20th July 2012

My journey to Afghanistan actually started at beginning of February 2012, when I applied as a volunteer for the project of two Slovenian NGOs (Povod & Zavod Krog) under the umbrella of SLOGA, financially supported by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia and in cooperation with hosting organization HELP.

At that time, I did not know much about the project and even less about rich culture of Afghanistan.  I also have to admit that in my rather wide social network there were no Afghans or friends of Afghans.

Preparations for Afghanistan mission were rather physically and emotionally demanding, full of long conversations with my family, colleagues and friends concentrated on insecurity issues and numerous negative stereotypes about this country with more than 2.500 years long history and culture. At the same time I had to deal with my personal insecurities, while it is actually my first longer stay in this part of the world and in Muslim culture as such.

Today, being in Heart, it makes me sad and many times upset, that majority of images and information we have about this reach culture evolves around war related topics mainly installed into our heads by news headlines.

Despite many doubts surrounding my decision to join project in Afghanistan, I was very appealed to it since the beginning and determined in my decision to join HELP’s work from middle of July to beginning of September.

Very stereotypically, but for me as a Western women my first actual touch with Afghanistan happened through ‘fashion’ and some anxiety about necessity to wear a head scarf and long sleeved clothes.  Such dress code is not ordinary for my culture, especially not in hot weather with an average temperature of 35 degrees Celsius. It was helpful though that in my usual fashion style I like to combine long T-shirts with scarves of all shapes and colours. Even though, I consider myself to be a rather culturally adaptable person, who likes to experiment with local dress codes, I found  chador – large piece of synthetic cloth, that covers body from head to toes –  as very unpractical and hot mean of covering women’s body. If I would have to wear it on daily basis, which is not the case (head scarf is sufficient), I would try to change the fabric of chador to cotton or something similar to the fabric of male traditional suits, which seem very comfortable. Besides that I would add some button or pin in order to walk freely without worrying, if chador will stay on me or not.

Many times I feel Afghanistan as a country, which seems to have united people of different ethnical backgrounds, in suffering and painful losses. As though enduring three decades of war, from Soviets to Mujahidin to Taliban wasn’t burden enough, people here are still to this day faced with constant insecurity risks and numerous struggles to rebuild their personal lives and country. They are subjected to continuous and radical regime changes, to which they have to adapt not only existentially wise, but also in psychological and social terms.

For me joint characteristic of Afghans is that they are really brave. It is true as the welcoming sign at Kabul airport states ‘Welcome to Afghanistan – the land of brave’. It seems as though nothing can break Afghans’ will and as though they will never give up. They still laugh, sing and dance. I am fortunate enough that I have a change to meet and discover very brave women and men of Herat and Afghanistan. Our colleagues in HELP are also very kind, pleasant and hospitable people, who smile a lot. I really like that. I am aware that they all had difficult lives and had to endure a lot, but I believe that on the way they have gained strength that their efforts are not in vain and there is a brighter future ahead.

Faced with stereotypes regarding Afghanistan and its culture on a daily basis, I really feel how stereotypes are limiting and how they leave little to no room for individuality. As such they are preventing us to ‘look with heart’ as Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. They disable us to connect with fellow human being as soul mates in this struggle for better future.
I am looking forward that upon my return I will share my positive impressions about Afghanistan among my family, friends, colleagues and wider community. Hopefully, by doing so, I will contribute to more positive picture of Afghani people and maybe even awake pieces of little princes and princesses, for which I hope still exist in all of us.

Tina Nemanič