Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Terry in Afghanistan

So…how to describe Afghanistan…and what it is like here.  Well, as a foreigner, we aren’t allowed out much – security concerns are such that foreigners have to stay pretty much in the compounds and aren’t allowed out.  This is one of the calmer areas of Afghanistan though so for example, I was allowed to go overland to this region (very rare) and we can walk back and forth from the WV office compound to the WV National Team house where the non-local Afghan staff stay.  However, we have to have an Afghan accompany us – and it’s only a two block walk.  So even in the calmest part of Afghanistan, there are a lot of security constraints. 
So what’s Afghanistan like?  Hmm… When driving to this region, I got to see a lot of the landscape (about a 4 hour drive).  The area when we left Herat was flatter and greener than I expected.  It was located on a broad rolling plain.  There were mountains in the distance, but more hilly than mountainy.  As much as anything, it reminded me of Oruro [Bolivia].  The expanses were pretty empty.  We did pass the occasional small village.  The houses were all sort of one-story mud-hut types inside mud-walled compounds.  So the dominant village color was brown.  No windows facing the road so didn’t see much of people (privacy is HIGHLY valued here – especially around the idea that outsiders might see women in the compounds – hence no windows into public spaces). 
The road starting out of Herat was a double lane paved road to begin with.  But about an hour into the trip, the road turned to a wide gravel road.  Then after about a half hour of that, it turned into a what was basically a single lane dirt track.  That lasted the rest of the trip.  About the time that the road turned into a dirt track, it started to climb more into more hilly regions.  We climbed and climbed for a bit over a high pass and then dropped back down into what would be more “hilly not mountains” region.  The whole way it was snowing hard and at the top of the pass it was basically pure white – couldn’t see hardly even the “road”. 
The town we are in is called Qala-e-Naw (you can find it on google maps a couple of inches from Herat). The town is a regional center type...  It’s mostly brown mud compounds on the edges, but the center of the town is more like what you might call normal small town. Everything is dirt streets though.  Electricity is kind of optional – sort of goes in and out.  But the WV compounds have generators which they run when needed. 

Other random impressions - everyone takes off their shoes at the door (just like Albania) and walk around barefoot or with flip-flops inside the office.  The men mostly walk around barefoot and the women tend to have the flip-flops.  It’s a little odd to see all these men in traditional afghan dress sitting barefoot at computers and typing away on project management documentation. 
The office is a 4-story old house structure with a flat roof top walled area which is nice when it’s sunny.  I went up there this morning and took some pictures on the ipod.  The place is pretty crammed.  There are about 100+ staff in this office because they manage a lot of big grants from USDA and USAID and CIDA.  I think the program in this region has a pretty good reputation as such things go.  I have half a suspicion that why a conservative area filled with Taliban supporters may allow WV to operate is because it provides employment to so many local people.  And there is something like 12 million USD coming into the region via these grants.  I think a lot of cousins/brothers get contracting gigs to build stuff like wells and such in the villages.  But it seems to work – everyone is happy – local people get jobs, relatives get contracting gigs, and villagers get some cool stuff.  At least there is no sponsorship silliness here…just grants ;)

Afghanistan has an unusual mixture of contrasts.  Most people wear the traditional Afghan clothes – kind of like a big loose tunic over top of some loose pants.  With a jacket over top when cold.  But then they are all talking on cell phones (even the guards) and checking internet.  In Herat there were some people dressed in western clothing (about half) but here in Qala-e-Naw, I haven’t seen any western clothing except for the two [non-Afghan WV women] and myself. 

The office is primarily dominated by men, but there are a cadre of women working on a women’s literacy project.  They are part of the team that is doing the baseline, so I’ve been interacting with them some – in the sense of they are in the same room as me, but of course they don’t talk to me or anything.  They all wear headcoverings, although in the meetings they are almost uncovered (just something on top of the head to hide the hair) but when they leave the office, they wrap up in a big blue Burkha thing. 
Let’s see – what else?   The foreigner quarters are located on the ground floor of the offices and consist of a big common room/kitchen and three bedrooms (and bathroom).  All toilets here are the Turkish [squat] toilet styles.  The foreigner quarters does have a TV (although I haven’t watched anything).  It looks like this house used to belong to a wealthy family – the ceiling is all that fancy turn of the century filigree type of thing.

The shower is kind of non-functional so I take bucket baths (which I think is the standard for Afghans).  The Russian is kind of freaked out by it, but those years in Lesotho have been helpful for dealing with different forms of washing oneself.  As I think of it, the bucket bath thing in Lesotho was because it was a cold, water scarce region.  Very similar to here.

There are six foreigners in WV Afghanistan and they all live in the team house in Herat.  I think the whole “living together, working together, can’t go outside the compound” thing makes everyone a little squirrely.  Every 8 weeks, each staff person gets a 2 week R&R break outside of Afghanistan.  

The trainings have been done in a big room in the National Team house.  There are no chairs.  Afghans meet by sitting on the floor on cushions – so there are cushions scattered around the room and the women sit on one side and the men on the other.  I stand up front with my wireless mouse and point to things on the screen or on the flipcharts. 

At lunch, everyone eats with their hands.  No tables.  A big plastic sheet is spread out in the middle of the floor and then people kneel or sit cross-legged around the sheet.  (men only, women in separate room).  The lunches are distributed (Styrofoam take-out boxes – another weird contrast) and people eat with their right hands (left hand is used to wipe ones bottom, so don’t eat with that).  I can do okay right-handed, it reminds me of my Somalia days – but I tend to dribble the rice a little bit.  I like the food though.  It’s usually rice, some cabbage and tomatoes sliced up with a hot pepper, and a chunk of goat.  It’s accompanied by Nan – a basic flat-bread type of carbohydrate.  I like it.  I don’t think the Russian really likes it much.

At the foreigner quarters, there is a cook who will make meals for the foreigners when they are around (a man – it was interesting to note that all the servant types are men – the whole “women being exposed to outsiders” thing prevents them from doing the menial jobs in the team house and the foreigner quarters.  I don’t think that the cook really understands western food, but tries.  I think I would prefer if he just made Afghan food, but I think most of the foreigners are kind of fussy...

What else to write about?  There are piles of fresh fruit here – all imported from Pakistan ironically - that’s interesting because it’s on the other side of the country.  Also, almost all of the households here have a family member working in Iran and sending money home (sound familiar?).  Iran is sort of considered the developed country/USA equivalent for Afghans - which is also interesting given the way that it’s portrayed in western media.  It’s the place that people go to for education, jobs, or culture. 

[To be continued...]


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