On previous visits to Afghanistan I have traveled to our programs in the southern provinces in Helmand and Kandahar, where Mercy Corps has operated for more than 20 years, as well as those in the north. But on this visit, I headed out to an area I have not visited before: Jalalabad, a two-hour drive winding through gorges and sharpened mountain terrain, until we emerge into the fertile and anvil-hot city of Jalalabad. If we continued another hour or so, I would be back into Pakistan and the Swat Valley I visited the previous week.
The Mercy Corps team there organized a visit to a nearby village, where we have worked with the community to boost agricultural productivity and improve the ability of families to support themselves. Many members of the community spent years or even decades across the border in Pakistan. They have been returning gradually over the last several years, including those who returned just recently as a result of the fighting in the Swat Valley across the border.
After driving through the heat and dust, about an hour from the city, we walked over a small ridge, into the village and a scene of timeless welcome. A row of spreading cottonwoods along a small river formed a cool and shady meeting area, called a dera. Underneath sat two facing rows of men, in turbans and robes, on robe beds, with carpets down the middle of the area. We were guided to the front, where we were greeted with speeches of welcome and thanks, and draped with scarves and paper flowers as we inaugurated a new project. The road we had helped the community build connected them to the main market road and enabled them to get their crops more easily there to sell.
While my male colleagues continued to talk with the village men, I slipped off with to meet with the women who had been involved with the community decision process on project priorities. We gathered in a room of a nearby house, sitting cross legged on the floor while more and more of the village women appeared at the door and then emerged from their burkas, transforming from shapeless blue forms into an array of women – from elderly and bent to green-eyed lively young women with babies on their hips.
We drank tea and talked about the difference the road made for them – most importantly, they could now get to the nearby health clinic more easily. Most of them had many children – on average, five or six. They gradually became more comfortable with my presence, crowding closer and closer. A young girl furiously fanned us with a long-handled fan, but barely stirred the close air.