Journey of Hope
Polly McTaggart and her daughter Claire travel to Afghanistan to see first-hand how the small nonprofit that they passionately support is helping to rebuild the war-torn country.
“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, who uttered that classic line, reached his conclusion by noting his acquaintance’s deep suntan, haggard appearance and an injury that seemed to have come from an armed conflict.
To make the same observation about Polly McTaggart, all you need is to hear the electricity in her voice. A member of the board of directors for the Global Partnership for Afghanistan (GPFA), Polly, along with her daughter Claire, traveled to that embattled country for a week last fall. She was anxious to meet the staff there and see first hand the positive changes that the small but determined nonprofit was bringing about.
“I wanted to look into the eyes of these people whose lives had been so destroyed and listen to them talk about their thriving orchards and where next year’s tree cuttings would be planted. We could see so clearly the pride of accomplishment and retaking control of their lives,” the Greenwich resident says. “Some of these farmers and Afghan staff who have guided them have been in our program for five to six years, and I’ve seen pictures of them and their start-up orchards from the early years, standing next to rows of little sticks in the ground. It was exhilarating to finally meet them and be taken around their farms that are now profitable thriving orchards and woodlots with multiple hybrid varieties of fruit and lumber stock. The poplar orchards were towering over our heads with branches so dense and thick that we could barely move between them.”
For more than eight years, the United States has been at war in Afghanistan. As the world’s attention is drawn to reports of heightened troop involvement and insurgency bombings, a less dramatic but all-important renewal is underway in that country. Among the driving forces of change is an array of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs as they are commonly known, like Polly’s group. And while their approaches vary, their ultimate goal is the same: to give back lives and livelihoods to the people of Afghanistan, whose homeland has been decimated by thirty years of war and myriad hardships.
From the Ground Up
Without question, military might can produce a lot of change. But achieving stability, the best sign of an army’s success, starts at the grassroots level. What makes GPFA compelling is that it is literally working at the roots to help rebuild Afghanistan. With an operating budget of $3 million, and growing, its mission is to return agriculture to a nation once considered “the garden of central Asia.” From microenterprises, like helping individual farmers establish orchards and vineyards, to broader efforts in water management and reforestation, GPFA empowers Afghans to help themselves. And though the group is based in New York, most of its 140 employees are Afghans working in their homeland.
Davisson Hardman, an Old Greenwich resident who serves on the nonprofit’s board and has twice been to the country, rejects the idea that trying to rebuild Afghanistan is an exercise in futility. “This is a resourceful nation,” he says, “a resourceful, strong-willed people.” (Another Greenwich resident, Leila Shakkour, is also on the group’s twelve-person board.)
Hardman, a managing director for the private equity firm Warburg Pincus, concedes that groups like GPFA may be unable to solve intractable problems like securing Afghanistan’s borders or eliminating corruption in the government. Yet they can make a huge difference on a more basic level. “A few dollars goes a long way in a place like Afghanistan,” Hardman says. “We as Americans can have a direct impact on the lives of people who really have no opportunity and have been ravaged by war. And I firmly believe that one of the ways we can achieve the bigger objectives of making Afghanistan a place that doesn’t threaten America is to restore society there.”
Or as Suzanne Thompson, another GPFA board member, describes it: “What we’re doing is putting in place the incentive for peace.”
Polly McTaggart made her sojourn to see that philosophy in action. Daughter Claire, an alumna of Greenwich Academy, who works as a political analyst for Alon Ben-Meir, a New York University professor and expert on the Middle East, joined her as a traveling companion, energy boost, and rapt observer. Their guides were GPFA staffers, Afghans who could show them the progress that’s been made as well as steer them clear of danger. As such, Polly and Claire for the most part stayed to the north and east of Kabul, avoiding hot spots of Taliban and military activity. And though travel to Afghanistan is hardly recommended for everyday Western tourists, the pair say they felt little anxiety about their safety.
As it was, the women traveled beneath the radar of anyone who might have it in for Americans. They brought nothing more than they could stuff in a couple of rollaway suitcases. Out of respect for local custom, they donned traditional Afghan garb, like loose-fitting shalwar kamiz tops and hajib scarves over their heads. They were ferried about in an antiquated Toyota Corolla. And when a tire blew out—not unusual on the rutted roads there—their hosts were out of the car and putting on a spare as quickly as a Nascar pit crew to get them rolling again. No one, to be sure, wanted to be stranded in a place where trouble could strike in an instant.
Face to Face
Perhaps no aspect of their trip was more symbolic of Afghanistan and its people than their journey through the Salang Pass, the ancient route that links the northern part of the country with Kabul province. This was the path the Soviets used to deliver supplies for their conquest in the eighties, and it looked like it had seen few improvements since then.
It was a day off work for the GPFA staff, but two carloads of folks still joined Polly and Claire to show them the countryside and introduce them to the farmers they were helping. For more than three hours, against a backdrop of the magnificent Hindu Kush mountains and the Salang River, they made their way. Polly would marvel at the colorfully painted pictures and decorations that adorned the massive trucks that rumbled toward them, less than an arm’s length away as they passed.
“And all along the side of the road were these tankers, these Soviet tankers, that had been left there from when the Soviets invaded,” remembers Claire. “It was just a very beautiful, poetic image, to see this strong and gorgeous landscape and then these Soviet tankers of an empire that literally could not beat the Afghans.”
It was that resoluteness of the people that Dave Hardman witnessed on his trips and that Polly and Claire now saw in the faces of the GPFA staff and other Afghans. Everywhere they went, the visitors were welcomed into the homes of the staff and the farmers. There were meals and teas and gifts, like scarves and nuts and berries. And at every turn, they saw individuals, women in particular, who were indefatigable in their determination to work and learn and build better lives.
Education is a big part of GPFA’s mission. As such, Polly and Claire spent almost a full day at the Tree House, the organization’s agricultural training center in the Guldara district of Kabul province, which draws farmers from all over the country. There, Afghans can learn anything from how to construct solar dryers for dried vegetables to the basics of turkey farming. The Americans also visited GPFA’s demonstration plots and greenhouses, and dropped by Albironi University, one of the group’s partners.
Venturing out to meet the farmers, Polly and Claire saw all that training paying dividends in the form of thriving orchards, prosperous greenhouses, newly built cold-storage units, and irrigation canals.
In Parwan province, one man showed them how to graft the budwood of an apricot tree, from another province or anywhere in the world, onto the local rootstock of an almond tree to make the apricot tree disease resistant. His success as a farmer made him something of a local hero, Polly says, and neighbors and children gathered around that day to watch as he demonstrated the techniques he had learned. Like so many others, he too had a gift for his visitors, a bagful of fresh corn.
Helping Afghan women is a big part of GPFA’s mission. Polly tells of one woman she met, named Fatima, whom the organization had taught beekeeping and helped set up her own business. Last year, in her first year as a beekeeper, she made a respectable profit from the honey her bees produced and also sold several hives to other women in her village to get them started with their own enterprises.
Ironically, in this war-torn country, it was on the roof of Fatima’s home, where her bees are housed, that Polly faced her greatest threat to life and limb. Through an interpreter, the woman explained that she had been worried that beekeeping would be too dangerous an occupation, especially since she had small children, but that she learned what to wear and how to properly handle the bees.
No sooner than she said that, however, the bees started thronging around Polly, stirring her host to action. “The woman grabbed me by the arm and we descended fast down the wooden ladder into her house. The bees finally stopped swarming,” Polly says. “Fatima said to me, ‘She wants me to tell you not to come up to her beehives wearing black, because it makes the bees angry and they were going to attack you. Also, angry bees make poor honey.’”
Polly had always been interested in world affairs and open to new experiences. But her time with GPFA and her trip to Afghanistan would open new vistas that she never expected, from being chased by bees to strengthening friendships with people a world away. “She had no reservations while we were there,” says daughter Claire, “whether it was hiking up some rocky hillside or trying some food she never had. I was very impressed.”
Understanding a Nation
Five years ago, Polly was at a crossroads in her life. She had made her mark professionally, in banking with Wells Fargo, then as a finance director for Levi-Strauss, both in San Francisco. She also ran her own businesses, including one that manufactured uniforms and another that produced natural skin-care products.
Polly and her husband Jim, a business consultant, had raised three daughters—Casey, Lauren, and Claire—who were now in college or otherwise out in the world. And though Polly enjoyed a successful thirteen-year run in the equine show-jumping world, that stage of her life was ending as well. Among other things, her aging horse decided he would rather plow into fences than bound over them. It was a sign, Polly realized, that both steed and rider were ready to move on. “I had a really lucky, wonderful career with the horses,” Polly says. “All of us want to continue to have a purpose throughout life, and finding a way of helping others who never had choices, luck or advantages in their lives is one way.”
Afghanistan, meanwhile, was in the news. The war in Iraq had siphoned both military and public attention from America’s efforts there. Still, the American invasion, particularly the attack on Tora Bora in search of Osama bin Laden, had taken a toll. For thirty years the country had been beleaguered by armed conflict, from external and internal sources. It had suffered drought and starvation. News stories told of a suffering by the people that went beyond words, leaving Polly both moved and outraged. America had already left a war-scorched Afghanistan to fend for itself once, after the Soviet Union had been driven out, and now seemed on the verge of doing it again. “We can’t abandon them twice,” she thought.
So it was that Polly started researching organizations that were helping the Afghans, and trying to figure where she might fit in. One day she saw an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal that cited a few groups working on behalf of Afghanistan with high-powered professional women leading the charge. GPFA was hardly exclusive to women, but no matter; something about its mission and approach had Polly intrigued. She was struck by the idea of helping the Afghans return to what so many of its people wanted and what they had been doing for centuries, namely farming, especially fruit and nuts.
Since signing on, Polly has gradually found her niche in an organization rich with overachievers. She has been active on the development side, spreading the word and raising funds. She has done everything from host functions to help build the group’s website. Three years ago, Polly became a board member. And with each passing day, her admiration for her colleagues, the staff in Afghanistan, and the group’s mission grew stronger.
Her trip only reinforced those sentiments. “When Polly came back,” says GPFA’s Suzanne Thompson, “she was incandescent with enthusiasm and commitment, which meant a lot since she started out with such a deep vision and understanding of the needs of Afghans.”
Upon her return, Polly was soon back at work, organizing a fund-raiser and diving headlong into other chores. Claire, who often assists at GPFA functions, has been working to interest other young professionals in getting involved.
Both mother and daughter intend to go back to Afghanistan one day. Polly, in fact, is already talking about a return trip. “There are intrepid friends who would like to see Afghanistan, but I think we would only go with those who were passionate about our cause,” she says. “This isn’t a place where Americans should move around in a group with a guide; it’s a war zone.”
As it is, the Americans came home with firsthand knowledge of the challenges the typical Afghan faces. Hashim, one of GPFA’s provincial managers and affable guide for much of Polly and Claire’s visit, told of family members who were killed by the Taliban. On the farms they visited, they learned of husbands who had been “recruited” by the insurgents. And as safe as the Americans felt during their journey, the constant presence of heavily armed guards—at the airport, their hotel and other locations—made it clear that the potential for violence was always in the air.
Yet for Polly this was hardly the Afghanistan that Americans tend to hear about. Granted, hers was a guided tour, on safe terrain but no one she met showed malevolence toward America. “The people we met do not hate the West nor do they want Americans to leave. Our Afghan staff and farmers could tell horrific stories of personal tragedy during the Soviet occupation and the Taliban. Only a tiny percentage of the population supports the Taliban,” Polly says. “Everybody we met there was welcoming, curious about what we thought of their country, grateful for what GPFA and the American military were doing for them, and wanted to make sure that we knew that so we didn’t get any ideas about leaving. Many other NGOs would stay in their Kabul offices, afraid of the violence, and leave the villages with empty promises. We have always been there in the fields, in the villages, year after year, because our staff is local and they know these villagers and their stories. However, our driver did tell us that many Afghans resent the mandate that they must pull over and stop their cars or
wagons whenever an American military truck comes down the road. This is their country and they do not like feeling occupied as they were during the Soviet invasion.”
As the Americans bid farewell at the GPFA offices, a young Afghan, in his early twenties, asked Polly what she thought of his country now that she had seen a bit of it. She replied that she was struck by how diligently everyone was working after all the years of hardship.
“Now you see that GPFA must not leave us,” he told her. “Afghanistan is trying so hard to start over, you cannot leave.”
“His eyes were tearing up,” Polly remembers. “He just looked at me for the longest time, and I was going to look away because I was sort of embarrassed for him. But it wasn’t embarrassing for him. He just felt it so deeply. When I left, I took that moment and that feeling with me.”