To me, living in this part of Afghanistan seems like trying to live on the moon. I have a lot of sympathy for the people who try to eke out their existence here. Their land is barren. I don’t know why nothing seems to grow around here, but even weeds don’t thrive. There are a few leafless trees and something that resembles either sagebrush or tumbleweed, but little else. Here and there I see some cultivated patches of grass, but it is dwarfed by the expanse of dirt everywhere else.
Not that the Afghans don’t try to grow crops - I see irrigation ditches in every village, and large patches of ground set up to collect water. There has been plenty of water this winter, too - our vehicles regularly get stuck in mud to attest to the ample supply of water. It just doesn’t seem like anything wants to grow here.
Perhaps it’s the elevation - we are over 6500 feet above sea level. I’m not a biologist, but I remember learning about tree lines and lines of elevation, and how above a certain point no plants grow. Look at any mountain, and you will see a point up to which plants grow, but above a certain line there’s nothing but rock. Well, we have mountains here, but there are wide, expansive plains in between the mountains, where there is plenty of soil and land for plants. But not much grows on these plains. It’s a mystery.
A bigger mystery to me is why anyone would want to continue to live in such a desolate area. There are villages full of people living in houses made entirely of mud - I have heard the people make mud bricks, then stack them. It is durable, lasts long, easy to construct, fairly sturdy, and provides good insulation. Of course, they don’t weather too well, so the inhabitants have repair work frequently.
I see rows of such mud houses, with men sitting in front, talking. Barefoot children chase our vehicles, asking with open hands for some candy. They often give us the “Thumbs Up” sign, perhaps thinking this is a symbol for candy. We are forbidden from giving them candy, because we don’t want any children to run into the street to collect candy and then get run over. We see disappointment at times in their faces as we pass. Sometimes, though, the children smile broadly as we wave to them, and they wave back. Their smiles are such a treasure.
Children are either barefoot or wear plastic boots. I see grown men wearing thin shoes in freezing cold and snow. Afghans may be a hardy people, but I can’t believe it’s good for them to endure such cold. At times, we will see a child wearing no coat as they stand outside (of course, any American parent will tell you this is not uncommon in our country, either!). Clothes are usually dirty - there is no such thing as a Laundromat or a washing machine in this area. Women carry water to their homes from the community well in the center of the village. They carry water jugs on their heads, balancing the heavy load with no hands. This is almost the only time women are seen outdoors, except if they are being driven somewhere by their husband.
Although there is no running water, no sewers, no electricity, and no phone service (except satellite phones, which are very expensive) in this area, there are a lot of automobiles and motorcycles! Not everyone has one, in fact, it appears most do not, but there are still quite a lot of them around. Small Toyotas seem to be almost the only car found around, and small motorcycles often carry 3 or even 4 people at a time. Tractors are also a common mode of transportation, either just the tractor itself carrying 2 or 3 people, or a tractor carrying a trailer with several passengers in back. Afghans ride wearing a thick scarf or shawl over their faces to protect them from the cold outside air as they ride - it’s a hard life!
In our FOB, we live in comforts local Afghans would dream of having - hot water on tap, satellite TV, electric heat (from our generator), Internet access, and lots of clothing. We have washers and dryers. We have food in abundance. We have thick mattresses (most Afghans sleep on thin mattress pads on the floor) and beds. We have pillows. We have socks - warm socks, with lots of padding. We have gloves.
I have seen many Afghans without these. Their lives are most austere. It is no wonder the life expectancy here is so low.
In such an environment, I will never dare complain about my living conditions here. The Army will never allow me to live as poorly as these people, even if I live in a tent. For this, I am grateful.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.