Much like Canada, Afghanistan is a patchwork of different people sown together making a beautiful afghan quilt. The Kuchis or nomads are one of those people who add colour to the landscapes of Afghanistan at different times of the year. They have played a major role in Afghanistan’s economy yet at times they have been referred to as “primitive homeless people”, archaic in their lifestyle and backwards in their method of living. The land of many contrasts, Afghanistan, not only allows for the denigration of a people but also the romanticizing of them in songs, poems and folklore. To expect anything less of Afghanistan would be almost unnatural. So who are these Kuchis, how are they important and how can they contribute to the future of Afghanistan? These are all very well intentioned questions in need of further exploration.
Afghanistan’s Kuchi population is often estimated to be 10% of the country’s population anywhere between one to two million people. They are primarily sheep raisers who live in tents and travel seasonally over fixed migration routes. The term Kuchi is derived from the Dari kuch, which means to move. They have a distinct culture, habitation and economy that set them apart from the sedentary population of Afghanistan. Contrary to popular belief not all Kuchis are sheep raisers, some that lack animals are grain harvesters and others may specialize in trade. They are not always called Kuchis either. In eastern Afghanistan Kuchis are all nomads who live in black goat hair tents. In southern Afghanistan Kuchis are called powindahs,which means grazers. In western and northern Afghanistan Kuchis are called maldar or herdowners. Another misconception is that Kuchis are Jats who are more gypsy-like as artisans and entertainers. This of course is not true not only because of the difference between their occupations but also their way of life and habitation. Most Kuchis use black tents while the Jats have white canvas tents.
Kuchis do not share a single ethnicity and language. A large majority of the Kuchis are Pashtun but they are also Aimaq, Baluch, Central Asian Arabs, Kirghiz, Turkmen and Uzbeks. Even among Pashtun nomads they speak different dialects of Pashto and use a different style of black tents. In some places such as northern Afghanistan Pashtun, Aimaq and Arab clans have mixed and intermingled over the past 120 years. They travel long distances to their summer pastures and use yurts and huts. Nomads in the north, regardless of ethnicity, often own agricultural land where they spend their winters in settled villages (Barfield, 1981). The Uzbek, Turkmen and Kirghiz nomads in the north also use yurts and huts but they don’t migrate over long distances.
There are many parts of Afghanistan that are unsuitable for sustained agriculture because either they are too high or too dry to plant anything. As a result, seasonal pastures can be made available for livestock. Kuchis spend the winter in areas of lower elevation that are warm and in the spring begin their migrations to high mountain pastures that become fully available in the summer as snows melt away. As summer ends, the nomads retrace their steps back to their winter dwellings (Barfield, 2004).
Kuchis are specialists in sheep raising and thus are the major supplier of meat for the domestic economy and are the foundation of Afghanistan’s large export trade in hides, wool, carpets and live animals. They are the major providers of meat and producers of qoroot (dried yogurt) that can be stored without refrigeration. They also sell mild and soft cheese. The wool that they provide is used by villagers to make felt, rugs and carpets. It is the Kuchis that raise the famous qarakul sheep and it is the Kuchis that preserve this breeding line since it is fast disappearing everywhere else in Central Asia. The Kuchis also travel to remote regions of the country and thus have become a source of trade bringing in manufactured goods and other items to exchange for locally produced livestock and farm products (Pedersen 1994: 121). Since 30% of Afghanistan’s official export earnings comes from international trade in sheep related products such as wool, carpets, live sheep, qarakul skins and so on the Kuchis impact on the country’s economy becomes very important especially in a country on the rebound from decades of war. Kuchis in tents may appear undeveloped and a relic of the past, but in reality they are highly specialized producers who make a major contribution to Afghanistan’s balance of trade.
The Kuchis also played another important and yet unrecognizable role in preserving the environment of Afghanistan. Their productive use of pasture areas slowed the extension of unirrigated mechanized agriculture into dry steppe areas where low average rainfall makes long-term grain production unsustainable. The danger of plowing up such steppelands has been historically documented in the United Statesand Central Asia during periods of intense drought (Barfield, 2004).
The tapestry of life in Afghanistan is maintained through its many people including the Kuchis. They are not only an integral part of the past but also a tour de force of the future in rebuilding Afghanistan. Kuchis in Afghanistan have been neglected in the planning for the country’s reconstruction due to many reasons one of which could be the difficulty in dealing with a mobile population. The misconceptions linked to a population that to most looks “homeless” needs to be remedied. Kuchis choose to live in tents not because they are poor and homeless but because being mobile is their way of life and it is essential not only to their livelihood but also the economy and livelihood of Afghanistan. Throughout the years of war most Afghans who were once sedentary have become Kuchis themselves, moving about and reestablishing themselves in different parts of the world in order to survive. At the same time the livelihood and culture of the Kuchis have been all but destroyed by conflict, drought and demographic shifts. Some 200 000 Kuchis are displaced inside Afghanistan right now and many more are refugees in Pakistan. Some Kuchis even abandoned nomadic life when the government gave them land to settle. Very little of the foreign aid extended to Afghanistan has gone to the Kuchis. A return to nomadic and kuchi life will require rebuilding herds, renewing water sources and improving relationships with the sedentary villages. This will not only prove to be difficult but necessary if Afghanistan is to economically stand on its own.
Afghanistan will always remain a land of many contrasts. From her colourful people to her colourful landscape. No matter how many times her infrastructure is destroyed, her natural beauty will shine through and be a beacon for those adventurers willing to live a tough yet satisfying life of simplicity. The Kuchis of Afghanistan are one of those people who have endured decades of hardship, had their way of life destroyed, their culture ransacked, their identity denigrated yet they refuse to be bullied out of their homeland, their Afghanistan. Their way of life is as essential to the economy of a nation finally allowed to come out of the water for a breath of fresh air, as the fast food restaurants and five star hotels being built on destroyed lands. The Kuchis do not depend on Afghanistan as much asAfghanistan depends on the Kuchis. In essence by restoring their way of lifeAfghanistan will restore herself.