Kabul, Afghanistan -- Every expat in Kabul knows how intensely frustrating and demoralizing it can be to spend an afternoon stuck in traffic.
As a Torontonian, I'm used to the option of walking or cycling, and each passing minute spent in gridlock here seems like a gruelling test of mental endurance. Sometimes I try to combat my irritation with a bit of meditation, hoping to transcend my physical captivity. But time and time again this search for higher meaning is interrupted by an endless procession of children wanting money and offering goods in return.
Over the course of the two months I've spent working for a logistics company in this strange and bewitching city, few things have aroused my curiosity more than the children on the street who peddle tin cans of smoke to helpless passengers in transit.
Looking at the generic, charred tin cans, hanging awkwardly from rusted handles and the smoke rising from within, it's hard to imagine what the smouldering contents might be and what might warrant their purchase.
The only logical explanation I could come up with pointed to hash, tea or some sort of herbal decongestant. I decided to get to the bottom of the question and invited one of these smoke peddlers to lunch.
Wahidullah is an 11-year-old boy, just one of many out every day pushing "spand," whose sellers are referred to by Afghans as "spandi." Turns out spand is an herb found in markets across the country. When it's burned, its smoke is believed to invoke a force capable of warding off misfortune and evil spirits.
No one seems to know when or where this belief originated. But having nothing to do with Islam, the practice can probably be traced to the early Afghan tribalism that revolved around animism and ancestor worship.
There are no recognized guidelines about when this ritual should be performed, but it's often done after a premonition or following a funeral. For the majority of Afghans who believe and engage in the burning of spand, the ritual is carried out at home and can be performed alone.
The "spandi' who roam Kabul's streets are in no way clerics or qualified spiritual practitioners. These are children in desperate need of money to bring home to their families.
After his father died of a heart attack, Wahidullah was required to find some means to provide for his family at the young age of seven. He shares a two-room rental house with his mother and four younger siblings. They live without electricity, heat or running water. For the last four years, he has been peddling.
As a student in grade three, he does this before and after school and on holidays; it's a 365-days-a-year job. On a given day, he may receive between 10 and 70 afghanis. To most expats, the difference between 10 and 70 Afghanis barely registers. To Wahidullah, it's the difference between providing his family with bread and beans or not.
If he could be granted three wishes, what would they be? I ask. He'd use the first, he says, to buy a big house for his family with lots of food inside. His second would be to be a great doctor. His third, to travel outside Afghanistan.
When Wahidullah is not out selling, he's at home studying. He is quite proudly at the top of his class, and he has an interest in poetry. If he continues to excel, he can attend secondary school and eventually medical school (currently paid for by the state).
If he continues to have to sell spand, however, it's as sure as traffic jams in Kabul that he won't.