Mary MacMakin Traveling in Bamiyan

This is a trip report written by PARSA’s founder, Mary MacMakin, who now runs another organization, Afzenda. She went to Bamiyan province to do a survey on the production of cashmere and barak fabric. Even though she is 86 years old she is still going stronger than many of us!

See the original report here: Mary McMakin Cashmere and Barak Survery Report

Greetings from Bamiyan! I slept the better part of two days after returning from the survey and am now ready to tell you all the news. Taher has got the electricity going again in the house where I am staying – it’s city power in the morning and power from a private company in the evening so it’s good until 10 pm and by then the computer’s storage should be full and good for another three hours or so. Any of the items you want more details on, please let me know.

Frutan Sahib and I started from his home in Dehane Qalacha, Gandab Valley, Panjab district, on Sunday, 1 June.

We took the most direct route to Waras (do you have your map handy?) and passed through a wide valley with all the trees, bushes and fields dressed in the fresh new greens of Spring. By chance we passed a qila next to which half a dozen women were on a flat smooth place in the process of making a felt rug so we stopped for pictures. It was a women’s enterprise and they were happy to have an audience and be photoed. The women were sitting around chatting while one laid down the tufts of charcoal-black wool on a rectangular form for a medium-sized rug. The woman placing the wool showed how each handful of wool was passed through the stationary comb several times before being placed in even rows on the form on the ground. Their home could have been made for tourists, very beautiful farm country, and nearby a pair of unusual stone spires rising from reddish rocks named The Two Brothers.

The consensus of opinion in Panjab and Bamiyan was that Waras was the center and main producer of barak fabric. While searching in a shop in the Bamiyan bazaar for buttons for some clothing I was making I did a double-take for the shop-keeper had on a handsome vest made unmistakably from barak with a subtle design from different natural fibers! He had paid $100 for it. I visited the two main handicraft stores in the Bamiyan bazaar and was shown lengths of barak fabric and an overcoat made from barak with a red line making a distinctive pattern with the several natural colored fibers used in the weave. It cost $300.

In Waras we first visited the district governor at his office on the hill above the town. He was agreeable to our project and introduced us to the head of the Women’s Directorate who happened to be sitting in his office also. Because of her capacity to be in touch with Waras women we had our first interview session that very afternoon in the apartment where we were staying. The owner of the apt, Dr Nejati, was very helpful. When Frutan Sahib explained that we were after barak and cashmere he knew of a shop in Waras selling the combs used to gather the cashmere from molting goats. We bought ten of them, one kind small and the other looking more like a small version of a garden rake. The main dry goods store in Waras had a display of about ten lengths of barak made locally. They ranged from five to eight meters in length and cost $30 to $40 a meter. There was no bargaining! They were mainly brown in color, with several shades used to make attractive subtle stripes and the only commercial dye was red which was incorporated into some of the fabrics.

The next morning our driver took us to Haft Kudi (Seven Homes), a small village set into a steep hillside where weaving was taking place. My assumptions were shattered! I had assumed all barak was made as I had seen in Panjab ten years earlier by male weavers using an upright loom. Here in Haft Kudi the weavers were all women and the one ground loom was used in turn by all the weavers. The flat space for the loom had to be carved out of the steep hillside – flat spaces were at a premium so everyone shared the one loom. Close to a dozen women were involved in the set-up of the loom and in hand-spinning of the several kilograms of warp and weft yarn needed to produce five to eight meters barak fabric; several women worked together to stretch the warp threads between the two stationary posts. The husbands, brothers and fathers were the “molidars” – the technicians who rolled, agitated and kneaded the fabric with boiling water poured over it to shrink it down to its dense, wind-proof thickness after it was removed from the loom. It seemed to be a fine example of community effort aimed at income generation for everybody. The women reported that they received an average of 1500 Afs ($26) a meter for their product. There was no bargaining when I offered to buy a length.

The next day was a long drive from Waras southwest to Qonoq Pass separating Bamiyan and Daikundi provinces. The road was about the worst I have ever been on with large stones embedded in the dirt in addition to the usual ruts and holes so I was jolted and tossed non-stop; our minibus was stuck twice in the rushing stream and had to be towed out by helpful travelers – the second deep enough so that water came into the car and our bags of clothing got wet. We laid the soaked items out on the grass and they dried fast in the hot sunshine.

The positive side is that about twenty or more road crews were working on this section of the road, all the way to Sharistan’s district headquarters. After the dramatic views from Qonoq Pass, now in Daikundi, we bumped our way down to Jaus in Sharistan district where we had lunch at a hotel perched on the top of the steep ridge with the rest of the shops and motor repair workshops balanced in a double row. On to Chaprasac and then through a landscape of strange stone statues weathered by wind and rain into weird organic-looking shapes. I asked a young man we picked up what the local people said about this natural art display and he said no notice was taken of them at all! Frutan had called ahead to set a time for a visit with the district head of Sharistan. After tea with this hospitable man I checked a couple of shops in the bazaar for lambs wool and cashmere as a friend in Bamiyan needed some for a knitting training course. There was none, altho one shopkeeper said he could bring some the next day if I were going to be there. I told him no, for we were heading off for goat country in southwest Sharistan district.

Thanks to Frutan’s huge extended family and knowledge of the area – his mother was born and raised here – we stayed the night at private homes. He called ahead to announce our arrival and to make arrangements for the interview- meetings. The narrow road from Sharistan bazaar, cut out of the mountainsides high above the stream’s gorge was the best yet, smooth, no stones or ruts. The first stop was Ghosur where many women and men had gathered to see what kind of help we had to offer. This was our third group of women to interview and it went well due to earlier practice. Afterwards Frutan Sahib distributed a Hoopoe child’s book of folk tales by Idries Shah to each woman, to be read by her child. We spent the night at the home of one of Frutan Sahib’s many cousins and the next day drove down to the bottom part of this broad valley ringed by mountains and part of the great Helmand watershed. We were told that there were 5000 goats in the upper part and 8000 owned in the lower part and our news of cashmere was the first they had heard about its value in the marketplace. We handed out most of our combs and said we would be back to collect the cashmere, called “ileech” in this area, in two or three months.

With a day’s detour to the west to open a small private library in another hillside village – we made our way back to Bamiyan with two nights in Gandab. In Bamiyan I got to the bank in time to get the rest of our cash and then to my room where Zahra, with her husband Taher, runs the Parsa Gift Shop and local women bring her their embroideries to sell. Knowing of our survey for barak and cashmere she took me to the Dohati Valley, north of the main road where many poor women eke out a livelihood with a cow or a couple of goats.

There I interviewed a group of these women who did know about cashmere, had the combs but only one had sold 100 grams of the cleaned cashmere for a thousand Afs – about $20 – to an NGO sponsored by the Department of Agriculture in Bamiyan. This was the same rate Abdul Basir Hotak, owner of the Herat wool and skin company, paid the women there for their cleaned cashmere in 2012. I got to the bank in time, paid off our young but very capable driver, owner of the minibus that took us safely on the………kilometer trip. Panjab is still to be assessed for barak and I would like to see the state of cashmere affairs in Badakshan where Hotak with USAID help has set up another cashmere cleaning and buying center for goat owners in the northeast of Afghanistan. Other groups are getting interested in the income generation ability of barak. HELP, a German NGO with a big training center in Bamiyan center, has a class for making barak. They have one other office in Afghanistan, in Herat, wisely choosing needy areas instead of Kabul. PARSA’s head, Marnie Gustavson, wants to investigate local fabrics including barak. I told her I’d give her a copy of this report and your addresses so she can talk directly to you. Zarif Designs, a sewing workshop with international clientele, has recently made a vest from barak for a customer. Friday, 20 June 2014 Facts and Figures Barak: As we drove south people told us that Waras was the center of barak production. The main village engaged in making barak was Haft Kudi – Seven Homes- named by the grandfather who chose the site on a steep hillside where water was available. It’s about a 25 minute drive from Waras on the main road to Daikundi. We have not come across any other village so engaged so our informants were right on track. A year and a half ago, the last time I was in Bamiyan, I checked the local handicraft stores and found one very strange length of barak half of whose warp threads were loose resulting in a half flat and half wavy piece of fabric. This time I visited the same handicraft stores and found several very nice lengths of barak, warp-faced, patterned with different shades of natural brown in the warp threads and some incorporating a red thread in the warp. And finding a storekeeper wearing a vest of barak, mentioned above, was quite exciting. The overcoat at the first shop had a theatrical looked, like a coachman’s overcoat from the 18th century, with woven tape decorating the pockets. At $300 for the coat and $100 for a vest the economy of Bamiyan appears to be thriving. All of the 20 women interviewed at Haft Kudi were weavers and all helped each other with the task of spinning enough wool yarn to warp and then to weave 5 to 8 meters of fabric. The men were the “molidars” although women could also do this vigorous work of kneading the fabric which has been saturated with boiling water. The photo in Nancy Dupree’s guide book shows a man standing on the fabric which is stretched over a large flat stone and working it with his bare feet. I could imagine a washing machine doing this work just as well – if one could be found big enough to contain all eight meters of wool fabric, 90 centimeter wide at the beginning of the shrinking process. Of the total 109 women interviewed 14 out of 17 in Waras Markaz (Center) said they knew how to make barak; 20 out of 20 in Haft Kudi, 2 out of 25 in Ghosur, 18 out of 32 in Waras Sufla and 1 out of 15 in the Dohati valley in Bamiyan. Another nice surprise was that Felicitas Steinhoff, Country Director of the Bamiyan office of HELP, a German INGO, has a class of students in her vocationaql training center learning how to make barak. I did not have time to visit the class but plan to on my return to Bamiyan in a month. Cashmere (kurk, ileech): With cashmere production the story is quite different: cashmere production has not caught on at all in the areas surveyed. For one, the financial rewards are not as clear as with barak, and no market seems to have developed for it in spite of USAID and the Ministry of Agriculture putting on a country-wide campaign aimed at goat owners three years ago to take advantage of the potential income from their goats’ annual molting of their winter undercoats. During the

interview of 32 women in Lower Warase only one woman said she gathered cashmere and used it with wool for weaving. After the meeting we left the mosque and met outside a young woman who had a large plastic bagful of cashmere: she had not been present at the interviewing.

In the Dohati valley in Bamiyan Center we interviewed 15 women living on the edge of poverty. One woman had a supply of combs from the earlier campaign and had harvested about two kilos of very hairy cashmere. The cleaning of the hairs from the cashmere is time-consuming and not worth the effort unless the women know that they have a market for it. One woman they knew had sold 100 grams of cashmere for $20 to a NGO related to the Directorate of Agriculture in Bamiyan. (The “directorates” in the provincial governments carry out the policies of the ministries in the central government in Kabul).

Herati businessman Abdul Basir Hotak has been working towards increased cashmere harvesting to feed his wool and skin factory in Herat. He has been promoting this product with the help of USAID who sponsored his entry in the annual FiberExpo in New York City in July, 2011, which I attended. The Chinese and Mongols lead the world in cashmere production, with Afghanistan trailing behind: Hotak is determined to beat Mongolia and maybe he will now that he has all the technical help he needs, including a second factory in Badakshan to handle cashmere production by Badakshi maldars (herders). Cashmere yarn has been at $80 a kilogram on the internet market. The disconnect between $20 for 100 grams and $80 for a kilo is confusing – how does that work out in reality?

This is the end of the preliminary report and I know you will have questions. My apartment-mate, Rona, a dressmaker at Zarif Designs, got me a snippet of barak from a vest they made recently. One of the lighter-colored stripes looks like it has a twill design but I don’t know how the weaver could do that, do you? Our silk weaver/producer, Md Saleh, dropped by this afternoon and I showed him the pictures of the barak weavers and he was very interested as he is working on a loom for fibers other than silk. We were both visualizing a line of three or four upright looms in place of the one ground loom, allowing more women to weave at the same time instead of having to wait her turn at the one ground loom. I would hope that would bring the cost per meter down to a more affordable price.

Other survey results: Namads: 61 out of the 109 women surveyed know how to make namads. Crut: 78 out of the 109 women know how to make crut.

The desire for more learning was virtually unanimous. Only three of the 109 women did not tick off all three of the course options: theory courses, practical courses – especially sewing – and literacy courses. The enthusiasm for courses was very high.

I will find a way to get the barak sample to you, Phil. Please send me your postal address and the sample will be sent in the USA to you direct.

Sincerely presented, Mary MacMakin

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