By Shannon Galpin
I arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan in October of 2008. As I nervously tucked back a strand of hair that had fallen loose from my headscarf, I scanned the crowd grabbing luggage from the piles strewn across the concrete. I spotted my black bag underneath a larger suitcase and wondered how I would know who my fixer and driver was. I had no photo of Najibullah, and when I turned on my cellphone, no signal. Kabul is not the place for a foreigner to jump into a random taxi. I needn’t have worried, a small bespectacled man in a grey suit and immaculate shoes was waiting for me with my name on a white piece of paper. I was the only blond in the airport. He was smiling at me before I had finished reading my name.
Afghanistan is not exactly on the tourist trail. State department warnings on their website stated, “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against travel to Afghanistan because of continued instability and threats by terrorist organizations against U.S. citizens”. It is a country repeatedly ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman, but if I wanted to work in women’s rights I had to start somewhere. I had come to Afghanistan on my own with lots of questions and a bucket load of curiosity.
Najibullah proved to be much more than a fixer and translator, he was an open door to understanding Afghanistan’s complicated past present and future. Every day for four weeks, we spent traveled Kabul’s bumpy, often flooded, streets in the back of a ubiquitous, white Toyota Corolla. Few streets were paved, most would be better handled in a 4×4, but my driver Mohammad handled his Corolla deftly through traffic and around craters and mud pits. As I bounced around the back, Najibullah kept up a running commentary on the buildings and neighborhoods around me, the current news, and answered my endless questions as I started transfixed out the window. The scene outside was, and still is, like stepping back in time. Amidst the wreckage of bombed out buildings, men in pakol hats and turbans dressed in beige shalwar kameez were walking, riding bikes, and conducting business on the street. Women underneath bluebird blue burqas strolled ghost like among the men and other women dressed in brightly colored dresses and headscarves. Business was conducted in the street. butchers hung their fresh meat on hooks on the sidewalk. Street photographers took portraits with wood box cameras. Notaries had a desk with pens and official stamps on the corner. Moneychangers stood on street corners holding stacks of cash to exchange dollars in Afs or cell
Over lunch I would practice Dari phrases over piles of kabuli rice with lamb and mantu dumplings with cans of cold coca cola, something I never drink the United States, but craved after hours in the hot dusty air of Kabul. Our driver, Mohammad, would sit quietly eating his lunch, apparently disinterested in the conversation. But after a week of this, he started gently teasing me about my pronunciation or voicing his opinion to the growing list of words I was trying, often unsuccessfully, to cram into my brain. Each morning as I got into the car, he would change up his greeting to me to keep me on my toes, and test me on the words I’d tried to memorize the previous day.
We met with a wide range of men and women working to better Afghanistan over endless cups of weak green tea. Parliamentary members, teachers, police cadets, women’s rights activists,
photojournalists, social workers, and the work of local non-profit organizations. We also met with women in prison, rape victims convicted of adultery, street children selling maps and shining shoes to earn a few Afs, war widows learning to sew as a trade to support their family. Urban, rural, wealthy, poor, university educated, and illiterate. I wanted to understand the country and the people that lived there, not the sliver of truth presented in western media.
Over the next several years, I returned for three week visits, balancing my life as a mother of a young daughter, and that as an activist and humanitarian. Each visit I stretched my wings further and further, working with Najibullah but also becoming more mobile on my own. Often I was in places where few foreigners traveled, and those that did were with convoys. A tall, blonde was a curiosity, and something I learned to use to my advantage. Men treated me as an honorary man, and that gave me the unique perspective of speaking openly both with men and women I encountered and learning that their perspectives were often radically different, even in the same household.
As I traveled the country by car, helicopter, airplane, motorcycle, and eventually by mountain bike, I was able to experience the country in a unique way. Where many of my counterparts in aid and development work were limited by security protocols and red tape, and embassy staff were often unable to even leave their compounds, I was able to weave my way throughout the country and to work in unique ways alongside locals. Often sleeping on family’s floors in mountain villages, and engaging in authentic and often intimate conversations with men and women without the parameters of a scheduled meeting or agenda. Simply sharing slices of my life and listening to theirs, the joy of exchanging culture. I delivered school supplies in remote mountain communities, spearheaded construction for a school for the deaf in Kabul, worked inside the women’s prisons, funded computer labs, and created street art installations, and eventually supported the first generation of girls riding bikes as an act of social justice.
This past May was my twenty-first visit to Afghanistan. The country still remains an enigma. Most of Kabul’s streets are paved now, multi-storied wedding halls lit up like they are straight out of Vegas have popped up all over the city, yet the street view remains unchanged. Afghanistan is country of contradictions, where there is no black or white, only shades of gray. Violence has escalated, kidnappings have increased, and security is deteriorating. Yet progress continues to move forward. Entrepreneurship incubator workshops, TEDxKabul, and youth activists, artists, musicians, and athletes strive to have a voice and a place in their country’s future.
People ask me all the time why I travel and work in Afghanistan, why I take the risk. I consider myself lucky to experienced Afghanistan so intimately, to have been welcomed into so many homes for tea and conversation, to have explored its landscapes and its remote villages on two wheels, to have flown with the Afghan National Army in helicopters, to have met women’s rights activists living in hiding, and to have mourned with the family of Farkhunda, who was beaten to death in the street. To have traveled through this country is the greatest gift I could have asked for, and despite the risks, it is a country we most continue to explore if we are to better share our common humanity.
National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and global activist, Shannon Galpin, has been working and traveling in Afghanistan throughout the past decade and is the founder of Mountain2Mountain. Shannon created the groundbreaking Streets of Afghanistan art installation and authored the photography book documenting the installation of the same name. In 2009 she became the first person to mountain bike in Afghanistan and in 2012 she began supporting and and training the first Afghan Women’s National Cycling team helped support the burgeoning right to ride movement in Afghanistan.Shannon is the author of two books, her memoir, Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan, and a photography book Streets of Afghanistan. She is a producer for the upcoming documentary film, Afghan Cycles. The International Olympic Committee awarded Shannon an Honorary Achievement Diploma in 2015 for her work promoting gender equity through sports and she sits on the Board of Advisors for Shirzanan Global.
You can learn more about Shannon on her website – shannongalpin.com.
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