TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Friday, December 4, 2009

Kuchi Nomads: Today's Trail of Tears

 Kuchi Woman and Child, Wild Bohemian World

Often lumped together in the same group with the Banjara and other nomads, the Kuchi of Afghanistan are mostly Pashtun, linked together through culture and tradition, more than by ethnic roots.  I recently purchased a bunch of Kuchi beaded patches and have them listed in my Etsy store


 Kuchi Patch available through Rayela Art on Etsy

A nice slide show of Kuchi People:

My business, Rayela Art, focuses on ethnic textiles and remnants and I am always interested in the cultures these pieces represent.  And, as usual, a depressingly familia drama unfolds of poverty, injustice, lack of access to basic resources, and violations of both cultural life and the land.  Although I have had quite a bit of exposure to what goes on in Afghanistan through friends and the media, I will not claim any expertise on the plight of the Kuchi.  Instead, I found an article written by the Afghan Embassy in Japan that provides an excellent picture:

"The nomadic Kuchis are potentially the largest vulnerable population in Afghanistan. For centuries their semi-annual migrations with their herds of sheep, goats, donkeys, and camels led to important contributions in terms of skins, meat, and wool to local communities. More than 80% of Afghanistan's land is suitable only for sparse grazing making this sort of seasonal migration ideal. After the war against the Soviet Union, the subsequent years of foreign-imposed war, drought, and ethnic tensions, however, the number of Kuchis, as well as the size of their herds, has dropped dramatically.

The Kuchis were once celebrated in the west as handsome, romantic nomads adorned with silver and lapis jewelry. Traditionally, they have lived by selling or bartering animals, wool, meat, and dairy products for foodstuffs and other items with villagers. As they move from pasture to pasture, the Kuchis are able to escape the limits on the size of local herds, a restriction villagers are subjected to.

Since the fall of the Taliban, life for most Afghans has improved. However, this has not proved true for the Kuchis. Since the 1960's, 70's, and early 80's, the Kuchi population has shrunk by 40% and many of them reside in refugee or displacement camps. The reasons are numerous. The demise of the Kuchi tradition is the result of continued war, destruction of roads, drought, air raids, Soviet bombing and other war-related causes. These problems were further compounded by the fact that the drought from 1998 to 2002 caused the loss off 75% of the Kuchi herds. Pastures have still not recovered sufficiently. In addition, landmines and other unexploded ordinances have restricted the areas available for grazing. War also forced many Kuchis to flee their summer grazing lands in parts of central Afghanistan. When they returned, they found that locals in the areas had converted much of their pastures to farming lands.

Consequently, some Kuchis have given up their nomadic lifestyle and have taken up residence on the outskirts of cities, working as laborers. Many express a desire to return to their traditional role, but many aid agencies, however, concentrate on short-term economic and humanitarian aid, rather than the sort of long-term aid the Kuchis would need to rebuild their herds."

The situation is so bad that many Kuchi have ended up in refugee camps where life continues to offer misery and hunger:

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also has an excellent report detailing both a Kuchi profile and the issues they face.  Here are some of the highlights:
  • Typically, there are three types of Kuchi: pure nomads, semi-sedentary and nomadic traders. The majority are semi-sedentary, living in the same winter area year after year. The purely nomadic Kuchi have no fixed abode, and are dependent on animals for their livelihood; their movements are determined by the weather and the availability of good pasturage. Traders constitute the smallest percentage of Kuchis; their main activity being the transport of goods. The semi-pastoral Kuchis are gradually tending towards a more sedentary way of life. The majority do so because they can no longer support themselves from their livestock.
  • The Kuchis constitute a great part of Afghanistan's cultural tradition. For centuries, they have migrated across the country in a search of seasonable pastures and milder weather. They were the main traders in Afghanistan, connecting South Asia with the Middle East. The livestock owned by the Kuchis made an important contribution in the national economy. They owned about 30 per cent of all the sheep and goats and most of the camels. Traditionally they exchanged tea, sugar matches etc. for wheat and vegetables with the settled people. They also acted as moneylenders and offered services in transportation along with additional labour at harvest time. Kuchi have been greatly affected by conflict, drought and demographic shifts. Therefore, it is only a small number of Kuchis who still follow their traditional livelihood of nomadic herding. Despite their history and their previous endowments the chronic state of instability in Afghanistan has left them among the poorest groups in the country.
  • With the development of the road system in Afghanistan in the 1950s and 1960s and the formation of road transportation companies with fleets of trucks, the traditional Kuchi camel caravan gradually became obsolete, greatly impacting the income and lifestyle of the community. The situation for the Kuchi became even more tenuous after the war and during the droughts of 1971-1972 and 1998-2002. These droughts are attributed with being responsible for the death of 75 per cent of the Kuchi animals.
  • During the Taliban regime, Kuchi nomads (being of Pashtun origin) were encouraged to settle on land that was already occupied by other ethnic groups. The lack of overall policy regarding land tenure and pasture rights by the authorities created prolonged disputes over the land and resources between the settled Afghans and the Kuchi. The traditional system of pasture rights seems to have been eroded and replaced by the power of the gun.
  • Kuchis who have livestock are often unable to drive their flocks to their traditional summer grazing pastures in the central highlands. Very little of the foreign assistance extended to Afghanistan by the international community has arrived to aid the Kuchis. Few assistance agencies work in the insecure areas in which they are located, and most donors emphasize short-term economic and humanitarian aid rather than the longer-term assistance the Kuchis need to rebuild their herds. As a result, most of the Kuchi today remain jobless and illiterate.
There are some efforts in progress trying to address these problems.  For example, the Afghanistan PEACE Project, a collaboration of USAID and other NGOs, have put together an assessment of pastoral needs for different areas in Afghanistan.  The major barriers they see for the Kuchi are access to water for themselves and their herds, access to veterinary services, and conflict with villages, warlords and among themselves as they compete for pasture and these resources.  None of these problems have a quick fix and most likely, the end of a proud heritage of living on the land will soon come to an end.

I feel a link to these people and to the other groups I represent when I handle their textiles and crafts.  Ironically, the Kuchi pieces I bought came from an American who is based over their with the US army.  There are many groups who would like to do much more in Afghanistan through handicraft production, but the country is still so dangerous, that most of the fair trade products are centralized in Kabul.  My hope is that someday, the Kuchi also will be able to access some of these services and make a living through the wonderful textile and beading skills they already possess.  I would like to wipe these tears away and when I look at the beaded patches, instead of a tear, each bead represents a bit of hope.



  1. Hello! I wandered over from Sandra's blog (Thistle Cove Farm). What a beautiful post! What beautiful people. I hate hearing about traditional cultures being stamped out for any reason. I have always admired nomadic peoples, wondered what it would be like to take up with the and spend my life wandering. It's a romanticized look on a very hard life, to be sure. I only hope they can receive the aid they need to continue.

    I look forward to stopping by often. There's so much interesting content here.

    Nice to meet you,

  2. I LOVE your blog! This post is wonderful. It is such a shame what is happening to these beautiful people, and others like them.

    I wish more people were truly interested in the plight of others around the world. When I had an environmental blog, with serious posts about serious issues, I never found many interested readers. They gravitated toward my more "fun" blog.

    Good for you for combining your diverse interests into this fascinating blog! You really have inspired me to try again.

  3. Thanks for this - you do the most amazingly comprehensive research! There are so few traditional nomadic cultures left - wonder what their opinion of us 'global nomads' would be? Not so favorable, I'm sure. When worlds collide...

    I appreciate too learning the origin of those beaded pieces. I have some (not for sale -I like them too much!) but only knew they were vaguely "Central Asian".


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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