Michelle Elcoat Poulton

Almost as remarkable as the thesis - which was accorded the highest possible grade of "Mention Très Bien avec FELICITATIONS DU JURY" was the timing of Michelle's next production. On December 27th, 1979, as Soviet troops landed in Kabul airport, her daughter Catherine Leila was born. How did Michelle (or her husband?) manage to predict, nine months ahead of time and well before Leonid Brezhnev had taken the decision, the invasion of Afghanistan?

The following year Michelle published, with her husband, a book that would remain for the next twenty years the standard reference in French, Afghanistan, Que Sais-je? In the famous collection of Presses Universitaires de France.

Michelle's work in Afghanistan set the standard for development work in that country today. Understanding for the role of women has come from her thesis La Vie Derriere les Murs - or 'Life behind the walls' - which described the beliefs and skills of women in the northern village of Shadyan in the province of Balkh. Shadyan means 'happiness', in Persian, and also 'marriage'. This was the village where Alexander the Great passed his honeymoon with the beautiful Roxanne in 333 BC. Shadyan is famous for its gardens, its ice cream (made from mountain snow) and its plentiful sweet mountain source, the best in northern Afghanistan. Michelle passed her honeymoon in the same village as Roxanne.

Her husband Robin remembers their arrival in this remote mountain village where most men had never seen a foreigner and none of the women had ever left the valley.

One major problem for the villagers was how and where to fit us in to their social structure. For Michelle this was no problem, for the women had no social structure and she was immediately popular with everyone. I have never known a person who did not fall in love with Michelle, starting with me. The women adored her both for own sweet self, for her charm and courage, and because she was a completely new object of fascination in their tiny, boring life. Theirs was a life lived behind walls, where cooking and eating were the main activities, where bearing and raising children were their main concerns. Women affect social status only insofar as they bear sons (good for a man's status) or risk his reputation by showing their faces and hair in public (damaging their and their family's honor). Women in Afghan culture are second-class citizens.

She worked closely with two famous and distinguished development anthropologists from Spain, Tomeo Amat de Armangol and Dr Tonia Cortadellas Amat. They were the project managers of this UNICEF innovation, taking development out of the city and reaching into the villages. We need to remember that this was 1971, long before participatory rural development models became commonplace. Michelle and Tonia were female pioneers of rural development methodologies for reaching women and children. Their analysis of maternal and child health transformed UNICEF's and the outside world's understanding of Afghanistan.


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