Archive for December, 2008

Escape anxiety

December 17, 2008

It’s that time of year again: when the seasonal evacuation of Kabul begins, expats stampeding out like a panicked herd of buffalo.

It’s the time of year when you start compulsively checking the weather forecast online, knowing it’s bound to be wrong but still wanting to know. When you wake up every morning expecting to see snow, and spend your days glancing out the office window every five minutes to peer up at the grey clouds, hoping to see their future.

Conversations get excited about the properties of ice on runways at different temperatures and the standards of the radar equipment at Kabul airport. Not that any of us know, but we still want to assure ourselves that it’ll be fine, the plane will come, we will escape. We make ourselves ever more anxious with tales from previous years, of security alerts at the airport, the scrum through customs and guards wanting bribes, ice, clouds, snow, delays and cancelled flights.

Check the forecast. Look out the window. Worry some more. It will be fine. Oh yes, I will be flying.

Reading CVs

December 16, 2008

This has been the first job I’ve had where I’ve had responsibility for recruiting others. Afghans and foreign consultants have sent me their CVs for different positions, and after all the times I’ve sent mine off over the years, it’s been interesting to be on the receiving end for a change.

All the usual advice you’re given about writing your CV suddenly makes sense. The very experienced consultant who wrote five pages of densely worded and badly spelt self-aggrandisement didn’t get much of a look. The person with excellent academic qualifications but no field experience in a conflict environment gave me a moment’s thought, but no more. It was the people in the country already, and those I already knew, who made it to the short list.

Experience, education, and networks are usually given as the holy trinity of finding a job in development. Networking is not something I’m any good at, and the emphasis people give to it used to get me riled. But no. It’s true. Especially somewhere like Afghanistan, where you tend to live cheek by jowl in a highly pressurised environment, you really don’t want to get stuck with someone you don’t get on with personally and professionally. I’ve worked with a couple of idiots before who proved that for me. So you look for people you know, or know of, and those who have successfully worked in a similar environment before.

By the way, none of these people got the job. I gave it to myself.

I’ve yet to have someone apply who wrote about how much they want to help the poor and save the world, which is just as well ’cause if I did I’d be tempted to write back and tell them to piss off.

Much more impressive was the Afghan applicant who wrote that he wanted the job because our office is really close to his house so he wouldn’t have far to walk each day. That’s the kind of realism I appreciate.

The ex-Buddhas

December 10, 2008

The really quick and easy road from Kabul to Behsud is too dangerous to take, so we’re forced the long way round, via Bamyan. So, on my last trip out of town I finally got to see Afghanistan’s premier tourist attraction, things that no longer exist: the Buddhas of Bamyan.

As I walked past them and inside them, truly marvelling, I couldn’t get the Monty Python dead parrot sketch out of my head.

This is an ex-Buddha:





Afghanistan wins the World Cup

December 7, 2008

Afghanistan has won the 2008 Homeless World Cup! How bloody brilliant is that?!

Playing in Melbourne, they beat Russia 5-4.

In a thrilling match in front of 50,000 spectators packed into Federation Square throughout the day, the Afghanistan and Russian teams battled it out for the sixth Homeless World Cup Trophy.

Russia opened the scoring, but Afghanistan responded quickly and at the end of the first seven-minute half were ahead 3-2. The two teams traded goal for goal in the second term, with Afghanistan holding the lead. Despite some intense last-second attacks by the determined Russians, the Afghan defence held up to take victory.

The Homeless World Cup is an annual, international football tournament, uniting teams of people who are homeless and excluded to take a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent their country and change their lives forever. It has triggered and supports grass roots football projects in over 60 nations working with over 25,000 homeless and excluded people throughout the year.

What a way to start Eid.

Keeping your head down

December 7, 2008


One of the main premises of my organisation’s – and many others’ – attitude to security is keeping a ‘low profile’. Basically, this is a bit like a kid trying to hide from the monsters under her bed by putting her hands over her eyes and saying ‘if I can’t see them then they can’t see me.’

So while driving along on my merry way, I wrap a rag around my head and try to avoid eye-contact with any monsters that might be lurking outside the window.

This does actually make sense, and I’d far rather this than travelling in a highly visible armoured vehicle or with armed guards, which is at the other end of the spectrum. In areas where we don’t have any expatriate staff, and where our national staff have very good relations with local populations as they do, one of the simplest ways of avoiding trouble when expatriates do visit is for them to remain invisible, at least along certain roads or in certain areas. If no one knows you’re there, then so much the better. Word spreads quickly out in the countryside and it sometimes seems a vain hope, but still worth trying.

While planning trips, I tell my plans to as few of my colleagues as possible. Not because I don’t trust them, but because these things have a way of getting out without anybody intending them to. This can all be a right pain in the arse but that’s another matter. Once in the field, I wear local clothes and wrap the aforementioned rag around my head in the vain hope of passing myself of – at least from a distance or while wizzing past in a cloud of dust – as no one out of the ordinary. I sit in the back of the van instead of taking my rightful position in the front seat and, when I’m a bit more nervous, turn my head away as we pass anybody else on the road.

To my mind these are all sensible precautions, but suddenly realising I was actively avoiding eye-contact with people got me thinking. Obviously, it isn’t a good sign in general. There’s more to it than that though; something akin to the way I sometimes find myself looking at women. In that I don’t look at them. That’s a whole other story, but out of some (probably mis-guided) sense of cultural respect/modesty/not giving the wrong impression/pretty fucked up gender relations in this country in general kinda thing, eye contact with women can seem like some kind of provocation that’s simplest to avoid. Yet all this gets to the point at times where women don’t exist: I can’t see them, ergo, they are not there. This isn’t quite right and not at all what I’m trying to get at, but I’ve written it now and too lazy to rewrite it.

Let’s try again.

Keeping my head down is a sensible enough precaution to take at certain times, if a little paranoid. Hmmm. But it doesn’t feel right. OK, let me sleep on this and I’ll try and get back to you with what I’m sure will turn out to be a deeply profound insight about something or other. If I ever emerge from under the covers.

Keeping in touch

December 5, 2008

While out wondering in Wardak, I had to stay in touch with Kabul, sending regular messages each day to let my boss know I was still alive: ‘tout ok’. Which was definitely a good thing, but sometimes a bit of a pain in the arse. Especially when it meant trying to balance a sat phone in such a way as to keep a signal, while in a car bumping about like a bucking bronco cross-bred with a rollercoaster. Or when it meant having to climb a hill at night to then stand on the edge of a collapsed building at the top to try and get connected, a chill wind trying to blow me off.

Meanwhile, my companion was climbing up the hill with me to try and get through to his family, assuring one uncle he was safe, while trying to find out where another group of relatives had got to. They were travelling from Kabul to Herat – a journey along a good road one can do in a day if you start early enough. The first contact he had was when they were stuck in the other part of Wardak, blocked by fighting ahead of them, with helicopters and fighter planes buzzing overhead. After they’d got passed that, there was a silence. Delayed, they’d have to stay the night in Kandahar, we reasoned. They should have network coverage there, but he couldn’t get a response. Driving over another hill late the next day, he finally got through to them. They’d made it back safe and well, having been five minutes behind another bus that had been stopped and robbed on the road ahead of them.

Mobile phones have had an incredible impact on this country. Farmers in remote parts of Wardak can now phone contacts and get the latest market price for livestock or crops in Kabul, allowing them to sell to traders at a better price. People can stay in touch with friends and family travelling across the country. And we all get to worry about each other a lot more. As my companion said, ‘what is this country like when we have to phone every hour to know if they are alive….?’

Easy connections also mean it’s easier to receive messages you’d rather not get. Like the request that came over the crackling HF radio, asking me, if I didn’t mind, since I’m already there, if I could just do this wee little bit of work for somebody. Or being told, having just reached one of our offices and putting my feet up for a few minutes with a cup of tea, that somebody had changed their mind and I wasn’t allowed to spend the night there because of security, so I’d just have to cancel my plans for the rest of the day, drive two hours back to another base, and come again tomorrow.

The paraphernalia of writing

December 3, 2008

I sit on the floor, ushered to the privileged position in the corner furthest away from the door, my companion and translator besides me, our hosts opposite. A young boy brings in tea and a dish of small sweets while I lay out my tools: pen and paper. Sometimes several sheaves of paper, as I search for a particular document and scatter others about me.

I’m no longer as self-conscious as I was about the act of transcribing someone else’s words, more amused by it these days. Scribbling along trying to keep up, while thinking of the next pertinent (or impertinent) question to ask and grabbing sips of tea. People have thanked me for taking such copious notes, page after page of them, taking it as a sign of my seriousness it seems.

To a degree the notepad forms a barrier between speaker and listener, either physically as clasped to the chest or more intriguingly and insidiously, as a marker of power and prestige. Between literate and non-literate, giver of words and taker of them, etching them into a permanent existence where who knows what new life and meaning they might take on, outside the original orator’s control.

I ask people about their harvest. What crops they grow on how much land. How much food they have, how long it will last them, how much debt do they owe and how many animals do they own. About the changes in their lives and the problems they face.

I sit there and write it all down. Having words translated gives one time to look as well as write, to at least make eye-contact and smile and frown as one can. It gives one time to try and see oneself from the other side of the paper. This unknown outsider, who has given the briefest of introductions and explanations and expects to be told all that he wishes to know. And he will be, for the power lies not just in the pen he holds but in so much else, and the force of hospitality is strong.

So I sit there and question and listen and write, and wonder and worry about the power of the pen and how I am seen, which at least makes me laugh.

Wardak wandering

December 2, 2008


There’s a small village in Ghor, just outside of Chagcharan, known as Little Wardak: a Pashto enclave in a largely Tajik/Aimaq district. I used to drive through it a couple of times a week, on excursions to the spring just beyond it where we’d fill up half a dozen jerry cans with water.

This last week, I’ve been in the proper, province-sized Wardak. You say that these days and people usually look at you as if you’re crazy, at which point you have to explain that you were in Behsud, the Hazarjat bit of the province that, in security and ethnic terms is a very different place.

‘Twas grand. I’m pretty beat afterwards, for it was frustrating planning for with numerous logistical hiccups and it was an intense week in the ‘deep field’. But good for that and we achieved as much as I could hope for in such a short time. It’s always a relief to get out of Kabul for while and get back to the familiar routines and rituals; the long drives, the pauses and tea and the TV in the evening. The cold clean air and starry nights, the lack of basic hygiene, my awkwardness at not being able to talk properly with most of the people around me, the discomforts of sleeping in an overheated room with a dozen other men, sardined into a sea of old blankets.

There were times when I couldn’t imagine a more privileged job to have in the world. Driving around such a rich landscape at will, with good companions and work to be done. Being invited into people’s homes, to ask them all the silly questions I can think of; learning endlessly and never understanding but slowly getting to grips with another way of life and another way of seeing the world.

Having to sit there cross-legged, knees aching and unable to stretch them, busting for a pee and a cig and trying to wrap up a discussion while the old fellow across the room is just getting into his stride, until you’re cornered by their hospitality and a young boy brings in the basin of water to wash your hands before laying out the rug and loaves and mountainous plates of rice. Then another round of tea; the conversation relaxing, sitting back and stretching legs an inch, until we can finally unfold ourselves and bid farewell in a cats-cradle of handshakes.

To drive on in road-tripping freedom, and on a bit, to track down and round up a few more folk whose time I can waste in my legitimised role as a half-wit nosey bastard.

There’s an unfettered joy to it my heart soars at times, as the van jolts over into another valley. Truly, it is a rare privilege, the days like that – in such a place with such people – and I’m thankful for them and all their bloody bruises.