I left without throwing a farewell party, too ill to sort it out at the end, and such events in our office are not exactly riotous occasions, merely the addition of a couple of bottles of fizzy drink and a bit more meat with our rice at the evening meal. But I was sorry not to all the same. Food has never filled me up in Ghor, but it has fed my thoughts.
The night before I left, someone just back from Lal district told me of a woman he had spoken to there, the mother of five children, who had grain left only for another month. Her husband was away, working on someone else’s fields. When he finished the harvest there, in about three month’s time, he would get paid enough to buy wheat, and nothing else, to last them two or three months. What they would eat in between, and afterwards, the woman did not know.
Nearly all of the people from that village who could afford it had left to search for opportunities elsewhere; those that are left too poor to leave. When I first arrived in Ghor last July the harvest, I was soon told, was not good. This year as I leave it is no better. And a bad harvest when you have nothing else is, in the wonderful understatement I have got used to, very bad.
Aid organisations are slowly responding to the food shortages, but oh so slowly: it can take half a year to finalise a proposal, secure funding, and then begin activities. During which time people like that woman and her family just have to survive any which way they can. Sell off a daughter perhaps. Or starve.
The office was fairly empty as I made my farewells. Which was probably just as well as there are only so many vice-like hugs my ribs can stand in any one day. I was told by one gentleman that I was not like other visitors because I did not expect any more than other staff that live there had, that I have not been too proud. So I’ve done fuck all of any use but I haven’t made a nuisance of myself: a commendation indeed! My still swollen face usefully excused any moisture around my eyes. God willing, I said, I will be back sometime in the future.
Driving over the bridge across the hari rud for the last time on the way to the airstrip, the small girl sitting in the dust begging was still there.
Back in Kabul that same evening I feasted on vegetables. A visitor was at the table, and the talk turned to the food shortages and the shortages of funds. I couldn’t bridge the gap that was suddenly vividly illustrated for me, between ‘the field,’ where individual people starve, and the world of headquarters and meetings and policy, where numbers starve.
I wanted to speak about the family I’d been told of the night before, but it was all I could do to answer questions about rainfall patterns, malnutrition levels, metric tonnes delivered and other specious statistics. My usual inarticulateness made worse by exhaustion, I couldn’t translate the individual to the ‘bigger picture.’ Maybe it would have been rude to anyway, numbers being politer than naming suffering.
Damn it, I didn’t mean to get all serious. I’ve left Ghor, I should be happy. As we flew off and banked steeply above Chagcharan and the familiar expanse of nothing much but dust, I certainly felt relieve – mingled with many other emotions in the pit of my stomach. But if I haven’t already I’m in danger of getting all melodramatic about my own travels in false relation to those stuck on the ground. I’ll shut up now.
I woke up this morning feeling better, until I tried to open my eyes, which I couldn’t. It’s an allergic reaction of some kind I’ve had before. I’ve never known what caused it and it’s usually gone away by itself. But not this time and this morning my head and face were so swollen up I resembled a puffer fish.
With some reluctance I decided to take others’ advice and go to see the PRT medics. I could have gone to the local hospital, which is supported by the PRT, but decided I’d be better off at the army base where someone would speak English. Unfounded thoughts of the desirability of clean needles were also in the back of my mind.
On a couple of occasions in the past, I’ve acted as escort for our female staff on visits to the PRT clinic, using my innate skills as a non-Afghan to get them past security. I’d been conscious then, as today, of taking liberties and our (nay, my) privileged position in relation to the rest of Chagcharan’s residents. But you take the best option open to you, right?
After a quick examination and barrage of questions by an army doctor from Georgia, I was taken into a room and told to sit down on the bed.
‘We give you two injections. One in your arm, one in your moscow.’
‘Your Moscow,’ he confirmed, pointing at his bottom.
I didn’t have time to ask about the meaning of this strange expression and its implied opinion of the Russian capital (or strange linguistic coincidence) from someone from a now independent country of the U.S.S.R. before the nurse made me undo my shalwa and lie down.
And concerns about when was the last time I’d washed were quickly replaced by my wondering if soldiers require particularly big and painful needles to be treated.
After several more doctors, disconcerting in their army fatigues rather than white coats, had dropped by to poke me in the eye and ask who the hell I was and what on earth was I doing living in town, I was led unsteadily to a small ward of five beds and told to rest.
A clean, comfortable bed in a cool room with a nurse gently wiping my brow with a damp cloth made me much happier that I’d come. After some qualms about wasting their time I was now glad to do as I was told and get some sleep, dozing off thinking I should have gotten ill before.
Later in the day the nurse returned, taking off her holster and throwing her side arms onto an empty bed. She missed, and they fell on the floor with a bang. She gave me five very large black pills and plugged me into an I.V. drip.
The drip, explained the doctor shortly afterwards by pointing to his genitals, was to help clear my body of toxins.
‘Toilet out there on the right’ he added.
By the middle of the afternoon the swelling hadn’t really gone down any and I was starting to think of the work I needed to finish and the deadline that had just been moved forwards by a few days, so reluctantly asked permission to be dismissed.
Eventually I was, and on the way out was handed two different sorts of tablets as a souvenir, the details written on them in Estonian or Polish it seems. The doctor told me how many to take of each, but I didn’t quite grasp his explanation of what exactly they are, or what other drugs I’d been given during the day.
Inadequately stumbling out my sincerest thanks to the doctor and nurse (Dankershun being the nearest language I could think of that she might know) I made my way back into town.
The swelling has now gone down just enough for me to type this, my face an inch away from the screen. So I must get back to work. But first I’m going to use Google to try and find out what the hell these tablets I’ve been given might be.
Whenever any of our staff hand in their resignation, they will almost invariably cite family problems as their reason for leaving.
What this almost invariably means is that they have found a better paid job somewhere else. Everyone knows this bit of double-speak, and understand the lie for what it is, but still people persist in telling it.
It’s become a bit of a joke but it still narks me that people I like would bother being so stupidly deceitful about such a simple thing. At this point I’m tempted to go off on a rant about certain other related issues, but will refrain.
I’m writing this instead to say that I am leaving my present job. Not for family problems, or ‘family problems,’ but for, well, I just am.
I’ll be leaving Afghanistan in a month or so. I may be back, or I may not. This blog may continue after then, or be revived at a later date, or it may not. I’d planned to stay in Afghanistan for longer than one year, but seems like I’m just another short-termer after all.
So, I am in Ghor for the final time. I’d like to think of be returning, but it’s not the kind of place one can just drop by as one’s passing.
Which makes saying goodbyes that much harder; there can be little pretending it’s ‘see you later.’ There are a lot of people out in the districts I won’t have the opportunity of saying good bye to at all. But while I’d like to think otherwise, I know to most of my colleagues I am just another expat briefly passing through.
Part of me will be glad to get out of here. Over the last few weeks in Ghor I’ve found all the normal frustrations magnifying themselves in my mind. Now I don’t have to put up with the many inconveniencies of living here, or to be so diplomatic in my relations with others, it’s been tempting to let fly.
I haven’t, yet. Instead I’ve been withdrawing myself mentally. Part of me has left already.
The other part doesn’t want to go.
To explain why feels beyond me right now, and would require a whole lot of rambling.
I had too many thoughts crowding in my head last night and couldn’t sleep. The shortest night of the year felt like the longest. Sometime in the wee small hours I gave up and went to sit outside, watching the nearly-full moon arc across the horizon, blinding out all but the brightest stars.
Today I am ill. I have rebuffed the sympathy of my colleagues and the suggestion that I should go to the PRT clinic in favour of alternatively crawling up in a ball and staring blankly at my computer and the words that refuse to form themselves into the report I need to write.
In my currently befuddled state I can’t deal with the contradictions between wanting the hell out of here and wanting to stay put. Actually, I probably couldn’t at the best of times.
I’m happiest when I’m on the road and in the field.
Not that I venture into many fields – fields as in muddy places with potatoes growing in them – it’s an expression you see. A daft one at that, but it’s hard to avoid.
‘Field’ as in ‘an undefined place over there where…’ Actually, it depends on where you’re starting from.
Sitting in headquarters in New York, the field is Afghanistan. Get off the plane in Kabul, the field becomes anywhere outside Kabul, like the provincial capital. Get to the provincial capital, maybe a large city like Mazar, and the field moves down another notch, perhaps to the district centre. Get to your sub-office in the district centre and the field becomes some little village or possibly even an actual muddy field with potatoes in it.
(Not that many fields in Afghanistan are muddy at the moment. Parched and barren is more likely.)
This isn’t a new observation. There’s a good blog about it here, and Frida World wrote something a while back describing the ‘deep field’ in Ghor. This was a new expression for me and I rather liked it. Never mind deep space or the deep sea, the deep field is where it’s all at. Basically, it’s a place nearer the potato end of the ‘field’ spectrum.
Any old how, all this stuff about fields is a bit of a tangent. I was going to write something about how I enjoy being in the field and what it usually involves for me. So here goes. Come with me now on a journey through time and space, to the deep field.
Having built it up like that it’s difficult to get going now. I get up around 6.30 and have a pee. See?
My accommodation usually looks something like this:
Note the large book and short-wave radio: essential means of entertainment. This photo was taken in winter, hence the stove in the foreground and the pile of blankets. Still it was cold. Especially when I had to get up in the middle of the night, crawl outside in my thermals and minus 25 C or so, and throw up across the moonlit snow. Ah, such fond memories.
Ablutions usually take place in a small mud-brick toilet in a shameful corner of the compound, a hole in the ground which isn’t nearly deep enough, a scrap of Hessian for a door and the wind whistling through. No running water, needless to add. It’s not a pleasant experience so I won’t dwell on it here.
A quick breakfast of tea and bread before we pile into a vehicle that’s seen better days and set off for wherever it is we are going. (Travelling in fancy shiny white Land Cruisers with air conditioning and what have you? I think not; we’re too poor hardcore.)
Pitching up at some distant village in a cloud of dust we wait for a crowd to gather around or send some young boy scampering off in search of the person we need to meet first.
These encounters sometimes have an uneasy feeling about them for me. Outsiders suddenly showing up in an ostentatious display of power (i.e. a car), and imperiously expecting attention. But I think that feeling may be over-exaggerated in my mind, as one who doesn’t understand all that is said as greeting, and my colleagues do at least know the people we are come to meet, unlike myself. And travelling by donkey is sadly not an option.
Often lengthy greetings over, we walk off to the project site or settle down under the shade of a tree, in someone’s house or in the village mosque.
If at all humanely possible, tea is brought in and we slowly get round to discussing what it is we have come about.
Sometimes we’ll spend the best part of the day in one place, slowly resolving various issues and being treated to immense hospitality that I fear will leave a family without anything to eat for themselves for the next few days.
Other days will be spent mostly on the road, furiously pounding along dusty tracks and stopping off at a number of different places to briefly chew the cud about the weather and the harvest.
Like with this old chap in Samangan, a digging his potatoes.
By the time we get back to the office I’m usually exhausted from the heat and dust and hours on the road. So it’s a relief to stretch my legs and re-hydrate with a flask of tea. We’ll discuss the day and the projects as we recover, sort out any problems and make plans for the future.
This scene, and many hundreds like it, will forever be imprinted on my memory.
Our offices double as accommodation for the staff who don’t live in the district. In the evening everyone gathers in the largest room to watch TV. I’ve already written about television in Afghanistan, so I’ll just say that they enjoy it more than I do.
Once the scraps of bread and bowls of inedible bone and gristle have been cleared off the plastic sheet we’re sitting around, I usually make good my escape.
If I’m lucky I’ll have a room of my own to retire to, to read a book by a flickering light or write something to put up here when I next get to a place with a computer and internet connection. The evenings would be decidedly dull if I weren’t so glad to curl up on a thin mattress on the floor and sleep.
I have so many photos I may as well do something with them.
The observant among you will notice a slight gender imbalance among the photos I’ve put up here. These men expect their wives and daughters to put a large sack over their heads whenever they leave the house. Photographs of women, whoever the photographer, are usually out of the question. I don’t even feel comfortable taking pictures of women with burquas on.
At a news conference, President Karzai spoke of Afghanistan’s right to self-defence and threatened an invasion of Pakistan to put an end to the Taliban’s seeming impunity there.
“Afghanistan has the right to destroy terrorist nests on the other side of the border in self-defence,” Karzai told a news conference in Kabul.
“When they cross the border from Pakistan to come and kill Afghans and coalition troops, it gives us exactly the right to go back and do the same,” he added, in his toughest comments yet on stamping out militancy along the border. (AFP)
Watching the news conference today on television, my colleagues burst into peels of applause and laughter.
Applause, I took it, at the audacity of an idea which would have a large degree of popular support within Afghanistan; hilarity at the ridiculousness of the possibility of squaring up to the more powerful neighbour.
One doesn’t normally think much about where one is, not in broad terms. I am in this village in this province… It’s just where I happen to be.
Occasionally, though, on a moment’s reflection, I’m struck by the country I’m in.
Sometimes it is when the first bucket of cold water pours over me as I wash by candle light; or looking up from another world of a book to return the greeting of an old man riding by on a donkey. Usually it is while on the road, with the sense of freedom of thought travelling brings, excitement mingled with fear, when some stunning new vista opens up before me.
Wherever, there are three phases to this sudden revelation. My internal monologue runs something as follows:
‘Bloody hell Charlie, I’m in Afghanistan’ [surprised and slightly taken aback]
‘What the bejaysus am I doing here?’ [incredulous]
‘Ahhhgggg, f**k me…!’ [starts giggling manically]
It’s good to be reminded every now and then that I am in a pretty remarkable place.
The drawback with eating so much fruit is that it’s usually been washed: washed in the nearest muddy irrigation canal. After a couple of weeks of careless indulgence I finally got my comeuppance, but even after a day feeling sick as a parrot I regret nothing.
I’ve made a crass link between my own stomach and those of others before, in one of my first posts last December about the food shortages in Ghor. My stomach has grown stronger since then, but the food shortage has got worse, taking on global proportions.
The UN estimates there are 2.5 million people in Afghanistan who are at high risk from food shortages and in need of a safety net. Only 38% of those in need have been assisted. The rain-fed harvest has failed for another year in much of the country. Neighbouring countries, themselves struggling, have blocked exports. The price of wheat has risen threefold since last year, making bread, the staple food, well out of reach of even more Afghans. People have been displaced because of lack of food in some districts. Some have taken to eating grass.
Afghanistan isn’t alone in facing sever food problems, but on top of everything else this country faces things are pretty bloody grim.
The global food crisis has been given a lot of attention by people who know a lot more than I. There’s a serious of great posts over at The Road to the Horizon, for one. But I can’t resist butting my oar in and adding my own two pennies worth (of silly clichés).
The general response to the shortage of food in the long-term seems to be to produce more of it, which is no doubt a good idea. Yet there’s a piece over here that I’d urge those interested to read, suggesting that the answer to food shortages isn’t increased production (tried and failed before), at least not alone, but land justice. And health care, clean drinking water, soil conservation measures and support for small farmers. And removing the huge subsidies paid by the U.S. and Europe to their own farmers.
Many people in Afghanistan farm enough land to feed their families, but since they don’t own that land they have to give a large proportion of what they produce to an absentee landlord. But it’s generally seen as easier to just call for an increase in production, using the latest technological tools at our disposal; somehow less ‘political’ than land rights.
And little thought is given to the question of consumption. As in, America consumes X tonnes of food per capita per person per year (and wastes a large proportion of X) or however it should be measured, while Afghanistan consumes a whole lot less than X. So I don’t have the figures but you know what I mean. Is there a global food shortage, or is there enough food globally if consumption were to be more evenly distributed?
One of the reasons given for the current crisis is the large increase in the middle-classes of India and China consuming more meat, as grain will go a lot further if it is eaten directly, not used to fatten up animals. I wouldn’t dispute that this is a cause of the problem. But it reminds me of debates about climate change: how India and China are growing too rapidly, with carbon emissions sharply rising, and so they must quickly curb them. European and American commentators seem to be suggesting the problem is ‘them over there’ growing too quickly, getting too affluent, too developed. They are in danger of catching up with us, and there is not enough food, or too much carbon, for them to do that.
With climate change there is the recognition that the West must also reduce its emissions. With the current food shortages, there does not seem to be any suggestion that the West should reduce its food consumption. Doing so wouldn’t mean people in America or Europe (a fair number of whom are obese) going hungry. It would mean governments implementing policies to discourage farmers growing grain for animals, and to reduce the huge amount of food that is wasted. Could there be a parallel of carbon trading schemes for food distribution?
I realise this is a ludicrous idea. Western countries have only reluctantly, if at all, realised that they need to reduce carbon emissions – a negative entity that causes self-harm. The suggestion that they should reduce consumption of a positive thing that does them little personal damage is patently absurd, like, god forbid, suggesting a redistribution of wealth.
In Afghanistan there is a problem with production: the country cannot grow enough food to feed itself. Huge support is needed, not for large agribusinesses, but for small farmers, addressing issues of land rights, irrigation, soil conservation, access to credit and so much more.
In Afghanistan, there is a food crisis. Millions of people are going hungry. I am not. There is enough food here for me, because I have the money to buy it. Things are a whole lot more complicated than that, of course, but the simple fact remains. It is distribution of food as well as consumption that is the problem.
It is a fact that should make me feel a whole lot more queasy than eating too many dirtily-washed cherries.
When I get my camera out people are usually keen for me to take their photo. Invariably, as soon as it’s pointed at them, they draw themselves up and stand rigid with the most serious expression they can muster. So it can be hard to get snaps of people looking normal, and usually involves me taking one severely posed photo, then another as soon as I seem to have finished and they have relaxed.
Other times though, usually when there is a large group of people, the collective excitement of the occasion gets the better of the most stern-faced young men, as in the middle picture here. The danger here, for me, is that once I have taken one person’s photo the rest of the village’s male population want theirs taken too, with various different family members and friends. On several occasions this has involved a good-natured scrum of people trying to get in front of the lens, then to see the results. My camera is covered in the grubby fingerprints of kids who have grabbed at it as it’s passed around.
With these mass photo-shoots, I try afterwards to get the results printed and send them back to the village, though it often takes several months to do so. For many people, I know it will be the only photo they have of themselves.