Changed attitudes in Daikundi

22 August 2017

by Jawed Nader

The residents of Daikundi were active contributors to their own development.

 “Why didn’t you to take them to Band-e Haibat?” a man asked me. He insisted that I take them there so that they could see the miracles of Islam.  We were walking besides Band-e Paneer, one of the six lakes in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province that are collectively known as ‘Band-e Amir’. He was referring to the five foreign journalists that I was accompanying, and to the biggest lake of Band-e Amir. We were there to spend a week in Daikundi, the neighbouring province, to see whether and how development efforts were helping local communities.

Some locals believe that Band-e Amir, the breathtakingly beautiful blue lakes that are separated by natural dams, were built by Amir-ul-Mominin Ali, the first Imam of Shia Muslims. It is said that Ali answered the grievances of locals whose crops were affected by floods every year. Legend has it that he stopped the flow of water with an angry stare, and created the dams. Following this miraculous help, the then king of Bamiyan and his subjects converted to Islam.

Tales such as these can still play a role in the beliefs of locals about protection from natural catastrophes and the success or failure of their crops. A few days earlier, we visited a farmer who kept a flag tied to a post near her crops – it was to ward the evil eye away from her field.  But there are also signs of change. Most of what we saw in Daikundi – a remote, dry, central province locked in by surrounding mountains – told us another story. There, we saw local people working as important agents for change in their own agriculture, irrigation, education and well-being. They were not just the recipients of God or man-sent help, but were active contributors to their own development.

In Nilli, Daikundi’s capital city, we met hopeful farmers whose new drip irrigation method meant that their plants turned into trees three times faster and with less water. Their new and improved varieties of almond promised a yield that was three times greater than previously. We visited barriers that protected communities against floods and reduced erosion.

Old technologies lay at the basis of some of these improvements, but they can still be considered revolutionary in this part of Afghanistan. An Oxfam-led project trained the province’s first veterinarian and gave him a refrigerator run by solar panels to store his vaccines. Until recently, there was very little demand for his services. Owners of livestock wouldn’t call him because they didn’t know that their livestock could be cured. He had to raise awareness about the marvels that affordable medicine could bring for the health of cows, goats and sheep. As a result, he is frequently called these days and jubilant farmers pay him not only his fees but also additional monetary rewards to show their thanks.

Such projects seem to have a ripple effect. Because of healthier livestock some villagers have surplus milk. So it seemed natural that with Oxfam’s help, locals opted for building a dairy enterprise. We were sceptical about their hopeful financial projections until Oxfam staff told us that they are planning to link these farmers to Finest, a Kabul-based supermarket chain. If the villagers sell their products to Finest, then the demand will be great as the entire country will be their market.

Though effective, these efforts are not sufficient. Almost everyone we spoke to insisted on larger and continued support.  Masuma Muradi, the Governor of Daikundi (who is currently the country’s only female Governor) told us that her province completely depends on the national budget for running government offices. She often called her province “the deprived province of Daikundi” because it didn’t get enough support from the central government or international donors. Development projects make a real difference but cover only a very small part of the province.

The majority of Daikundi’s households depend on remittances that their male family members send from Iran. In recent years, the roads connecting Daikundi to other parts of Afghanistan such as the neighbouring Helmand province have become more insecure. As a result, some residents have also migrated to Australia. We saw two big Australian-funded billboards in Nilli city, advising people against travelling to Australia by boat. We asked the Governor if development projects such as the ones we visited will deter people from migrating. Her response was mixed. She thought every asylum seeker has their own reason, but development projects in Daikundi are yet to benefit a large enough number of people.

It is uncertain whether the number of these projects will increase. But the journey that Daikundi residents have started, together with new gains in education, have established a strengthening foundation for progress. We visited the province’s first private university, Nasir Khosraw Higher Education Institute, whose walls had quotes from Victor Hugo and Bertrand Russell. The number of students has doubled in the last year because of reduced tuition fees and discounted fees for women. And when we were interviewing the dean and the teachers they showed a true spirit of inquiry when they turned the questions on us, and asked us to share our own experiences of higher education with them!

I learned many things during the trip. But perhaps the biggest takeaway was that development isn’t just about having infrastructure, but also about having curiosity and the right attitude: Curiosity to learn new methods and improve older ones, and the attitude through which a person tells themselves that “I am capable of changing my destiny”. Fortunately, both of these qualities were abundant in Daikundi. With them, continued external help will work wonders.

Click here to see photos from the trip!

Note: I visited Daikundi in 20 – 25 July 2017 under Media4Development project. I thank Oxfam and United Nations Environment Program for their assistance in this trip.