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Afghanistan: teenage flower power, 2004 version

07-07-2004 Feature

"May you have the beauty of a flower, but a longer life" – This proverb from Afghanistan underlines the importance of flowers in the country's war-shattered capital. The ICRC's Jessica Barry reports from Kabul on a training scheme that's helping to keep business blooming.


  Hard at work at the Gul-e-Maryam
flower shop in Kabul
Photo ICRC

At this time of year, amid the dust and dirt of the Afghan capital, Kabul, the florists'shops are awash with red, yellow and pink roses, tall slender gladioli and bright marigolds. Mingling with the fresh flowers are the gauzy, multi-coloured artificial copies that shop keepers stock all year round and use for making wreaths, table displays, bouquets and other decorations for weddings, funerals and family celebrations.

A glance at the wreath-maker's art reveals as much about Afghanistan's complex cultural traditions as it does about the art of flower arranging. To start with, making wreaths and selling flowers, like much else in this male-dominated society, is men's work.

 Posy veteran at 18  

Sitting in his cramped container-shop in the densely populated Microrayon district of Kabul, 18-year-old Lutfullah is already a veteran. Apprenticed to a cousin at fourteen, he worked for him for four years making wreaths and posies before branching out on his o wn two months ago.

At the same time he became an instructor for a vocational training programme, run by the Afghan Red Crescent Society, and took on two apprentices. Each receives a " wage " of 50 kilograms of flour per month; Lutfullah himself, as their instructor, gets 75 kilos, which goes some way to feed his nine-member family.

The aim of the training programme, which is supported financially by the ICRC, is to provide the most vulnerable within the community – widows, orphans, the disabled and the destitute – with the chance to gain useful skills and earn money. Of Lutfullah's two apprentices, Nawid, 17, is supporting seven family members including a sick and elderly father, while 16-year-old Naqibullah is an orphan. 

 Country-wide programme  

Since the programme began five years ago it has expanded enormously and is now being implemented throughout Afghanistan. Some 600 men and women a year in Kabul alone have been trained in around 20 different activities, including tailoring, sewing, embroidery, and bicycle repair.

For traders and artisans with energy, drive and a little cash, Afghanistan today is a place of opportunity. Small businesses are springing up everywhere in Kabul.

Lutfullah's shop, which is nothing more than a metal container with shelves inside crammed with flower vases and green plastic ferns, vivid pink, blue and yellow artificial flowers, fairy lights and rolls of ribbon and gauze, is called the'Gul-e-Maryam'after a flower of the same name. It stands between a tailoring shop for women and a grocery store on the busy main road leading out of the city centre towards the turning for Jalalabad.

The business brings in a modest return. When it comes to weddings, for example, the cost for d ecorating the bridal car can vary between 500 and 1,000 Afghanis, (10-20 US dollars). Floral decorations for the hall, tables, and bridal suite cost, on average, another 1,000 Afghanis, although orders can sometimes run as high as 100 US dollars.

And it doesn't stop there. Lutfullah also provides the small beaded baskets that are used for holding the Koran over the bridal couple's heads during the wedding ceremony. He out-sources the beading of the baskets to women working at home, paying them up to 90 Afghanis per item for their effort.

 Start-ups don't come any simpler  

One of the attractions of the florist's trade is that it requires only simple materials and very little start up money. The basic requirements include cardboard for the base of the wreaths, tinfoil, glue, staplers, markers and scissors, coloured gauze for padding, a good stock of ribbons and, of course, a ready supply of artificial flowers from the bazaar.

" Most of the flowers I use come from China, " Lutfullah tells two visitors to his shop. " They are easier to get hold of these days... "

Indeed, the whole business of weddings and parties was somewhat muted in previous times. " We used coloured feathers when flowers were not available, " remembers Lutfullah, " and there was no music or dancing. "  

His two apprentices hope to open their own flower shops once they complete their nine-month training next January. To some, such ambitions might seem rather vain given that there are hundreds of flower shops all over the Afghan capital. But for Lutfullah it makes good economic sense so long as they choose the sites and manage their accounts well.

 Hoping for luck at the 'Nice Night' hotel  

" Look at me, " he tells his visitors, pointing across the street to a large signboard advertising the'Hotel Nice Night'. " See that hotel over there, it is new and has a large hall for weddings. Insha'allah, I will get all the commissions to do the flowers. "

Coincidence or plain good luck? Lutfullah doesn't bother to ask – he just knows a good business opportunity when he sees one. And with the prospect of his clientele growing apace, he has also started a mobile phone service in the'Gul-e-Maryam', charging customers ten Afghanis each to make a call on his mobile phone anywhere inside Afghanistan.

Looking to the future, he has also organized the flowers for his own wedding. " I have lots of friends in the flower business, " he smiles, " they will all help when the time comes. And so will my two apprentices; I am training them for that occasion as well. "