Somehow the fact that I am in Afghanistan sometimes still feels as unreal today as it did on that first day when I gazed down onto the brown, majestic Afghan mountains from the plane, for the first time, onto the arid desert beneath. It was then that I understood for the first time why any war in Afghanistan has been a nightmare for outsiders to fight: impenetrable, mysterious and closed off it all seems to be, and in many ways, although the people are open, hospitable, kind, warm-hearted and humorous, their real selves can be as impenetrable in the beginning as those mountains winding their through this country’s dry and dusty lands.
In many ways I am still soaking up impressions and images—as we drive along, looking out of the car, the curious looks by children, some of them begging at the windows, others just waving, staring through eyes which can be anything from dark brown to turquoise-green; spotting a hand from under a light blue burqa and letting my imagination decipher what mind and dreams are hidden under it…….a particularly fun exercise the other day when, sitting in the back of the UN car, I was waving at a women peeping out from the pack of a land-rover shielded from the wind only with dark sackcloth. There were other women there, too, but only one ventured out with her head to wave at me when she thought my driver was not looking—only to burst into hysterics with her friends afterwards behind the cover of burqa and sackcloth……. Despite this being the new Afghanistan, many women still wear the burqa, and so far I have only seen 2 women out in the streets without a headscarf, even in Kabul. Muslim traditions are still firmly rooted in Afghan society, and for anyone to fail to see and act according to this when dressing and moving among the locals would be insulting and disrespectful. Therefore it is “headscarves on” as soon as I leave the house and in any official meetings, and I am getting used to that and the Shalwar kameez clothing which I brought with me from Alperton.
The poverty really hits you when you reach Kabul right from the moment you leave the airport. Dusty roads, often no tarmac, housing made of stones and flimsy metallic covers, open drains which look probably less awful than they are dangerous, some buildings in ruins, others with bullet holes in the walls,…..and women, children and people with disabilities begging. At the same time, Afghanistan is more alive than many places I have been to—and hope and resilience breathe out of every corner: kites flying in the wind, mule drawn donkey carts under the control of young boys, or old men with the classical Pashtun headdress, their faces weather- beaten, beautiful and dignified, on a purposeful trip; multi-colour trucks; old buses from India, Germany, tanks from Russia by the roadside, colourful fruit stalls, even gigantic roses and sunflowers which seem to flourish in Afghanistan…… children everywhere. On some days, you can see the mountains surrounding Kabul as if to protect the city from any more harm….on others you can only guess their outlines under a cloud of dust. Dust—it is everywhere…..and as much part of life here as anything else. Apparently, staying in Afghanistan longer than 2 years is bound to leave to respiratory issues later on…..what a prospect.
I spent my first few days getting to know the team here in Kabul and my colleague Eva who will be working in Mazar in the same capacity as I will in Jalalabad. A fab team, we have really hit it off. My role will be to manage the office of the Urban Development Group, one of UNDP’s projects, in Jalalabad and to provide training in Monitoring and Evaluation to government representatives and local colleagues alike. At the same time, there is creative scope for shaping the projects we are implementing and so I am glad that my boss, Scott, and the Deputy Country Director have asked me to represent UNDP at the inter agency coordination meetings in Jalalabad. It will be good to know what other agencies are doing and explore how we can use scarce resources to maximum benefit, especially as there is so much work to be done here in Afghanistan.I feel out of my depth but I guess all I can do is my best, and Scott is a fantastic and encouraging boss. I could not have wished for a more supportive line manager.
Then, of course, there was security training. That part of things is at first a bit gruelling although in a strange way you see it as precaution and not as a threat. The security measures and behaviour patterns you are asked to adopt simply become a way of life: avoiding busy places, locking the car door, landmine recognition, even some of the more uncomfortable things we are asked to think through, like how to behave when taken hostage, at roadblocks or other unexpected events. In reality it is nowhere near as scary as it sounds and you simply get used to the nightly radio checks (one is about to start, in fact, the guy is babbling on and calling the different call signs as I write……), the fact that you have to get security clearance every time you travel anywhere, the precautionary army ration packs we have to keep in our houses together with a stock of water…..that said, it is hard to get used to having to go absolutely anywhere by car and having to be quick in bazaars when you do venture out there. I already miss taking a walk when it takes my fancy and must get out my skipping rope soon or else I will start to sound like Thomas the Tank Engine when climbing stairs.