Life in a different culture

An insight into the cultural differences in Afghanistan and how this impacts work in the field.

A very interesting part of working in the field is discovering different cultures, and living for a few months in a new country helps us understand the world we live in. In Afghanistan, the contrast is really strong.

The relationship with ‘life’ is different to the one we have in Occidental World. An Afghan can die to save honour, or protect someone. Some killings happen for reasons that we do not understand or agree with. An extreme case I  heard about was a tailor killed by his customer because his uniform was badly done. Consequently, people talk about life and death very easily.

In some situations, ‘life’ is not as important as traditions. In this culture, the status of women is very special, and  relationships between men and women are really different to what we know. Women have to cover themselves, always with a scarf, mostly with a burka. The main reason is to hide their beauty and protect themselves from men that are not their husbands, but who could be attracted to them. Other than with their families, men and women eat separately. In some working environments, they also work separately.

In MSF’s Khost maternity project, to respect local traditions and cultures, only women are accepted inside the maternity unit. Unfortunately, there is a real lack of anesthetists. A solution was to hire a man, who would only intervene in emergency cases. However our local female staff initially disagreed with this solution because their culture would not allow them to work with men. After much discussion and meeting with their husbands, they finally found this proposal acceptable.

In Pashtun culture, revenge is really important. If someone kills or injures another person, this person has to take revenge, meaning killing the killer or someone close to him. My colleague told me a story that happened to one of his friends. This man was shot four years ago, fortunately he did not die. But a week ago he found his shooter in a mosque and killed him, as a revenge. There is a possibility of forgiveness but under very strict conditions ….

Aside from this, the Pashtuns, and the Afghan people in general, have a great sense of hospitality. In each house there is a “Hujra”, meaning a guest house. It is Afghan culture to welcome people in need, even strangers. One of my colleagues could not go back home last week due to heavy rains that caused floods in his city. His house was not reachable for couple of days so he was welcomed to stay his co-worker’s house. It is perfectly normal to home someone for weeks, feed them – cooking better food than usual – and never ask the guest how long they are staying for.

Working everyday, with people from this culture is really interesting and we learn a lot. We also have an opportunity to get a better understanding of their point of view. But day after day, it can be a challenge to open our minds enough to accept these traditions and deal with them. Indeed, being a Occidental woman in Muslim country such as Afghanistan means compromise everyday, modification of our lifestyle, and sometimes we hear very hard stories that make us realize how lucky we are.