A Moment of Acceptance

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We must then build a proper relationship between the richest and the poorest countries based on our desire that they are able to fend for themselves with the investment that is necessary in their agriculture. – Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the UK

During my training in preparation to deploy to Afghanistan as an agricultural adviser I learned that Afghan women have a very different place in society than western women. I am told there are three sexes in Afghanistan – Afghan and western men, Afghan women and western women. I wonder if I will be accepted by Afghan farmers, either as an American or as a woman. I receive a lot of advice on how to dress and act, but I make the decision early on to rely mainly on just being myself and letting my agricultural expertise speak for itself. I have worked in agriculture, a male dominated arena, for over 30 years. This won’t be the first time I’ve had to prove I know what I am doing.

Soon after arriving at my post I go on a mission to the compound of the Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (DAIL) in Kapisa Province with a group of American National Guardsmen to deliver agricultural seeds.  As I begin to mark off the variety and amount of seed, I notice the Afghan farmers unloading the truck are either politely ignoring me or casting quick sidelong glances at me. I know I look strange to them and I am not offended by their curiosity. The men show the signs of a lifetime of hard work. Although they look like they are in their 50’s and 60’s, most likely they are in their 30’s or 40’s. Life is hard here and people age quickly, with the average lifespan being 44. Their hands are calloused, many with injured nails that look more like the yellowed talons of some huge predatory bird. Their nut-brown faces are lined from long hours in the unrelenting Afghan sun, made more searing because of the high altitude.  Many are gap-toothed and their teeth are stained from tobacco use. To me their faces are made beautiful by the honesty of the hard work they must do to feed their families. I come from an agricultural background devoid of massive tractors and combines and I instantly feel a bond with these tillers of the soil. They are wearing dingy white salwar kameze, loose pants with a long tunic, many topped off with western-style sports jackets and vests.   They are wearing headscarves or intricately wound turbans. The smell of stale sweat wafts over me in the gentle breeze that is tickling the leaves of the acacia trees under which we are seeking some shade.

Some of the bags in the truck have split in transit and the seeds have spilled out onto the bed of the truck. The men rake up the seeds with their hands, careful to capture each precious seed. Some of the seeds are bright pick, having been treated with fungicide.

“What kind of seed are these?” they ask in amazement.

My interpreter, Najib, is not an agriculture person and he lifts his shoulders in a gesture that says, “Beat’s me.”  I lean over and say they are sorghum seeds. “Sorghum!” they say and nod their heads.  Having broken the ice, they start to bring me other seeds, holding them out for me to see, waiting shyly for my reply. I identify barley, oats and wheat. They are becoming friendlier and start making eye contact with me.  They bring me a handful of turnip seeds. Najib doesn’t know the Dari word for turnip, so I draw the men a picture of a turnip and they smile with pure delight.

As we get ready to leave, one of the turbaned farmers reaches into his pocket with his work-soiled and hardened hand, takes my hand and gently puts something onto my palm. I look down and see he has given me some dried mulberries and walnuts. I look up and smile, and he smiles back. Although the mix looks less than clean, I eat it with joy in my heart because he has offered me his food. He is letting me know with this offering that he accepts me.

It is a great day.

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The Jar of Goodness

Sad Little Girl

It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father. – Pope John XXIII

The hot sun beats down on the top of my head as I watch the hill of the red dirt road that dead ends in front of my house. I am waiting for my father to come home from his job as a carpenter. I wait for him every afternoon, anxious to tell him about my day. I dig the dirt with my bare feet and draw designs in the fine dust with my toes. One of my father’s beagles is lying in the shade of an old oak tree, made drowsy from the heat and humidity. When I call his name he slowly opens his eyes and thumps his tail, but his eyelids droop and he drifts back into slumber. The old tree has a blackened scar where lightning ran its blue-white finger down its side one hot, sultry night and red and white chickens are clucking nearby, scratching in the gravel in hopes of finding a bug or two before they fly up to roost in the limbs of the tree above.

My ears perk up as I hear a humming coming from behind the hill. The road is over a mile long and we are the only people who live on it so I am sure it is my father coming home. I jump up and down excitedly and watch with unblinking eyes for the first sight of my father’s old black Ford pick-up nosing over the hill. First I see the wide chrome grill grinning at me, then my father’s solemn face framed behind the windshield. I am not allowed to run to meet the truck so I wait impatiently for it to chug to a stop. The door creaks open and my father slides tiredly off the cracked leather seat and the dog and I both rush to meet him, the dog with frenzied barks and wagging tail and me with little hops of joy.

“Daddy! Daddy! I’m so glad you are home!” I say as I run to him. He has squatted down to pet the dog’s head and I try to throw myself into his arms. “Daddy, I missed you! Did you miss me?” My father pushes me away with an arm he has raised between us to keep me from embracing him. He stands up and walks to the back of the truck to get his toolbox. He starts toward the house and I follow along, my joy evaporated. Most of the time my father acts like he doesn’t see me and sometimes I wonder if I am invisible. When he does focus on me it seems like he is mad at me and I wonder what I have done to disappoint him. I try to be good so I can be worthy of his love but it is hard when you don’t know what you are doing wrong. Tears spring to my eyes as I slowly trail behind him, bereft in the knowledge that once again I have let him down.

My father stops and turns around. He sees me! I can tell by his eyes. He reaches into the pocket of his old, faded overalls and pulls out a small white glass jar. He puts it in his palm and hands it to me. I look questioningly into his eyes but his face is impassive. My hand is trembling as I reach up and take the jar. It has a metal lid and I gently unscrew the top. A delicate fragrance wafts up from the pale pink cream inside the jar. I touch a fingertip to the cream and rub it between my thumb and forefinger. It is silky and feels like velvet and it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I look back up at my father and whisper, “Thank you, Daddy.” He doesn’t say anything, just turns and continues walking to the house.

Overcome, I go and sit under the tree, the rough bark poking into my back. I lift the jar to my nose inhaling the fresh scent of the cream, but I don’t touch it anymore. My father gave me this treasured gift to reward me for being good and I am afraid if I use it all I will lose whatever magic the cream contains. I will hide it and only take it out occasionally to smell the delicate fragrance and relive the moment when I was worthy of my father’s love. I gently screw the top back on the white jar and stand up to make my way to the house, cradling it in my hands.

I don’t see the dog running exuberantly up to me so I am unprepared when he jumps up, sending the jar flying from my hand. I scream as I watch the jar fall and shatter on a rock sending small white slivers of glass across the ground. The clean, pink cream drips down the rock onto the red dirt below. With tears running down my face and sobs tearing painfully from my throat I start running, just running as fast as I can, trying to outrun the pain of losing my precious gift. My father gave me the jar because on this day I was good but I never had time to learn the secret of sustaining that goodness and I now know I never will.

opyright ©2015 Kathleen Gunderman