A Look at the Unique Plant Life in Afghanistan

Although Afghanistan is a dry country that primarily encompasses arid desert and rugged mountain ranges, it is home to an incredibly diverse array of plant life. In fact, according to some botanists, when it comes to plants and vegetation, Afghanistan is one of the world’s most important centers of biodiversity. Read on to learn some fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s surprisingly rich and unique plant life.

Afghanistan has more species of flowering plants than Central Europe.

It would be easy to assume that a region like central Europe, with its damp climate so favorable to plant growth, would have a wider variety of flowering plants than arid Afghanistan. Interestingly, however, the opposite is true. Afghanistan has far more species and sub-species of flowering plants than central Europe. Approximately 4,500 distinct flowering plants have been identified in Afghanistan, and botanists believe that there are many more still to be found and named. Afghan flowering plants encompass more than 600 species within the legume/pea family; 500 species in the daisy family, including nearly 150 different types of thistle; and 205 species in the mint family.

Nearly one-third of Afghanistan’s flowering plants are not found anywhere else.

Afghanistan’s flowering plant life is not only exceptionally diverse, but it’s also unique. Approximately 30% of all of the country’s flowering plants are endemic to Afghanistan, meaning that they don’t grow anywhere else in the world. (In contrast, the UK—another region with a damp climate that is ideally suited to plant growth—only has about 1,700 species of flowering plants, and a mere handful of these are endemic.)

Afghanistan’s valleys helped to shape its floral biodiversity.

Afghanistan’s extraordinary floral biodiversity owes a great deal to the country’s distinctive landscape, particularly the fertile valleys that lie in between its soaring mountains. Over the course of millions of years, these valleys served as a refuge for plants, helping to preserve and protect floral life through a series of global ice ages that wrought destruction elsewhere (to take the UK as an example once again, that region was wiped relatively clean of species with each successive Ice Age due to the area’s fairly flat topography). Furthermore, because the valleys are isolated from one another, many new species were able to evolve in the different areas, each specially adapted to the highly specific local conditions.

Foraging for plants plays an important role in rural Afghanistan.

Given the rich diversity of plants found in Afghanistan, it’s hardly surprising that plant foraging is an important activity in the country, particularly in rural and remote areas. For many Afghans living in rural communities, foraged plants can provide an important source of food, medicine, and sometimes income (foragers often sell their finds by the roadside or from carts in urban areas). The following are some commonly foraged plants:

Rhubarb—Known as chukri or rawash in Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is the Afghan forage plant that is most recognizable to people in the west, particularly northern Europeans. In Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is a springtime delight that is usually an ingredient in salads, or simply sprinkled with salt and eaten raw. Since rhubarb is rich in key nutrients (such as calcium, manganese, potassium, and vitamins C and K), it is an important type of food for rural Afghans, particularly during drought years when other crops are more scarce.

Liquorice root—A member of the legume/pea family, liquorice is known for its pale purple flowers and sharp, distinctive flavor. Foragers dig up liquorice roots and boil them to make a tea, a common treatment for stomachaches. Dried liquorice roots are also an important Afghan export typically destined for markets in India and the Emirates.

Caraway—Zira-ye Kohi, as it is known in Afghanistan, is a delicious spice that is from the carrot family. It is frequently used in Afghan cuisine, especially as an addition to rice dishes.

Afghanistan is one of eight regions in the world where crops were first grown.

The richness and diversity of Afghanistan’s wild plants is also closely related to the country’s history of plant domestication. According to scholars, Afghanistan is part of the “Vavilov Centers,” a term used to describe the regions of the world—eight in total—where humans began domesticating plant crops. In order for this process of domestication to be successful, it is important for early growers to have ready access to each crop’s wild relatives. The fact that wild plants such as wheat, peas, and lentils existed so plentifully in Afghanistan thousands of years ago is what allowed their eventual domestication to take place.

A groundbreaking book on Afghanistan’s plants was recently published.

For those interested in the native plants of Afghanistan, more information can be found in the groundbreaking 2010 book Field Guide Afghanistan: Flora and Vegetation. The culmination of decades of work by a team of Afghan, German, and British biologists and scholars, the book is highly detailed, but easily accessible to non-specialists. Written in Dari and English, the book is used at many schools, universities, and research institutes throughout Afghanistan.

A Look at the New Program Helping Boost Literacy in Afghanistan

According to 2018 data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 12 million people in Afghanistan—roughly one-third of the country’s entire population—lack basic literacy skills. This figure has been dropping over the last decade thanks to considerable efforts by government entities and NGOs. However, it’s clear that there is still a great deal of work to be done when it comes to improving literacy rates in Afghanistan.

One new initiative determined to tackle this challenge head-on is the Better Education System for Afghanistan’s Future (BESAF) project. A basic general literacy program geared towards some of Afghanistan’s most marginalized groups and communities, the BESAF project hopes to boost literacy levels for thousands of Afghans. Read on to learn more.

What is the BESAF project?

The Better Education System for Afghanistan’s Future project is a two-year program that will provide some 15,000 youth and adult learners around the country with courses in basic general literacy.

Taking place in 2021 and 2022, these courses have the immediate objective of increasing fundamental literacy skills among some of Afghanistan’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable people, including youth and adults in remote communities.

A broader goal of the BESAF project is to increase demand for and facilitate access to adult education, in order to better support Afghans who were unable to receive formal education during Afghanistan’s conflict years.

What is unique about the BESAF project?

One element that distinguishes the BESAF project from other literacy-building initiatives is that is places as much emphasis on teaching the teachers as it does on teaching the learners. One of the biggest challenges faced by education in general in Afghanistan is a lack of qualified teachers. In far too many learning situations, teachers are barely more educated or experienced than their students. The organizers of the BESAF project therefore made it a priority to ensure that their literacy courses would be taught by qualified, competent trainers.

To this end, the BESAF project began in late 2020 with a 10-day “training of trainers” workshop. A total of 124 master trainers—including program implementation managers, monitors, and district literacy managers —participated in the workshop.

They learned pragmatic tools and strategies for helping train and guide facilitators to effectively deliver literacy classes. The next step will, in turn, involve these master trainers providing further training to the hundreds of literacy facilitators who will be directly teaching and supporting BESAF learners.

Who is involved in the BESAF project?

Partners collaborating on the BESAF project include:

The UNESCO Office in Kabul

Re-opened in 2002, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has been working for nearly two decades to help the government of Afghanistan build and grow its educational, cultural, informational, and scientific capacity. The Office’s broad range of programs are frequently operated in collaboration with a diverse array of local and international partners and stakeholders.

The goal is to enrich the lives of Afghan citizens, create a stronger future for the country, and build peace within and beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The UNESCO Office in Kabul, together with the Afghan Ministry of Education, is responsible for implementing the BESAF project.

The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)

The primary funder of the BESAF project, Sida is the Swedish government’s agency for development cooperation. It works with a wide range of societal partners, including public and private sector agencies, civil society organizations, and research institutions.

Sida supports and carries out sustainable development initiatives in dozens of countries around the world. The agency’s broad goal is to help create conditions that will allow people experiencing poverty and oppression to improve their lives and livelihoods.

Why is the BESAF project important?

As the UNESCO Office in Kabul explains, education is the tool with which people can build the knowledge, skills, and competencies they need to cope with the many complex challenges of contemporary life. Literacy is the cornerstone of education.

In other words, before people can better themselves and their communities, before they can benefit from more specialized education, they must first become literate. Programs like the BESAF project are therefore critically important in that they help create the foundation on which all future learning and personal development can rest.

What other educational initiatives does UNESCO support in Afghanistan?

The BESAF project is just one way in which UNESCO supports education in Afghanistan. In recent years, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has worked closely with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education to develop plans, policies, and tools for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). This program helps provide unemployed or underemployed adults with targeted training.

UNESCO has also played an instrumental role in helping Afghanistan create its third National Education Strategic Plan. The ambitious policy document lays out a comprehensive and cohesive vision for improving the state of education throughout the country.

Spotlight on the Unique Traditional Instruments of Afghanistan

New York City might not be the first place you’d think of in connection with Afghan music, but surprisingly enough, the city’s famous Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to one of the finest collections of traditional Afghan instruments in the world. Comprised of 29 different instruments, the collection was donated to the Met in 2015 by Mark Slobin, a former professor of music and American studies at Wesleyan University.

Slobin gathered the instruments between 1967 and 1972. During this five-year period, he traveled repeatedly to northern Afghanistan in order to conduct extensive research into Afghan music, culture, language, and general society. This fieldwork, along with the instruments themselves, would eventually prove to be more valuable than anyone anticipated.

Just a few short years later, the Soviet invasion of 1979 initiated a decades-long period of civil conflict in Afghanistan. During these challenging years, music became widely banned. Many musicians (and their instruments) either fled the country or were driven underground, and Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage fell into decline.

Slobin’s instrument collection—along with his in-depth research, which includes folk music recordings, films, and hundreds of music-related images—therefore stands as an important and rare glimpse into an aspect of Afghanistan’s culture that has been all but lost. As a result of Slobin’s work, the fascinating traditional Afghan instruments that visitors to the Met can see and learn about include:

The Qobuz

A type of fiddle widely used in northern Afghanistan, the qobuz is an ancient instrument of Turkic origin. The instrument is mentioned in the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages, which was compiled in the 11th century. Shaped like a deep, curved ladle, the qobuz has a belly covered with camel or goat skin and two horsehair strings; a horsehair bow is used for playing, which generates a sound rich in overtones.

Believed to be a sacred instrument traditionally owned by shamans, the qobuz was popular during the 15th and 16th centuries for musical entertainment at Afghanistan’s royal courts. The qobuz featured in the Slobin collection at the Met was custom made for the popular Afghan folk musician Baba Naim.

The Dambura

Another traditional Afghan instrument of Turkic origin is the dambura (sometimes known as the dombra or dombyra). A type of lute typically made from a single block of wood, the dambura features a long, thin neck; a deep, oblong bowl; and two playing strings.

It is played either by plucking or strumming the strings. In some regions, musicians will also bang or strike the instrument while playing in order to produce a strong percussive sound.

The Waj

More formally known as a Kafir harp, the waj is a traditional arched harp, typically with either four or five strings, used by the Kafir people of northeastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Interestingly, although similar harps were historically widespread throughout Central Asia and India, the waj is not found anywhere else in Afghanistan today.

The instrument features two main components: the soundbox, made from a hollow piece of wood covered with a thick, stretched animal skin; and the stringholder, which is a curved branch positioned on top of the soundbox. Traditionally, the waj is played at social gatherings, usually as an accompaniment to epic storytelling or heroic songs.

The Nai

One of the few wind instruments used in Afghan music, the nai (or ney) is an end-blown flute of Persian origin. The instrument is little more than a hollow tube, usually made from a piece of hollow cane or a large reed, with five or six finger holes and one thumb hole (some nai also feature decorative painting or carving). Given the nai’s basic, simple design, it’s hardly surprising to learn that the instrument is one of the oldest still in use. It has been played continually for roughly 5,000 years.

The Ghichak

A very popular instrument in Afghanistan’s central and northern regions, the ghichak is a type of two-stringed fiddle that is played with a kaman (a horsehair bow). Distinct from many other traditional Afghan instruments which are made of wood or natural materials, the body of the ghichak is made from a large metal tin, which gives the instrument its characteristic sound.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Afghan Music.

Happily, although Afghanistan’s musical heritage suffered greatly during the country’s conflict years, traditional music is once again on the rise in Afghanistan. In recent years, a number of local and international organizations have launched programs aimed at reviving Afghanistan’s musical traditions and bringing back the use of traditional instruments.

For example, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Master-Apprentice Music Training Program sees hundreds of students learning to play traditional instruments under the tutelage of master musicians in Kabul and Herat. Likewise, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded in 2010 by musicologist Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, provides children and young teens with training in general academics and music, with a particular focus on traditional Afghan music.

Featured Image courtesy US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan