Some recent developments

I am at our cash office, taking out some money. H, the diminutive finance officer asks me about my family back in Australia. He tells me his maternal uncle’s son has lived in Australia for the last 25 years.  I suggest that the maternal uncle’s son come back to Afghanistan and contribute to the rebuilding and rejuvenating of the country. H tells me that he did return recently, for a short while: ‘He said that in all the things he saw, only one thing had improved over the last 25 years.’

‘And that was?’

‘You can get good bread here now.’

I ponder this as I go upstairs. Part of me rejects it as a cynical comment, tossed off without thought. Of course if you left here in the early 80s, before the country was shot to pieces and if your baseline is Melbourne, then current Afghanistan does not compare favourably. But his remark reflects a deeper truth, which is that Afghanistan has dropped a long, long way from the high watermark of the early 70s, and it has not recovered. 35 years of conflict and still counting, we should not be surprised at the slow rate of change.

That said, there is plenty of evidence of similar cynicism: a friend sat next to a leader from the Panjshir Valley on a flight recently, and this leader told him how they have a shadow Government, primed and prepared to take over as soon as Kabul falls. These are not Talibs, but Tajiks. Competent, probably, and long-sighted, they are planning for the next decade. In contrast, aid donors and military planners think in terms of the next 6 months. There are multiple such shadow Government structures all around the country.


The ditches being dug around the place that I referred to earlier: an interesting aspect to these is that the drains used to be regarded more or less as the property or responsibility of the adjacent householder. Now that some donor has paid for the municipality to subcontract their construction, the ownership and maintenance of these ditches has become unclear. As a result, no one is cleaning them out. For most of the year they collect rubbish, rocks, dead animals. But when it snows – then they block, and flood. Was this foreseeable? Could a better process have ensured community ownership of the ditches? Because while a donor was happy to pay for their construction, no one has the money or willingness to pay for their ongoing care.

They do serve the purpose though of allowing you to shake your carpets out.

Meanwhile, it has snowed. This cleared the air and created a whole big great wonderful lot of fun.

Then it snowed more and yesterday when we woke up there was a foot or so on the ground. The children were delirious with excitement.

Easy for us to enjoy it, with barrels to kerosene to fill our heaters with, and thick snow clothes inherited from our Swedish friends. Not so much fun for poor Afghans. We have had a few requests for help, and have given away a bunch of clothes and jackets, following St Basil’s admonition:

‘The bread which you do not eat is the bread of the hungry; the coat hanging in the wardrobe is the coat of the one who is naked and cold; the shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity you do not perform are the many injustices that you commit.’ 

We know that giving away money and clothes is a short term solution. It is, however, a solution to those who would otherwise go hungry and cold, until a better solution can be found. And that is not going to be anytime soon, here.

Finally, the Government must have decided that ‘illegal’ roadside installations are to be eliminated, because all the nice little shops and so on along the streets have been torn down. The guard boxes are being repositioned, as you can see. I can’t see this working for the shopkeepers though.


Images of the Hazarajat

Some recent shots from a freezingly cold week I just spent in Lal wasare Jangal, central Afghanistan. It is harsh, but not without beauty.

Most people live extremely simply in these parts of Afghanistan, including the expat team I stayed with. No running water, outside long drop latrines (no fun at -20C), simple housing. Electricity is like the old days here, from solar panels, and there is no TV. The Lal bazaar is essentially a few shops selling car parts, some apples and plastic shoes. I asked about vegetables and they laughed at me. You want veggies, bring them from Kabul or grow them yourself.

I spent a week training the development team in the mornings – all in Dari and Hazaragi, which left me tongue-sore and jaw aching, and the afternoons working with the expats. We did have time for a few wonderful walks up the mountains. Lal is probably the safest part of Afghanistan, with all Hazara people there is no support for insurgent groups at all, and there was never much Soviet presence so there are no land mines. Brilliant. But very poor, and much ignored by current aid efforts.

Lastly, in response to a few questions from Lucy and Stephen about working here: I am always happy to try to recruit people to Afghanistan. There are some ideas or suggestions I have – anyone wanting to take this discussion further can email me direct at sparrowp at gmail dot com.

summary of last few weeks

It has been all quiet on the Afghan front. Sore tummy. Sick Rachel. Long hours. Sleepless nights (this related to the sick Rachel). Getting cold.

Typically at about this time of year in Afghanistan, when it starts getting cold and grey, I start wondering why on earth God called me here and not to Fiji. Or Italy. Surely the Italians need hope and redemption and latrines. Anyway, this year we are doing our bit for the environment and burning fossil fuels by the barrel-ful to stay warm. Its either that or burn wood. I suspect both are bad, but unending cold is worse.

I would write more, but for somewhat crippling gut pains. Sorry folks. Imagine an erudite and enlightening story about my flight back from Faizabad, where I asked a woman to stop using her phone mid-flight, and the ensuing conflict that emerged. There. Got it all imagined? That’s the story I will write when my tummy stops feeling like a washing machine with a brick in it.




Why do you bother sometimes? Why do you come here and move yourself and your family halfway around the world and leave all the nice, good, fun things, why leave a place where you are appreciated and come here? Why put your kids through chaos and risk a bullet to the chest and live in dust and crap and cold? Why don’t we go? Isn’t six years enough? If people can’t learn the basics of honesty and respect in that time, when they have heard and seen it from 20 different sources, then what does it take? Why the lies and irresponsiblity and continual exploitation? More, more, just a little more?

Don’t worry about trying to convince me of the worthiness of our work. I knowit, I know the answers. It’s just that the answers aren’t enough sometimes.