“With Our Own Hands” arriving home

Latofat, a school principle in the most remote valley of the Pamir mountains sometimes wondered if the two foreigners who 4 years showed up at her door unannounced saying they were collecting recipes about Pamiri food would ever return. She was also a bit skeptical about whether there would ever be a book. When she heard on Monday that we were returning to Siponj village, with books in tow, that very day, she said she simply could not wait to see the book.

With Our Own Hands: A celebration of food and life in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan” has arrived back in the Pamirs, and 1500 copies have been started be distributed to every community in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs. The book began as a simple recipe book, to fulfill a promise to a grandmother and to document the rich unwritten knowledge about the unique agricultural biodiversity in the Pamirs. Over the course of 5 years, the book became much more. Nearly 700 pages of English, Tajik and Dari text and many photographs, describe the domestication of the mountains, the influence of the silk road, the importance of wild food, the resilience of transhumance and bring into sharp focus conflicting futures of the region.

5000 kg of book traveled from the Netherlands over land to Tajikistan. They arrived in Dushanbe two days before our own arrival last week. Here, Frederik and I are sitting on the 5 tons of book in storage at the Ismaili centre in Dushanbe.

While this felt like a small victory in itself, the next challenge was to get the books in a Kamaz for the multiple day trip to Khorog over precarious mountain passes. In the meantime, we took off in a taxi-jeep with 20 books on top of the car.

book4Latofat is the Principle of the school in Siponj village in Bartang Valley. The village is often completely isolated in the winter months when snow closes-in the valley. Perhaps because of this isolation, the valley maintains a ‘pure’ Pamiri language and is home to some of the strongest traditions in the Pamirs. The school in Siponj celebrates an annual national food day, where students ask their grandparents and elders how to make traditional foods from the unique agriculture all around them. 4 years ago, we ate many different dishes, like Baht, Khomnigul, and Boj.  We took some photos of the beautiful and proud children, and with those, we conclude the book. This day brought us a lot of hope – that food, tradition and knowledge have a place not just in preserving the past, but also in imagining the future of the Pamirs. Naturally, we decided to return to this village first.

Initial reactions were often of surprise and sheer glee!

Initial reactions were often of surprise and sheer glee!

Why the title, “With Our Own Hands”? First is because the Pamirs would be a desolate wilderness, the way Sir Francis Younghusband described it to the Royal Geographical society in 1892. People make life-giving soil with their own hands. One thing that was never in question was the title of the book.

But another reason became much more apparent as we saw people react to the book. People were reacting to the knowledge that cannot be spoken, but is expressed through ‘doing’, in their own hands. Bobbi, who drove us to Siponj, admitted to us that he thought this was an impressive volume ‘about’ the Pamirs, but didn’t really know what it was all about. He spent the next few days, while waiting for us, going through it page by page, and then told us that this was a great service to the Pamiri people – it captured invisible knowledge.


He asked, how is it possible that two foreigners wrote this book? Why was it not Pamiris?

We often asked ourselves this question while writing the book – why us?

First, it was not just us. It was supported enormously by a group of dedicated Pamiri scientists who collected recipes, verified information and made all the connections for us. And the knowledge of course, is entirely from the Pamirs. All we did was pull it together.

The other answers are maybe more complex. Because we are outsiders, so we have the luxury and distance to observe.

And we didn’t only do it for the Pamirs. We also did it for ourselves. I grew all up all over the place – the Pamirs are as much home to me as the other places I have spent meaningful time. The pamirs are an intensely special place. Yes, intensely. One cannot visit the Pamirs without being overwhelmed by the grandeur of the mountains, the blue of the sky, the force of the rivers… the diversity of seeds, language and culture. From a purely functional perspective, we will need the seeds in the Pamirs as the climate continues to change for human prosperity. But more importantly, I want my children and grandchildren to grow up in a world where the Pamirs exist.

Perhaps my favourite reaction was when Akorbirsho, the father of a good friend and ethno-botanist collaborator, read the first recipe he recognised “Noshkukpa” and started shrieking with laughter. He then went through every page of the book.

Perhaps my favourite reaction was when Akorbirsho, the father of a good friend and ethno-botanist collaborator, read the first recipe he recognised “Noshkukpa” and started shrieking with laughter. He then went through every page of the book.

What next?

The books arrived in Khorog by Kamaz on Thursday. I was already on my way to Dushanbe by car. Frederik and a Dutch film maker were there to capture it! Supposedly a line human chain of 30 people formed from the back of the Kamaz to a basement where 5,000 kg of books were passed from hand to hand.

Everyone who has seen the book, whether in the police, the bus stop or bazaar, has immediately asked how to get one. The Mountains Societies Development Support Programme will help distribute them to every community, to ensure that at least one copy is accessible in a public space.

The book should live, it is not a monument set in stone. Already we have received critiques: mistakes in spelling, which differs from valley to valley based on pronunciation; differences in recipes from grandmother to grandmother, village to village and certainly valley to valley; and discontent about showing some of the less appealing sides of the Pamirs (like the opium addiction especially on the Afghan side). We would love to find a way to facilitate the making of the book into a live forum for discussion, to capture these differences and nuances – to open up a space for imaginings.

Seeds and Ideas: Food as a method in development practice

Where do ideas come from? is the fundamental question we address in this ‘Thought for Food’ publication by Hivos and Oxfam. We explore how new ideas that exist outside the mainstream discussions about development can be brought into its narrative and influence its course. And how food in general, and agricultural biodiversity in particular, can help facilitate this process.

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Download here: https://hivos.org/sites/default/files/seeds_and_ideas-food_as_a_method_in_development_practice.pdf

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Haider & van Oudenhoven 2015.

You can download the pdf here. We hope it’s of interest! And here’s a short summary

1. How do endogenous ideas emerge?

Drawing from an exchange between Nietzsche and Foucault, we argue that norms, behaviours, actions and ideas become established when the serve a certain purpose, when they are useful. The purpose, and therefore the utility, lies in the eye of the beholder. In a development context, problems are defined by external agencies and responses designed as one-liners: poverty alleviation, market development, combatting malnutrition. From this perspective, the utility of field lies in its productive function (to combat malnutrition for example). To a local cook and farmer, the utility of the field is broader still. We draw on the example of lashak mack (rye pea field), and the soup  that is made of it in the Pamir Mountains.

To the Pamiri cook and farmer, the function of lashak-makh is broader still. They use the harvest from these fields to make a flour called hazorza, which means ‘mix of a thousand’. The crops are not separated, but harvested and milled together, and the hazorza flour is used to make bread or a nutritious noodle soup called osh, which is rich in protein and energy and has a cooling quality when working the fields in summer. Many kinds of osh exist, made with different mixed flours that come from different combinations of crops grown at different altitudes, and many songs and poems are recited about Osh. The soup and the cultivation system are interlinked; the agronomic utility of the cultivation system is connected to the nutritional and cultural utility of hazorza and osh, and strengthened by it.

Many (agri)cultural norms and practices have functions that are not readily apparent. Is it possible to know which knowledge, practice or idea that seems irrelevant now will be useful at some future point in time? And if it is possible, who are the people to decide on what practices should remain and which ones could go? Who decides on change?

We bring in a few more examples of how introduced seed varieties can become ends in and of themselves, especially when so much scientific legitimacy stands behind the improved varieties. To move the locus of power from outside organisations to people and communities who receive development assistance means, firstly, to shift the responsibility of who defines problems and solutions to those very people and communities. The ‘inevitable gap’ becomes less inevitable when the perspective on development is derived more from within, becomes more endogenous. Food may be one way to achieve this.

Food as a Method Part 1: Food is intimate and unimposing, it is a common vocabulary and it is simple but not simplistic.

During the course of our work in the Pamirs, ‘food’ proved to be a useful tool to break down or at least circumvent power relationships and help gain a deeper understanding of this place and its culture. With ‘food’ we simply mean the act of cultivating and preparing food, of eating together and speaking and thinking about it. But the experience of working on a book by no means proves that this tool would necessarily be useful in other hands or for the exploration of other questions in different cultures. Would it be something that is useful for development practitioners for their work in agricultural communities? Would redefining and redirecting development efforts around food (in its broadest sense) be meaningful? We will explore a number of qualities of food that suggest it might.

2. In autonomous spaces, where do ideas come from?

Through listening and trying to learn these skills from farmers, mothers and shepherds, our conversations with them created a space where we could speak as equals. Where power relations, if not absent, were less apparent than if we had been there as researchers or development workers. This, we felt, was a space far away from the ‘problems and solutions’ defined by the outside world of development, a relatively endogenous space in which people could speak freely and ideas could emerge. And often they did.

At times, however, we were struck by people’s seeming lack of endogenous ideas about their future; a lack of initiative in changing things that weren’t working, or protecting things people were proud of. Where were those ideas and where had the energy gone? A strange contradiction in a conversation with a wealthy shepherd in the Wakhan valley of Afghanistan suggested we ought to look at power in yet a different, more subtle way.

Food as a Method Part 2: to excavate memories and inspire ideas. Food is evocative, tangible, requires action and is a vessel of values fundamental to identify.

Food is a vessel of many things. It is not by accident that preparing it evokes memories and ideas that are otherwise buried. Using food as a method helps create a space in which novel ideas emerge and can be expressed, and where old ideas can be excavated, dusted off and become part of an endogenous perspective on development. The question that remains is how, once ‘small’ local ideas emerge, they can take root and thrive alongside or in competition with more powerful ones.

3. How do ideas take root?

To cook food with people and to eat together from a shared dish allows us to understand ideas and solutions for rural development practice as springing from the relationship between people, their communities and their landscape. Just as plants and animals are part of an ecological system, and seeds need to be understood in the agricultural system of which they are a part, ideas about food and the development of agricultural landscapes need to be understood in relation to, and as a result of, other ideas and the people who carry them. This way of understanding how ideas interact has been called an ‘ecology of ideas’ (Bateson, 1972).

In such as an ecology, as an idea becomes established, it increasingly connects to other ideas until, eventually, the idea becomes crucial to the survival of the system as a whole. Throughout this paper we have discussed some of the ideas that Pamiri farmers shared with us about their future: raising their children to maintain a connection to their land and traditional livelihoods, growing grains and pulses together in lashak-makh fields, using food and local plants for medicine. In other words seeking and adopting a type of development that does not destroy important local and traditional values. But if these ideas find no soil, no social or institutional network into which they can be incorporated and nourished, they cannot flourish and survive. Ideas are not singular entities and cannot exist as such; they need a support structure, or an ecology of which they become a part.

The reason that, viewed from the perspective of an ‘ecology of ideas’, food has such evocative power, and that phrasing ideas in the language of food may help them spread and gain relevance, is that food touches on most elements that make up daily life: health, livelihood, agriculture, science, spirituality, trade. The more such linkages are allowed to persist, the more these elements remain seen as integral parts of the food system, and the greater the power of food to help new ideas connect to an existing ecology and take root.

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Lashak-makh. A field of rye, barley, pea, grass pea, lentil and faba bean. A mess, traditional ecological knowledge, or something else? Photo by F. van Oudenhoven.

Yet unfortunately this is not usually the way development programmes introduce their ideas (or their seeds). The way in which the organisations and donors behind these programmes are organised requires that the building blocks of human life be compartmentalised into sectors that can be managed within the framework of projects: productivity, income generation, health, culture, thereby severing the same linkages that make food such a holistic and overarching concept. Imagine how an improved seed variety, designed for monoculture, would fare in the colourful chaos of a field of lashak-makh? It would not survive its difficult soils without a substantial dose of fertiliser, or competition from other plants without the use of herbicides. The agricultural system must change if the newly introduced seed is to succeed; it must be compartmentalised. And so the seed becomes divorced from the soil and the traditional practices that connect farming and communities, such as seed saving and selection. It will no longer have its place in prayer, in food and in social networks of exchange—the very things that give a local seed its relevance and that enable it to adapt to changes in its environment and culture.

The same risk exists for ideas. Let’s return one last time to the dichotomy between ideas as singular monuments and ideas as networks and interactions. Even though external ideas are part of networks as much as local ideas are, we have in this paper pictured them as more ‘monumental,’ as one-liner solutions to problems whose conception often occurred elsewhere. In many ways they are more monumental—and they take root as a plant’s taproot might: central, singular, and straight. In being monumental and more rigid, they are less able to adapt to a new home, and less sensitive to it.

In contrast, what we have called endogenous, or local ideas, are the ideas that spring from everyday processes of innovation and learning; the way a farmer learns when working her fields. Having no one source or origin, and, perhaps, also no fixed goal or direction, they evolve and adapt when faced with something unknown, drawing on a reservoir of related ideas, whether prayer, technical knowledge or folklore.

We do not argue that all ‘small’ local ideas are good and all external ‘big’ ideas are bad. Both are needed, but they need to be able to interact on a more equal level. It is in facilitating such interactions, through engagement and experimentation, through the collective interrogation of ideas, and through being modest about introduced ideas and judging them against the wisdom of ancestral knowledge present in the places where they work, that we argue development organisations have a very positive role to play.

Guattari revisited

At the Stockholm Resilience Centre in the past month, there has been an amazing initiative to revisit the classics: Durkheim, Weber, Marx. You can read about that on the resilience science blog

Frederik and I have often over the years gone back to the classics in thinking about our work on food sovereignty, development and cultural heritage in the Pamirs. Over two years ago we were inspired by French thinker, Felix Guattari, and I posted a few first reflections here. Those thoughts turned into a paper (free access here), published a year ago in a somewhat obscure French journal.

Why do I like using the classics in thinking about change social ecological systems? I have found beauty in the way that classics can provide framing my thinking in a narrower frame, much like a poetic style can channel creativity leading to the emergence of something entirely unexpected.

… we borrow from the concept of ‘the three ecologies’, developed by the French thinker Félix Guattari (1989). With this concept he distinguishes between three dimensions—environmental, social, and mental—of the current crisis of nature (both ecological and human) and illustrates how these are affected by the economic system that he considers to be the crisis’ main cause. These ‘three ecologies’ guide our analysis of development issues and the formulation of alternatives.

Implied in the following examples is the call, also emphatically stated in Guattari’s text, to abandon the professed neutrality of “pseudo-scientific paradigms” (ibid: 131) in favour of the subjectivity of aesthetic ones. In other words, to turn away, if only for the purpose of reflection, from the informational, ‘professional’, or ‘academic’ (i.e. external) narratives as a basis for conceiving development trajectories, towards the singularity and aesthetics of popular stories and memories rooted in local culture. Huyssen (2003: 2) relates the “fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures” to the differential treatment of history vs. memory. Development activities predicated on memory will be different from those based on a linear account of history and, arguably, allow for greater flexibility and creativity in responding to environmental, economic or geopolitical changes.

We go on to describe each of these ecologies in turn, the environmental, social and finally, mental:

Perhaps the most important point made by Guattari is that the degradation of the environmental and the social sphere cannot be seen separate from the impoverishment of the mind, or the mental ecology:

“Indeed, if we continue, as the media would have us do—to refuse squarely to confront the simultaneous degradation of these three areas, we will in effect be acquiescing in a general infantilization of opinion, a destruction and neutralization of democracy. We need to ‘kick the habit’ of sedative consumption […] we need to apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses of the three ecologies” (Guattari 1989: 34).

The “media” to which Guattari refers can be seen as analogous to the role that development organizations play in the region. People aspire to achieve a model of development which they do not only poorly understand, but which, often, causes marginalization and erodes (food) sovereignty.


Afghan women baking wheat bread in a traditional oven, called kitsor. © Theodore Kaye

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