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Crêpilogue

I had never expected to find myself Googling “how to tell if a sea snail is dead or just pretending”. But upon my return to Paris, this swiftly became one of my main preoccupations. My flatmate was in the States for a couple of months, and in her absence I assumed responsibility for the wellbeing of her freshwater snail, Joséphine. Once a week, I had to clean out her tank. This required me to put my hand into the water, remove Jojo, and put her in a jam jar for a couple of hours until the clean water reached room temperature, during which time I would occupy myself with a menial task or two.

(It’s important to note here that I have, from a very young age, been scared of snails. It’s the way they cower in their shells then jump out at you, eyes akimbo. If pushed, I’d rather a slug. At least they’re honest about it.) Once, I went about my business and forgot to remove Jojo from the jar. When I returned some hours later, there was no sign of life. A lone tentacle was limply drifting in the water. When I plopped her back into the tank, she sunk to the bottom and stayed there.

I checked on her regularly, the panic intensifying with each trip to the tank. The sixth or seventh time, I found her suckered up against the glass, mocking me silently with her stems. She pulled this trick fairly frequently over the next month or so, sending me into a shame spiral each time.

My temporary flatmate assured me Jojo was pretty hardy. “I wouldn’t worry,” she said cheerfully, after the first incident. “I once left her in the jar for three days and she was fine.” After the apocalypse, there will be all the world’s cockroaches, Will Smith, and Joséphine.

(Since the time of writing, Joséphine has departed this life. I mean her no disrespect.)

Qadisha Valley, Lebanon, from a recent trip

Qadisha Valley, Lebanon, from a recent trip

My fixation with Joséphine might suggest a loss of perspective. It’s been a year, and not always an easy one. Few of the resolutions I made when leaving Afghanistan have been realised. I do finish books now, though ‘The Goldfinch’ (three months and counting) may prove to be my undoing. I do not have the abs of Shakira. And I’ve come to accept that I never will, since the abs of Shakira are incompatible with a lifestyle as cheese-centred as mine.

I’d planned to pare things down and live more simply, transcendentalist-style. Pas possible à Paris. Immediately after my return I was more zen than I’d ever been. Arriving on the platform to find the métro pulling away, I genuinely didn’t care. I was even grateful for the extra reading time. But since I’ve started working again, I’ve succumbed to RATP Rage. I don’t think there is anything in the world that maddens me more than people who try to get on the métro before you’ve been able to get off it. Maybe those who refuse to believe that the carriage is full and fling themselves in anyway. IT’S A TRAIN, PEOPLE! NOT A TARDIS! It’s total anarchy. In Kabul, all I had to deal with was the occasional errant goat or bobble-bottomed sheep. They were much more open to persuasion and a lot less . . . shouty.

Though not without its joys, coming home has been difficult, difficult, lemon difficult. I think about Afghanistan a lot, probably more than is healthy. I also talk about it at pretty much every available opportunity, probably more than is bearable for those in earshot.

There is definitely a before and an after Afghanistan : but in the same way that there’s a before and an after Glasgow, and in the same way that, when the time comes, there’ll be a before and an after Paris. A lot of things changed, and in a very short space of time. It was by turns exhilarating, exhausting, embarrassing, disheartening, frustrating, breath-taking, illusion-shattering, inspiring, and vomit-inducing. Not perfect, but always fantastic.

I left for the airport just after dawn, before the house was awake. I hadn’t slept at all that night, and was pleasantly surprised that I’d managed not to cry, even at my farewell party where I was forced to (dance and) make a speech.

But as we left the house and trundled along the street – as full of holes as the socks I’d shamelessly left behind in the shared wardrobe (sorry, M) – we came upon one of the guards, who was coming in to start his shift. Let’s call him Jim. Legend has it that Jim used to be a gun-runner for the mujahideen. It’s probably not a legend. His face is as full of wrinkles and rivulets as the landscape you see from the plane when you fly into the city, and his eyes are startlingly clear. I’d always had something of a soft spot for him, and we regularly took part in a handshaking competition which he inevitably won, despite being as old as time itself. This particular morning, he put his hand through the window to shake mine. As he wrenched my arm from its socket, I felt the tears beginning to tremble, and as we drove away, out they came in great, shaking, snotty sobs.

All the way to the airport, the driver kept looking at me in a sort of “chin up, duck” way. I was operating under the assumption that we had some sort of gentlemen’s agreement that transcended the, um, cultural and linguistic divide, according to which the incident would never be spoken of. I found out later that he’d told the story to pretty much anyone who had got in his car in the days that followed, miming my eye- / nose-wiping and whispering theatrically, “Miss Rachel . . . BIG problem”.

I miss the people, of course. Most of the expats I was friendly with came back around the same time I did. With some we talk only of Kabul, but with most we’ve found common ground elsewhere. People soon started leaving again : for South Sudan and Syria, the CAR and the DRC. Faced with the trials, tribulations and total ridiculousness of everyday life here I do sometimes find myself wishing I was back there, where I really only had to concentrate on doing my job well, and not being insufferable of an evening. Of course, there was a lot more to it than that. But on a purely practical level, a lot of things were easier : I never had that feeling that I’ve failed as a human being because I’ve forgotten to buy bin bags, or filled in the wrong form, or neglected to pay the gas bill, for instance. I recently went to work with only one eye made-up and spent the day winking lasciviously at people in the hopes that they wouldn’t notice.

Work-wise, I’ve been more than lucky. Unexpectedly, I got a job in the communications department at HQ. It has its own challenges, and is as frustrating as it is fulfilling. I find myself doing baffling things like ordering cholera-shaped cuddly toys off the internet, and trying to work out how one might construct a three metre-tall pen with a week’s notice. I hope I’ll have the chance to do a bit more field work in the next couple of years. But for the moment, the best way I can contribute to the cause – for want of a better way of putting it – is to do my job here at HQ well.

I’ve been reading bits and pieces of a book written by a Pakistani author, Ahmed Rashid. The UK edition is entitled Taliban : ‘Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia’. Interestingly, it was published in the US as ‘Taliban : Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia’. Which is . . . well, not the same. I’m also working my way through Jason Elliot’s ‘An Unexpected Light’, which is the best book about Afghanistan I’ve read to date, in terms of its accessibility, and the accuracy with which he captures certain aspects of the country. My experience of it is, of course, much more limited than his. I have never, for example, elbowed in on a mujahideen mission to ransack an orchard, or indeed a Soviet outpost, in the dead of night. More’s the pity.

Says Elliot : “It is strange what thoughts come to you when you are riding alone in silence through such a wilderness ; I have forgotten them all now, but I remember feeling certain that life would never be quite the same.” In nearly ten months, I never found myself riding alone. I was very rarely alone at all. But I certainly had a lot of thoughts. Thank you for bearing with them.

Where fun, meets awesome . . . meets agriculture

I write from the garden at the guesthouse. The sun is shining, and the cherry trees are in bloom. There are kites in the sky again above the barbed wire that crowns our walls, and tangled in the trees. A cockerel is crowing somewhere. Someone is listening to Lionel Ritchie. I’m fairly sure I know who, but I won’t denounce him / her in such a public forum.

The ice-cream sellers are back, and with them the Titanic theme tune, calling me homeward with its one, jarring false note. Otherwise it’s mercifully quiet. With the arrival of the spring we’ve re-opened the provincial bases, and the team have gone back to the field to start the projects up again. Fond as I am of them, it’s nice to have a bit of space.

In the past week, I have acquired a departure date, a plane ticket, and a healthy dose of The Fear. I fly back to Paris in a couple of days. Before then I expect to cry publicly on multiple occasions. The pre-departure to-do list I made myself now seems laughably ambitious, including as it does such tasks as, “re-do entire website” and “finish all books begun”. At the same time, I am overwhelmed by the tiniest things. Yesterday, rifling through the communal wardrobe where our clean clothes go, I was overcome by the thought of how on earth I would get all my socks home. But since most of them are more hole than sock, I think I can quite safely sacrifice them.

I will leave both lighter – thanks, PARASITE! – and heavier, with books, scarves, and things I know now that I didn’t before.

We had some incredibly good news this week. Not Afghan incredible, i.e. mediocre with a side of disappointing: actually, incredibly good. The past few weeks have been something of a rollercoaster of emotion – not that we have those in Northern Ireland – and it’s not a bad time to be leaving, much as I am sad to go.

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The things I will miss most include the following:

The people. Notably those in the admin office, my new home, which is full of laughter and cake and crumbs between the keys. And a particular Afghan colleague, who is something of a force of nature, and really deserves her own entry.

The oddness that occurs on an almost daily basis. In mid-March we celebrated Nawroz, the Afghan New Year. We went out dancing in an attempt to “make an effort” and “meet new people”. This never, ever works, as we soon realize that the new people are no better than the old ones – and the old ones come with the advantage that you don’t have to explain your jokes.

The bag search on the way in to the party was unusually vigorous. I’d done a training session on report-writing earlier that week, with a game requiring trainees to match up linking words and write sentences using them. (Oh yes, I know how to have fun.) I had failed to remove the strips of paper I’d prepared from my handbag. As the guard rummaged through it, some of them escaped and scattered to the floor like confetti at the wedding of, um, Merriam and Webster. Furthermore! In addition! Nonetheless! This being so!

We spent the evening dancing in a circle, fending off chunky contractors, and had possibly the best night I’ve had since I got here. Largely because they played ‘You Can Call Me Al’ AND ‘Brimful of Asha’. The two were sandwiched together by three and a half hours of electro that I didn’t understand. But it was worth it just for that.

Tea on tap.

My work.

People-watching at the cafés and restaurants frequented by expats, which lend themselves very nicely to staring / anthropological study. You can get a fairly accurate idea of who someone works for according to how well-equipped they are, electronically. Wheezy PC: poor NGO, dependent on donors. Mac: NGO with core funds. iPad: consultant of some kind; possibly something to do with transparency or civil society. A person without a computer, reading a book or perhaps talking to another human being, will be regarded with suspicion and not a little scorn.

The drive to work, especially these days. There’s still snow on the mountains outside the city, but the sky is blue, and the colours pop in the sunshine. Little girls on their way to school in black dresses and white headscarves. The fluorescent orange of the construction workers’ Royal Mail jackets. The pastel pinks and purples of the poppy palaces. The white and yellow taxis; the telltale turquoise of UN Land Cruisers with their great big feck-off aerials. I find the city beautiful. At the moment I’m reading An Unexpected Light by Jason Elliot, given to me for Christmas by my bearded brother. It’s dense but very informative and beautifully written. He describes Kabul as “a mountain-ringed history book written in the faces of its people.” It’s a lot of other things besides, but this is a pretty neat way of putting it.

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There are things I will miss less:

The veil, which I am forever losing, or strangling myself with.

The face people make upon learning my name. “Rashid ? But . . . that’s a man’s name in Afghanistan.” Yep, it’s a man’s name pretty much everywhere. And incidentally, it is not mine. But do feel free to continue calling me Rashid, please.

The cats, who have somehow worked out how to open the fridge, and are now frequently to be found with their fat, fluffy faces lodged in open tuna cans in the early hours of the morning.

The bukhari / burkhali, my mortal enemy. (I like to channel my anger towards inanimate objects rather than human beings who might fight back, causing me to lose – or worse, win – an argument.) Lately it doesn’t sound so much like a dying whale as an anguished Chewbacca, howling as he watches Han Solo be encased in carbonite. With the milder weather, it has become redundant – which is fortunate, since it continues to outwit me at every turn.

You have to turn it on and wait for some of the kerosene (yes) to seep into a little chamber before chucking a match in and ducking for cover. What I usually do is start the fuel running, do a three-minute menial task, and come back to light it. On one recent occasion, I turned it on, went away for half an hour, and came back to find five inches of fuel pooled in the bottom of the burkhali.

Since I had already bothered the guard with the exact same brand of idiocy mere days earlier, I felt I should really manage this one myself. So I rolled up my sleeves, took a box of tissues, and soaked up the excess fuel. Where to store them, I wondered ? Aha, this empty jam jar will do ! Having stuffed the jar, screwed on the lid and marveled at my own cleverness for a few moments, I realized my folly. Sure, I had beaten the burkhali. But I had also unwittingly created a kind of Molotov cocktail that now had to be disposed of.

Weekends spent in lockdown. It will be nice to be able to go running again (I say that now). I have almost lost the use of my legs through sheer inactivity. Also, one of my colleagues has been feeding me with a kind of high-energy cereal bar which I suspect is reconstituted Plumpy Nut, a peanut-based paste which is normally distributed by the WFP to severely malnourished children.

Doing the morning press review on the days when there’s little to report besides bombings and beheadings. It would seem that what is commonly referred to as the annual “fighting season” – when the milder weather is accompanied by intensified violence – has begun. The term is a bit reductionist for my liking, but there have been a lot of incidents lately. As ever, the casualties have largely been civilian, and the incidents seemingly senseless.

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The security situation is increasingly tense, and in a way I’m glad that I don’t have to decide whether to stay or not. Recently, much of my time has been spent organising a promotional event for one of our programmes which, thanks to the impromptu arrival of John “damn his eyes” Kerry, never took place. I mean sure, he was here to ease tensions in the Afghan-American relationship, which was very noble of him. But the timing of his visit was really very thoughtless. Security restrictions were so tight that we, the hosts, could not make it to the venue, and so there was no choice but to postpone.

Having spent weeks picking out photos, folding brochures, PowerPointing, and going in circles with a printer who shafted us royally while serving us saffron-infused tea in china cups, showing us photos of his grandchildren in London and sharing his many and varied dental woes, we were left a) crestfallen, and b) with enough chicken biryani for 80 people.

There are many things that will be easier to think and write about when I get home. But for now I have smaller and more immediate concerns to contend with, notably my rucksack, which I’m sure has shrunk since I bought it, and is now giving me the evil eye from across the room as if it knows it will defeat me. I may have to watch The Notebook while packing – or something similarly emotionally manipulative – to make sure I get my first wee cry out of the way in private.

Thanks for reading, far-flung friends. Until next time.

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.

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.

Colombound

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: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18991066. 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.

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.