Thursday, 13 November 2008
Kuchi or Kachchi nomads: India, Afghanistan and beyond.
Kuchi nomads in Afghanistan
When I was a boy I used to have similar dreams at least twice a week for years, probably for eight or more years. I was with a group of nomads with camels, horses, sheep, goats and some cows. It was on quite a dryish area and there were stunning snow capped mountains as a backdrop. Later when I went to Central Asia I saw the backdrop to my dreams, the steppes and the mighty Tienshan mountains of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. I married a Kazakh woman who was born on those very steppes of my dream, on the border of China and Kazakhstan. Grand Mum still lives in that village, and at 90 still tends her sheep, grows a great garden, and bakes her nan in an oven outside, a tandori. So my friends, childhood dreams can come true. I have always been fascinated by nomads.
In late 1993 when I moved to Afghanistan for 3 years, I started taking a deep interest in Kuchi nomads and over the years traced their roots and routes to Central Asia, Kachchh district in Gujarat, India, and places beyond.
A map of Gujarat showing the Rann of Kachchh where the Kachchhi nomads live and graze and nmove to the fringes when fodder is scarce.
I quote from my diary in June 1995. One of the memorable aspects of this trip was our contact with Kuchi (nomads). On our way up the Panjsher valley on 3 June 1995, our way on the narrow dirt road was constantly blocked by up to 50 Kuchi extended families moving their livestock - camels, goats, sheep, donkeys and horses - to higher pastures for grazing. Most of the Kuchi we saw were in the area from Rokhah to the road pass of Rawat. Their black, low-slung tents, made from goat hair, were dotted all up the valley.
Goat hair tents in a Kuchi camp in the hills behind Herat, Afghanistan
They tend to go in large extended family groups with one of the men leading heavily laden camels, between, 2 to 5, carrying tents, pots, water jars, bedding, firewood and materials to trade etc. The men were dressed in the way of normal Afghans but the women were conspicuously different.
First of all the striking colour of the baggy trousers, either dark green and a red, near maroon red top/dress over the trousers. The head scarf was usually a bright colour. The younger women, under 30, had their hair parted in the middle and broaches/hair clasps on the fringes.
Facial tatoos were noted on all women, probably done at or around puberty. In most women seen, they had tatoos on either cheek, sometime one on the chin and forehead.
Young girls seemed to all have dark black hair cut in the page boy style. Eyes very large and striking, ranging from the predominent dark brown to a few with blue eyes.
They cared well for their animals. Young goats were in the tents being protected from the elements, women tenderly carrying lambs in their arms, an old sheep, probably lame, riding on the back of a camel. The camels were usually adorned with colourful braids, goats had bells on their necks and the donkeys carrying saddle bags.
Babies and young children were tied on to backs of camels or donkeys and wore intricately embroidered hats/bonnets. The children seem so content sitting on the backs and thrive on their mobile geography lessons.
The children and young women seem to be gatherers of wood, berries, leaves, wild vegeta-bles, powdered lime/rock.
Carpet making is clearly an activity. Ian saw one women making a kilm runner. One old man was preparing wool from a sheep skin.
The above is merely from observations on the trip.
Louis Dupree, the great authority on Afghanistan wrote this :
"Before the war started in 1979, it was estimated that about two million Afghans are either fully nomadic or semi nomadic, and an increasing number of these two types join the already numeropus semi-sedentary groups.
These are herdsmen who move as a group from summer to winter pasturages and back again. Most nomads are either Pashtun, Baluch, or Kirghiz. The Pashtun and Baluch move more horizonatlly than vertically; but the Kirghiz in the Pamir Mountains move more vertically than horizontally."
It is likely that the nomads we saw were mainly Ghilzai, Eastern Pashtuns.
Actually, the nomads have a functional symbiotic relations with the villagers along the routes from grassland to grassland.
Sheep and goats supply meat, dairy products, wool for clothing, rugs (Khilms) and goat hair for tents. Nomads often trade these items for grains, vegetables, fruit, and nuts, and although cash exchanges increase every year, barter is still common when the migration routes leave the modern lines of communication.
Trade items (tea, sugar, kerosene, matches, guns, ammunition etc.) are offered to villagers by the nomads; itinerant peddlers function only where the nomads do not control the monopoly.
Money lending is a major economic activity of the wealthier nomads. Even landowning
village farmers need extra cash for birth, circumcision, marriage, or other ceromonies and rituals; the nomads happily lend money at exhorbitant rates. etc
Animal dung, a primary source of fuel and fertilizer, is liberally spinkled on farmers' fields by the nomads flocks after harvesting. etc.
Communications flow from region to region through the mouths of nomads... the nomads also serve, contrary to popular belief, as the maintainers and perpetuators of marginal grasslands.
When you delve deeper into where the word Kuchi came from, it is from Kachchh, the far western corner of India in the north of Gujarat. Tejinder Singh Randhawa an authority on the Kachchhi people says in his book., " Katchchh has been a significant confluence point for different races and people. The nomadic pastoralists are certainly the most interesting and their links can be traced on one side to the Marwar and Mewar (regions of Rajasthan, Saurasht and, on the other side, Sindh and beyond to Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia."
I lived in Bhuj, during the Gujarat Earthquake in 2001 and spent a lot of time with Kachchhi people and the similarities in dress, embroidery, pastoral nomadic life were so similar. I studied the embriodery closely and compared it with the Kuchi nomads in Afghanistan. Virtually identical. The similarities were astounding. I would like to quote my my good friend Bernard Dupainge, Ditrector of the Museum on Man in Paris. His words on embroidery are revealing about culture.
He says this about embroidery:
" The richness of its history, the diversity of the landscape, everything inspires to make Afghanistan a stronghold of traditions and art forms. Each valley has its own cultural identity, it own orininality. In a country where the main route of communications were overrun by invaders, the mountaineers turned in on themselves. Access was difficult and uncertain, the valleys isolated."
As Louis Depree says earlier in my piece, that the nomads traded, bartered and influenced culture. Embroidery would have been traded, and of course copied. Hence similar embroidery a thousand miles or more apart.
Kuchi children in Afghanistan. The embroidered shirts on these Afghan Kuchis are almost identical to the designs i saw in Katchchh district, Gujarat, India.
The largest group in Katchchh district in India are the Rabari who are Hindu cattle herders and shepherds. The other main group of pastoralists are consist of two dozen nomadic or semi-nomadic Muslim groups who trace their roots from Sindh and beyond. The Jath are the largest of the group.
Kachchhi nomads near Bhuj in Gujarat India with their camels.
But despite the seemingly romantic way of life the Kuchis appear to have, the situation in Afghanistan is grim as Paul Garwood reported recently from Kabul, Afghanistan
One man lives penniless in a field under a patchwork tent with baying dogs roaming outside. Another, wearing a suit jacket and tie, glides past his silver Mercedes as he welcomes guests into his plush Kabul villa.
Both are Kuchis, which means "nomads" in Pashtu language. Yet they have little in common, except their shared heritage and the view that the life of Afghanistan's wandering peoples is fading.
Kuchis on the move in Afghanistan
Few of the itinerant tribesmen have settled down and prospered. For the majority, life has been pushed to the brink by poverty, war, shrinking access to land, ethnic tensions and leftover land mines.
"We are the last of the true Kuchis, but because of the hardships we are fed up with this life," said Fugal Khan, a 50-year-old Kuchi who has hit the road with his family and five others, heading for higher country to beat the coming summer heat.
Officials estimate there are about three million Kuchis among the 25 million or so Afghans, with about 60 per cent of them still following the nomadic life. They are among the poorest of the battered country's poor, owning little more than a tent and a few sheep and cows.
For more than 3,000 years, Kuchis were Afghanistan's pre-eminent transporters and traders, serving as a mobile bridge between South Asia and the Middle East.
But now Kuchis like Khan, who recently arrived on Kabul's outskirts after walking 100 kilometres from eastern Laghman province, are a largely forgotten people, neglected by government.
Armed villagers and warlords often chase them off the land guaranteed to them under the new constitution. Hospitals refuse their sick, and graveyards reject their dead. They earn money by selling milk from their animals, but many also make their children work or beg. Even if they wanted to settle down, most couldn't afford to buy or rent a house.
An elderly Kachchhi women near Bhuj, Gujarat
Yet not all Kuchis share the same lot.
Some have bought property and use it as a base to return to after several months of travel. And there is a smaller, more affluent group that settled down long ago, leaving the roaming lifestyle behind.
Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai, chief of the Grand Council of Kuchis, is among the wealthiest and most influential Kuchis, thanks to a large family inheritance based on land ownership as well as a successful transport company. He is also a vice president of an American security and reconstruction company.
As chief of the Kuchi council, which represents the interests of largely settled Kuchi tribes, Ahmadzai deals with important Afghan politicians, including President Hamid Karzai. But he says ideas he has put forward to improve life for the poorest nomads, such as providing community centres and integrating them into settled societies, aren't being taken up.
"Nomadic life is coming to an end. Ninety-eight per cent of the Kuchi lifestyle has changed," Ahmadzai said, sitting in his luxurious Kabul home filled with deep red Afghan rugs and dark brown lacquered tables. "The grazing land is not there, transportation and trade has changed so much. Kuchis are not needed."
Kuchis played a key role in Afghanistan's post-Taliban political revival, throwing their support behind Karzai in 2005 presidential elections.
The nomads' most influential figure, Naim Kuchi, was detained by U.S. forces in early 2003 for being a Taliban commander, then freed in late 2004. Karzai feted him on his return, a gesture many Afghans believe was aimed at courting Kuchi support at the ballot.
Ten of the 249 seats in Afghanistan's parliament have been allotted to Kuchis, but many are filled by people who aren't nomads because few actual Kuchis stepped forward to contest the election.
Warlords with records of war crimes and serious abuses during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s, such as parliamentarians Abdul Rabb al Rasul Sayyaf and Burhanuddin Rabbani, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and current Vice President Karim Khalili, have been allowed to hold and misuse positions of power, to the dismay of ordinary Afghans.
Kuchis were also promised a government department to handle their affairs, but it never materialized.
Shahbuz Ahmadzai, a prominent tribal leader hand-picked by Karzai to advise him on Kuchi and tribal affairs, accuses the government of doing nothing to help nomads.
"Kuchis have the hardest life of all Afghans. These people have no possibilities even after giving their vote to President Karzai," he said. "If my advice keeps being ignored and I continue to be disappointed I will resign."
Nomadic life on Afghanistan's high plains has become more dangerous amid the proliferation of weapons and scattering of land mines, particularly during the mujahedeen uprising against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation and the ensuing four-year war to topple a communist government.
"Before the revolution, we Kuchis had a very good life and were free to use huge areas of desert," said Alim Jan, a 45-year-old nomad.
"But things changed with the war between the communists and the mujahedeen. Everyone took up guns and nobody now listens to the government. Now when we enter the desert, men approach us with guns and say: 'Go away, Kuchis.' "
This is just a snippet of information I have gathered on Kuchi or Katchchh nomads and would appreciate feedback on those who probably know more than me. They are rarely written about.. Next article I would like to elaborate on the embroidery of Afghanistan.