Not Perfect – Just Fantastic

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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.

The above is a reference to a conversation I had with the Food Security team after a typically trying day. We always try to debrief before everyone goes home, to work out what we’ve done well and less well, and think about what we might do better next time.

When I asked how they thought the day’s activities had gone, one of the ladies said, “It was perfect”. Was it ? I wondered. Could we perhaps find some other way of describing the day ? Did anything go wrong, even slightly ?

“Okay, okay,” she conceded. “It wasn’t perfect. Just fantastic.”

My mission to date has been far from perfect. But it has been fantastic, almost without fail. In every sense of the word.

I haven’t written for a while. This is due to a mixture of laziness, an absence of inspiration, and an inability to process certain things that have happened lately. I have also – thanks to a colleague with a superbly-stocked external hard drive – been chain-watching Parks and Recreation, which hasn’t helped.

I was further put off – and my pride dented slightly – by an entry in a very (painfully) funny blog called Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like (www.http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com/). The act of keeping a blog has its own entry (how very po-mo). Reading it, I learnt that, as I’d long suspected, I was a walking, talking, typing cliché. But as a good Northern Irish Presbyterian, self-inflicted suffering is my life force. And so I continue.

December was cold, and challenging. The security situation was tense, and what is best referred to as a series of unfortunate events left us all a little unsettled. I was glad to get home to Northern Ireland, beacon of peace and reconciliation, shining example to conflict-stricken societies the world over.

I feel the holidays are best represented by a tally of . . . let’s call them achievements.

  • Number of times I asked E whether he thought the landscape was beautiful, maybe even as beautiful as France: 74
  • Number of times E grudgingly admitted that yes, it wasn’t impossible: 74
  • Amount of cheese consumed: equivalent to my own bodyweight
  • Number of marathon games of Munchkin played: 2
  • Number of times E won Munchkin, as he does any and all games: 2
  • Hours spent sulking post-Munchkin defeat: embarrassingly many
  • Cups of tea consumed: innumerable
  • Books read: 1 ½ (3 separate halves)
  • Miles driven: oh so very many
  • Gallons of mulled wine drunk: a couple
  • Number of questions I got right on the University Challenge Celebrity Christmas Special: 7, a personal best, though I suspect the questions were easier than they usually are
  • Babies admired: 4
  • School reunions I did not attend for fear of bumping into my former self: 1
  • Number of top-notch friends who got engaged over Christmas: 2 (well, 4 I suppose)
  • Number of hours my Dad spent sporting the Afghan hat I got him for Christmas: I don’t think he’s taken it off yet
  • Number of times E* said something that might be considered mildly offensive: 1
  • Number of times I reminded him of this over a ten-day period: 412
  • Hours Ruth and I spent discussing the cultural significance of the Step Up quartet: sorry, what? Lies, damn lies! We are women of depth, taste and sophistication, who wouldn’t dream of attending a hip-hop dancing class in an effort to emulate the smooth moves we saw depicted in Step Ups 1 and 2, thank you very much. Now let’s never speak of this again.
  • Pairs of socks received: a good dozen
  • Number of times I was asked what Kabul is like: roughly 27
  • Number of times I was able to answer this question: 0

* I should apologise for my libellous representation of E, who is actually among the world’s top human beings (cf. 2012 ranking ; it’s too early to tell what 2013 might hold).

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We finished the NFI distribution just before Christmas. It was not without incident, but it went as well as might have been expected. In the end, through the collective efforts of several national and international NGOs and a last-minute, not entirely welcome intervention from the UN, all fifty-plus camps were covered so – at least in theory – every household received clothes, blankets, fuel and tarpaulins. This week, the distribution of emergency food rations to cover what is called the winter hunger gap began. Opportunities for daily work – which the majority of the camps’ residents rely on for income – are increasingly scarce as construction slows down for the winter, so money is tight.

Of course, it’s not enough; it can’t be. Despite it all, there have already been some deaths in the camps. This has provoked a fair amount of media outrage, and some criticism of the humanitarian community’s efforts, much of it ill-founded (she said, in all objectivity). This type of emergency intervention might be a way of helping people get through the winter, but what they really need is a place to settle in the longer term: where they can be safe, warm, and clean; where they have access to stable jobs, and where they don’t live in fear of being evicted on a whim. The government is due to unveil its IDP strategy later this year. We await it with bated breath and a large spoonful of scepticism.

Work-wise, my stint at Kabul Base has come to an end and I’m back to doing my actual job, which is less stressful, but also less stimulating.

It is now proposal season, where we pimp ourselves out to the donors in the hope that they’ll fund our projects in the coming year. Each donor has its own procedure, but usually what happens is that they issue a call for proposals which states what type of project they’re willing to fund this year. We write a short concept note outlining how we might be able to respond to the issues raised in the call for proposals. If they like the concept note, we get to submit a full proposal. A proposal is a lot of work. You can’t just say what you might like to do, in an ideal world; you also have to work out exactly how much money you’re asking for and how you’ll spend it, what kind of logistical support you’ll need, how many latrines you’ll need to build, and so on.

In terms of communications, things are pleasingly busy. We have a radio report scheduled for this week, an exhibition to organise, and some internal publications to finish. We’ve been working with a freelance photographer who’s preparing a series of photo-stories. Last week I accompanied her to one of the KIS so she could photograph the distribution of vouchers for food packages. We did the rounds, distributing vouchers from door to door and collecting updated information on the food security situation in the camp.

Along the way, we came upon a group of kids sledging down a snowy slope with the jerry cans donated by a frenemy NGO. After a few minutes of perfunctory frowning and muttering about post-distribution monitoring, the Afghan staff – most of them in their mid-thirties with wives and / or children – joined in, as we women stood and watched and cheered demurely. I have always been something of a style icon, but on this occasion – with an ankle-length skirt, woolly tights, flowery wellies, jumper-dress, snood, ski jacket, forever-falling-off headscarf, even rosier cheeks than usual, and mud up to the oxters – I really surpassed myself sartorially.

The mission grows ever more international in its composition. I’ve been elbowed out of the running for Most Exotic Mission Member by a Thai, an Australian and a Nicaraguan. This makes for a lot of interesting discussions over dinner. And the dinners themselves are delightful. I have spent several very pleasant Saturday nights learning to cook Thai food, soundtracked by the most obscene hip-hop I have ever heard.

The bases are closed for the winter – all except Kabul – so everyone is in the city until the end of February. The key national staff are attending a month-long series of training sessions, and all the expatriates have come home to roost. It’s cosy – but only in the sense that there are a lot of us living in very close quarters. The roof is leaking. We have no saucepans left because they’re all being used to catch the drips. There is often no water in the pipes in the morning. I’ve been sleeping badly thanks to the cold, the thinking and, once, to a cat thoughtlessly giving birth in the stairwell in the early hours of the morning. Sometimes the burkhali gets clogged up and starts to moan. It is reminiscent – I suppose – of the death throes of a beached whale. This has led to the coining of the expression, “faire la baleine” (to do a whale). Example: two expatriates are chatting over their Coco Pops of a morning. “T’as bien dormi hier soir?” one asks the other. “Pff non pas trop,” sighs the other, “mon burkhali faisait la baleine”.

With that, I shall don my polar bear pyjamas and let the whale lull me to sleep.

Until next time. Thanks for reading.

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