How Can We Be Koochi?
"May God bring the day when there is peace, and we can return to our country," says Lewani Bibi, an Afghan Pashtun Koochi. In the language of the Afghans, Koochi means nomad. Once a nomad, Lewani now lives as a refugee in Baluchistan, Pakistan, just across the Afghan border.
For Lewani and most of the women in these refugee camps, 14 years of war in Afghanistan have dramatically altered their economic roles and daily life, as well as their status in both the family and, more broadly, in their pastoral nomadic society. While the continuing Afghan war places the ultimate restriction on returning to their traditional ways of life, a common denominator underlying all these changes is the nomads' loss of their animals and consequently their economic power to support themselves and travel freely.
Historically, the Koochi migrated twice a year with their sheep and goats from the foothills of the Hindu Kush and other mountains in central Afghanistan to the plains of the Indus River Valley or the deserts of southern Afghanistan and Baluchistan. They grazed their flocks in mountain pastures during the summer and in warmer lowland pastures in winter. During the spring and autumn, the Koochi migrated between these sites in large family caravans. The raising, selling, and trading of animals (mainly sheep and goats) and animals products formed the basis of the economy.
About two million Afghans pursued this lifestyle in the mid 1970s. Since 1978, 14 years of war have produced between five and six million Afghan refugees, making them the world's largest refugee population. War, which has disrupted the life patterns of all Afghans, precludes any reliable estimation of the number of Koochi maintaining their indigenous way of life. Nevertheless, many Koochi continue their familiar way of life, migrating in larger numbers across the Pakistani border. People living around Quetta, Baluchistan, still say, "The hills turn black with Koochi tents in the spring and the fall."
Asked about the changes in her life since coming to the refugee camps in Baluchistan, Khaluzi Khorma quickly replies, "I have no animals now. I miss my animals." Khaluzi has seven children, and she and her family have lived in Pakistan, just outside Quetta, for nine years. She says with great despair that one of her sons has been kidnapped by bandits and is being held for 200,000 rupees ransom (about $8,000), but the family's only income is from her husband's job breaking rocks for road construction. He earns 600 to 800 rupees a month (about $24 to $32). "The Koochi life was better because we had income," she says. "We had animals and we could sell them for money."
Before the war, when the nomads had animals and could travel, women played an integral role in the economy. With their essential participation in the pastoral nomadic way of life came powers and freedoms they lack today. Instead, Koochi women say, the sedentary refugee life is restrictive, unproductive, and difficult. One of their most common complaints is that they are bored. "We have nothing to do here," they often say.
BEFORE THE WAR
The life of a Koochi woman before the war was busy and productive, as is that of those Koochi who are still able to maintain their traditional way of life.
A primary responsibility of Koochi women has been milking the family sheep and goats. During the spring and early summer milking months, women process the milk into a number of different products. Helping with difficult births and care of newborn animals is also the obligation of Koochi women.
The sale of live animals for meat forms the most important commodity the Koochi produce, with sheep's wool probably second in importance. In the spring, men shear the sheep and goats, while women usually make the preparations for shearing. These latter include catching, restraining, and tying up the animals' feet and sometimes holding them while the men shear the fleece. "Women prepare tea and food for the men during shearing sessions, which are often communal events. After the fleece is cut, women collect the wool and prepare it to be sold.
Sheep's wool may be kept for carpet-making, another female task in the Koochi division of labor, Goats are also sheared, but their hair is rarely sold. Instead, women weave it into black goat-hair tents. The Koochi value goat hair highly, saying with pride that "the rain never comes through these goat-hair tents." Koochi women do all spinning by hand, twisting the wool or hair while dropping a wooden spindle.
Although men usually kill sheep of goats, it is the women who clean out the internal organs to collect all edible portions of the animal. Perhaps that's why these women have a wealth of information about animals and their common diseases, as well as about the indigenous methods of treatment. Women often have a better knowledge of such diseases as parasites than do men in the same tent. "Men are usually ignorant of these things," Khan Bibi explains with obvious pleasure. "They don't care if an animal is ill. Besides, men are usually not at home." The the men are usually out with the healthy animals in search of grazing pasture.
Other common daily chores consist of cleaning, cooking meals, baking bread, weaving, collecting water and firewood, and sewing and washing the family clothes. And during the migratory months, women tear down, pack up, and reassemble the tent and the family's belongings.
When the family moves, women often have occasion to meet women from other traveling Koochi groups or from village along the route. They take advantage of these times to socialize and sell or exchange products they have made, such as embroidery work, carpets, and sometimes milk products.
In other words, Koochi women are intimately involved with every aspect of their pastoral nomadic economy except buying and selling commodities in the bazaar. Cultural restrictions make the bazaar, a very crowded public space, almost exclusively the domain of men, but in all other facets of economic life, Koochi women exercise extensive responsibility and participate actively as a vital and necessary force in the pastoral nomadic way of life. Without women's daily participation and hard work, this unique way of life would be impossible.
In fulfilling their responsibilities, women garner freedoms not found among women living sedentary, urban lives in the villages and cities of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus, in many ways, traditional Koochi women can't afford to accept, nor can their men afford to impose, the confines of purdah and cover themselves completely from public view. Before the war, women were not often forced to observe purdah because they rarely encountered anyone outside the tribe. By assuming essential roles in their economy, these women perhaps secured more personal freedom and power than is available to most women in Afghanistan and the Islamic Middle East.
THE REFUGEE LIFE
In stark contrast to what they describe as a rewarding pre-war nomadic life, many Koochi refugee women consider their current life in many ways much more difficult. They list their primary hardships as poverty, illness, and the lack of food and water. The indispensable role of women in Koochi society, which provided their unique measure of personal power, depended largely on the economy's basis in nomadic animal husbandry. Almost all these problems are linked to the Koochi's loss of their animals and their nomadic way of life.
Most women no longer have any animals, although some maintain a few sheep, goats, or chickens. Before the war, the average herd contained 238 sheep, 53 goats, 15 camels, and 3 donkeys. The Koochi give a number of reasons why and how they have lost their animals. Some were sold to buy food, others were sold to pay for the family's flight from Afghanistan. The Soviets or the mujahideen stole some animals, while others died in bombardments.
Because Koochi refugees have no animals to milk or shear, there are no milk products for women to make and no wool for them to spin and weave. Because their families are so poor, most women can't buy thread or material to keep themselves busy with sewing or embroidery. Because they no longer migrate, socializing and trading with women from villages or other Koochi groups is impossible.
Women usually can't go more than a few yards from the family tent. Although most women still say they don't observe purdah, their lives are much more restricted in the refugee camps. The combination of losing their duties raising animals with living a poor sedentary refugee existence leaves women little to do. Moreover, many husbands, feeling the cultural restrictions of Islam and the imperatives of purdah much more strongly in this setting, don't let their wives leave the tent to collect water or firewood. In effect, their surroundings have forced purdah on Koochi women, since as refugees they live in proximity to many kinds of people from outside the tribal boundaries.
As a result, women have become much more dependent on male wages. Men leave the camps when they can find jobs, most often hard labor either in construction or, more often, breaking rocks with hammers to make the base for roads. Working six days a week, a husband's income from breaking rocks could range from 400 to 800 rupees per month. This marks a big decline in men's pre-war role in the Koochi pastoral economy as well.
Poverty and the lack of animals have damaged the health of Koochi refugees. Their pre-war diet consisted mainly of milk and meat products, but the refugee diet of mainly bread leaves them lacking in calories and many vitamins and minerals. Lack of water and crowded living conditions in the refugee camps foster the spread of disease.
For Koochi women, refugee life in Pakistan is limited to the daily chores of cleaning the family compound, baking bread, caring for the children, and washing clothes when water is available. They no longer produce milk products or make textiles. They no longer travel when they like in the wide open spaces with the wind they love. As refugee life has closed off traditional sources of strength for women, it has failed to open up many new ones.
Given how deeply they feel about the loss of their nomadic life, it is surprising that the great majority of the women I met in the refugee camps told me that, if they had a choice, they would prefer to become sedentary farmers if they return to Afghanistan. Perhaps they have always considered Koochi life tiring and yearned to own land. Or perhaps sedentary refugee life has changed women's perspectives and expectations for the future, while at the same time allowing them to romanticize their nomadic past.
Bibi Ghul gives her explanation: "The life of Koochi is very tiring and very risky," she says, "especially with land mines. It is easier to avoid mines when we are settled." Official estimates suggest that Soviet troops left between 30 and 50 million land mines in Afghanistan. Certainly, this legacy would make migrating very dangerous.
Bibi Nura, was has lived in Pakistan for all 14 years of the war, gives a different rational. "Now we are not used to animals," she says. "We have forgotten how to take care of them." And, says, Mahamadzee Kri, "I am tired of moving and tired of camels. Just like you, we want to have an easy life."
In light of such comments, it may be that the economic importance of Koochi women, their daily activities, and their status within their society have changed permanently. Indeed, if most Koochi refugees choose to become settled after the war, the entire structure of the economy will change. Unless they return to their pastoral nomadic way of life, Koochi women will almost certainly enjoy much less economic power and personal freedom than before.
Yet several Koochi women I met very much want to resume their nomadic pastoralist way of life. These women all give the same reasons: freedom, the ability to go where and when they want, the open spaces, and the open air. But they, too, fear that returning to Koochi life will be difficult, if not impossible. "How can we be Koochi without our animals?" they ask.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Afghanistan Forum, 201 East 71st St., Apt. 2K, New York, NY 10021.
Ewan Anderson and Nancy Dupree, eds., The Cultural Basis of Afghan Nationalism, Printer Publishers, 1990.
Louis Dupree, Afghanistan, Princeton University Press, 1973.
Nancy Tapper, "Pashtun Nomad Women in Afghanistan," Asian Affairs, Vol, 8, 1977.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
In June 1992, the United Nations issued a plea for $180 million to aid Afghan refugees. However, many countries, especially the United States, cut back their funding for Afghan refugees and reconstruction after the Soviet Union pulled its troops out of Afghanistan. Write Congress and firmly request that aid be increased.
Your members of Congress can be reached at:
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
In addition, many nongovernmental organizations help the refugees and Afghanistan's reconstruction. One of the most active is Mercy Corps International, which coordinates medical, veterinary, agricultural, and village-assistance programs that promote self-reliance.
Mercy Corps International
Program for Afghanistan
3030 SW First Avenue
Portland, OR 97201
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.