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Horsepower struggles

Waheed Orya
Horse-drawn carts once ferried brides and VIPs across the north of Afghanistan, but the introduction of motorised rickshaws and motorbikes has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of 'gadis' still operating in…
15.10.2014  |  Mazar-e Sharif
Forever on the move: 80-year-old gadi leader Acheldi has been rding a horse-drawn cart in Mazar for half a century. (Photos: Waheed Orya).
Forever on the move: 80-year-old gadi leader Acheldi has been rding a horse-drawn cart in Mazar for half a century. (Photos: Waheed Orya).

While one horse carries a buzkashi rider cheered on by thousands towards a dead goat's headless carcass, another, covered in floral wreaths, is used to ferry a bride and groom away from their wedding hall and hundreds of elated guests in a wooden cart. It is a tale of two cities for wild and domesticated horses on opposite sides of the northern Afghan hub of Mazar-e Sharif.

While larger, wild horses compete in packed stadiums in Afghanistan's national sport buzkashi, horse-drawn carts are still used in Mazar-e Sharif as public transport, even if the municipal government banned the 'gadis' a few years ago in an effort to revamp the the capital of Balkh Province. "They are not allowed to operate since they make roads dirty and cause diseases,” says Zia-ul-Haq Ataee, head of the cleaning unit of Mazar's municipal government.

The last 12

Twelve gadi operators nevertheless still work in the Nowshad quarter in the north of the city. Their leader is 80-year old Acheldi, who has been riding his horse through the city's thoroughfares for more than 50 years. He says local authorities generally turn a blind eye to the new regulations. “Sometimes when there is heavy traffic, the police will order gadi runners to move, but out of respect, they do not tell me anything," Acheldi told Afghanistan Today. In the past Acheldi would even take passengers to neighbouring provinces Jowzjan and Samanghan, over 150 kilometeres away, but today he restricts himself to the city limits.

Weddings specialist Nadi.

He insists however that his age is no obstacle. “Nobody has ever beaten me," he claims. "I have always been known as the fastest gadi runner and I have never had an accident”. Acheldi says a horse costs between 20,000 ($345) and 30,000 ($520) afghani and can operate for a year. The cart can cost between 10,000 ($173) and 20,000 ($345) afghani extra. A 'gadi', the local Dari-language term for a horse drawn carriage, can earn between 500 ($9) and 1,000 ($18)  afghani per day, charging passengers 20 US cent each for journeys in the city, according to Acheldi. Each horse costs 200 afghani ($3.5) per day to maintain, but Acheldi says he has nevertheless succeeded in finding marital partners for his three sons and two daughters during five decades in the profession.

The horses used for transport in Mazar-e Sharif and outer districts are not genetically as large as the breed used for buzkashi and cost far less in ukpeep. They are also more easily domesticated and less aggressive. Gadi runners change horses most years, selling them half price to farmers who use them for ploughing.

The recent boom in motorised rickshaws, known locally as zaranj, has eaten up a large chunk of the gadis' market share. “Instead of gadis, we introduced the zaranj which runs on gas. It is a way to avoid dirt on roads and enhance cleanliness,” says Mazar-e Sharif municipality's Zia-ul-Haq Ataee. The official admits however that the zaranj has increased congestion and noise pullution and that “in Nowshad, there are some unlicensed gadis that operate illegally."

Rickshaws taking the horse market

A Zaranj rickshaw in MazarA zaranj rickshaw in Mazar-e Sharif.

Another of those is Musa. The 40-year old is sat feeding his red horse beside his six-seater carriage in Nowshad. The irony is he can barely feed his family of six with what he earns as a gadi owner. Beside Musa is Nadi, another gadi driver who owns a horse covered in flowers and wreaths. Nadi says he specialises in weddings and events.

Despite the declining number of gadis, competition from motorised vehicles and sterner regulations, the ancient tradition isn't yet extinct. “If I am away from my job for a day, I will die, I become depressed and sick," says Acheldi, sat in his parked cart. After all, a gadi driver's work is about more than money insists the octogenarian: "When I come to work, I feel good,” he says.

Loyal customers also ensure the gadis survive. “I have access to cars, but I mostly walk, buy my stuff and take a gadi home," says Ibrahim, a middle-aged client. "They have no windows, you see everything and you feel the fresh air."

All currency conversions are approximate.