Donor money is turning Afghanistan into an incongruous concrete jungle... Is there a space for local skills and building methods?

Zeenab's (name changed) husband was killed by Russian soldiers three decades ago and her son died in a Taliban car bomb attack few years ago. The widowed Zeenab now lives in Kabul. Her house is crumbling and she has to rebuild it before it becomes dust. Her condition — tragic, deprived and almost homeless — would move many as it should and fetch an instant concrete house from aid agencies. But she did not want a box for a building and displace herself from her community. The mainstream aid-industry is so target fetish, it has hardly any space for renewing old houses or nurturing community links. If Zeenab has any hope, it is in the emerging alternative practice advocated and embraced by people such as Anne Feenstra, a Dutch architect working in Kabul.

Feenstra came to Afghanistan in 2003, after a stint in London and Amsterdam, to be part of the rebuilding process. The donor economy and the construction boom, recently estimated by Afghanistan Builders Association to be about $3,700 million, provided a huge opportunity. But the furious construction also had its flip side; it was overlooking local skills and causing long-term impoverishment.

Mindless construction

“Money is ushered in, concrete buildings are quickly built and the donors leave the country even before the people on whose name it is built inhabit them. Many of the newly built projects are not suitable for the extreme Afghan weather conditions, which swing from 40 degrees to -20 degrees, and they do not take into account how people would use them,” Feenstra laments.

For the last seven years, he is trying to find meaningful ways to build. When I met him in Chennai, he was full of stories about how his projects in Afghanistan are connected with the struggles and success of people who build and own them.

“Reconstruction is not about delivering a house or a product. It is about knowing people for whom it is built and helping them make it their own. It provides an opportunity to improve and use the local skills. Without all these rebuilding would have no meaning nor can it be sustained,” Feenstra is convinced.

Donor money and target-oriented reconstruction alone cannot be blamed for all ills. Local elites too are equally complicit. The creation of Little Pakistan, an exclusive wealthy residential area outside Kabul speaks of this. “Fertile agricultural land, historical gardens and traditional mud houses were bulldozed and the land was grabbed. This place is now home to about 138 swanky mansions with incongruous classical Greek and Roman columns slapped on their face. Their silly balconies and porches would never be used in this harsh climate. What is worse is that construction teams, comprising Afghans settled in Pakistan, are imported because they can build cheaply than local teams, which ask for reasonably high wages. The imported workers normally arrive after winter, work for about nine months, earn their money and go back to their families in Pakistan,” says Feenstra.

Local expertise

AFIR Architects, Anne Feenstra's firm, works across Afghanistan — Bamyan, Kholm, Kabul — on maternity waiting rooms, community centres and bazaars amongst other types of buildings. In all these projects care is taken to use local expertise on materials; involve communities concerned in the decision making and those who want to learn construction techniques are taken on board. At times, the client's brief are exceeded in order to make the projects meaningful to the users.

“When we were asked to design and construct visitor centres at national parks at Band-i-Amir, West of Bamyan and at Qala-i-Panja in North-East Badakshan, we were clear that it would also double as a comfortable community centre. Providing comfort for the visitors for the National park and the local people is critical. Resources are scarce and it must be equitably shared,” Feenstra insists.

Ghulam Rasool's story, recorded in a new book titled Another Afghan Story, speaks for the rich dividends this approach is paying. Rasool is the chief foreman at the construction site of Bagh-e-Jehan Nama palace, Kholm, a project funded by the Centre of International Heritage Activities, Netherlands. Decades ago, as a Mujahideen soldier he fought the Russians and lost his toe in a land mine blast. Rasool had no job after the Russians left. He did want not join the Taliban. By working in small construction sites, he managed to learn the skill of making special compacted-mud construction technique known as Phaksa. This was not of much help since his skills had no place in the concrete rush.

Fortunately, the palace conservation team found him and provided a space for his mud plastering skills. Rasool never thought he would come back to rebuild the palace which he threw bombs and fired rockets at. He now supervises work in the palace and teaches Phaksa technique to apprentices.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012