Wild Shepherdess – Kate Humble on her new BBC2 series

The wildlife presenter ventures into north-eastern Afghanistan, sleeps in a yurt with eight men and practises the ancient art of herding

This week Kate Humble begins her new three-part BBC2 series Wild Shepherdess by trotting off to the remote Wakhan Corridor in far north-eastern Afghanistan, a skinny strip of land between Tajikistan and Pakistan. Here she meets locals who live mainly on bread and tea, in some of the fiercest conditions on earth, and people who have never seen a television before, let alone a film crew. The average life expectancy among the Washi people is just 35 years old, yet Kate believes we can learn a lot from these unprivileged folk. RadioTimes.com caught up with the brave presenter for more on the series…


Afghanistan isn’t your typical holiday destination. What made you decide to pack your bags and head there?
I’ve been there before. The simple answer is that it was my idea to film the first episode in Afghanistan because I had been to the Wakhan Corridor in 2009 on holiday. I knew that it was an astonishing part of the world with some of the most ancient shepherding cultures in the world. It seemed the perfect location to start a series looking at the history and evolution of herding.

Is this part of the world safe?
It’s at the other end of the country from where the main troubles are, in a very remote mountainous region. The Taliban has never had any influence in that area. People there are among the most hospitable and welcoming people that I’ve ever come across anywhere in the world. As far as safety is concerned, it’s probably one of the safest places to be. There are the small, though not inconsiderable, factors that we had to get there via Kabul, which is not terribly safe. But if you put the right plans in place and go out on the street sparingly and for a short period of time, abiding by all the guidelines you’ve been given, then there is no need to worry about anything.

How long did you spend in the capital Kabul?
We were straight in and straight out of Kabul. We only had 24 hours there and stayed in a hotel recommended by the BBC that had very high security. We travelled in unmarked and unidentifiable vehicles. Nobody knew our travel plans. We didn’t take a direct route to the airport. All the things you’re told to do when you’re working in an environment like that, we did. We also observed cultural differences — I had to cover my head the few times we were out of the car. We were there for practical reasons to get the certain scenes we couldn’t do elsewhere, and then we left.

Who did you meet in the Wakhan Corridor and what did you learn from them?
A group of people known as the Washi. They are pastoralists and shepherds, so they grow a certain amount of crops. The valley they live in is very high — 3,000 metres — and it’s very narrow. It’s officially desert, and a very low rainfall area, but the communities here are particularly good at irrigation. They use melted ice from the glaciers and the mountains to irrigate their fields. It was a very interesting insight into a life that is totally run and dictated by the seasons and the weather. It was really exciting how we as human beings have gotten really good at controlling and suppressing things like the weather conditions. There, people have to work with their environment rather than battle against it, because they have no choice. They have a really intricate knowledge of the way their environment works. It’s like working in a partnership between the people and their livestock and the environment in which they live. It’s impossibly hard; they have a very difficult life. But they do survive.

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What’s the average life expectancy in this area?
It’s 35. If you get sick, there isn’t a hospital down the road. If you’re up in the mountains, you’re a minimum of 12 hours from the valley or two days, and it’s another matter of transport when you get down to actually get to a doctor. Diet is bad as well. Not in terms of eating loads of saturated fat and sugar, but they have very little access to anything else. They eat very few vegetables because they can’t really grow them in that part of the world. The environment is too high and the growing season is too short. Their diet is essentially bread and tea. They use milk from their animals, so they use a lot of dairy products that they’ll turn into different things so they can store them. They have no access to anything else and very little opportunity even if they had the money to go out and buy stuff because there isn’t anything to buy.

It’s hard to say, really. We had local leaders and translators with us who made sure everyone was comfortable with what we were doing. At night we would download all the footage. We had a generator with us to allow us to run computers to download footage. We would invite people to come watch it with us and see what we had filmed during the day. They loved it. They’re incredibly excited about it. We would often let the children come and film them or let them film each other. Whether they had a context of what was going on, it was lovely to just show them what we were doing.

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Were there any restrictions on what you could film?
We had one experience where we went and stayed with one community and they were nervous about us filming. The men said you can film us, but you can’t film the women. So we had an uncomfortable 24 hours in this village where we weren’t quite sure what was happening. I spent a lot of time just being with the families without any cameras around. One morning I was with one of the families and the women were like, “go and get the camera.” They just really wanted me to film them. So I went off and got a little camera and hid it under my jacket, terrified of being discovered. I only filmed them making bread, but they really wanted that. This is a society where women are very much treated as equals. It’s not as segregated as some Islamic societies are. All the women I met were kind of feisty and independent and not scared of speaking their minds at all. They had distinct roles – the men wouldn’t milk the sheep because the women did that. But everybody pulled together to make things happen. It was really nice and one of the things I’m most pleased about is when I saw the finished film, they come over not as unsophisticated or backward hicks. Far from it. I think they come across as dignified, strong, independent-minded, amazing people we could all learn a great deal from. It was an enormous privilege to spend that time with them.

What’s the underlying message in the show?
What I hope is that people will watch this and really have the sense of wonder I had about the people who live so closely with their environment and alongside their livestock. It’s a beautiful partnership rather than an exploitation. The way that they view the food they produce is incredibly precious. They hardly ever eat their sheep, because that’s like your bank account. We in the West have become very greedy in every sense of the word. We expect to have almost anything from any part of the world any day of the week. We have got very used to eating meat three times a day without even batting an eyelid. It’s not beyond comprehension that someone might have a bacon sandwich for breakfast, a chicken salad for lunch and steak for dinner. That’s three different animals right there. And we wouldn’t expect to pay more than a couple of quid for any of those things. Yet, going out and seeing what it means, getting a real understanding of looking after animals and what that takes I hope will make people appreciate the amount of work and skill that goes into producing food. Maybe we’ll think a little harder instead of going to the supermarket and sweeping the cheapest thing off the shelf.

Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble starts at 9pm on 21 June on BBC2


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