Monthly Archives: October 2012


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

Me and E

WARNING: This post contains graphic imagery that may upset readers of a delicate disposition.

I’ve been sick on and off since I got here. However, it wasn’t until I found myself reliving the previous night’s dinner to the panpipe version of Bryan Adams’ Everything I Do (I Do It For You) in the ladies’ room at Colombo airport at five in the morning that I thought, hmm, perhaps this should be seen to.

Other than that, the trip to Sri Lanka was pretty much perfect. The reading corner, somewhat disappointingly, contained a copy of Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes which someone had given up on on page 417, and a stack of well-thumbed Glamours. My bespectacled better half, whom I shall refer to as E for fear of embarrassing him any further than I already have done, confounded my expectations – already high, but by his own fault – by bringing wine (red and white), cheese (cantal and comté), and Bombay Sapphire. There was everything from Elle to The Guardian. He had also visited Marks and Spencer’s and come away with a packet of shortbread, a box of tea and a bag of Percy Pigs, the taste of childhood holidays.

We spent the week wandering, reading, and eating giant prawns. The sea on the south coast of the island is sometimes so rough that you can’t really go swimming – you just kind of stand in the water and wait for a wave to slap you so hard that you fall over, bim, dans ta face. The challenge is getting up again before the next one gets you. We visited a rock temple – a series of prayer chambers and statues buried in a cliff face – and a safari park where we saw herds of elephants, treefuls of monkeys and a variety of birds which I was unable to identify but nonetheless took 57 photos of. We also went turtle-watching with a local NGO which protects a particularly popular beach from egg-snatchers. This involved sitting silently in the pitch darkness until we got word that a turtle had come ashore to lay. We could hear her sashaying up the sand and digging a hole with her gigantic flippers. Ours eventually changed her mind and returned to the sea, but I think the experience was nonetheless one of the highlights of my life. E preferred the elephants. All in all, it was the perfect antidote to life in Kabul. I left Sri Lanka a little blue, but otherwise well-rested and keen to get back to work.

A Sri Lankan sky

I was however, still sick. So upon my return to Kabul I went to the private clinic that is our first port of call in times of tummy trouble. The place is festooned with fairy lights and fake maple leaves which, complete with the exposed stone walls, gives it the air of Christmas in a Swiss ski chalet. As you stop to don your super-sexy shoe-covers, your eye is inevitably caught by a vivid display of shop dummies and uncomfortably up-close photos warning you of the many and varied illnesses one might contract in Afghanistan. There’s a pregnant woman being bitten by a stuffed dog, fake blood streaming down her leg. RABIES!, shouts a cardboard cut-out sign above her head.

There’s a child who has speared its foot on some sort of spike and contracted TETANUS!, and another who’s covered in Smartie-like dots and clearly suffering from RUBELLA! I find it unnecessarily life-like and somewhat alarmist. Before being seen by the doctor I’d decided I probably had TYPHOID! But no, it was simply a pesky parasite, which has been eating me from the inside for several weeks now.

Coming to this conclusion required, among other things, a particularly painful blood test. My arm was initially reluctant to give up the goods. “You have the veins of a child!”, exclaimed the technician who had tried and failed to take my blood, calling his colleague to come and have a look while I sat and squirmed and tried not to faint.

I came away with a heavy dose of antobiotics, a newfound fear of rabid dogs and a semi-serious marriage proposal from the receptionist. I am now much better.

The trip to and from the clinic took much longer than it should have done because of the roadworks, which have suddenly started up again with renewed vigour – it’s as though all the workers have simultaneously returned from an extended coffee (or perhaps crack) break and are now digging for their lives. I’ve heard various explanations for this phenomenon. Some people speculate that it’s linked to the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, and suspect that the Karzai government is making a desperate attempt to show that it can cater to some of the city’s most basic needs. Others say that it’s because Japan has invested a huge amount of money in infrastructure, and the deadline for spending this money is the end of 2012. In any case, it means that what is normally a twenty-minute journey can take up to an hour, so you’re either late or awkwardly early for any meetings.

Aside from the drains and roads themselves, there is a lot of house-building going on. The architecture of Kabul is a strange, chaotic mixture of styles. There’s a particular kind of house which is popular among the ever-more-numerous nouveau riche. It’s called the ‘Pakistani’ style, but they look more like the cake at Ken and Barbie’s wedding: several tiers, all pastel-painted with scalloped edges, stained glass and glitter.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the 50 or so camps that have sprung up on the outskirts of the city and are home to tens of thousands of people who have been displaced by the conflict. We work in around fifteen of the camps, and recently we’ve encountered some resistance from the authorities, who fear that our activities only encourage people to stay put. In fact the intended outcome is exactly the opposite: the idea is to provide for people’s immediate needs and enable them to get back on their feet so they can make a life for themselves somewhere more permanent. There are distributions of food and non-food items like blankets, jerry cans and cooking equipment, water and sanitation activities – the construction of latrines, for example – and vocational training programmes, which seem to work well and which the authorities are more open to. As the winter closes in, we’ll carry out some needs assessments (surveys and focus group discussions) to determine what the most appropriate course of action is. Since we currently have an HR gap and there’s no-one to manage the programme, I’ll be involved in the organisation of the assessments. So far I’ve visited the camps just once, to see a hygiene promotion show aiming to teach children the importance of washing their hands and brushing their teeth. It was pretty impressive, and involved singing, gymnastics and general clowning around by an educational circus troupe. Which, yes, is a thing.

We’ve received funding for winter distributions from the Tolkien Trust, which is quite cool because you can’t really apply to them for money: they have to come to you. Like MI5. Or the Men In Black. Winters in Kabul are brutal, and last year’s was particularly so. We anticipate this year being similarly harsh, so we’re trying to prepare for the worst. It’s already cold, especially at night. My hands have aged at least twenty years. I’ve been typing the morning press review with the aid of pair of handwarmers knitted by my Mum. I am sleeping in socks, a jumper, and two blankets, each weighing 5.5 kilos. It’s like having a small child sitting on top of you and pinning you to the bed.

The audience at one of the hygiene promotion shows

The access problems we’ve been having in the camps are typical of many NGOs, and are likely to become more acute as time goes on. This means that the communications aspect of my job is going to take on greater importance. If we’re going to be able to continue carrying out our projects, in Kabul and elsewhere, we need to ensure we have access to the beneficiaries. Access depends on our projects being accepted by the beneficiaries themselves, and by the national and local authorities. And in order to achieve acceptance, we need to ensure that people understand what we’re trying to do and why. To this end, I’ve been trying to draw up some semblance of a communications strategy, and desperately trying to teach myself Microsoft Publisher so that my efforts don’t look like the work of a primary school child who’s just learning to manipulate a mouse.

Otherwise, I’ve been following the US elections with bated breath – as have a lot of people, aware that the outcome will have a very real impact on what happens here in the next few months. I’ve heard and read so many conflicting opinions about what’s going to happen after the transition that I no longer have any idea what to think.

Meanwhile, violence against women is on the rise, and the recent shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Pakistani Taliban has sparked a lot of speculation in the media about what the transition will mean for women’s rights here. We recently had a focus group discussion with some of the Afghan women who work for us, where we talked about the different scenarios that people are predicting. There was a striking spectrum of different views, from those who think nothing will change, to those who think life will be “harder for ladies” if the Taliban regain control, and those who feel they can cope with the Afghan Taliban, whom they at least know and to some extent understand, but who are terrified of the Pakistani Taliban taking over.

On a lighter note, the oddness of living the fake-French expat life continues unabated. This weekend we played pétanque at the restaurant round the corner. There has been quite a lot of coming and going between here and HQ lately, so we’ve had a steady supply of cheese and wine, which does wonders for morale. The other evening we went to a reception at the French Embassy in honour of Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Upon arriving – late – we spied from afar a man speaking into a microphone. “Who’s that?” I asked loudly, “The ambassador?”. It was Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. He was here to sign a Franco-Afghan co-operation agreement, committing France to a partnership on health and education which will stay in place long after the troops have left.

On that note, I will leave you for a pre-bed bite of brie. Thanks for reading.


To Bamyan, and beyond

On the road from Bamyan to Yakawlang in the late afternoon

I will spare you the details of Strategy Week. I wish I could have spared myself. (This is only partially true.)

It is already time for my three-month break, and tomorrow I’m going to meet my bespectacled better half in Sri Lanka.

I’ll be glad to escape Kabul for a few days. There’s a definite chill in the air, especially at night – I’m up to two blankets already and we’re less than a week into October. I have lost one of my two pairs of jeans, along with several other key items of clothing. I’m convinced it’s the cats. Somewhere, they are building a sturdy denim nest cushioned with shreds of Marks and Sparks’ bargainous five-pack underwear.

Security-wise, things have been tense lately. On September 8th, a national holiday in honour of Massoud, there was a suicide bombing outside NATO headquarters. It killed six children. The bomber himself was a teenager. Ten days later, twelve people – both foreigners and Afghans – were killed on the airport road in a targeted suicide bombing. The group who claimed responsibility for the attack said it was a response to The Film that has sparked protests across the world. Mostly though, things here have been much calmer than expected: protests have happened, but largely peacefully. This was not the case next door in Pakistan.

It’s increasingly difficult to find a piece of good news to balance out the misery of the morning press review. Sometimes I’m tempted to slip in a picture of a sneezing panda or a snoozing kitten, just to lighten the mood. I am re-watching the first series of The West Wing to remind myself that People Are Good. (And yes, I’m aware of the wrongness of such a reaction.)

As a result of all this we spent a couple of consecutive weekends on lock-down in the house. I have never been so keen to go for a run. In Paris, whenever the urge struck, I usually just sat down quietly until it went away. But here I have a lot of pent-up energy. Yoga doesn’t quite do the trick, especially since it’s the relax-and-breathe, ‘be aware of your big toe’ kind rather than Madonna-style power yoga. I was recently forbidden by the teacher from doing the sun salute, on the grounds that I “haven’t yet mastered breathing”. 27 years old and I don’t know how to breathe. The shame.

However, I have been lucky enough to escape the confines of Kabul twice since my arrival.

In August we had a long weekend in honour of Eid, the end of Ramadan. A few of us took a plane to Bamyan, and then travelled on to Yakawlang by road to stay at one of our bases for a few days of R & R and losing Trivial Pursuit, despite the Robert Redford question coming up again. In the end it was neither restful nor relaxing, but it was restorative. The base is nestled in Yakawlang valley and surrounded by hills. (Mountains, by Northern Irish standards.) Cue breathtaking views, shredded feet, Duke of Ed-era flashbacks and much use of the classic “What ? Trouble breathing ? Not at all, I’m just so overcome by the bucolic splendour that I’m frozen to the spot” tactic.

The first of the six lakes at Band-e-Amir

From Yakawlang we took a day trip to the Band-e-Amir lakes, which are famed for their blueness (mineral deposits; for further information, see the interwebs) and widely believed to have healing properties. We went swimming, the girls fully-clothed and out of sight of the men. It was bracing – not unlike taking a dip at Ballywalter beach. I got my photo taken with numerous Afghan families, at their own request. It would seem that in Afghanistan, pale is officially interesting (as I have long suspected).

The smaller-yet-still-massive Buddha (38m)

On our way back we spent the night at another of our bases, in Bamyan City. Bamyan lies on the Silk Road and used to be one of the focal points for Buddhism in Central Asia. It was also home to the tallest representations of Buddha in the world. The statues were destroyed by the Taliban in the spring of 2001, despite UNESCO’s efforts to protect them. You can still see their shapes: the outline of an ear, the curve of a neck becoming a shoulder. There are lots of little chambers carved into the rock surrounding them, which served as prayer or meeting rooms. The walls are still covered with defaced paintings and carvings. We were able to climb up into the head of the smaller Buddha (who is 38m tall to the bigger one’s 55m) and look out over the valley through his eyes.

There is great discussion about whether or not the Buddhas should be rebuilt, now that the technology required to do so is available. But their destruction has become such a part of recent history that many people are opposed to this idea. (Here is an interesting article about the debate: For those of you who would like a more detailed explanation, please feel free to contact my bearded brother.)

I’m reading Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, an account of his journey through the Middle East in the early 30s. He visits the Bamyan Buddhas and is thoroughly unimpressed: he declares that “neither has any artistic value”. I can’t claim to agree. He’s a terrible snob, but his writing is always witty and full of historical, architectural and artistic detail. Apparently quite a lot of the book – especially his transcriptions of conversations – is fabricated or at least embellished. It’s full of passages like this: “This morning at Bamyan, Christopher was scrambling eggs with his dagger when the fire gave out, and he asked the Curate [their guide] to fetch some more wood. He asked again. He then prodded the man with his dagger”. When I’m reading it the voice inside my head is that of Sandi Toksvig.

Bamyan from the Buddha’s eyes


In mid-September I went to Samangan Province for my first field trip. We flew to Mazar-e-Sharif then travelled by road to Aybak, where we stayed overnight before setting out for Ruy-e-Doab, five hours away by car. The base is very remote, and so almost the entire team lives there, at least during the week. Forty men with varying degrees of facial topiary. I saw some excellent beards. (Graeme, you have work to do.) The scenery is spectacular, which makes it easier to get up and into the office of a morning.

Just before our arrival they killed two sheep, and from then on everything we ate either was or tasted of lamb. Kebab. Breakfast eggs, swimming in fat. Potatoes and turnips, steeped in sheep. Rice, infused with ovine. Even the tea had a muttony tang. I smelt of sheep. We all did.

During dinner a Turkish soap dubbed into Dari plays in the background. It looks like the Turkish version of Plus Belle la Vie – same seaside setting, same multi-purpose Baddie, same love triangles, same ‘I’m human, honest’ acting style. The women’s shoulders, necks and legs are all blurred out. The blurring must be a difficult job since, in order to know which parts to blur out, you surely have to look at them first. Between segments there are ads urging viewers to join the Afghan National Police. Never do they warn you about the astonishingly high death rates.

I was there to work with the Programme Manager on collecting information for a report. My home for the week was the agriculture department.

The entire department – peopled mostly by men of a marrying age and disposition – is still in love with my predecessor. Let’s call her Madeleine. All week I felt like I was being tested to see how I compared.

“Miss Rachel, would you like some raisins ?”

“No thank you, I’m not a big fan of raisins.”

*Judgmental / wounded pause*

“Miss Madeleine liked raisins.”

(Someone else joins in.) “Oh yes, Miss Madeleine loved raisins.”

*Moment of nostalgia as they all imagine Miss Madeleine enjoying some raisins.*

Or: “Miss Rachel, do you like mountains ?”

“Euh . . . yes ? Do you . . . I mean I like to look at them. I’m not very good at climbing them, but I do like to. Slowly. With frequent picnics.”

“Miss Madeleine liked mountains. She climbed a mountain every Friday on her day off. She could RUN UP MOUNTAINS.”

We had lengthy, almost philosophical discussions of the meaning of different words. One day it was the difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘attitude’. There was a twenty-minute debate about the meaning of the word ‘trend’ which I’m fairly sure I lost despite being the only native English-speaker in the room, simply because the others were so determined to be right. They keep thanking me for coming, when in fact it was me that should have been thanking them – I was eating their lamb, using their internet connection, asking them for the fourth time to explain what exactly a jerib is. (NB. A jerib is a unit of measurement equal to 0.2 hectares. So it is.)

One of the rules that govern the universe is that if there is a stream available to fall into I will fall into it. I don’t like to disagree with the universe. So I obligingly fell into a stream on the first day and sprained my hand.

We went to admire the potatoes and courgettes growing on the research farm. I saw – or rather smelled – the difference between an ‘improved’ barn and a normal barn (the key is ventilation). We visited fruit tree nurseries, and small-scale irrigation projects that had been constructed as part of the programme I was writing about: retaining walls, aqueducts, and so forth. The area is prone to both drought and flooding, which makes cultivating anything difficult. This project is designed to limit the damage inflicted by extreme weather conditions and natural disasters, and to revitalise the local agricultural system. It’s a bridge between emergency relief – which the NGO I work for is best known for – and longer-term development. The distinction between the two is one of the great debates that divide the humanitarian sector.

One of the techniques we use in this project is the Progressive Relay Farmer system. Selected farmers – be they potato or wheat growers, animal breeders or horticulturalists – attend training sessions, and agree to share the knowledge and new techniques they acquire with five to ten other farmers, who are called Contact PRFs. Contact PRFs then share this knowledge with another ‘layer’ of farmers. I attended a training session with female vegetable-grower PRFs on compost, ‘compost’ being the only word I could make out; and pest control (there was a diagram – it looked more like a vampire bat but I’m fairly sure it was a greenfly). My translator, being a young man, was not allowed into the room. (Older, ‘barbes blanches’ have different access rights.) I nodded sagely, drank my tea and smiled inanely. Apparently they liked my face.

Back in Aybak, we were twice invited to eat at one of the Afghan staff’s houses: once for mantoo, which are meat-filled ravioli served in a chickpea sauce; the second time for chicken and chips. The presence of chips of course led to a potato-based discussion. I learnt that in Afghan agricultural college, the Irish Potato Famine is taught as an example of the dangers of monoculture. One of my colleagues was lamenting that he was below the target weight for his height, and wondered aloud how he could best go about bulking up. I helpfully suggested that he maybe wasn’t asking the best set of people, as they all seemed to be in a fairly similar situation. “No !” he said. “Look, he’s fat. (Pointing.) That boy, he’s a bit fat.” Neither of the people who had been deemed fat seemed bothered by it. “How much do you weigh ?” he asked. I put down my chips.

On both these occasions, we saw only glimpses of those who had prepared the food, and who were waiting for us to finish before they could eat.

So tomorrow, Sri Lanka. We’ve rented a house on the south coast, not far from the shore. My favourite feature – without having been there – is the reading corner. THERE’S A READING CORNER. What a marvellous idea. My Dad and I were speculating via Skype the other night as to what the reading corner might contain, other than a chair. I thought at least one of those three-in-one John Grishams you can buy for a fiver in Stewart Miller. Big John bet on a telephone directory from 1943. We’ll see who’s right. I have downloaded a Dari manual onto my Kindle, but what I really need is a Dougal Campbell of Dari.

I leave behind me a report which is as full of holes as Mitt Romney’s manifesto. Reading it is a bit like walking down a street in Kabul and putting your foot out to find that instead of more footpath there is a gaping chasm that, why not, might well be a portal to the underworld.

My office-mate, the Deputy Food Security Coordinator, who was supposed to be helping me out, has helpfully gone to Mecca, without warning, for 45 days. Now I understand why every time he leaves for the evening and I say, “See you tomorrow !” he holds his hand up to stem my enthusiasm and says, “Inshallah”.

Author’s note: I should confess that since I wrote that bit about the cats stealing my jeans I have in fact been reunited with them. However, since I felt that this episode lent some much-needed drama to the piece, I left it intact.