Janice Yaden has gone where few aid workers have gone before. As a woman living in the male-dominated society of Northern Afghanistan, Yaden was able to gain rare access to women in the villages where she coordinated Mercy Corps projects. From September 2003 to January 2004, she explored the intricacies of life and culture in Northern Afghanistan, and had important interactions with that country’s mostly-hidden and marginalized women. Upon her return from Northern Afghanistan’s Taloqan/Kunduz region, she was eager to discuss her experiences.
Mercy Corps: What were your initial impressions of the area of Afghanistan where you worked?
Yaden: Amazement and excitement was my initial impression. Here was a world much different. First, there was no asphalt. Roads were dusty and rutted with few cars. Donkeys, horses, camels cluttered the highway, along with the rice and hay harvest. People were dressed in exotic garb, turbaned, with a lot of facial hair. Women covered themselves in blue or white burkas but sported modern shoes, usually high heels or sandals. The nomads were the most colorful and exotic of all, outfitted in bright neon colors often mixed with silver or gold thread. Bangles, and thick, heavy jewelry hung off their arms and around their necks. Their women go about without burkas and look you square in the eye. They also don’t mind having their pictures taken.
The people were always kind to me and always curious about my life. I was often invited into homes and treated to wonderful feasts of pilaf with raisins and carrots, big hunks of meat, vegetables cooked in oil and great portions of big, flat bread. They would ply me with questions about my life, my family, my country or my ideas. Once I spent an afternoon with a group of teachers. I only had my dictionary for conversation and I was frustrated I couldn’t adequately explain myself, our project or my thoughts. They would ask me a simple question like, “Are you married?” I would answer, “Yes.” And then a big conversation would occur amongst them in Dari. I could only imagine what they were saying.
I expected more desert-like conditions. While the hills were barren, there was a lot of water running through our valley and irrigation repair was the most prevalent work. This used to be one of the breadbaskets of Afghanistan and has the potential to become so again.
Mercy Corps: What were the biggest challenges you faced as a woman working in Northern Afghanistan? Were there any special advantages you perceived to working as a woman there?
Yaden: I was stared at constantly and would acquire an entourage wherever I went.
Whenever I visited someone’s house, I was always escorted to the women’s section and there was almost never anyone there to translate for me. My male colleagues sat with the men who were the ones who knew English.
However, I did get to see the women and our expatriate men never did. Even though I couldn’t understand them most of the time, it was rewarding for me to be able to make contact with women inside their homes since on the street they are always shrouded by their burkas. I was also happy for them to see me and realize that women could be professional and work outside their homes - and not wear a burka.
I had no trouble being a woman in charge of an office. I never felt discriminated against or ignored. My staff was nearly all Afghan males, but I felt respected and valued.
Mercy Corps: What work are you most proud of having accomplished while you were there?
Yaden: I was happiest with the training we provided to teachers. I watched teachers in action and was appalled at their use of big sticks to whack the kids into order. Years of no education or training meant that teachers controlled their classrooms the best way they knew how.
In fact, all the work with the communities around the improvement of the schools was a highlight for me. I was thrilled to hear that the village parents turned out en masse - up to 500 per meeting for parent-teacher meetings held for the first time ever in the Taloqan/Kunduz area. They are very responsive and appreciative of our work.
Mercy Corps: Do you think that quality of life is changing (for the better) for the women of Northern Afghanistan?
Yaden: The fact that there is peace and a normal life is somewhat restored means that life is better for the average woman. I was saddened by the condition of the hospital when I went to visit an employee and mentioned it to my Afghan colleague. He pointed out to me, however, that they now have medicine and doctors. For years there was nothing. So he saw the glass half full. The women told me about all the things they couldn’t get during the war years and now they can - food, cooking oil, diesel fuel, generators, medicine, clothing. They tell me their lives are much better. Except for the widows. They are a sad lot. They lost their breadwinners and now have to rely on handouts and the kindness of their families and neighbors.
Also, seeing all the girls who are now going to school gives me great hope for the future - if they can just maintain the peace.
The best help we can do is what we are doing - improving the educational system, encouraging girls to attend school, educating teachers and providing activities for girls. Additionally, we need to help them enter the workforce. Mercy Corps has a great program in Kabul providing small loans to women entrepreneurs. I hope they will be able to extend this up to the north along with skill training.
Mercy Corps: What were your impressions of the land and its people upon your departure?
Yaden: The longer I lived there the more I realized what a desperate situation the country is in. The infrastructure is in disarray or lacking entirely. Civil servants don’t get paid regularly and their pay is low. Unemployment is seriously high. There is little manufacturing. Opium production is increasing. Health care is problematic outside of Kabul. Security is getting worse.
But, in the north, I found most people to be upbeat and optimistic. They are happy to be back in their homeland. We had projects where it seemed like almost every other person had just returned from Pakistan. But they are anxious for work.
Mercy Corps: Can you give two words to encapsulate your experience in Northern Afghanistan?
Yaden: Amazingly fascinating.
Janice Yaden served as Mercy Corps’ Area Coordinator for Northeast Afghanistan.