Afghanistan: Town crier, with megaphone

Ben Arnoldy
Joma Khan’s announcements range from lost children to meat prices.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

BAMIYAN, AFGHANISTAN – Long before Craigslist displaced newspaper classifieds, classifieds essentially evolved from the humble town crier. But nestled in the remote mountains of central Afghanistan, the crier, called a jarchi, still advertises by foot and vocal chords.

“Anytime people lose a sheep, a goat, or a child, they don’t go to the radio, they come to me,” says Joma Khan, the jarchi of Bamiyan city. “People love my voice.”

Since the days of the Silk Road, jarchis have walked up and down the bazaars of Central Asia, calling out the latest goods for sale and public announcements, all for a modest fee. Mr. Khan charges $4 for 90 minutes of work, aided by only one modern convenience: a battery-operated megaphone.

“It’s a tough job. It’s not just walking straight. It’s stopping and explaining to people what’s going on,” says Khan. Many Westerners may claim to hate the proliferation of advertising, but in a land where information is scarce, everyone is curious to hear the jarchi.

“We like the jarchi very much because we do not have many radios and televisions,” says Ghulam Mohammad, a driver in Bamiyan. “Jarchi is very useful.”

Newspapers and fliers only go so far in a country where little more than a quarter of the people can read. Khan himself only attended school up to the third grade. He learned to read on the job, deciphering the ad copy clients scribbled for him on slips of paper.

“In the beginning I made some mistakes and people stood over me and said, ‘You should say it like this,’ ” he says.

He’s most proud of helping reunite a mother and child last year. He yelled up and down the bazaar describing the missing 5-year-old. A shopkeeper had found him earlier, and supposing the jarchi would eventually come around, he kept him safe in his store.

During the Taliban government, their leaders would pay him to gather people at the mosque. When the Taliban fled, he announced the news to the people that it was safe to return.

He has kept every message he’s ever read since the Taliban ruled wadded up in a pink plastic bag. Some are prosaic: “Attention to all the citizens in Bamiyan Province: This is the rate for meat that no one should violate. Beef with bones 140 Afghanis per kg. Red meat without bones 145 Afghanis per kg.”

Others are more festive: “Attention, attention, attention, on the occasion of the big achievement of the first Olympic medalist in the history of Afghanistan, the department of sport of Bamiyan is holding a running competition.” Sometimes his ads capture the local imagination, like his announcement that clothing from London was for sale. That ad earned him the nickname “Londoni.”

He smiles and says, “I brought London to Afghanistan.”

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