The Daily Hustle: How to survive a winter in Kabul

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Roxanna Shapour

Winters in Kabul are always difficult, and this year was no exception – with temperatures dropping well below zero and heavy snowfall. The snow turns the unpaved secondary roads where most Kabulis live into rivers of mud, making it difficult for people to get around. But if there’s little snow – increasingly the case because of global warming – water will be scarce in the summer. This year, winter arrived early, leaving many Afghan families, already struggling with the fallout from Afghanistan’s economic collapse, ill-equipped to manage. The start of winter also marked weeks of power outages across the country and a skyrocketing of the cost of coal and wood, the fuels people use to heat their homes. In the latest instalment of The Daily Hustle, our series of individual accounts about one aspect of daily life in Afghanistan, we hear how one family is coping with winter in Kabul.

It’s still dark when we wake up, well before the morning call to prayer. My wife has gently tapped my shoulder to wake me. I listen to the children’s slow steady breathing and savour a last few minutes under the warm covers before I face the chill that has set in the room since the fire went out in the bukhari [heater] overnight. I can hear the rustling of my brothers. I usually have to wake them, but they’re already awake this morning.

I leave the room quietly, careful not to wake the children, and light a fire in the bukhari in the dahliz [large hallway]. We used to have an electric fire there, but electricity has been scarce in Kabul since the start of winter and we’ve had to put a small gas heater instead – we use it only for an hour or two in the mornings just to take the chill off the air when we first wake up. My wife often wheels it into the kitchen when she gets breakfast ready for the family.

The price of coal has soared this year. Last year, I paid 8,500 Afs [about 97 USD] per tonne, but this year the price had almost doubled, to 15,600 Afs [177 USD]. I go out to a wholesaler in Deh Sabz [just to the northeast of Kabul city], but even then, it was difficult even to find coal. I had to put my name on a waiting list. He called me a week later to say I could come and pick up the coal. We don’t usually get enough to last the whole winter. Especially if spring comes late, we buy extra coal late in the season. But everything is so expensive this year, I don’t think we could afford more coal, so we have to economise. I mix the coal with firewood to make it last.

Wood has also got more expensive, but not as much as coal. Since last year, it’s gone up from 7,000 Afs to 8,000 Afs [79 to 91 USD] per kharwar [equivalent to about 560 kg]. We used to have a sawdust bukhari in my brothers’ room, as well. Slow-burning sawdust is an efficient way to heat a room, but it’s costly and most people have stopped using it, so it’s not easy to find. So now, there’s a sandali [a rectangular wooden table covered with a large quilt that uses a coal or electric fire under the table as a heat source] there, with an electric fire under it when there’s electricity and hot water bottles there isn’t.

My father’s room is the largest in the house and we keep the bukhari going there 24 hours a day because he’s old and he shares it with my ailing aunt and younger sister. The family spends most of its time there, watching TV, playing games, talking and generally passing the time. My aunt’s already awake when I carry the children into the room before I leave for work. She’s reading the Quran by the dim light of a solar-powered light bulb. She looks up and greets me with a smile. I point to the corner of the room where we usually pray to let her know I’m about to bring her a bowl of warm water for her ablutions.

These days we have about eight hours of electricity a day, by turns; one day, it’ll be during the day, the next in the evening. At the start of winter, we began having days-long power cuts. If we were lucky, we’d get an hour or two in a day. Sometimes, it would come on in the middle of the night, which did us no good because we were sleeping. A couple of years ago, with help from a technically savvy colleague, I installed a small solar system in our house. It generates 20,000 Watts of DC power, enough to give us light throughout the house, but not sufficient for TV or other appliances. The 300 USD I paid for the two batteries and solar panels was a huge outlay and more than most Afghans could afford.

We’re among the lucky families in Kabul who can afford such things. Many families have to make do with whatever they can find to burn, use hot water bottles [if they can boil water] or just endure the cold, putting on layer upon layer of clothes to try and keep warm. We have neighbours too poor to afford any sort of heating. We help them the best we can. We’ve given them a line of electricity from our house to use when there’s power and we also give them boiling water so they can fill their hot water bottles to try to keep warm.

This morning, there’s no electricity, so my wife has put two pots of water on the stove, one for our family to use for ablutions and another that she’s already boiled for the neighbours, which she asks me to take round to them.

By the time I get home in the evening, it’s already dark. On the nights when there’s electricity in our neighbourhood, the streetlights cast a yellow glow on the snow, turning the mounds of snow piled up on either side of the road into gold. On those nights, everyone in the family is gathered in my father’s room watching TV. But when there’s no power, the streets are dark and ominous. Every alley, every turn in the road, every dark corner could be harbouring a thief standing in wait to rob you.

On the long winter nights when there’s no electricity, we while away the time chatting about the day that’s passed. My aunt is a gifted calligrapher and tutors my sister – who can’t go to school any more because of the Taleban’s ban on girls’ education – in penmanship. My brothers sell clothes on pushcarts in the Mandawi [Kabul’s central market] and tell me about their day, how many customers they’ve had and how much money they’ve made. On snowy days, when they can’t take their carts out to tout their wares, they stay home and help my wife with the heavy housework, plough the snow from our roof and clear the snow from the yard and the road outside our house. I watch after the children to give my wife some rest after a long day of housework. My three-year-old daughter is waiting patiently, but still fidgeting with expectant eyes, for the treat I’ve picked up for her on my way home, usually a small chocolate bar. One of my greatest joys is watching her jump up and down and squeal with pleasure when I finally reach into my pockets to fish out her daily present.

As I get dressed to go to the office, the smell of freshly baked bread wafts from the kitchen, but I have no time to eat breakfast at home this morning. On snowy days, I leave the house early and walk to work. I love to walk in the snow. I enjoy the fresh air, the rare respite from Kabul’s usual pollution, which forces us to cover our faces. I find the snowflakes dancing in the air and the delicate light coming off the carpet of snow romantic. But I know that snowfall is not romantic for the poor. For them, it’s a nightmare that will only end with the coming of spring and the hope that next year there will be enough money to heat their homes and electricity to light the long winter nights.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour