NOWABAD SHASHPOL, Afghanistan – For a painfully long time, Mohammed Nabi and his neighbors thought they didn’t matter to the world, but now they can’t believe their good fortune.
“Just imagine,” says Nabi, 55, waving his arm at dozens of neat mud and brick homes built into a rugged Afghan mountainside. “This place used to be called ‘butcher house’ [kasab khana in the Dari dialect]. Now we have so much.”
Nabi says he silently gives thanks every day for the support offered by the National Solidarity Program (NSP), Afghanistan’s flagship program aimed at rural development by encouraging small-scale reconstruction and empowerment activities.
The program, supported by the World Bank, Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) and Japan Social Development Fund (JSDF), helps villagers organize and elect their own community development councils, which then decide on projects most needed in their village.
About 80 percent of community projects involve infrastructure such as irrigation, roads, electrification, and drinking water supply, all critical for recovery of the rural economy and stability.
Projects transform lives
In Nabi’s village of Nowabad Shashpol in Bamiyan province, he and about 140 families decided to use NSP funds to buy solar panels and carpet weaving looms, and to build a tiny community hall. These initiatives prompted a dramatic shift in their lives, which had been shattered by war, he says.
“There were times before when we had no food, no hope for life,” recalls Nabi, “but now each person’s home has three or four rooms, and people are smiling again. That’s the change this program has made.”
Like thousands of others in the 1990s, Nabi and his neighbors fled Bamiyan province as Taliban forces raided their villages. In Nabi’s former village, about 370 people died and their homes were burned to the ground, he says.
Nabi took refuge in Pakistan before deciding it was safe to return almost a decade ago. “Our first winter back we lived in tents. There were just mountains here,” he recalls. “We left because of the Taliban and came back to nothing, nowhere to live, no food. At times we felt that we didn’t matter to the world, but now look: We have a school, clinic, donkeys, and a nice road. It’s a miracle.”
Much of this prosperity has come about after village women lobbied their community council for carpet-weaving looms, purchased in 2006, says Sara Rezai, a council member and mother of nine children.
“Some of us learned to weave in Pakistan, so when we came back we thought others could learn and we’d all earn a good income,” says Rezai. “Now people are happy. A while ago, they didn’t have 10 Afghanis to buy bread. Now every two or three months, we can get 10 to 15,000 Afghanis from weaving.”
Nodding vigorously at Rezai, an older woman named Nesa exclaims: “Yes, we’re no longer dependent on the men. We are more equal.”
Living in brightness
Zahra Sadiqi, mother of seven children, says solar panels, bought by the village council in 2007, also made a dramatic difference. One panel is shared between three families, who each purchased their own batteries to power lights, televisions, even a few home computers.
“We were illiterate and knew nothing about taking power from the sun,” says Sadiqi. “Now our children can study at night, and I can be cooking or weaving.”
Nabi says the solar panels make villagers feel less isolated. “Before these panels, we were like babies. We knew nothing about the world, or even our own country. Now we can watch television and see what’s happening. Before we were truly living in the dark.”
Another form of enlightenment came after villagers started earning enough to send their children to school, says Sadiqi. With income from her weaving, her eldest son is now in his last year of secondary school, and her daughter in her second last year. “We used to have a really low budget, and my children couldn’t have their lessons. Now it is a good life. This is very good fortune for us.”
Typically, a few women get together in one home to weave while the children are at school, says Sadiqi. They enjoy singing and listening to music, but not much chatting goes on. “When we’re at work, it has to be serious,” she remarks, pointing to the intricate color pattern that determines each carpet’s design.
Neighbors come closer together
The new community hall, completed in 2008, is another initiative that brings neighbors together, says Sayed Jafar, village council treasurer.
With its exposed timber beams and colorful cushions lining the walls, the room is used for regular council meetings, village events, and an informal primary school. Villagers pooled their own funds to pay more than half its cost, says Jafar, pointing at his neatly kept ledger of council projects.
Jafar is clearly proud of his scrupulous bookkeeping. “First this is my responsibility, but also we worked hard, so I am keeping these records as a memory, so the next generation can see how we worked for their future.”
Jafar prefers to look forward and not back. He lost everything during the Taliban conflict, he says. “Eleven people in my family were killed in front of my eyes and I was also shot. Most of us had these experiences.”
“But now we are working hard to build our lives and our country again. We will always be so grateful for the help from other countries, too. We won’t ever forget this, and we hope that we won’t be forgotten either.”