Afghanistan-a peek into the diary (5)

November 8th, 2005

I cannot believe I have been here almost a month now and am so pleased to reassure everyone reading my letter that I am still loving my life and work here in Afghanistan. I had an enjoyable final week of briefing and induction in Kabul before heading out to Jalalabad where I am now permanently based. My first week at work was quite challenging, a huge reminder of how tricky cultural differences can be. The main problem was my chief engineer who clearly struggles to suddenly have a female boss above him who is younger than him….considering the cultural issues, I have to say he actually handled the situation extremely well….but tough it was. He shouted at some of the staff and was quite rude on occasions, but now things are a lot better. That said, I have quickly come to realise that Pashtun men can be highly traditional in their regard of women and all their values and, at the same time, highly sensitive little souls. I feel like I am walking on egg shells a lot of the time, which is all the more challenging as this is the first time I am officially in a management role. The change from being “one of the team” to “being the boss” does involve some shifts in attitudes, dynamics, as well as a need to show confidence and assertiveness even when I feel insecure at times in this different environment. That has been a challenge for me, too.

I spent my first two weeks in Jalalabad getting our office fully up to scratch, which included purchase of equipment, general management issues and specifics, like letting our security guards know that it is NOT okay to just clear off in the middle of the day to have a hair cut or to spend money for Eid. Now our office is fully up to scratch and meeting the UN security requirements, which is important in Jalalabad. Driving through the place it is hard to conceive how violence or hatred could ever reign there……but things can get “hot “ quickly, as the demonstrations in May clearly showed, so it is better to be safe than sorry.

Apart from that, I have had a lot of meetings with other agencies to find out what work they are doing and explore potential for cooperation. There are some exciting opportunities there—in other cases, heads of agency display a certain arrogance on the lines of “well, you have a lot to learn from us” without showing an understanding that, potentially, they could learn from our work, too. That is always slightly annoying, especially as synergy is such a good way of savings funds, learning together and making a difference. Generally, I think two heads can always think better than just one.

I have now also sorted out my accommodation issue and am now living in a very nice house with 5 other people—one Canadian girl and 4 other chaps from France, Sudan, Australia and Germany respectively. The arrangement is perfect for me—a nice balance between having friendly people around to socialise with and having too much party atmosphere.

Friends and family have asked about my daily routines and way of life here. Living in Afghanistan means a huge change in lifestyle in so many ways. Those who know how many nights a week I used to spend out and about, doing things at church, meeting friends and socialisig will know that it is strikingly unusual for me to be home and in bed by 9pm! Not only do I get very tired here—a combination of the stress that comes with living under tight security ruled and in such a different cultural environment and start of the working day at 8am—but there is also little to do. We are not allowed to go anywhere except UN MOSS-compliant guest houses. (MOSS stands for Minimal Operational Standards of Security and is a UN term).The bazaar, local restaurants and houses are out of bound for us due to the security risks. This is particularly tough as Afghans are incredibly sociable and do invite you to their houses. It breaks my heart every time I have to say “no”—I feel a whole part of Afghanistan is closed to me because of that and I am not sure how much the Afghans understand our need for sticking with the regulations. In a sense, the whole thing grates with me as well… is almost as if we are saying our lives are worth more than theirs , which is so totally against everything I believe.

In short, social activities here revolve around gathering with people and having meals (which is why I am so pleased to have such nice flatmates), trips to the gym (amazing how unfit you get when you cannot move around freely), email—and then reading, writing etc. I am also getting tremendous comfort and joy out of the music I have on my laptop, as well as out of the sermons which my church is posting on its website. Thanks to them and communication from home, I feel connected and “spiritually nourished”. It must be tough for people who do not like reading or writing letters—-what on earth they do with their time I honestly do not know. Maybe that is why some spend so much of their time getting “trollied”…..?


Two little girls playing in the streets during Eid (as photographed from the roof of our guest house)

Jalalabad children playing during Eid