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BBC TwoCooking in the Danger Zone

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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 May 2007, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
Stefan's diary: Afghanistan

If you look closely at footage of me wandering around Afghanistan, you might think I've got a slight stagger. That's basically because my bum is so tense with fear that I can't walk properly.

An Afghan street
Poverty and malnutrition are rife in Afghanistan
You see, I'm not a war reporter by nature or profession, but rather a writer who specialises in extraordinary food stories. I never really meant to go to a category A conflict zone and wear a flak jacket, but I'm very glad that I did.

Afghanistan is desperately poor and unstable.

As well as widespread civil unrest, the country has to deal with recurring natural disasters such as severe drought, floods and earthquakes.

Over 50% of Afghans live below the poverty line and malnutrition is rife: 54% of children under the age of five are stunted.

There was so little order, so much squalor and a surprising lack of basic infrastructure
When people's lives are as fragile as this, food security is a matter of life and death, and the World Food Programme is aiming to provide food aid to 6.6m people between Jan 2006-Dec 2008.

My producer Marc Perkins and I spent two weeks in Afghanistan finding out how people survived in a country this devastated.

Driving around, I was constantly shocked that despite all the money that's been poured into the country for reconstruction, there was so little order, so much squalor and a surprising lack of basic infrastructure.

Local cooking

Most films and news reports about Afghanistan concentrate on unfolding crises and the macro-economics and geopolitics of its problems, but we were here to try to get a more intimate feel for the country. So we met soldiers, butchers, hoteliers, food sellers, mothers and children - some wealthy, but mostly poor.

An Afghani woman cooking
When you sit down to eat with someone the differences between you blur ever so slightly
Most memorably I met Sabra, a widow with seven young girls whose husband had been killed by the Taleban, and who showed me how she cooked with the rations that the World Food Programme gave her in return for work.

She made a dahl and some simple slipper-breads. But when she encouraged me to eat with her I had a funny turn - it seemed wrong to take food from a refugee who was already living so close to hunger.

Sabra wanted me to be able to tell her story to people back home, and harangued me until I tried some.

I knew that I'd be criticised back home for taking food from someone so poor, but I knew that if I didn't feel like I was engaging with people in their daily lives, the less I'd be able to understand that Sabra was a person similar in many ways to me, yet living in extraordinary circumstances.

When you sit down to eat with someone the differences between you blur ever so slightly.

More importantly, I was going to offend her honour by not eating, so I tucked in.

The dahl was simple but delicious, and to ease my guilt, I paid her for the food I ate so that no-one went hungry.

I asked her what real hunger felt like. "I ache", she said. "I feel tired and listless and I sometimes take it out on my kids." Her gorgeous kids burst out laughing: "it's true", they said.

Taleban tea

The most bizarre thing we did in Afghanistan was to watch a buzkashi match.

Buzkashi is a strange sort of game of polo played on horseback, but based on the battle for the corpse of a dead goat.

Afghani's playing a game of Buzkashi
'Buzkashi' literally means 'goat grabbing'
The rules are complex, obscure and unimportant. Mainly it's an excuse for sanctioned anarchy, with a fair measure of violence and blood thrown in.

Every now and then someone seemed to score a goal, but no-one in the audience ever knew who was winning.

After the match, we were invited back to dinner with the man who was running the tournament. It was only half-way through dinner that I found out he was a Taleban leader during the war.

Quaking in my boots, I tried to ask him about fundamentalism, women's rights and modern Afghan society.

He clapped me on the back and roared with laughter, saying that despite the British invading and occupying Afghanistan up until 1921, he didn't hold it against me.

We drove to Kabul and on the way we dropped into a strange and ghostly tank and missile graveyard.

The next day we heard that it had blown up killing several people and destroying buildings.

Testicle kebabs

My fear levels were beginning to peak, but our trip was nearly over.

Marc and I arranged a picnic on hillside overlooking Kabul as a small tribute to all the people we'd met.

Jan, an Afghani butcher and Stefan Gates eat testicle kebabs
Stefan tries testicle kebabs and talks politics with a local butcher
Jan, a butcher, brought a bag of testicles and showed me how to prepare testicle kebabs. They were delicious, if a little musky.

It was a warm, clear day, the Hindu Kush glinted in the sun behind us and the view of the city was beautiful, if dusty and devastated.

We all talked about reconstruction, hope, pride and patriotism.

I could have almost forgotten about the fear, violence and disruption if it wasn't for the military helicopters flying overhead.


SEE ALSO
Country profile: Afghanistan
12 Apr 07 |  Country profiles

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