqan to the head office of Concern Afghanistan, while Kathy’s trip took her south to Khanadar.

“Khandahar was much more laid back, the bazaars and stores catered more to the locals than to travelers. We were constantly followed by groups of children who would trail us and say heeeeelo- the only English word they knew. They were fascinated by westerners. We also had the opportunity travel with a number of other tourists on a local bus that took us out to the more isolated countryside where people were living very basically in makeshift tents.

“Hospitality is an essential part of the Afghan culture. I truly enjoyed visiting all the tea shops and meals are always started with drinking tea. People had so little but were so willing to share what they had – it really was humbling,” Kathy remembers.

With an estimated 42 percent of the Afghan population living below the poverty line, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The poverty experienced by Kathy in 1977 is still all too visible in many places today. Concern has been responding to the needs of the local communities through a variety of programs that are predominately livelihood focused. I was able to visit one of the Concern nurseries in Faisabad which was set up in 2002 as an agricultural training center for the local community.

The entire operation was really impressive and it was great to see so many people walking around the gardens and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere. Made Ferguson the head of programs for Concern Afghanistan, talked about some of the other programs as we walked around the gardens:

“In Takar North one of our programs is focusing on watershed management through the development and repair of irrigation canals. Our approach is very holistic – we aim to help people improve their crop yields, access markets while planting trees to improve soil quality and resistance to drought.”

Afghanistan has been nothing like I expected. The countless images projected by the media had forearmed me about a barren and difficult country in which to travel. Instead I found it to be beautiful. The local Afghani Concern staff were extremely respectful, friendly and passionate about helping the communities that we work with.

While the purpose of our trips was entirely different, I feel in many ways that I got to experience the Afghanistan that Kathy fell in love with 33 years ago:

“I often think about Afghanistan – what it was like then and what it must be like now. At that time Afghanistan appeared to be untouched by the West. I can still see the people and smiling faces I met along the way. I wonder how much they have endured and if they are still alive. I’m glad I had the opportunity to visit and I will always cherish those memories.”

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