A harsh winter

We are headed for Dubai. It is intended to a be a short break in the middle of winter, and a break that does not involve death or bush fires or crisis. I am badly overworked and Julie not far behind.

As we drive to the airport, Mohammed Ali, asks me where we are going. I tell him we are going to Dubai.

‘And then to your home?’

‘No’, I say. ‘Just Dubai.’ I don’t add, ‘for a holiday’ because I realise I feel somewhat guilty about all of this. Going to Dubai if we are in transit to home is one thing; a discretionary, gratuitously chosen break in Dubai is another. Mohammed Ali – who is not trying to imply anything, I am sure, and would not even understand about guilt in such a context – has more questions:

‘What is the airport like then, here in Kabul? Isn’t it cold? Is it heated in winter? Will you wait long? What about in Australia? Do you have to arrive three hours early there too? Is the security process similar?’

As I answer, it is immediately clear that Mohammed Ali has never gone anywhere by air. Well, neither have the vast majority of the farmers, labourers, herders and miners of the poorer parts of the world. But this whole issue of inequity is one Julie and I have been thinking a lot about recently, in part because it has been such a hard winter in Afghanistan.  We have sat it out in minimal discomfort, complaining mainly about chilled toes and slipping in the ice. When we run out of kerosene to heat the house, we buy another barrel. When we get truly sick of the cold, we fly to Dubai.

Afghans just sit it out. Quietly or noisily, they just sit it out, trying to make it. Some don’t: there have been many deaths this winter. There will be more, yet. Quite a few Afghans we know ran out of wood to heat their houses weeks ago. They do not have the ability to simply ‘buy more’. A week or so back, Julie was talking to our watchman, and he cried, openly, in front of her. When she asked him the matter, he simply said, ‘We are cold and hungry. We ran out of wood. We just don’t have anything.’

While we are volunteers here in Afghanistan, we still, if truth be known, live like kings compared to 90% of Afghans. Like kings. We will go back to Australia one day, without having made any money on this whole venture, and that is fine – we are not here for money, at all. And sure, there are many expats here who live a whole lot better than us, on six week R&R cycles and $4K/ month ‘danger’ money; but the fact is undeniable: we live like kings. We all live like kings. When our watchman cries in front of us, we are wealthy enough that we can give him money, easily, and not even miss it.

I do the math as Mohammed Ali drives. Flights to Dubai: $1400. Hotel/ guesthouse for the week: $900. Meals: maybe $50/ day. We will buy unnecessary things there, like books, clothes and gadgets. We will go to a water park, a movie, a play-gym. The whole nine days will cost maybe $3500. Mohammed Ali makes $250 a month, our watchman about the same, and by Afghan standards, they are both doing pretty well.

We live like kings in the middle of awful poverty.

AusAID, butter and begging

I have a meeting at the Australian Embassy.

The person I meet with lives at the Embassy compound, maybe 200m away. The Embassy staff are driven to work each morning, in flak jackets and in an amoured vehicle. This, in the most militarised part of town, where they already are well within the green zone. Simply to sneeze here requires permission from the Secret Police.

Once inside the compound, they work within what is essentially, a bunker. Thick concrete walls, thick steel bars on the windows. They are not allowed out to shop, walk, meet Afghans. I invite my contact for dinner: our house will need to be security vetted before she can come. I show her photos of our work, that we, through various channels, get some AusAID money for. I offer her to visit the work: it sounds close to impossible. She would need armed escorts, security compliant housing, security plans and evacuation contingencies, a five legged stool and camel train with USB ports on each saddle.

None of this is surprising, but nonetheless, I leave perplexed that this is how my Government thinks to manage its aid work. These people are administering $160million worth of aid, and yet they have almost no contact with Afghans. Period. In a similar encounter a while back, a woman from the British Embassy signed a cheque for a aid group to build a chicken coop in Jalalabad. $10,000. I can only assume the chickens had individually air-conditioned rooms with massage chairs.

I think some of this must be because Australia is quite new at this type of work. We don’t, as a nation, have much experience in civilian operations in conflict countries, as so we assume it will all be terrible and tricky and end badly. Hence the precautions. Heck, for a long time the Aussies didn’t even have an Embassy here, and even when we did, it was hidden, with no details publicly available. Enquiries were referred to Canberra. The British and Europeans are far more at ease. I’d like to talk to the Embassy staff about how to be more effective, but I suspect it is a closed loop.

Later I go to Bush Bazaar. Butter is available, and I have learnt by now, that if you see something at Bush Bazaar that is worth while, buy it. Buy a lot of it. It probably won’t be there again.  So that is our butter needs taken care of for a while.

My enjoyment at the thrift of this purchase is tempered on the drive back to Karte Se, by the sight of a woman begging in the Pul-e Sorkh bazaar. At her feet lies a grown man. I want to stop and help, but I allow the flow of traffic to carry me on home.

Bread,cake

I am at the French Bakery. It is in Karte Chahar, literally just around the corner from where Gayle was shot. I have been here several times in the last weeks. Each time I think about Gayle a little less. It is tempting to think that security has improved because nothing has happened for 10 days. But all that means is: nothing has happened. There is no real improvement. Our feeling of increased safety is absolutely illusory.  It is important to remember that.

At the bakery, as I pull in, a girl spots me and runs to the car. ‘Meester. 10 rupees. Meester.’
I shrug her off and go inside. We need bread, other things. Things that we need. We need them. I have been told that I need them, and so here I am to meet that need. But. But. But what do we really need? Do I really need the can of lychees that I buy? or the fruit tarts for the kid’s lunches? or the buns? the walnut bread?

On the way back to the car, the girl, with the unerring accuracy of the terminally poor, spots me again, and comes running. I give her 10 Afs. Wordlessly, she takes it and turns away.

I have just spent more than 20 times that amount on food she will likely never eat.

*

I thought about this as I drove home. She will never eat a fruit tart, nor lychees with cream.

Does that mean anything? Is is wrong? Really wrong, or just conceptually wrong? Is it evil that I spent so much and gave so little? Is it evil, or selfish or a bit mean, or nothing? What is a better response to the poverty of the world? And poverty – what is that? Poverty is just a word, a concept, a list of issues and places on paper, places most people want to stay away from. Poverty is a noble cause, a terrible blight, a shocking reality. But rarely is it people.

Poor people are real. I met one, gave her next to nothing and drove on. I drove on to my lychees and walnut bread.

It means nothing and it means everything. Poverty is the sum of a lot of big things, but it is also the sum of a lot of little decisions that I make every day. And because we all make such decisions, poverty has long ago become a permanent fixture on the unreachable horizon, a cause we strive to but never seriously expect to reach.

I think that girl has a right to better than that.