A trip to the North West

I have to go to Maimana. I am, to be honest, not keen. It is hard on my family when I travel; it is freezing, and it will be colder in Maimana; I have a cold coming on and I have a ton of work that has kept me up till 1.00am the last week.

I arise at 4.00am, and by 6.00 we are at the airport. The pilot tells us the weather is foggy in Maimana, with 8cm of slush on the runway. Secretly, I hope that the flight is cancelled. The pilot suggests we board, and see how things are when we land in Bamiyan. 20% chance, he tells us.

 Bamiyan is -16˚ and when I stagger off the airstrip to take a leak, I am disappointed not to see my pee freeze. The pilot advises we try for Maimana, as the fog is lifting.
40mins later we land in Maimana, the airstrip clean and clear, not a wisp of fog in sight. The air traffic controller, it turns out, has a grudge against aircraft.

Unsurprisingly, I am very pleased once we actually get there. It is the travelling I find hard, not the being. Kabul is so toxic, so restrictive, so insulating, that to get out to the real Afghanistan is a tonic.

This is a hill just out side the office. It collapsed in the recent rains, obliterating several houses. One of our staff now lives in permanent terror of the rest of the hill falling on him and his family.

We travel out to visit one of our community development projects. Since the security crapped out a few years ago, we have been forced to work much closer to the town than we would want: the really poor people are a days travel away, but Taliban control those areas now. We can only work in safely within an hours drive of the town centre. Still, in a place like Maimana, there is no shortage of work. This town is after all, little more than a large village, with all the problems of a remote area: no proper latrines and open defecation, poor water supply, no understanding of safe birth practice, low literacy, rudimentary animal care and horticulture, only the most basic education, and only for boys: I could go on and on. 

This is the expat advisor to the project. He is raised on a farm, holds a Masters degree in development. A thinker, a practical person, sensitive to the culture, considered in his application, persistent in the effort. His wife is built of the same quality. I wish we had 10 men and women like them.

Here, we have trialled improved orchards. You can see the saplings in the background. Tree spacing, pesticides, pruning, consistent fertilising. The plot is given to us for three years by a wealthier landowner, on condition that the people have free access to the orchard to learn better techniques. After three years, the orchard and it’s yield becomes his. As we drive home, A, the advisor wonders, ‘Is this the best approach? Should we benefit the wealthy further? But the poor can rarely afford to give us land to use for risky orchard trials. What about the middle people? Maybe we can work with them.’

I appreciate thinkers like this.

Charm-gari village. The leatherworker’s village.

And here it is: on a breathtakingly cold morning, they are still there, scraping the hides, breaking the ice off the pits where the skins will be tanned, hanging the leather to cure.

I ask, ‘Is it a high profession or a low one, leather working?’

The answer comes quickly, ‘Oh it is a high profession. But the market is ruined now. They cannot sell anything. Now, everything comes from China. Their leather is so much cheaper.’

I am grateful to be able to spend some time in Maimana.


Power trumps process: a reflection.

I am at Kabul airport. Again. So long I have been coming to this terminal. For years it hardly changed at all: girders hung broken and deadly from the ceiling, huge holes riddled the roof, exposed wires and pipers snaked through the building in an electrician’s nightmare. It was dark and cold and horrifically inefficient. But the people who worked here were fairly friendly. There was a timeless old man who emptied the bins, a foul huddle of steaming toilets and a pirate crew of guards and flight staff and lounging Mujahideen/ Talibs/ policemen. It was a good metaphor for the country as a whole. The guards and officials were resigned, cheerful and nonchalant (the Talibs were always surly). People smoked in the non-smoking areas, spat on the floor, slept slumped over like bags of spilling wheat, and entire families camped out for long periods, days or weeks perhaps, waiting for their flight. You could drive right up to the airport and sometimes right to the place when you were leaving, and when you arrived, you got out of the plane and walked through the building, where an immigration guard might or might not look at your passport. Bags were piled in a big heap out on the tarmac, and you simply collected yours and wandered off.

The last few years, Kabul airport has undergone a transformation. From being a broken, dysfunctional, welcoming place, it has slowly grown into the semblance of a functioning terminal. Walls have been repaired. People no longer spit on the floor. The no-smoking rule is enforced and people who want to suck on a cigarette have to go outside. There are security checks: a raft of them, a stupid, ineffective line of checks that do nothing to promote security, but do a great deal to produce irritation and delay. And the guards and police and officials are gradually becoming officious, arrogant and unhelpful.

I don’t know whether this change is to do with attitudes of policing learned from the foreign forces here: a good cop is a tough, aggressive cop. Or maybe it derives from the huge inequalities that every day here grow greater: those who can exercise power do, because any power people have can perhaps be translated into gain or favour. It might be to do with feeling powerless and once again, eternally poor. Poor and disappointed that the peace dividend of the US invasion of Afghanistan has been so meagre. Problems or issues here used to be mostly resolved with a conversation and a compliment; these days the impartial rule of law does not work, but neither is there a unbiased professionalism. And so little and ever less of the old manners remain, where tolerance, forbearance and a reliance on people to do the right thing were the norm. So we are somewhere in the middle: not the application of law, but not the absence of it. Instead, law is applied gratuitously, randomly, according to whim, mood, ethnicity, bribe, relationship, favour obligation. It is intensely frustrating.


At the airport this morning I stood in the queue and watched a woman and her daughter stack up over 140kg of luggage on the check-in scales. The official looked at it, and advised that a excess baggage fee of $120 was payable. The woman summoned a senior looking man in a suit, and whispered a name to him: Shekib. The man nodded, the bags were loaded, the mother and daughter went on their way and no fee was paid. Later, when I checked in, I was asked to produce my foreigners registration card. We all have to have these, and I don’t mind this, it is common enough in Asia. The original rule was, that every time you left Afghanistan, you surrendered the card, and on re-arriving, went and got a new one. That way, the Afghan Government could keep some record of the numbers of foreigners living and operating here (at least I suppose that was the idea). If this rule was systematically applied, I would be quite happy. But it is not: when my parents left Kabul, no card was required at all (just as well, as we hadn’t bothered to get them); when my friend Guen left, he had to surrender his. When we left to go to Kenya, they glanced at our cards, but said we could keep them. Often there is no one to take the cards. Sometimes there is two men, deep in conversation, and they wave you through. This morning, a truculent and stubborn official demanded I surrender mine. ‘ But I am coming back in a week! I am not leaving Afghanistan, this is just a short trip for work! Three weeks ago you let us keep them!’

Predictably starting such a conversation was pointless. And equally predictably, I got angry and he got angry. Then I calmed down and try to placate him, and he told me to go and have a good journey. I asked for my card back, and he again told me to go. Then I got angry, he got angry, and after a few more idiot orbits of this miserable encounter, I gave up and went through the gate fuming, telling the official he was crazy and unhelpful. ‘You’re a dog’ I heard him say, from behind my back, as I walked away.

Not a feel-good moment. But I have lots of not-feel good moments here in the last few years. I think it is because I don’t function well in this limbo of sometimes-law, sometimes not.

Later, after the card incident, I stood in another queue and watched as a large, powerful minister or Government officer and his flock of assistants jumped the queue in front of us all, and simply walked through all the semi-final security unchecked, unharried, unharrassed, and I again felt angry. I find it hard to not let such abuses of power bother me. Partly I am jealous and want such privilege for myself, but largely I loathe the self-serving use of such privilege and despise the way power trumps process.

Elsewhere in Kabul, friends of mine are at the moment dealing with a landlord who is attempting to break a housing contract struck by the landlord’s grandfather. The present landlord is using every dirty trick, including threat, force and bribery to get the lease declared void, and he probably will win. If he doesn’t win in the courts, he can simply throw a hand-grenade over the wall, and my friends will have to vacate the property anyway: two weeks ago, he arrived at the property with two trucks full of armed men, and attempted to seize the building by force. He has resorted to tactics and pressures that we can never use: if we do, we immediately lose any moral authority, and what’s more, we lose the fight as well. You cannot win against such a mindset.

I don’t know. Maybe I should end my time here. I used to love this place and the people. I functioned really well here in the anarchic, desperate, difficult days of the Taliban. Since the fall of the Taliban though, the rest of the world has gotten involved here, and I have found it increasingly hard to love and respect this place and the people. Afghan police now drive like the US military convoys, and have taken, I notice to wearing dark sunglasses. Afghan officials, who were once poor and desperate, but didn’t really stop you from your work, are now essentially out for themselves: two days ago, I was at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. In partnership with the IOM (a UN entity), we had submitted a proposal to help improve the rehabilitation and care processes of Kabul’s safe houses. There are only a few such shelters here, and the abused, trafficked and beaten women who find their way there are truly in need of real help (e.g., the recent story of a raped girl in Bamiyan who was taken to a cow shed and held down while her brother cut her open with a razor and performed a c-section abortion. No anaesthetic, and she was sewn up with potato sack twine).

Qazi Fouzia, the Deputy for Laws at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs told us that neither Hagar nor the IOM could not work with any Afghan-run shelter, period. She tapped her high heels against the floor, and continued: ‘…the shelters are Afghan’s business; you cannot do this work. You have no protocol. But,’ she said, smiling, ‘we do need new tables, chair and office furnishings here. Actually, we need a new office.’ My eyes rolled in their sockets and involuntarily I found myself shaking my head, but I still smiled back. If she, a woman, has so little heart for the poor women of this country, just what is the point? In the old days, officials would ask for a pen, a book, an English text. Now they want 4WDs and airconditioners to sweeten the deal.

Some people tolerate this kind of stuff much better than me. They have a larger capacity for putting up with other people’s bullshit. The abuse of power, the selfishness, the corruption of laws, the opportunism – it riles them less. I get riled, I get angry. But getting angry here only wins you enemies. A person I know, when he left here for the last time, shook the dust from his feet as he boarded the plane at this same airport. He was recalling the Biblical example, where such an action indicates that a place has rejected light and chosen darkness. That was his opinion; wrong perhaps, but that was how he felt. I don’t want to leave here feeling like that. I want to leave here with my love intact.


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.