Archive for the ‘Gripes + Glories’ Category

A picnic in Badakshan

July 3, 2008

It’s not all ceaseless self-sacrifices to do good for others. Shocking, I know, but there you have it. Occasionally we find time to enjoy ourselves. And when we do, we try and do it in style.

Like on this Friday picnic in Badakshan last month (now I’m back to the monotony of work in Kabul, I have to go back in time to find things to write about).

And this one, an alfresco breakfast of fresh yoghurt and cream with bread, purchased from some passing nomads:

Or sharing some mulburries with some local farmers:

 It can be tough out here.





M*A*S*H, Chagcharan style

June 23, 2008

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.’

‘My 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.

On the way out

June 21, 2008

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.

Field life

June 18, 2008

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.


June 4, 2008

I’m up in the north of the country and can’t stop marvelling at the greenery. I’ve come here to eat fruit. And maybe do a spot of work but that’s not important right now.

The weather hasn’t been so good this year and the rain-fed wheat crop has largely failed. But the land that is irrigated is stunningly verdant under bright blue skies.

Sitting down in different people’s houses over the last few days, we’ve been offered vast plates of mulberries, cherries, almonds and apples, the produce of hundreds of small orchards.

The region’s fruits and nuts used to be renowned for their quality, with a healthy export market. There have been efforts to revive production and trade, with varying degrees of success.

Walking through an orchard on a bright early summer’s day there seemed huge hope for Afghanistan. But then someone reminds you of the drought and points out the tents and animals on the hillside of people who have been forced to migrate from other parts of the country in search of pasture, and of the rising cost of wheat and bread. Just then, a WFP convoy drives past in a slow cloud of dust, taking food out to an isolated and hard-hit village.

We stopped off at the garden of a friend’s friend. I wasn’t too sure why but was just happy to be standing in the shade of several dozen different trees, birds flittering between the branches.

Suddenly someone scampered up one of the trees and started shaking its branches. A torrent of apricots came raining down on us. We began scrambling about in the grass to collect them as they continued to fall.

Once we’d amassed a huge pile of them on the ground, we squatted round in a circle and began to gorge. Small, just beginning to ripen properly, warmed by the sun, they were exquisite.

I ate dozens, juice running down my face and hands. Once full, and then some, we began cracking open the stones to eat the kernels. Until all that was left were the fragments of apricot stones under the shade of a tree.

Verily, ‘twas bliss.

That evening on the news was a report of two children in the same province who had starved to death.

Browns and greens

May 5, 2008

‘What is your favourite colour?’ ‘Green’ I replied, because ‘sabz’ is the only colour I remember in Dari, as in ‘green tea.’

But it is also true, especially here, where, apart from the tea, green is so seldom seen.

This is a typical view of Chagcharan:

Hari rud in Chagcharan

When I last flew up from Kabul, I noticed places I’d never seen before. I know that stretch of land pretty well by now, from both the air and the road. Usually, for about ten months of the year, it is an indistinguishable medley of browns.

This time though, the snow mostly melted, spring sprung, there were patches of vivid greens, highlighting streams and villages that are otherwise perfectly camouflaged as dried mud.

My previous musings on planting trees weren’t entirely random. You see a tree around here and you notice it. I begin to long for it: a sign of life and growth, of possibility, just something to bloody well break up the monotony of the landscape, to give it some contrast.

Chagcharan town is feeling surprisingly fresh with a few trees gallantly reaching upwards. There is even talk of building a park or two, and a project optimistically called ‘the greening of Chagcharan.’

Straddling the whole region’s arterial river, the hari rud, as the town does you’d think that’d be easy enough, but even the river’s banks are dried, brown mud. If you were to lie down under a tree here for a kip you’d be covered in dust.

So it was wonderful to drive out of town last week, to cross the high pass still capped with snow, and into the valley beyond. I don’t really understand the ecology of it, but on the other side of the watershed the hillsides were speckled with tough grasses, the valley bottoms verdant.

The drive was just as hot and uncomfortable as ever, jerking away over rutted roads, hillsides and river beds. But at least the view was more refreshing.

At the end of one day we went on a little fishing trip. Others fished, while I, for the first time in nearly a year, lay down on the spiky grass and wallowed in the feeling of the ground beneath me.

The colour felt all the more vivid for its impermanence. There was something poignant about seeing it and revelling in it, while knowing it is so fleeting. In a couple of months its spring lustre will have been burnt away by the sun.

A valley now:

The same valley (different end) October last year:

To see some valleys now you’d think they could support more life then they do, that there would be more lambs and calves grazing. But many animals were lost over winter and fodder is scarce enough as it is to last the whole year.

Spring comes late and fades early. I’m enjoying the greenery while I can.


For an honest day’s labour

May 1, 2008

There are times when I dream of being back planting trees again: monotonous, back-breaking labour, row after row of saplings into frozen soil. Singing out loud and out of breath (and out of tune) to keep the rhythm going through damp fields, trying to keep pace with my brother the professional. Resting at the end of a line, looking back at what will one day be sun-dappled woodland.

And to do it here, in this barren landscape where there is not a tree in sight. To see the fruit’s of one’s labour so clearly and to know you have left a positive mark on the earth. Now that would be job satisfaction.

In my glamorous aid worker’s life I am more likely to get a paper cut than blisters. For me, such things happen on paper while others make them real. Spreadsheets are more my domain than fields. I miss the physical involvement, an honest day’s work.

At best, my work involves sitting in a mosque or someone’s house drinking tea and asking silly questions about villagers’ lives, or who owns that bit of land and if there would be enough water to irrigate those trees. Or, at a later stage, walking under shady boughs taking photos to illustrate the report for a donor I’ll write back at my desk. For most of the time in between, though, I’ll be sitting in meetings doodling, or starring fuzzily at spreadsheets wondering why the numbers don’t add up.

The allure of the physical is strong. To be doling out food aid to grateful others, digging a well or building a clinic – an activity that causes a simple, visible result.

This is the instant gratification of ‘humanitarian action.’ I suspect it is how most people in the West conceive aid work, the vision of doing something useful that draws people to volunteer in Africa.

I also suspect it is this vision, and sense of obvious achievement, that makes the military eager to roll up their sleeves and get digging, that makes soldiers keen aid workers. Rationalised as ‘hearts and minds’ operations, there is also that feeling of ‘I built that school, and it is a good thing.’

Which often it is. I want to be planting trees myself, not criticising the altruism of soldiers or volunteers.

But sometimes it isn’t. There is a large girls’ school in Ghor that gives me pangs every time I see it. A US military project, though it might well have been any NGOs’, it was never finished for some reason, and for two years has been slowly crumbling while the girls remain in cramped quarters elsewhere.

What’s more, the actual construction is only a part of any project. First there are questions of land ownership, community consultations and agreement, availability of raw materials, coordinating with local authorities, finding the funds and so on.

Then there is finding qualified teachers, and the resources to pay them, and to purchase books and materials, and to develop a coherent education system and curricula that makes this not just a single school, but part of a coherent educational system.

And it is rarely the expensive expatriate aid worker doing the hard labour, but locals, who are much better at it than us soft-fingered foreigners anyway, and who need the cash income more than Western volunteers need the experience.

So I’m stuck with my spreadsheets and emails. Any development project exists as much on paper as it does in reality, and it takes hard work to build and maintain that reality on paper.

But I’m loosing the thread of my thoughts as I stare out the window at a mud brick wall and the barren mountains beyond. I would like to go and plant a few trees. 

Keeping fit on lockdown

March 8, 2008

Friday, my one day off a week. I had it all planned out. An hour’s running round a muddy field with some friendly folk, do some shopping on the way back, have a shower then a long lunch in a nearby café.

The running round the muddy field bit was to be the highlight. I don’t get nearly enough exercise here and my body’s been atrophying over winter. I’m not in as bad a shape as these German soldiers, but was looking forward to stretching my legs.

I’m not one for exercise for exercises sake, and the idea of a sanitised gym fills me with dread. Outside of Afghanistan I’d keep vaguely healthy by walking a few miles each day to and from work rather than getting the bus, or better still cycling through muddy woods or swimming in the sea. Exertion preferably followed by a good drink. None of which is an option here.

So anyhows, was all geed up by the prospect of a muddy field in Kabul and was just leaving the house when I get a call saying we’re on lockdown. A possibility of protests in town over the reprinted Danish cartoons and new anti-Islamic film, so best to stay at home in stupefying boredom.

(Oh yeah, and cheers for those cartoons guys, your pursuit of freedom of speech and artistic integrity, not to mention your razor sharp wit and intelligence, well that’s just great. About as funny as the death threats you’ve received and the deaths of people in Kabul in the rioting last year.)

I was not best pleased. In desperation, I did what I’ve thought about doing on many an occasion, and knew I should do, but dismissed as too caged, too un-muddy to be described as exercise.

I did some press-ups. I’m not going to say how many. I tried doing some sit-ups but came closer to falling asleep. Working out my frustration, I ran up and down the stairs. Wheezing, I walked around the house looking for something else to do, and did some pull-ups on the creaking banisters. Endorphins overriding common sense and failing heart, I burst outside, neighbours and dignity be damned, and started running round the small, muddles compound.

Dear lord, what has become of me? Well, I’ve collapsed on the sofa for one, part of me thinking I should do that more often, the other part vowing never to be so foolish again and wondering where I can find some beer and crisps.


No problems in town yesterday, and I spent the rest of the day recovering my slothfulness reading a truly terrible romantic novel I found lying around. So all’s well that ends well.

Walking with my uncles

February 8, 2008


Today being a Friday, after a morning playing chess and drinking tea, I decided to go for a walk. The sun was shining and I felt the need to stretch my legs, maybe stroll down to the river, and enjoy that state of thoughtful peace that walking in a beautiful, tranquil place can bring. When I’d gone out of the compound before on foot I was assigned a guard to accompany me up the hill to the nearby shops. I was amused by this at the time but today wanted to be alone and hoped to avoid having to drag someone else along with me.

It wasn’t to be. When I said I was just popping out for a bit someone was summoned to go with me before I could make good my escape. Piqued, I decided if I couldn’t get out of my prison alone I may as well not bother at all. One of those silly acts of stubborn petulance I can do so well. I feel I can and do put up with a lot quite happily while working in Afghanistan, but the lack of basic freedom to move about when I see no good reason not to really gets to me.

The local manager tried explaining it to me: ‘security, you know…some people here…expatriates…I am responsible for your safety…’ I don’t buy it, not here, but felt suitable chided by the last point to settle down with a book instead. And his suggestion that the guard could follow twenty paces behind me cheered me up again.

I face the same thing when I’m in Chagcharan in Ghor. But being largely based there, time and necessity meant I have developed better coping strategies while there. The best of these involves colluding with my fellow expats, each telling their own staff that they are going to such and such an office, meeting up somewhere else and walking off into the hills instead.

And in Ghor I have my ‘uncles’ to contend with. ‘Kaka’ is an informal but respectful term of address, generally for those older than oneself but who don’t quite ‘merit’ a ‘sahib’. It is how I’ve come to think of the guards and drivers who gather round the gate when I walk out, wondering where I’m going and if it’s safe for me to do so. I love them for it, but at times their concern begins to feel oppressive. On special occasions – getting into a car with two unknown foreign women, or riding off on the back of a friend’s motorbike one night to go for a meal and a drink elsewhere – there can be four or five of my uncles peering out of the gate after me as I try to assure them there’s no problem and no, I won’t be back too late.

That motorbike ride was a memorable occasion. Whizzing along the deserted main road, scarves wrapped tightly around our heads trying to keep out the freezing night air, I felt unbelievably, joyously free. Maybe it was a little foolhardy, but no policeman pulled their occasional trick of jumping out of the dark screaming like a banshee and waving a gun around, and on the way back after a couple of rare cans of beer the air felt warmer the road smoother and I felt liberated.

Arriving back home though, as on the few occasions I’ve been out in the evening in Chagcharan, and I felt like a teenager again, getting back home too late and trying to hide the smell of alcohol on my breath. One of my uncles caught me. ‘Afghanistan, you know…it’s not so safe a country…’

In the end I gratefully accepted the company of a colleague to go for a walk today. It was less relaxing than I’d hoped, having to talk about sex and marriage in veiled terms and getting mobbed by kids as I took a photo of the river. Still, it was good to get out. As we slid our way back to the office, our conversation moved on from the German soldiers in town to had I ever been to Germany and did I need a visa to visit other European countries, and how it is nigh on impossible for Afghans to get one. ‘You see,’ my companion concluded as we got to the gate, ‘you say you are in a prison here. But we are prisoners in this country.’


Stomach Rumblings

December 2, 2007

naan1.jpgThe snow that fell a few days ago in Lal wa Sarjangle is a foretaste of things to come. With snow several meters thick on the high passes, the province is pretty much cut-off for up to five months of the year.During the summer few people can grow enough food to see them through to the next harvest, even in a good year. This year’s harvest has not been disastrous but it has not been good. To survive people rely on sporadic remittances sent from family members working as casual labourers in Herat or Iran; running up ever more debt, often ending up in a position of bonded labour; selling precious livestock if they have any; or selling a young daughter.

A report out a while back by the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS Net) claimed the need for over 14,000 metric tonnes of food aid for Ghor. Some of this has been delivered before the snow closes the roads but there remains a shortfall. A meeting of the great and the good in Ghor couldn’t quite figure out how much of a shortfall, or how many people would need assistance. I left more confused than before at any rate. The one thing that does seem fairly certain is that for a large number of people, it’s going to be a long lean winter. Again.

The other thing I’m sure of is that I’m going to continue to bitch about the food I eat. Ok, so to go from the starving thousands to my own culinary gripes isn’t a particularly delicate or comfortable change of topic. But I’m going to end up bitching about my diet at some point so I may as well accept the contrast.

Naan. Dry flat bread. Many people will eat nothing else until next spring. I am sick of it now. Especially when it is accompanied, as it invariable is for me, by a bowl of oil: a strange, orange coloured oil of unknown provenance, though which I suspect is the engine oil used in machines making olive oil, recycled for the Afghan market. This bowl of oil usually contains a lump of stewed gristle and bone, occasionally some potato peelings or a couple of chickpeas. Rarely, this oil is used to drown, nay, massacre, an innocent vegetable.

Raw onions would be a saving grace if they weren’t first washed in river water then doused in salt, assaulting both my palate and my gut. Apples – peeled, old, soft and tasteless – are the only fruit. I have become mildly addicted to biscuits, able to devour a packet in minutes, as they at least taste of something, however synthetic.

So maybe I exaggerate a little, and most of the time I am content, or at leased used to this diet. And never hungry. But a few weeks back when I was ill – tired, worn out after five months without a break and with some nasty little bug – the very smell of this food made me gag and I could barely bring myself to eat anything for several days. Getting back on one’s feet on such a diet ain’t easy.

Praise be, I can get out and find food elsewhere. Pity the poor sods that live here eating bread and the benevolence of international food aid.