Resilience in Afghanistan

This week’s guest writer is Alain Epp Weaver, co-director of MCC’s Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department.

As I reflect back on my trip this past May to Afghanistan to meet with MCC’s Afghan partner organizations and to visit MCC-supported projects, the most enduring image for me is of bread, or, in Dari, naan. Drive through the streets of Kabul, and every few blocks one sees bakeries proudly displaying their wares. Naan is a staple of the Afghan diet, a flat bread that my traveling companions and I looked forward to each morning at our guest house, brought to us piping hot from a nearby bakery.

Naan bread for breakfast. MCC photo

Naan bread for breakfast. MCC photo.

While its smell and taste were heavenly, what was most striking to me about the naan was its visual presentation. Different bakers take pride in expressing themselves artistically through the shaping and decoration of the loaves: some craft squares, others circles, and still others triangles and parallelograms, with each baker then decorating these loaves with varying geometric designs.

These ornamented loaves of naan express for me the amazing beauty and resilience of the Afghan people. I approached my visit to Afghanistan with my imagination shaped by words such as violence, insecurity, and occupation. And such words do capture some of the realities with which Afghans live day in and day out. The intensification of fighting around Kunduz and the U.S. bombing of the Médicins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) hospital in that city are recent reminders of the stark fact that Afghanistan is a country marred by years, even decades, of war and foreign occupation. And personal insecurity has become a routine fact of life for many Afghans.Yet my lasting memories of this visit to Afghanistan are not of stories of insecurity, death, and violence, but rather of the beautiful strength and resilience displayed by the people we met.

Students at MCC-supported center for before- and after-school education. Names withheld for security reasons. MCC photo.

Students at MCC-supported center for before- and after-school education. Names withheld for security reasons. MCC photo.

Over the course of my visit I met Afghans working hard to secure a better future for all of the country’s diverse peoples. MCC accompanies organizations that work to provide informal before- and after-school education for children in low-income neighborhoods, increase women’s literacy and numeracy skills, empower young women to be leaders, reduce violence against women, and increase food security. These organizations are staffed by unbelievably committed women and men who view Afghanistan not in terms of its deficits or the violence that scars it, but in terms of its future and its potential. To be sure, Afghanistan faces significant challenges, quite apart from ongoing violent conflict. An underdeveloped educational infrastructure, for example, means that many government schools operate up to four shifts a day, with students coming for only two or two-and-a-half hours of instruction daily. Even then, classroom space is often inadequate: in one girls’ school our group visited, some classes were meeting in the hallway. Yet these same young women spoke optimistically and passionately about the importance of schooling and their love of learning, exhibiting the spirit of strength and resilience I encountered throughout my brief time in Afghanistan.

Street art in Kabul.

Street art in Kabul.

Many Afghans with whom we met spoke passionately about their desire for peace, for an end to the violence that has consumed the country for years. On one of our last days in Kabul, I saw some Banksy-style street art on the outer walls outside of an office compound. In it, a young Afghan takes aim at a drone: the drone, we see, has been fractured in two, not by a stone or a rocket, but rather by a heart.

The unknown artist would not, I imagine, want to claim that love and nonviolence present some direct, simple solution to the complex, tangled histories of foreign occupations, resistance, and internal conflicts that have shaped Afghanistan for decades. Instead, this piece of street art struck me as an impassioned plea from the heart, a cry that violence—be it carried out by U.S.-led coalition forces, by the Afghan military, by the Taliban, or by others—needs to end, a plea for a future marked by love instead of violence. As disheartening as the political and security realities in Afghanistan might be, the persistent resilience of MCC’s partners in Afghanistan left me hopeful that such a future is possible.

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