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.
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.
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 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.