Power: a reflection

Ten days ago, one day back from our short holiday, I was summoned by our regional team leader. He informed me we had until Saturday the 22nd to vacate our home.

This was not unexpected. The landlord had been around some months back, but owing to a dispute over who actually owned the place, any orders to move out seemed a long way off. Court cases to settle such matters can take years here.

Or weeks. While we have contracts with the landlords (or supposed landlords), when a property is sold, you can be ordered out the next day. There are no laws that protect tenants in such cases. This is pretty much what happened. As the dispute was cleared up, the property was sold and the new owner – who did not meet with us, but worked through a proxy – told us to get out. This, in the middle of winter. My Afghan friends shook their heads at this. There is a custom, a tradition of hospitality that says you don’t throw anyone out in winter in this country. After Nao Roz – the Afghan New Year, that marks the beginning of Spring. That is when it should be done.

The home we have been living in was lovely. An older style Kabul home – thick walled, real brick, beautiful stonework, a large garden. The kitchen was filled with light, and the home was set back from the road, so it was quiet. Because it was large another family lived downstairs, and as is often the way here, families own adjoining properties – to allow for sons, wives and others in the extended family to visit without going out into the street. So right next door, though a hole in our wall, was another home, owned by the same landlord where another of our team lived, with his family. Through another hole, behind us, the same arrangement. The kids school was reached through another hole.

So the order to leave affected some 17 people – three families and two single people who lived in the modest but comfortable outbuildings. Let me add here, that our organisation had rented that home for the past 35 years. We rented it from the original owner; and during that time have cared for it well. It has had our people live in it or use it continuously since 1975. I remember going there with Tom L, during our first days in Kabul, to retrieve some items from a storeroom. Many people I know have lived there; we are now the last.

We have found a new place to live, and over the last three days, moved in. It is smaller. I will have to rewire the house so we have a back up system when the power fails. There is no kitchen as yet. It is very cold. I spent till 1.30 last night fixing a badly leaking toilet. I have had to put in our diesel heaters, now that the temperatures are really cold, and fitting them is a pain. But none of that is what really grieves me in this.

It is the way power has been used. There have always been powerful people – usually men. And they have almost always used in the same way: to control. Or, to put it more accurately, to force people to inhabit their version of reality (not my quote, but I cannot remember the source). I guess it for this reason that Arundhoti Roy suggests that we should respect strength, not power. Strength seems to be about mastery of oneself; power about the control of others. Strength has an entirely different dynamic to it than power.

And it pains me to say it, but many Afghans I encounter and know, see and listen to, seem to want power. Not strength. This society is polarising rapidly into those who are cementing in place their power, that is those who are now working the system and influential within it;  and those who are locked out. Most countries have their inequalities, but what most countries try also to do is legislate protection for those who are most vulnerable, to put some limits on the acquisition of power and to establish means for people to move through power barriers. None of that, of course, you might expect to exist here in law. Not yet. But where laws are not, people and communities of moral strength have generally formed other ways to protect each other: hence the custom of not evicting people during winter. Such customs and traditions are now being abandoned. They are not the way the modern world does business. I have written about this previously – Power trumps process, but being in the position of the vulnerable in this case made me very angry, and ultimately also very sad. There was no recourse to law. We tried to appeal to clemency, and to mercy, but the owner was impervious, unmoved.

Some readers will know we bought a little 1976 Datsun when we got here, a tiny green sedan in a sea of 4WDs. Afghans think the car quaint. People have openly laughed at it, and I am run off the road often by men in Prados, 4Runners, the latest Landcruiser. These men who have made it seem to think our values – humility, service for others, modesty – ridiculous. They cannot understand why I drive such a car. Why we have no giant TV (or any TV for that matter). Why we walk places. Why do we not use our power to elevate ourselves.

I like to think, in my better days, that we model something different, a different way of living. But increasingly I think we are anachronistic here, certainly with regard to those who are powerful. We are tolerated, but not respected. 35 years care for a home counts for nothing, in the end.

So we have left that home. We held a goodbye dinner, and on the last day, I and the kids took marker pens and wrote on the back door in the last room. We all cried.

Who will show a new kind of leadership here? I don’t really think foreigners like us can do it, only very partially perhaps. We do not have the status, nor the standing, mostly. It must, ultimately be born from Afghans.

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3 thoughts on “Power: a reflection

  1. beautiful post Phil…themes of ‘power over’ are all too familiar around the world….I wonder what it might take for Afghani’s to seek Strength over power? stability?

  2. Hey, Phil, you have been sounding flat lately. I enjoy reading your posts, and like to get the real story of life in Kabaul for you and your family. I also appreciate the loneliness and frustrations of the journey. Please feel the warmth of a cyber-hug. Sorry to hear that you got the boot so soon. I hope your new abode proves to become and feel a very real home to you all.

    Jesus modelled a different leadership style and value system to the entrenched order and wider community of his day. He too was living in a country which struggled under the long term weight of occupying forces and corrupt local entrenched power structures. He was misunderstood and laughed at. However, by being different and engaging with others he also inspired and challenged a small group of people who got the drift. While it became more evident some time after he had gone, he was to leave a lasting legacy. As Paul Kelly sang: “From little things, big things grow.”

    Just by your commitment to the development challenge and by being there, you continue to show and model Strength in your small quiet way to a community who have forgotten the importance of strength in their quest for little bits of power.

    May you get more chances to tell positive stories in your posts. It is a joyful thing that Winter is followed by Spring.

  3. I understand the power thing, I struggle with it constantly this side of the border.

    In terms of the house, try and take some solace from the very wise Darryl Kerrigan,
    “But it’s not a house, it’s a home!
    It’s got people who love each other, care for each other
    It’s got memories …………… great memories
    It’s a place for the family to turn to
    To come back to”

    I’m sure it won’t be long before your new house becomes a home.

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