Finding The Force

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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.

Since I last wrote, the PARASITE! has been vanquished. I am fully recovered, and can even stomach coffee again. Weeks of deprivation seem to have intensified the effect it has on me, and my productivity has soared. Which is nicely timed, because I haven’t had as much to do since I arrived. Nor have I been so stressed. But this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Suddenly, I’ve inherited a team of five people and a 600,000 euro project. That’s comparatively small, but still, it’s quite a change of pace. Those of you who know me – and particularly, those of you who have seen me trying to parallel park – will know that practical, logic-based tasks are not where I excel. I’m quite comfortable writing a report about a programme. Running that programme requires an entirely different skill set, and I don’t want to be too ambitious. The real Programme Manager gets here in the new year. My aim is simply to make sure things don’t fall apart before then.

So far, we’ve conducted a survey to determine which of the KIS (Kabul Informal Settlements) are most lacking in different areas. In December, before the cold really sets in, NFI (Non-Food Items) like clothes, shoes, blankets and firewood will be distributed in the most vulnerable camps. In January we’ll distribute food rations, but for now the most urgent thing is to keep people warm.

A lone rose is still valiantly blooming in the garden of the guesthouse. Otherwise, we seem to have skipped autumn and gone straight to the dead of winter. The mountains beyond the city are sprinkled with snow, and the sky in the mornings is bluer than I’ve ever seen it.

We have three buildings in the city: the Coordination office, the Coordination guesthouse, and Kabul Base, which serves as both home and office for those working on projects based in Kabul. There are two expatriates at Kabul Base, plus me, temporarily ; and forty national staff, which makes things lively. My new office is even more poorly insulated than the old one. I have taken to wrapping myself in a patou, which is a scratchy woollen blanket traditionally worn by men. Sure, it comes complete with a faint odour of camel, but it keeps me warm, and I like to think it gives me a Jedi-like aura of wisdom too.

Last week, they finally installed petrol-powered burkhali heaters which emit such toxic fumes that you have to have the window open to keep from fainting. Without them, you’re foundered ; with them, hot and a little bit high. The other day one of the Food Security team perched a lemon on top of the heater to counter the smell. As you might expect, the lemon soon began to cook. All afternoon, amidst the sound of five people typing in unison, you could hear the lemon letting off short, sharp little sighs, like a pressure cooker. There is now a row of fossilized lemons on top of the heater, so hard you could probably play golf with them.

In my conversations with the national staff, I frequently mention how cold it is. “It’s so cold !” being one of the few complete phrases in my repertoire. To which they say, “Nêêêêêêêêêêêê !”, make a face which seems to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet, kiddo,” and indicate the fact that, in early December, they are still clad in a pyjama-like shalwar kameez.

Work-wise, there is a tremendous amount to do. Progress can be slow, and communication is not always easy. One of the Food Security team has a disarming habit of responding to everything I say with, “Oh, okay”. So if I ask him, for example, “Is this the final version of the survey ?”, he’ll say, “Oh, okay”. “No, but, I’m asking you, not telling you,” I say. “Oh, okay.” “So this is the one we should use ?”. “Oh, okay”. And so it continues.

My Dari is coming along. I can now offer, ask for and accept a cup of tea, and I can say, “No, I am not married, but I do have a boyfriend”. All essential to social survival. I try to adopt an Afghan accent, making sure I roll my R’s and make that attractive hacking sound when I pronounce the pairing of G and H (like in Ghazni Province). Oddly, when I do this, the pitch of my voice seems to lower automatically. I think this is because much of what I learn comes from the grizzly guards and drivers. Anyway, the combined effect is to make me sound like a sort of Scottish Robocop.

As part of the programme, I’ve been to several meetings of the KIS Task Force at the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The first time, I made the mistake of wearing my favourite roll-neck jumper dress, which E refers to as “the crumb-catcher”, and cursed myself for forgetting that the plate of complimentary biscuits is only ever meant to be decorative. Having a KIS Task Force meeting on my schedule makes me feel like I’m part of some sort of inter-galactic superhero conglomerate. One day, maybe. But for now I’ll content myself with arguing over the accuracy of Food Consumption Scores and trying to work out how many kilos of firewood we can fit into the budget.

It’s all quite clinical, but then I suppose it has to be. The other day I found myself physically, viscerally upset for the first time since I started working on the project. We were viewing samples of the children’s clothes we hope to distribute to over a thousand households. Comparing the thickness of gloves and the sturdiness of welly boots, I found myself thinking about the wee hands and feet that would eventually fill them, and hoping desperately that we’d got our sums right.

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Recently, on the way to visit one of the camps, we got stuck in traffic. The colleague I was with decided this was the perfect opportunity to ask about both my marital status and political persuasion. “Your country is under British occupation, yes ?” he said. “Um . . . that’s certainly one way of looking at it,” I said. “Afghanistan has been occupied many times,” he said. “And each time, we smashed them. The British? We smashed them. The Russians also, we smashed them.”

Afghan citizens’ pride in their history and national identity is something I’m increasingly aware and mostly admiring of. October saw Afghanistan host its first professional boxing match. The event was entitled – obviously – “The Fight 4 Peace”, and was organised by Hamid Rahimi, an Afghan-born boxer who grew up in Germany. The matched pitched Rahimi against a Tanzanian fighter. Rahimi won, and claimed his victory for all Afghans. Kabul went crazy. Canons were fired in celebration. (Which, unannounced, was alarming.)

Despite the tangible ethnic tensions, most of the people I’ve met are proud to be Afghan above all else. They’re resilient, and they seem determined not to let the country slide back into the dark days of Taliban rule. This is one of the things that make me hopeful about the future. Less reassuring are the reports that the going rate for an AK-47 has doubled in recent months, with ordinary Afghans arming themselves in preparation for whatever it is that’s coming next.

This determined pride is equally visible in the everyday. Recently, while doing some research into Kabul’s Agricultural Fair, I was browsing the website of the Ministry for Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL). The site has recently been revamped, and visitors can fill in a survey which asks what they think of it. The options are “very impressive”, “impressive”, “good” and “fair”. There is no “poor”. You cannot find it “less than impressive” or even “mediocre”. In my (very limited) experience, this is fairly typical of the Afghan mindset. They are a stubbornly optimistic bunch, which can be a good thing, except when you’re asking them to assess a project and they refuse to find anything wrong with it. They can also be surprisingly immodest when it comes to evaluating their own achievements. I once saw a recruitment test where, in answer to the question, “What is your biggest flaw ?”, the candidate had written, “Sometimes I forget to put my phone on silent mode during meetings”. If only I could say the same. At the moment, all I can see are my flaws.

Anyway, this wallowing is all very well, but it’s really just a distraction from what I should be doing this evening, which is reading E’s magnum opus : a hundred-plus-page guide to running a successful distribution. ‘Distribution for Dummies’, if you will. E, who callously refused to give me a distilled version via Skype. Pff. These people, and their principles.

Thanks for reading.

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