A day in the life of one of UNICEF Afghanistan’s most remote outposts
No matter how high the mountain, there is always a path
DAIKUNDI, AFGHANISTAN - A famous proverb says in Afghanistan, “No matter how high the mountain, there is always a path.”
Having spent a week with the incredible UNICEF Daikundi team, in central Afghanistan, I can attest that, literally and figuratively, that spirit is alive and well – all the more remarkable considering the remoteness of this outpost.
On a good day, when the sun shines and there’s no wind and it’s not winter, you can fly from Kabul to Nili in a Cessna plane. It takes 90 minutes. On other days, in less pleasant weather, it takes 26 hours -- most of which is not on asphalt. You arrive feeling as if you’ve endured an extreme weather event.
But when you arrive, you arrive. To the majesty of mountains. To the dry, echoing riverbeds. To apricot-hued sunsets. And to the defiant, zigzag tracks etched into the hills.
The people of Daikundi Province and our courageous UNICEF team co-exist with this awe-inspiring, rugged topography.
Like so many other regions in Afghanistan, “drought” is no longer an abstract concept. You see it and feel it. Here, life depends on farming; cattle depend on greenery; greenery depends on rain. Coupled with rising unemployment and crippling poverty, it’s a perfect storm.
“People cannot grow basic vegetables, such as tomatoes or peas, or grains, such as wheat,” says Somaya, 35, a housewife and community health worker in Daikundi.
The drought has exacerbated an already complicated program for UNICEF Daikundi’s staff, including Nutrition officer, Khalil Anwari. In a region of over half a million people, covering 18,088 square kilometers, seven staff members work together, thanks to UNICEF Afghanistan’s donors, to provide services for children and women. These are amongst our most committed colleagues; it can be lonely work especially when the internet falters, and missions decrease, usually in the winter.
“UNICEF is more than an aid organization for Daikundi’s population, it's a source of hope. We’re the only UN agency here so we get asked to do a lot. Expectations are high,”
But they are led by a remarkable man whose energy and optimism inspires and energises all.
Mohamed Jawad Afzali is head of UNICEF Daikundi and father of three children. Humble and passionate, he goes the extra mile to achieve results for children. Like me, he received UNICEF’s backpack and stationery at school as a child, so this work is personal.
“UNICEF is more than an aid organization for Daikundi’s population, it's a source of hope. We’re the only UN agency here so we get asked to do a lot. Expectations are high,” said Afzali who has served the people of Daikundi for 12 years. “I treat all children like my own and work to make sure they’re healthy, happy and thriving.”
Afzali and the team are supported by three of our most experienced drivers. Deserving of the highest respect for their courage and tenacity, they drive long hours to help the team find the hardest-to-reach children. Negotiating tracks in what often seems to be ‘the middle of nowhere,’ they always return us safely to the duty station – with smiles.
Fatima Raihan oversees Operations for the team. She balances work with bringing up her 8-month-old baby girl, Farangis. Fatima knows, first-hand, the struggles children in Daikundi face. She was one of them. Born in the remote village Shahrestan, she studied up to grade 6 at an Accelerated Learning Center, and then had to move 100 kms away from home to stay with relatives to continue her classes.
“I was just 11 years old; I still remember how difficult it was to live in someone’s else home. I missed my mother and siblings,” says Fatima. “In my life, I’ve studied under trees, under the sun, in a mosque, and inside destroyed shops and buildings.”
Sustaining Fatima and the team in their challenging work is Sharif Moqadam, the cook, whose ingenuity in sourcing local ingredients and creating delicious meals distinguishes him as one of the most popular colleagues. From his signature Afghan eggs of a morning to eggplant stew in the evening, he makes sure the team is well-nourished for the day ahead.
And the days are especially busy right now – as the team prepares for winter.
On one of the days I was there, we shadowed a Mobile Health and Nutrition Team, funded by the European Union, the Tahir Foundation, the Government of the Republic of Korea, the Government of Japan, and the UK Government.
This ‘mini hospital in a van’ travelled along dusty, rocky tracks, to one of the most remote villages outside Nili to support families who cannot afford to go to a clinic. As malnutrition continues to ravage children and mothers, the team is busier than ever detecting and treating starving children, and distributing folic acid tablets to pregnant women. Especially here, high up in the mountains, where life can seem so bleak, these donors’ contributions are a lifeline for the most impoverished. Without these mobile health teams, thousands of people would simply have no healthcare – a terrifying prospect, most of all, for mothers who are giving birth.
It made me think of that proverb at the start. With the generous support of our donors, no matter how challenging things are, we find a path along which we walk, with every child.