An Afghan father comforts his son. (photo: United Nations)
Mountains surround Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. (photo: Rev. Leon V. Kofod)
These Afghan sheep herders are nomads. (photo: United Nations)
The concern of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association begins at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, but it extends a long way past those shores to include a small nation, high in the mountains of Asia, which has no known native Catholics.
Afghanistan has always been a crossroads of civilization, experiencing turbulent empires and an influx of various cultures. Today, it takes pride in the fact that it has absorbed the best of many cultures, and preserved traditions of multiple tribes.
The country is a land-locked republic in West-Central Asia, lying between Iran, India and Pakistan. Since mountains cover almost 60% of the land and deserts cover the southern regions, the country has poor agricultural conditions. Yet 80% of the people make a living by farming and herding.
The conglomerate of tribes in Afghanistan is a result of its geographical position. In ancient times it was a major trade route used by Persian, Arab, Turk and Mongol traders. The Persians, especially the Pushtans among them, became dominant over time.
Until fairly recently many inhabitants were nomads. Today, 90% of the people are settled, but only 10% of them live in cities.
One of the most interesting tribes of Afghanistan is the Turkoman one of Central Asias many Turko-Mongol peoples. Traditional nomads and superb horsemen, they are the descendants of Attila and his Huns, and their forefathers rode with Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Until 100 years ago the Turkomans were pirates who were the scourge of caravans as far away as Persia (now Iran). They imported prisoners for the slave markets of Bukhara and Khiva, and when they were not attacking traders, spent their days wandering with their herds in search of better pastures.
These dashing heroes of song and banditry, however, are now peaceful agriculturalists. But like many of their countrymen, they are a closed and secretive people. Their homes are rounded, mud-walled domes. In the 11th century the Turkomans converted to Islam, and while many Afghan women of that religion are now studying and working without the veil, Turkoman women remain isolated from public view. Cut off from the world, their days are devoted to caring for their children and making famous Afghan carpets on giant looms. Pilaf and vegetables are the daily fare cooked by the women, with boiled mutton added for special occasions such as weddings.
Turkoman men are encouraged by the government to grow more cotton and crush it into cottonseed oil to meet growing demands for the product. Raw cotton fiber is also exported.
During the past five years, the Afghan government has taken serious measures to upgrade its economic, commercial and industrial sectors. Hospitals and schools have been built, consultants from abroad have set up programs for the development of educational institutions, and women have begun to assume a more active involvement in public life.
Afghanistan is still a developing nation, and although serious governmental efforts are being made to educate its people, only 18% of the populace is literate, and of this number, only 6% are women.
Many of the existing tribes do not recognize the central government, and many different tribal languages and dialects are still spoken. These facts make it difficult to move ahead as quickly as government planners would like.
The 20 million people of this Texas-sized nation are just beginning their long struggle out of poverty. As they work to improve conditions in their nation, they are attempting with equal energy to preserve all the color, tradition and beauty of the unique groups which make Afghanistan what it is a many-faceted jewel set in a rugged environment.
Ronnie Treanor, a graduate student in economic anthropology, writes for international development agencies and magazines.