The roads leading outside of Takhar are lined with 10-foot-tall walls, a long line of mud and rock that stretches on for at least five miles.
Every 20 or 30 feet you'll find a door or a gate, made out of wood or metal. These entryways are as varied as the houses they lead to. Some are roughly constructed from pieces of corrugated steel; others are carefully made wood gates large enough for a small car to pass through.
The houses too differ in size and shape, most sticking to the model of dun-colored, one-story structures with a small courtyard that combined covers a space half the size of a tennis court.
But one rusting metal gate opens up to a much different scene. An uneven driveway spills into three perfect squares of farmland, one of which are being tended to by a trio of men who are turning the beige earth over with small spades.
Overlooking this scene is a tall, two-story house, smartly constructed from bricks and mortar, as well as its owner, a tall, lean gentleman named Abdul Said Majid. Squinting from the sun, he points to his home, and the tall stacks of wooden boxes on the covered balcony on the second floor.
"I used to have honeybees and was making some money selling the honey I could collect," the 56-year-old remembers. "But some farmers down the road were using some pesticides on their wheat crops. The wind carried it down here and all my bees were killed."
Majid walks a few paces and points to the dry farmland that is being prepared for planting.
"And here, I was growing wheat, but it required fertilizer and the price for it would fluctuate quite a lot. Some days, when I would go to pick some up, I would not have enough money to pay for it."
Somehow Majid managed to support the 20 people in his household by teaching math and social sciences at a local school, and by selling the lemon crops that he grows in the courtyard by his home. But it wasn't enough.
"There was always a shortage of food," Majid says. "We would never have enough rice or flour or oil to be able to feed everyone."
A new venture
These days, prospects for Majid and his family are looking much better. They are earning a steady income through the creation of their own orchard, harvesting over 5,000 almond, pear, peach and apricot saplings.
This venture was started with the help of Mercy Corps' Afghanistan Agribusiness and Development (AABAD) program.
AABAD programs are underway in six provinces throughout the country, helping impoverished farmers improve their agricultural production through the creation of fruit and nut orchards.
Majid's was one of a dozen farmers identified as in dire need of assistance by a council made up of village elders and local government officials. The council worked with Mercy Corps to identify those farmers who had the right amount of land available for planting and would benefit most from this new venture.
He and his family were given more than 5,500 seeds for these saplings last February. All have now grown to a sturdy six feet tall, sporting dark green leaves and small buds that will eventually become ripe fruits and nuts.
Mercy Corps is also giving Majid $50 each month to offset the loss of income he is incurring by not using his arable land for growing wheat, one of the most profitable licit crops growing in Afghanistan. As well, a staff member stops by twice a week to work with him on tending to his new trees. Together, they measure out proper amounts of fertilizer, inspect the branches and leaves for disease, and ensure that the saplings are getting the right amount of water each day.
As Majid learns these new skills, the staff member will spend less time with him. And the amount of money he receives from Mercy Corps will start lowering incrementally when he shows he is earning a steady income by selling the harvested fruit and grafts from his trees.
Scattering the seeds
Right now, there are only about 200 saplings left on his farm, packed into a square of farmland about the size of half a soccer goal area. A portion of this first batch was sold to Mercy Corps to further the AABAD project in Takhar and through other cities in Afghanistan.
The rest - around 3,700 trees - were sold to Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture to be used as part of their own rehabilitation program - the Horticulture/Livestock Program. This effort will also set up poor farmers with the saplings needed to begin their own startup orchards.
And it is this, more than any money that he is making, that makes Majid even more excited about the potential of his own orchard. "It's a good feeling to know that it is not only a benefit to me, but that it is for the good of everyone. I'm proud to know that I am helping develop the country in some small way."