Jamila rarely left her home village in the Shahi valley. When you heard her story, it wasn't hard to understand why.
"Last year, I was very sick. I took a donkey to a health clinic in the next valley," said the 35-year old widowed mother of five. "But the way was so difficult for the donkey that I fell off and broke my bones."
As Jamila spoke about how hard she worked for her family's basic survival, she recounted a desperate story far too familiar in these remote and rugged valley communities.
Drought had pushed people to the edge of malnutrition. Families were forced to sell their most vital holdings and take on heavy debt just to buy food. With no road to travel over the treacherous terrain, communities were isolated from one another and families could not easily reach health clinics to receive proper health care. No road also meant no trade and very few jobs; families sent their men away to work in other countries.
The region needed a road
In 2008, a Medair team ran a small water and sanitation project in this area, and while we were there, we listened and learned about the many problems facing these highly vulnerable people. We consulted with community leaders, elders, and beneficiaries, and as we did, it became very clear that more than anything else, the people needed food-or jobs to earn money and buy food. And, even more, for long-term food security, the region really needed a road.
But building a road through these valleys and peaks was going to be a difficult undertaking, requiring heavy labour-both skilled and unskilled-to excavate and move the rock, work at different elevations, and build the necessary culverts and retaining walls-all with very basic tools. Nonetheless, Medair and the communities agreed that they would work together to build 17 kilometres of road, and, most importantly, that the residents of the community would receive cash for their work to help pay for food.
"There are two reasons I want to work on the road," said Ishmael, one of the first labourers to attend a planning meeting. "First to provide food for my family, second so we have new access to difficult places."
The work began in June, with funding from MCC/CFGB and private donors, and construction started in the Jowquol region. Labourers received their tools, with each shovel or pickaxe bearing the worker's name; tools that were later left for use with the communities.
On the first day alone, dozens of workers under Medair supervision constructed the first 70 metres of road. The men bent in exertion as they excavated, barrowed, drilled, and chiseled away tonnes of rock. Although the work was labour-intensive, the workers did not complain.
"Since coming back from Iran and returning to Afghanistan, I have never had a job that pays money, there are none here, until this," said Ishmael. "And when the road is finished I can still make some money by selling small animals because it will be easier to get to the market now."
Cash payments make an immediate impact
Day after day, the men returned to work with enthusiasm, as the team made surprisingly swift progress on the road. Meanwhile, the cash payments made an immediate difference for their families-more than 600 households in total.
"The money I earn will feed my 12 family members," said Ishmael. "My first priority is to buy food, next warm clothes for the winter. We can now buy meat and also buy and use more oil and sugar because I am earning money."
"Before, we used to buy food, but we had to borrow the money and then sell our animals to pay off the debts," said Omina, mother of nine. "Now is better because we can keep our animals for milk and wool."
Since women rarely work outside the home in Afghanistan, Medair also provided cash payments to vulnerable female-headed households and other families who were unable to do the work, so that the entire community reaped the benefits of the road project.
"Today, 30 families have organised together to buy a cow and share it among themselves, so they will all eat meat tonight," said Shahab, a senior project engineer for Medair. "Meat is not commonly eaten when people do not have enough money, but now they are enjoying having a job and benefiting from the cash payments."
Speed, quality, and success
As months passed, the speed and success of the road construction project continued to exceed expectations. When the workers completed the planned 17 kilometres, Medair responded to the energy and support of the community and extended the original road plans to 31 kilometres instead-almost double the original length. The communities immediately got to work, and before the snow fell, the entire road was built.
"The road was completed to a very high standard," said Matthew Glover, Medair's Food Security Project Manager. "More than 54,000 cubic metres of rock and rocky soil were excavated, 23 bridges were built, and more than 7,000 cubic metres of stone masonry for retaining walls-all of which makes the speed and success of the project even more astounding."
Signs of hope
Today, with the road in place, the most vulnerable are no longer as isolated or hopeless as they were just one year ago. There are more opportunities for their livelihoods and for their improved health.
Like Jamila, who fell and broke her bones the last time she went to a clinic, and finally had to return for treatment when the pain became too much in her hand and leg: "I hired a donkey and we used the new road," she says. "This time it was so good to get to the clinic easily. I am so happy about this road now!"
"Having a road here is a huge development," says Mr. Balal, a representative of the Shahi District Governor. "The main difference is having access to clinics and markets. The level of vulnerability of our people is reduced because sick people can get help more quickly and trading in food is now easier."
The new road has also made it possible for women to go to the market, since the road is so easy to travel that they don't have to stay overnight. This opens up enormous opportunities for women in the region. While the custom is still for men to go to the market, the new road means this custom could change over time.
"Now that Medair has brought the road here I dream about going and taking part in the shopping," says Omina. "I can only imagine what the bazaar is like, but I hope I can now choose myself what food things we need and what I want to feed to my family. The men don't always get the right things!"
High levels of vulnerability still exist, and there is much work still to be done, but the Medair road has brought transformative signs of hope that there are better days to come.
"Since the road, we can even get fruit in the local shop," concludes Nabi, one of the foremen in the Shahi valley road project. "There are more things to buy, more choice. There are big changes! Food is changing, life is changing!"