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KABUL, Afghanistan—A shop in my neighborhood in Kabul sells dairy products. Butter, cheese, milk, that sort of thing.
In a country that is still very literal—bakeries advertise by nailing loaves of bread to sheets of plywood, and butcher shops hang freshly slaughtered goat meat on hooks—Kabul’s Guzergah Dairy is something else entirely. There are no jugs of milk or knobs of butter on display.
In fact, when it first opened in May, it had no sign on the store at all, which predictably made it easy to miss. Many would-be patrons, including myself, drove past it, armed only with poor directions and a hunger for fresh dairy. (“It’s across from the mosque on the main road.” Which mosque? Which main road?)
When the shop did finally get a sign—lebaniyat furushi, the dairy shop—I still didn’t realize the coup this place represented. (The shop is actually one of 27 in Kabul and 157 nationwide that is run by local dairy unions.) That knowledge came later, when I had my first taste of their butter.
It happened during an iftar dinner to break the Ramadan fast. Our host brought out a bowl of butter, sat it next to a stack of Afghan bread, and insisted we all try some. In the warm night, the butter had already melted somewhat. Tearing off a corner of the bread, we scooped up the soft butter to taste. Right then it occurred to me that I had never tasted real butter until now. It tasted both full and light, like some kind of an imagined ideal of a food I thought I knew.
It’s a small thing, in light of Afghanistan’s many ailments. But what makes this dairy shop truly remarkable is that it is part of an operation that comprises all elements of Afghan society—communists, commanders, shopkeepers, everyday citizens, and yes, even the Taliban. That’s an incredibly rare thing in this war-torn country. But when it comes to fresh milk and butter, Afghans have found something worth not fighting over.
I wanted to meet the people responsible for the Kabul dairy union and its magic butter. And so, on an overcast Sunday morning, I drove to the outskirts of the city to visit Lutfullah Rlung, who helped start Kabul’s Guzergah Dairy, and others across Afghanistan. Rlung has been working with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization for two decades. (The U.N. agency made the initial investments that helped these dairy unions get off the ground.)
When he sees that I am a woman, he immediately begins to explain how the dairy unions have increased women’s decision-making power. In his office, he shows me a PowerPoint presentation that explains that female union workers carry greater responsibility in the feeding, grazing, watering, and milking of the cows. "Women are the ones who [are] busy with the keeping of the cows!" he exclaims. As if to suggest something even more outrageous, he leans in to confide, in a near whisper, that some husbands will even baby-sit the children while their wives attend union meetings.
The PowerPoint continues: Women have been the main beneficiaries of the program, receiving more than 90 percent of its income. "This is a good income-generating project for housewives," Rlung offers, and gestures toward me, as if to say, Yes, you, a woman, can dare to dream!
Modern milk production was introduced to the country in 1975, but was halted in 1978 in the wake of President Daoud Khan’s assassination in a communist coup. A champion of liberal progress, when Khan died, so did many of the country’s dreams of modernization. The dairy plants survived the Soviet invasion, but only barely. The mujahedin years were devastating. "Everything was looted. Nothing was left," Rlung says.
In 1998, the U.N. developed the country’ first modern milk-collecting plant in Kandahar under the Taliban. That operation quickly expanded to Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Kunduz. The Italian government began a project in Herat. Another U.N. agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, is funding the latest dairy plant in Jalalabad, which will produce 10 metric tons of milk every day.
The unions revolutionized the way people consume dairy. In the past, you could only buy milk in bazaars close to the processing plants. You couldn't buy fresh milk during most winter months as there was no feed for the cows, and you couldn't buy any during most summer months because the milk spoiled under the blistering sun.
Now the union milk is considered pure enough for President Hamid Karzai, and other leaders. Every morning, Kabul’s Guzergah Dairy delivers to the doors of the presidential palace, the National Directorate of Security (Afghanistan's spy agency), and the central bank.
It wasn’t an easy sell in the beginning. The first constituency the union had to convince was the farmers themselves. Afghan custom demanded that surplus milk be used to make chekka (a sort of sour cream) or quroot—dried curd that is, for outsiders at least, an acquired taste. Farmers told union organizers that the idea of selling their product was as offensive as selling their mother's own milk. (When you ask Afghans why, they will tell you it is simply Pashtun tradition.) A German named Olaf Thieme, who worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization in Afghanistan in the 1990s, was one of the first to start convincing farmers to sign up for the union. Decades of being passive recipients to foreign aid had burdened the farmers with a sense of entitlement, he says. "It was the mood, you have to bring us support, you have to help us,” recalls Thieme. The union was the first attempt to break the farmer’s cycle of aid dependence, and show them the benefits of self-sufficiency.