Seeing what Afghans see

Lay of the Land - Zabul Province

Zabul Province - Not typical of most of my field shoots (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini)

As a television producer every once in awhile I take a step back and realize my job allows me to experience so much more than most.  Don’t get my wrong, my days are typically not packed with the sorts of things I’ve been writing about as I prepare to embed with the Minnesota National Guard’s Agribusiness Development Team (ZADT) deployed in Zabul Province, Afghanistan.  During my more typical productions I am not preparing for travels to a war zone, most of of the time I’m not thinking about body armor, Visas or nearly 15,000 round trip miles of travel.  I do, however, routinely get the opportunity to meet very passionate, smart and inspiring people.  Today was no exception.

Dr. Ghafar Lakanwal

Dr. Ghafar Lakanwal (Courtesy G. Lakanwal)

Dr. Ghafar Lakanwal and I met this morning over tea at a Starbucks in Bloomington, Minnesota.  Last week I was introduced to Dr. Lakanwal by chance through a mutual professional contact; however, it turns out he could have been at the planning table all along.

Among the many hats Ghafar wears is one of a trainer and consultant for a company called Sharing Diversity.  He also holds a PhD, was the Minister of Agriculture in Afghanistan and builds schools in Khost, Afghanistan.  He is very proud of a graduating class of 40 girls this year.  He is one of those people who makes me wonder, “what the hell have I done with my life?”

I mentioned Dr. Lakanwal could have been at the planning table from the beginning.  Turns out he has been, just not mine.  He spent 16 hours training members of the the the Guard’s Zabul Agribusiness Development Team.  I spent 90 minutes with him yet feel like I received 16 hours worth of information.  I imagine COL Eric Ahlness and his team received as much information as one can possibly cram into two days.  I hope they had a couple of sharp pencils and took some good notes.

Dr. Lakanwal mentioned he spent a lot of time talking to the ZADT this summer about how to handle social situations they may encounter.  He taught them how to read a room, how to know who the Elders are based on where they are sitting during a meal.  He taught them where the highest ranking Officer should sit, and he even told them how they should sit during a Shura or a meal.

Without getting into too much detail about Ghafar’s life I can say that he has plenty of  first-hand experiences  foreign aide workers, I’ll classify the ZADT as such, can learn from.  He is an Afghan.  He served in some high-level organizations while in Afghanistan, was educated in Kabul and Germany, has lived in Minnesota since the early 1990s and is very culturally sensitive.  This sensitivity is on display as he talks about which foreign-introduced programs have the best chance of working in Afghanistan.

Afghan wheat field

Afghan wheat field (Shutterstock)

He shared with me a story about a high-yield, Mexican wheat he worked hard to introduce to Afghan farmers while he was a PhD candidate.  The grain grew well in Afghanistan’s climate, is was drought and disease tolerant and provided massive yields.  After a few years a relatively high percentage of Afghan farmers had switched over to this new wheat.  However Lakanwal noticed that in following years the numbers of farmers using the wheat dwindled.  Why was this?  The wheat wasn’t overly expensive to purchase, wasn’t any more difficult to plant or care for.  It was prevalent.  It produced high yields.  Planting, harvesting and marketing this wheat should have been an obvious choice, but after a few years time only 15% of the wheat fields were being planted with this new crop.

After much research it was revealed the reason the crop wasn’t being widely used was because it didn’t cook up like the ‘old fashioned’ native wheat did.  Though the native wheat didn’t provide large yields it was preferred.  It made no sense.  Why switch away from the new wheat?  The answer wasn’t found in a lab or field.  It was found much closer to home.  The reason the new wheat didn’t take was because it was hard to work with in the kitchen, the flour was very dark, almost black in color and the bread, the lifeline of of the Afghan culture, had a shelf life of less than a day before it became too hard to eat.  In the field the crop performed tremendously, but in the kitchen, where it is most needed, it failed.  The wheat couldn’t provide its most culturally significant purpose of being used in bread.  Afghan women didn’t like to work with it, the wheat didn’t serve its purpose.  Science and technology didn’t plan accordingly.

ZADT soldiers working with Afghans

ZADT working with Afghans at an almond market (MN National Guard)

This example was provided to illustrate how to best work with Afghans.  The Military, aide organizations and NGOs cannot dictate where and how to use the ideas and innovations they are pitching. It is up to the population being helped to be able to know how to use the information and ideas being shared.  Cultural sensitivity needs to be exercised.

It is not enough to merely introduce technology or innovations.  Successful groups are successful because they connect with individuals, they understand the human element and the human behavior.  Groups that are successful see how the Afghans see their ideas, innovations, and plans.  They see how and why Afghans may be reluctant to change and they address those concerns before introducing the innovation.

Dr. Lakanwal’s words don’t contain a magic key, it will take a lot of work to help a nation of people who have so little.  However I get the sense that if the ZADT is thinking about their pages of notes from Ghafar’s lessons while doing their work in the field success is a more likely. Personally, I know his words will be in my head as I see Afghans see the programs the ZADT is running.  Whether it is the demonstration farms they are organizing, the meat processing plants they are building or the women’s outreach programs they are developing, as the Minnesota National Guard plans missions, meets with Elders and provides guidance it is the ability to see what the Afghans see that will lead to greater success.

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