My apologies, dear readers, for being a little slow with these lately. I just got a new job and am moving from one state to another, so that’s interfering with my writing time.
It’s kind of an odd concept, really, moving. Especially long distances. My family is kind of an outlier with how many times we’ve moved, and I’ve known people who’ve never left the town they were born in, but most people are somewhere in between. And the idea that we like to be “close to our families, but not too close” makes us laugh because it’s true.
That’s not true for Afghans though, the majority of whom almost never leave their home village. Many (men at least), don’t even leave home, with multiple generations (and sometimes wives) all living in the same compound until it gets so overcrowded that someone has to find a new spot. If you’re an Afghan, your family is your life, it’s the core of your very identity. The worst punishment, reserved for the greatest crimes, is to be cast out of the village–you lose your past, your future and your sense of self. (I talked to an Amish man a few weeks ago and it’s the same for them. )
But there is one group of Afghans who move all the time. They just take their family (and their sheep and goats and camels and tractors and houses) with them. Yup, you guessed it, they are nomads. They make long treks, heading up into the high ground for summer and back down for winter, grazing their animals along the way. Traditionally, where I worked, they would cross freely in Pakistan, but the border security is a little tighter these days, so some restrict their movements to within Afghanistan.
They are called the Kuchis (it’s okay, you can laugh).
Once upon a time, the Kuchis were some of the most wealthy people in the region. Before roads or planes, these guys hammering out their long paths through the mountains were the source of almost all trade in the land-locked region, bringing much-needed supplies to remote populations and cities. With the advent of modern technology, they lost much of that status and are now some of the poorest people around, but they keep up their old traditions. They migrate every year, doing odd jobs to supplement their income. They’re tolerated, but only just, and they have a tendency to swarm the roads with giant flocks of animals as they move.
Some have settled, but it’s tough to get land and established villages and families don’t have a lot of time for them. It’s a harsh life. I knew of one woman who preferred to defy her family and risk excommunication rather than be married to a Kuchi. Which is funny, because the Kuchis are much less restrictive with their women–they wear scarves, but do not cover their faces and will talk to men. In the picture below, the figure in the background is the wife of the man we were talking to. He called her out from the tent to come say hello.
They tend to be friendly and funny. I had several crack up my interpreters with their wit (and funny way of speaking). But they’re not well educated. I met only one group who traveled with an old, educated man who set aside one tent to teach the kids how to read and write. When you’re on the move, regular school or access to doctors isn’t good.
“What we really want is to just settle down,” he told me. “We just want the government to give us a little land, so we can be healthy and our kids can go to school. This life is no good anymore.”
In another group, I talked to a teenage boy who upended my understanding of generational divides. Rather than wanting to break with tradition as most do, he said with pride, “No, I can’t read or write. Why would I want to? I am a Kuchi. This is my life, this was my father’s life, this will be my son’s life. Why would I want anything different?”