New stone carvers learn old trade

By Michael Zamba

July 18, 2013

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It looked as though Gull Alam’s life was over before it had a chance to start. The oldest of 10 children, he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer in Mazar-i-Sharif, located in Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province. A medical accident at age 4 left Alam paralyzed in one leg, which meant he would never become a farmer.

Rather than supporting his family, he became a burden to them. In adulthood, Alam’s physical disability and lack of skills made him unattractive to employers. He was not alone. Regardless of physical capabilities, unskilled laborers had few opportunities as the country suffered with an official unemployment rate of 35 percent in 2012.

Then Alam caught his first break. Despite his physical challenges, Gull found a job at the Ajmal Faqiry Construction Co. “Although I cannot stand for long or carry heavy loads, I can cut raw stones while sitting on the ground,” says the 24-year-old Alam.

Fortunately, the revival and growing demand of the old Afghan trade of stone carving offers a ray of hope for those who are eager to learn the trade. Traditionally, unskilled workers like Alam would learn-by-doing as they toiled away at construction sites. Unfortunately, this informal process means they could remain in these apprenticeship-like positions for three to five years while earning meager wages as the demand for skilled stone workers remains unmet

That is when Alam caught his second break. Through a grant from the USAID-supported Afghanistan Workforce Development Program (AWDP), an innovative public-private partnership was formed with construction firms to provide six months of stone carving training to 40 young employees. It is organized and managed by MEHR, an Afghan NGO.

When Alam heard about the USAID-supported partnership with the Ajmal Faqiry Construction, he applied and was accepted into the program. “This training is the most significant event in my life. It will increase my skills, my income and enable me to work independently, which will help me to support my family and to get married,” he enthusiastically said.

During the first eight months as a novice stone cutter, his daily wages were 200 AFA ($3.64 USD). When Alam completes his training, he will receive his own tools and will be paid 400 AFA ($7.28 USD) per day—a 200% increase—and a respectable wage.

The program will extend beyond these original 40 apprentices. MEHR is documenting the hands-on training and will convert this into the first ever formal stone work curriculum, which can be adopted by Technical-Vocational Education and Training programs in Mazar-i-Sharif and elsewhere.

USAID’s AWDP initiative is improving Afghans’ prospects to be prepared for better-paying, more secure jobs in this and other growing trades. For Alam, USAID’s AWDP has already changed his life.

With reporting by Aziz Gulbahari

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