It was during the Nowruz holiday, when the vocational training centre I had come to document was closed for the Afghan New Year, that I first learned of Mercy Corps’ poultry programme.
The staff in Mercy Corps’ Helmand office explained how women are taught about raising chickens and running small businesses to sell the eggs within the local community. The eggs provide both income and food for the women’s families. There’s also a similar programme teaching women to raise dairy goats in order to sell the milk.
It was a 45-minute journey to meet the women in the poultry programme in Greshk. A bumpy, dusty road, mostly through what appeared to be farmlands. Trucks and other vehicles passed by, this clearly being a thoroughfare of sorts for the area. Pretty frequently, large rocks clobbered our car. If you were skittish at all, or had experienced the trauma of combat zones, it would be pretty easy to become unnerved and experience the “pop” “smack” “bam” as bullets attacking the vehicle (the number of military personnel and guns that you see on the streets only affirming this alarm).
When we arrived, it was very cold. A dust storm from the west had blanketed the region the night before, and continued to blow. The air was a murky golden brown, and we quickly entered the home of one young woman in the programme.
A delicate job
The scene inside was beautiful. Watching her crouch by the doorway, I desperately wanted to start taking photos. But I knew the sensitivity of this situation. Village families are not accustomed to having foreign visitors, so my presence here, if found out, would invite gossip and a potential backlash of negativity for these women who are doing nothing more than trying to improve their lives.
There is immense jealousy in the region toward them. Toorpakai, who runs the programme, and her team, work hard to dispel any rumours or negativity that arise from others. It’s a job of diplomacy and delicate human relations.
I asked to photograph the young woman sitting by the doorway. “No,” she replied, translated by Toorpakai. “I do not have permission from my husband.”
A long life brings positive change
Gul BeBe (not her real name) finally arrived. Tall and elegant, although slightly bent by age, the 70-year-old still carries the trademark Afghan poise that I saw in both women and men. There is a dignity to Afghan movement, in particular from the middle and older generations. It seems purposeful, unhurried, refined.
“I got married when I was 12”, Toorpakai translated for her. Gul BeBe had 12 children, but in her already long life (the average life expectancy for a woman in Afghanistan is 44 years), she’s lived through five of them dying.
Life is very different for village women than for those in Afghanistan’s cities. Gul BeBe described a life with no educational opportunities for women in her village, even now. But the poultry and dairy goat programmes have changed their lives.
“We were jobless, and now we have jobs. Like the city women can work as teachers and officers, the village women can find a job in poultry and dairy goats and can have a small business,” she explained.
Mercy Corps' two-month training programme taught her how to feed the chickens and how to take care of them when they get sick. Now her “small farm” of chickens in her yard is the sole source of income for her and her husband.
Safety before photos
After finishing the interview, I was quickly told that my 30-minute window to take photos had been cut in half. Frustration. Confusion. Acceptance. Okay, 15 minutes.
I attempted to take portraits of Gul BeBe. Initially, I asked for her face to be covered, as my understanding was that she should not be identified for her safety. But she soon decided that she wanted to show her face and let the scarf fall away from her nose and mouth. [Note: Though she chose to show her face in some photos, it is Mercy Corps’ policy to protect her identity here.]
I photographed her for maybe two minutes, and then the commotion began.
“Hurry hurry!” urged Toorpakai.
“What? I thought I had 15 minutes?” I asked in confusion. “Do I have 15 minutes to take photos” I asked again to clarify, genuinely stumped.
“Yes, you have 15 minutes,” Toorpakai confimed.
I got back to the job I was there to do and continued with the photos. But behind me, she started again: “Hurry hurry!” I tried to keep working, not understanding why she was rushing — but knowing she told me 30 seconds ago that I did have 15 minutes.
“Hurry, hurry! Quickly!” she continued.
The state of flurry that had unfolded in that small room (children wandering in and out, several female neighbors coming to check out the foreigner, confusion and Toorpakai’s near-yelling) made it impossible to work.
Amid more questions and then more assurances, chaos and then calm, I was able to take a few portraits, sort of. But then it began again. “Hurry hurry,” she urged earnestly.
Okay. Something was wrong. There was something I didn’t understand. We needed to go. Now.
We left that family’s home. And we had to leave the area immediately.
Bravery and perspective
I was quiet and sobered on the drive back to the Mercy Corps office. I didn’t understand. I worried that I had inadvertently done something wrong. I was afraid for the women.
I’d be sickened if my presence or anything I did ever brought them harm.
I found out later, after a lot of confusion in communication, that the staff were afraid the children would tell the village about a foreigner being in the home — and afraid that Gul BeBe would get in trouble with her husband for letting a foreigner photograph her. She took that risk, though, because she understood how her story could help the growth of the poultry programme — and help other women.
The next day, while sitting in another family’s home having tea, Mercy Corps staff said to our female hosts, “[Toni] is very brave. She went to Greshk district.”
No, I don’t think of myself as brave. Bravery is a 70-year old Afghan woman agreeing to meet me and be photographed, at the risk of enraging her husband of 58 years. Gul BeBe, and that experience, taught me a lot that day.