Origins of Trade Afghan

Bibi Jan

This article will appear in the November, 2013 edition of the Afghan Scene Magazine.

In 2007, while I was working on a project in Bamiyan an Afghan friend encouraged me to take a break and to visit a valley north of the Bamiyan city.  “It is like Switzerland!” he enthused. Although I haven’t been to Switzerland, the image of taking a day trek through an area that looked like the Swiss alps while in Afghanistan caught my imagination. I took a day off to go to the Jawzari Valley.

On a sunny morning we drove up into the valley through potato fields, following a river up into the valley.  Passing old adobe forts, families tending the fields, herds of fat-tailed sheep the dirt road ended by a clear creek before beautiful steep rock cliffs and pastoral green fields. I got out of the car, took a deep breath of mountain air and began to walk looking forward to a day with no pressure.

Half of a kilometer up a small track that would take me up into the valley, I encountered two young girls, and a donkey carrying a very heavy load of flour. The donkey was stopped, feet planted and the girls were trying to persuade him to move forward with the age-old method of beating him with a stick.  He wasn’t budging. Tempted to walk on, I stopped instead and asked the girls what the problem was and if I could help.  The donkey let loose with a very pungent stream of diarrhea and staggered ending my inquiry.  I was not able to help myself and to the girls amazement got involved.  We unloaded the donkey, sent a young bystander up to the next house to borrow another donkey and much to the amusement of a growing group of young grubby bystanders loaded up the new donkey and set off to take the flour up to the girls’ home. General opinion was that I was a crazy foreigner to care for a donkey that was sick, but I pointed out practically that the flour was now moving again in the right direction and there was some hope of getting it home before the end of the day.

Bibi jan - small

Curious now I walked with the girls and they told me they were two of five daughters that lived with their mother, Bibi Jan, on the mountain above the valley.  I learned that the Taliban widowed Bibi Jan, and that life was hard for the family since the father died. They invited me for tea and I reluctantly left the path that meandered along the cool stream to follow them up a trail to the highest, dustiest point on the side of the mountain to meet Bibi Jan.

Bibi Jan, a thin wrinkled tough tobacco chewing woman, was astonished to see me accompanying her daughters with a strange donkey hauling her flour but she recovered and invited me into her cave built into the hillside for tea.  We talked about her life with her five daughters that she did not want to give away in marriage, and her eight year son who was sheep herding in the summer pastures for $10 a month to support the family. At the end of our long chat over tea I pulled out my wallet and offered her $10.  She was offended and gave it back to me. She said “I do not want charity!!! I want work.  If you want to help me in my situation give me work!”

Crazy Quilt Bibi

At PARSA, we have worked for years with many women artisans helping them make handicrafts, so I asked what she could do along the line of sewing.  She told she wasn’t sure what she could really do for money. Outside her house she had a summer porch area covered with a traditional “crazy quilt” of pieced together material to shield the area from the sun.  Impressed by her pride and inspired by her willingness to work I asked her if we brought her the material she could quilt for us and she agreed.

Six weeks later I trekked back up to her little cave with my staff and we brought her four pieces of blankets that she could quilt and negotiated a price for her “winter” work of $15 a quilt.  She was quite nervous about the responsibility of doing a good job for us and I saw her tough veneer crack a bit when we finished our bargaining and I saw for a moment how hard her life was as she tried to keep her family fed.

Spring came and my staff went up to collect the quilts and to pay her.  The quilts were beautifully pieced together and the sewing was impeccable.  They left her more work.  I caught up with her the following fall, making the breathless trek to her cave and there next to her summer porch a milking cow was tethered.  For tea on that trip I also got bread and fresh butter and “dogh” a yogurt drink.

In 2011 I visited Bibi Jan once more. Bibi Jan now has her own herd of sheep and goats that her son and daughters care for and she is well considered by her community.  She is still tough and still chews tobacco but she cares for her small family through a variety of enterprises.  What really is impressive about her is whereas she appreciates PARSA’s business, she is clear that she has succeeded through her own industry.

Bibi Jan is the inspiration for our economic programs for Afghan women that we now call “Trade Afghan”.  She taught us how to support women with dignity in a fair exchange of effort so that our women learn how to earn a living for themselves.  If you visit PARSA offices in Bamiyan these days you will see our women running our women’s programs in Bibi Jan fashion. Utilizing our large garden space to feed their families, selling items in our gift shop, most of them have their own customers.  They make our job easy.