Posts Tagged ‘Ellen geerlings’

Karkar 043Introduction

The term Kuchi means ‘migrate’ or ‘move’ in Persian and it refers to nomadic people who live in mobile dwellings. Although many Kuchi are Pashtun like the family I visited today, nomadic pastoralists are also found among the Uzbeks and Turkmen among others. As such they don’t share one single culture, language or ethnicity. Their number is estimated at about 2-3 million making up about 10% of the population of Afghanistan.

The settlement I visited consisted of three brothers and their families. Not too far from their settlement other settlements could be observed of related Kuchi families. This clan (i.e. group of close-knit and interrelated families) are now residing on the lower elevation winter pastures in Karkar mountain, here they will stay for most part of the year until the end of spring after which they move to higher elevation summer pastures.


Guljan (meaning flower), an elderly women welcomed me into the women’s tent where seven women and lots of children wrapped up in many layers of clothes were gathered. Most of them recognised me and they agreed I looked much stronger and healthier now compared to the last time they saw me (September 2012) because I’m much ‘fatter’ now. I thanked them for the compliment. Guljan covered me with a thick blanket and sat next to me.

A view from the women's tent

A view from the women’s tent

While enjoying tea and fresh sheep yoghurt I asked Guljan about her life when she was young. Apparently she used to be a great horse rider and all the women were laughing when Guljan demonstrated how her hair would move in the wind while she was riding horse. She could ride with one hand and hold her child in the other. On a few occasions in the past she had to race to the hospital on horse with a sick child. I noticed Guljan is the only women with facial tattoos, it used to be part of Kuchi culture but now it can only be seen in older women.



Historical picture of Kuchi women in Afghanistan with facial tribal tattoo (source: unknown)

Historical picture of Kuchi woman in Afghanistan with facial tribal tattoo (source: unknown)

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Guljan in front of the women’s tent. On the right in the back is the men’s tent.

Sheep breeding

Kuchi’s main specialisation is sheep rearing and producing male lambs for slaughtering; they sell their animals to traders coming from Kabul and Jalalabad. The Kuchi in this area prefer the Turki breed of sheep because it is well-adapted to the harsh environment and climate, they can withstand heat, cold and humidity and do well even without shelter; the Turki have strong legs and good mothering qualities. Lambs are born out in the open without any assistance in all weather types and still the lamb survival rate is about 95% according to the male head of family. This breed is the largest breed of fat-rumped sheep in Afghanistan. It has two distinct humps of fat on their behinds. They have a high growth rate and are a good producer of mutton. The breeding ram is selected based on qualities of good health, long and strong legs and its colour should be black or dark brown; the Kuchi believe this will protect them from cold as black will absorb the sunrays and will keep the sheep warm during the cold winter. They furthermore prefer the stud ram to have a (partly) white face for aesthetic reasons.

The wool is cut in the mountains in the months of May and June. Shearing (or clipping) is mainly done by men but not exclusively; some women I spoke to earlier in September 2012 stated to participate in sheep shearing. Wool is traditionally hand spun by women without use of a spinning wheel. Sheep in this area produce a little over 1kg of wool per year.  Washed but unprocessed wool is used by all households for stuffing mattresses and pillows as it provides a much cheaper alternative to buying cotton. Unprocessed wool is furthermore processed into felted blankets or rugs. Hand spun wool or yarn is processed into saddlebags for donkeys and horses, bags, carpets or ornaments for the home. Surplus wool is sold either unwashed and unprocessed or spun and made into bags or carpets and sold. Some women have started using a spinning wheel as a result of a GIZ/GFA project aiming to increase income earned by women. Hides are sold to middlemen in the bazaar because they don’t have the skills and knowledge to process these into leather items such as coats, hats, bags and others; most hides are exported to Pakistan.

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At the settlement the families make their own naan (flat bread) in a tandoor oven. Yoghurt, soft cheese and butter are made from the cows and sheep milk. They also produce a kind of dried yoghurt known locally as qrut, which can be stored for ages without refrigerator. Apart from sheep and cows, chickens are also kept at the lower elevation settlements to provide eggs for the family. Taking care of the chickens, milking, processing of milk and food preparation is entirely the responsibility of women while men tend the sheep.

The kitchen

The kitchen

Sheep dogs

Large guard dogs are kept with the sheep and these will protect the sheep (and people) from wild animals including wolves I was told; these dogs will not hesitate to attack. These ‘Central Asian Sheepdogs’ can be found accompanying nomads in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and the most of the southern Russian provinces. These dogs have been used for more than 5000 years including along the silk route. In the past these dogs were also used for hunting big and small game. They are adapted to the nomadic life and do not require much food and maintenance to survive. They are usually fed leftovers or have to go hunt for themselves.

Changing way of life

This family used to have thousands of sheep and about 100 camels and horses to carry their tents and all belongings. The tents were self-made out of local materials.  They would go on long migrations far into the mountains. When the situation deteriorated in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion they decided to migrate to Pakistan in 1981-1982 and they returned to Afghanistan about 20 years later in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban when the situation in Afghanistan appeared to be improving.

Camels and horses are now substituted by pickup trucks that transport the tents and materials. Many former Kuchi in this area are sedentarizing now; they have built permanent dwellings and some have acquired agricultural land. Some have become entirely sedentary; those families that shifted their focus on agriculture or other occupations or families that don’t have enough men to tend the sheep now rent a shepherd (chupan) to take their sheep for grazing.

Guljan and her family have also become semi-sedentary; they have a permanent house in a village not far from karkar mountain and only part of the family will now move with the sheep; this includes both male and female family members.  Their migration routes are shorter now as a result of Afghanistan’s growing population which causes competing claims over summer pastures, both for rainfed cultivation and for grazing of the settled communities’ livestock. Conflicts over land across central and northern Afghanistan are increasing. Kuchis used to have access to pastures and grazing land all across the country but now, local people do not allow Kuchis to enter their areas, and widespread insecurity, local militias and landmines also inhibit their access to grazing land. This coupled with years of drought and environmental degradation has further deteriorated Kuchi herders’ access to pasture land.

Due to the above unfortunately the situation of the kuchi is described in several reports as deteriorating. They are now considered one of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in the country. Kuchis currently make up over 70% of Afghan Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) according to the UNHCR. Contributing to their vulnerability is also the conservative nature of their community and strict adherence to gender roles. Many of the semi-sedentary (Pashtun) Kuchi families I spoke to are illiterate especially women and they don’t send their children to school. Women are generally not allowed to leave the family compound and men or boys would do their shopping. Many also don’t speak Dari, the second official language of Afghanistan.

The situation of the clan I visited at Karkar mountain fortunately looks brighter. The shorter migration routes allows them to keep cows in addition to their sheep, something that wouldn’t have been possible in earlier times on longer migrations. This is a development of the last decade for this clan. The milk from the cows is a welcome additional source of income for the Kuchi; income that is earned and controlled by women.

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Furthermore the head of this clan told me they and other clans from this area have decided to raise money to construct a school for girls because they feel that both boys and girls should be educated and have knowledge about their rights, this will hopefully help them adapt better to changing times.

Karkar 046

Sources used for this blog 

In addition to the information I got from interviews with the Kuchi I also used the following information sources for background/additional information:

Barfield, T.J. (2004) Nomadic Pastoralists in Afghanistan. Reconstruction of the Pastoral Economy. Bank Information Centre, Washington.

IRIN (2008) Afghanistan: Kuchi nomads seek a better deal. Humanitarian news and analysis, a service of the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Internet webpage. Source: http://www.irinnews.org/Report/76794/AFGHANISTAN-Kuchi-nomads-seek-a-better-deal [accessed 1 April 2013]

Minority Rights Group International (2008), World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Afghanistan : Kuchis, 2008, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/49749d698.html [accessed 2 April 2013]

Choopan Guardians (2013) Internet webpage. Source:  http://afghanland.com/kochi/ [accessed 1 April 2013


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After an overnight stay in Kabul I travelled to Pul-e-Khumri in Baghlan province about 250 km (a 7 hour ride) up North.

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Presented during the 13th International Symposium on Veterinary Epidemiology & Economics held in Maastricht from 20-24 August 2012

The presentation can also be viewed here:


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