Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Workers Sickened by Street Food

Kabuli workers risk their health - and lives - eating from the capital's unhygienic food stalls.
By IWPR

Eating street food has made Ahmad Ali sick several times, and even killed a friend of his. But he still grabs a beef kebab from a vendor for lunch - because he can't afford anything else.


"Flies sit on the food and you also get dust and smoke from the vehicles," he told IWPR. "It's so unhealthy - if you eat it, you're sure to get sick."


But, like other Kabul workers, he keeps eating street food because he has no other option. Most workers make only 30 to 50 US dollars a month, and a meal in a restaurant costs 2 to 3 dollars. So they grab a kebab, beans with meat, rice, noodles, or meat-filled dumplings from one of the hundreds of roadside stalls, because a meal only costs 10 to 20 cents.


"I earn 60,000 afghanis (1.20 dollars) a day and I have a family of seven members. I can't afford to eat in ordinary restaurants. I know that I will get sick from the food sold by the street vendors, but I will keep eating there because I have no other choice," said Abdul Qadeem, who recently migrated back to Afghanistan from Pakistan.


A government survey in August showed that food at more than 60 per cent of mobile restaurants is leftover, unhygienic and should not be used, said public health ministry official Dr Habibu Rahman Habib. It causes amoebic dysentery, giardia, diarrhoea and other illnesses, and if they are not treated early they can be deadly, he said.


After eating beef kebabs from street stalls, Ahmad Ali and his friend fell ill and were admitted to Kabul hospitals. The former recovered, the latter died.


It isn't that the customers don't know any better. They watch the vendors drop meat skewers on the ground, re-use dirty dishes and handle food with dirty hands. They see that there are open sewers just a few feet away, and that the food spoils in the hot sun. They know they might get sick from eating it. And the vendors know it, too.


"The food stalls are completely unhealthy," said rice seller Hafizullah. " I would much rather have a proper restaurant but I couldn't afford the rent."


Mohammad Zarif sells "osh", a mix of noodles with yogurt and beans. Like other stall-holders, he doesn't have a refrigerator to keep food overnight. "When I have leftover osh, I keep it for the next day in a clean dish with a cover, but I still find it smelly the next day. So I use some garlic to cover the smell."


He said meat vendors do the same, "They buy a kilo of meat for 50,000 afghanis from the butcher shops in remote areas. If they have meat left over, they keep it for the next day despite the fact that they are unable to refrigerate it."


Habibu Rahman Habib believes conditions at street restaurants are so bad that "anyone who eats there four or five times will get sick, without any doubt". He said his ministry plans to ban them soon because "there is no reason for their presence. It is better for poor people to eat only fruit or breads. If God is willing, the lives of Afghans will improve in the near future and they will have no need of them".


Mohammed Naseem Shifaq is an independent journalist in Kabul.


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