Beginnings (belated)

Please note that this blog does not in any way represent the views or values of the organisation I work for. It is simply a record of the meanderings of my own mind.

It has taken a while to find the will and the words, but two months into my time in Afghanistan, here are some thoughts.

I live with between seven and ten colleagues, depending on who is in the field (i.e. working on our bases in the provinces) at any given time. We also have a colony of cats. And a rat. Which for a long time I was determined was just a clinically obese mouse, until I came face-to-face with it in the kitchen one night.

We live an incredibly cloistered life and see very little of Kabul. We are chauffeured everywhere by a series of drivers who know how to handle the potholes and anticipate the kamikaze cyclists. On the seven-minute drive to work, we pass as many donkeys as we do Land Cruisers. There will often be a herd of sheep or goats, bulbous bottoms wiggling as they cross the road to a chorus of honking. It’s noisy and dusty, and all I want to do is leap out of the car and go exploring.

There are an incredible number of construction projects which seem to have been abandoned halfway through. The city is full of skeletal buildings and pyramids of bricks and bits of piping. Sometimes there’s a great big piece of the road that just isn’t there. At night there are no street lights, just a fluorescent glow from the disco-bakeries and the headlights of other vehicles. From time to time a wanton pedestrian crosses your path and is illuminated by the white light of oncoming cars. It’s like Gorillas in the Mist.

For the most part, the cars are Toyota Corollas (I know not why). A lot of them have pictures of Ahmad Shah Massoud – the much-loved Mujahideen leader killed on 9th September 2001 and since declared a national hero by President Karzaï – taped onto their windscreens. The back window is often emblazoned with a slogan extolling the virtues of the car – ‘I love my beautiful Corolla’, or ‘World’s greatest car made in Japan’ for example – or reassuring female passers-by: ‘Don’t cry ladies, I’ll be back’. I’ve recently seen several inspired by the TV series 24: ‘Jack Bayer’ (Bauer I suppose), and ‘24 CTU’ (Counter-Terrorism Unit), which, when you think about the series and the values it espouses, is a little unsettling. The other day I saw one which read: ‘Don’t follow me, I’m lost too’. I liked that one.

A lot of the cars have been bought in from Germany. You’ll sometimes see an orange ‘Reisebus’ dating back to the time Germany was still split in two. Often an Afghan number plate has simply been sticky-taped over the original one.

The soundtrack to life in Kabul – at least when you’re sitting in the garden of the house – is an eclectic mixture of children, chickens, muezzins, kites, helicopters, vibrating window panes, and the music that comes from the ice-cream sellers’ carts. After hours of involuntary study, I have identified 7 tunes, played on a rotational basis: Happy Birthday, the theme from Titanic (with one particularly offensive wrong note), Für Elise, Jingle Bells, Melody 5, Melody 5: the drum’n’bass remix, and Melody 6. The other day I had an odd moment where I was sitting in the office listening to Fleetwood Mac – yes, I have inherited my father’s musical taste, and no, I’m not ashamed to admit it – when suddenly Stevie Nicks seemed to be singing a duet with Céline Dion. It’s not something I’d recommend they do in real life.

In the late afternoon, the sky is speckled with kites. Some of them are sculpted from wire and plastic bags, and some of them are much more elaborate. Our back yard has become a graveyard for kites whose strings have got tangled up in the barbed wire that sits on top of the surrounding walls. Upon finding one, I try not to think about all the Kabuli children who are left bereft as their kites drift into the Bermuda Quadrangle that is our garden, never to be seen again.

I haven’t quite got used to being searched by an armed guard – often barely out of puberty and wielding a kalashnikov and great big grin – every time I go for brunch or a beer. It’s important to be wary and keep yourself informed, but the security situation is best not thought about too much, I find. Otherwise you start to see danger everywhere. And really, we’re very well protected, and they don’t let us take any risks.

There are lots of nice cafés and restaurants in the city, secreted away behind walls and wire. I have eaten more kebabs since I got here than during my entire university career. Sadly this has done nothing to lessen my fear of lamb (provoked by a childhood tonsil trauma). The food is pretty decent, if not very varied. I drink even more tea than I do when I’m at home in Norn Iron. My egg consumption has reached epic, almost Elisabethan proportions (pun; poor).

Work-wise – because that is after all why I’m here – my job involves writing and editing reports destined for our donors. The NGO I work for is specialised in basic needs: food security, water, sanitation and hygiene, and shelter. Most of our projects in Afghanistan come under the banner of food security as the country is classed as chronically insecure by the FAO. I work mostly with the Food Security Coordinator who oversees several programmes throughout the country.

Though her job is very technical, mine is not. It requires a good grasp of the NGO, its policies and its projects, but not an in-depth understanding of the technical aspects, thank heavens. Despite hailing from potato-a-go-go land, and spending what I’m fairly sure was an entire year of secondary school history class learning about The Famine, my knowledge of how you actually go about growing a tasty, blight-free potato is non-existent (but improving by the day).

I’ve just finished the final report on one of our projects, which is to be submitted to the donor three weeks ago. Basically, we have to justify what exactly we’ve done with their money. The thing about this project is that the person running it is long gone, and there is very little written evidence of what we did, and when, and whether or not it worked. So for a while I was spending my days trying to decipher super-sophisticated Excel tables showing comparative wheat yields, and interviewing one of the national staff who worked on the project. The problem is that his memory is both hazy and rose-tinted. Our conversations go something like this:

Me: So, can I just check, this figure here, is it 3 metric tonnes or 30 metric tonnes ?

Him: Yes.

Me: Three ?

Him: Yes, three.

Me: Not thirty, then.

Him: Yes, thirty.

Me: Because thirty metric tonnes – that’s a lot of potatoes, isn’t it ? Or, maybe . . . it’s normal ?

Him: Yes, a lot of potatoes. It was a very good year.

Me: So it’s okay if I write thirty metric tonnes ?

Him: Mmm, let me . . . Thirty metric tonnes . . . maybe . . . three. Between three and thirty, I don’t remember. But now all the people have access to potatoes !

Me: Really ? All of them ? Because according to this document we didn’t quite reach our target.

Him: All the people !

Me: Right. Well, I’ll just write ‘healthy yield’, then, and ‘please refer to table in annex’.

Him: (He has nodded off because it is Ramadan and he hasn’t eaten for sixteen hours.)

My Afghan office-mate recently ventured, “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question ?”. I braced myself for the traditional “So you’re 27 and not married – what happened there ? Aren’t your parents ashamed ?”. But no, he wanted to know what my educational background was. I explained that unlike the person who sat at my desk before I did, I am not an agronomist. I instead have a super-relevant research master’s in English for Specific Purposes. (And yes, that is a real subject.)

“So you are not a specialist in food security ?” he asked, perplexed. “Not at all !”, I cheerfully told him.

Since then I think he has decided that I know nothing at all, about anything. When he’s explaining something to me he starts by saying, “So during the harvest – ‘harvest’, you know harvest ?”.

Yes, I know harvest. Little else, but I know harvest.

I’m not feeling very clever at the moment. Coupled with the above is the fact that the only board game we have in the house – other than Small World, which I won’t even try to explain – is a Genius edition of Trivial Pursuit. The French version. From 1995. This puts me at a triple disadvantage. I can correctly answer approximately one question in every 412, and even then the answer tends to be Robert Redford, rather than Louis XIV or Baudelaire. It’s not great for the ego. But then I suppose you can’t go through life only doing what you’re good at. If that were so I would spend my days – very happily – eating cheese and doing the Guardian Quick Crossword.

I still can’t string a sentence together in Dari. Instead I point at things, make a range of charmingly deranged faces, and say the four or five words I do know in a different order each time, hoping that I might one day fall upon the combination that unlocks the wonderful world of fluency.

Anyway. The next report to be submitted relates to a project we worked on in a consortium with two other NGOs. This means that once we’ve drafted the report we have to send it to them for approval or otherwise, then re-work it according to their feedback, then send to our HQ and re-re-write it, all the while doing a diplomatic dance.

I’m also working on some communications projects, including a monthly newsletter and a brochure about the mission. Every morning I compile a press review for the staff, which is really interesting; the only problem is that I’m meant to include an item of ‘good’ news every day, and sometimes it’s hard to find one amidst all the misery. But it does mean I have the luxury of taking the time to read the papers – or at least their Twitter feeds – every morning. There’s so much going on beyond the bombs and the beheadings; you’ve just got to look a little bit harder to find it.

What is interesting about my job is that you learn a lot about the projects, and get to interact with plenty of different people. What is frustrating is that you’re still very far from the ‘action’; the actual carrying-out of the projects. It can be hard to see how what you’re doing helps. Inevitably, I end up writing about things I don’t know very much about – small-scale irrigation projects, anyone ? – but I feel like I’m slowly getting there.

I’ve been reading a lot, which is good – I’d forgotten about the concept of reading for pleasure during university and have struggled to get my powers back since. I’m not used to having so much time. Weekends are long and lethargic. We don’t have to clean the house, or do our laundry, and we’re very limited in terms of where we can go and when. It’s worse than when I lived in Moissac and my flatmate Ellie and I would stretch out such tasks as laundry-doing or DVD selection so that they filled the whole evening. And even then we had Kinder, which improved things immeasurably.

I miss a lot of things about Paris: ‘appy ‘ours at pavement cafés, sushi, picnicking in parks, and people, in particular. I do not miss bad metiquette, nor my battles with French administration. Afghan administration is proving a worthy opponent but luckily it’s out of my hands.

I’m currently in one of the more northern provinces on a fact-finding mission for an interim report which is full of holes. I’m excited about meeting the team and seeing the project first-hand. When I get back, it will be time for the annual strategy-making session: a week of brainstorming and powerpointing. Mmm.

That is quite enough for one day. Best go and find facts.

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