Photo: FAO

Pain and Poverty: A Day in the Life of a Kabul Shepherdess

The 60-year-old hunched woman offered morning prayers sitting, before laying her head on a pillow to give some rest to her exhausted body. She knew that she had only two hours to rest until sunrise, but the pain in her knees was troubling her, causing her to untether between waking and sleep. And when the pain in her knees was somehow relieved, her thoughts raced through other pains. The pain of hunger, the pain of an addicted son, of a daughter deprived of education, of losing a husband, and of “humiliation” in the eyes of people around her. 

When she struggled to open her sleepless eyes, the morning was still dark. She closed her eyes to sleep a little more, but the pain in her knees returned and so did the misery of other pains in her life. Overwhelmed by these troubles, she deeply sighed, “Would my son ever quit an addiction? Would he return from Iran one day and take charge of the family now that his father is no more?” She was filled with these sweet wishes when the rumbling sounds of her sheep baaing were heard outside. As she fully opened her eyes, the sun had already risen.

She ate some leftover bread and drank a bitter cup of tea for breakfast. When the old woman was ready, she put on her frayed plastic shoes, took her walking stick from behind the door, and began to walk towards her wooden barn, slowly and sleeplessly. When she yanked open its door, a flock of sheep and goats ushered toward her baaing amid the familiar scent of dung filling the air. A new day had begun for the old shepherdess.

Soon, the woman, with a whack of a slender stick, found herself calculating distances by running after her cattle on the backstreets of Kabul. Her animals did the same looking for some fresh grass. With heavy breathing and fatigue, she and her flocks finally hiked towards Shahrak-e Omid Sabz, leaving behind the capital’s dusty and wretched streets. The flocks headed down grazing the upper field and allowing the woman to take some fresh breath. Once the woman found a wall to settle back, she started staring listlessly at people and vehicles who passed by her. 

“I wish one day I visit this place with my grandchildren, just like any other grandmother. I pray that my addicted son returns to his will and resumes a normal life. I believe the day shall come. I haven’t lost hope,” she sighed before removing the dust from her face. 

Then she looked at me curiously and continued: “I haven’t hurt anyone in my life, not even an ant. I don’t know why God tests my patience to such an extent when I am hemmed in with hardships. I wish I had some strength. Once I sit, I can hardly stand due to the chronic pain in my knees. I cannot afford to see a doctor. Once a doctor treated me for free and said that my knee pain was due to my old age, and suggested that I shouldn’t walk a lot. But how can I do that when I have a family to feed? If I don’t work how would my 13-year-old son and young daughter survive? My husband died ten years ago and my eldest son is an addict who lives in Iran. What else could I do?” 

I could not return her answer. I lowered my head, and a deep silence engulfed us both. 

The silence only broke when one of the goats showed up trying to reach a tree leaf. Before the old woman could say anything, a man suddenly appeared from behind a door and pointed at the woman, “Oh, old woman! Don’t you understand? I told you yesterday never to be seen here again. Your goats have once again eaten my plants. If they break the branches of my tree, would you compensate for it? You better never again be seen around!” The old woman felt as helpless as her flock who was now barred from hazing. Her spirit sunk lower, a tear as a lump formed in her throat before rolling down her cheek. A deep silence had once again engulfed us both. 

The sun had ascended the Qurigh mountain signaling another day was about to end. A day that for some meant joy but for many more denoted hunger, sorrow, fear, intimidation, and hopelessness. The old woman was no exception. For her, the long day coming to a long end also meant hunger, pain, humiliation, and sorrow. A long night of assuming bitterness awaited the old woman, too. 

The old shepherdess has been wrestling with such a tragic life for many years. 

“Every day and every night I think of what my children would eat. I can hardly sleep at night thinking about this misery, believe me! Every night as I struggle to sleep and the troubling thoughts of life haunt me, I attempt to pray for my death. But, the fate of my children is the only hope and will I live by. I pray that, unlike my eldest son who turned to robbery to satisfy his addiction, my young son becomes a good human being. Poverty and misery aren’t enough that my eldest son turned an addict, only to humiliate me before others. What should I say more, Oh, God?” she grew speechless with every single pain and suffering she lamented. 

Looking at her white hair that had emerged under her old head scarf, I asked how she bore all the pain and suffering. She impatiently responded, “How do they [Taliban] distribute these humanitarian aids? Once we were given a bottle of cooking oil and some chickpeas and another time some unpleasant flour that we had no other choice but to use in making bread. Now, even we don’t get that.”

As the sun was fading away behind the mountains, so was the old woman’s patience, alerted that it was time to leave for home. 

She leaned her walking stick on the ground and carefully got up while her face was wreathed from the pain in her knee. As she gathered her flocks, we began to walk downwards. Walking, I asked where her home was. To which she replied: “In Shahrak-e Mahdia, where I live in a one-rented room because I couldn’t afford more. Since it is south-facing, it becomes unbearable to live in during the winter. Our living conditions were further exacerbated because we didn’t have heat to warm ourselves. My son and daughter also weave carpets and brought in 12 thousand Afghani. We are barely surviving on this. I begged the carpet owner several times to provide us with more work, but he simply refused saying that the market has worsened since the return of the Taliban. Thus, he never again offered us a new job. I hope that I can sell these sheep and goats at a reasonable price to survive through hunger.”

By then, the sun had completely set and darkness had covered the sky. We exchanged goodbyes and the old woman shepherd went after her sheep and goats to return to her home.

This story was written by Zahra Azimi in Farsi for Etilaatroz.