Afghanistan-a peek into the diary (13)

Mid December 2005

I cannot believe it has now been 2 months since I arrived in Afghanistan. It has been such a busy time, so full of impressions and learning……..and I am beginning to feel really immersed here. I am so excited about heading home soon to see friends and family but it also feels a bit odd, a world so far away from what I am currently experiencing.

We are still finalising our scope of works for the projects to be implemented-it has all taken a bit longer than expected. The fact that we have still not received project funds takes a little pressure off us and makes it seem a little less stressful that we have not completed this task yet……with no money, we cannot buy any project materials anyway.

We are now beginning to think about the rural works which form part of our programme. This component is a much smaller part of the project and only a very small slice of the overall grant is dedicated to it, but to me it is no less important. What is particularly exciting is that this component involves work between 3 agencies: UNDP’s Urban Development Group (that is us), bringing the infrastructure and Monitoring and Evaluation expertise; UNMACA, the UN de-mining agency here in Afghanistan, who will ensure that any unexploded ordnance (UXO) is removed from fields, wells or water sources before we start digging and working, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) with its extensive experience of rural recovery and development projects and its ongoing work in some of the potential target communities. The small scale infrastructure projects which we hope to deliver are intended to strengthen sustainable livelihoods support delivered to the communities by FAO, mostly farming of fishery projects. Digging a culvert, providing a small bridge to link road segments which are important for market access, improving flood defences or cleaning and strengthening of existing irrigation channels can really help ensure that farmers can get the best yield from their land or ponds.

Our first visit to rural districts took us to an area called Kama and was deeply humbling. Once again, like so many times before, I was struck by the hospitality of the Afghans. We met with the village shuras (committees/councils) who showed an astonishing commitment to helping vulnerable families, in particular those headed by women or those which have family members who are disabled, and suggested various projects to help them improve their livelihoods. We sat in the sun on small benches made of wood and straw, had so much tea that it came out of our ears and then participated in a wonderful lunch with the shura elders, during which sat on the floor, eating with our hands and enjoying meat, rice and fresh yoghurt made directly in the community. I bonded with a boy with a disability and his older sister who was so loving to him that it almost moved me to tears. Unlike physical disabilities inflicted by war and violence, mental disability is still stigmatised in Afghan communities……men and women in that situation are often hidden away and are often excluded from opportunities to fulfil their true potential. Very sad, particularly given the numbers of individuals with mental challenges is likely to be much higher than official statistics would indicate, due to intermarriage within families.

As a woman, I get the best of both worlds during community visits: because I am an expat and, as such, a visitor, I get to participate in functions and gatherings from which Afghan women would be excluded. Equally, however, by virtue of being female, I am invited inside Afghan homes, where the women hide away in a little empire from the eyes of men who are not their relatives and look after the children. During our visit to Kama, I got to talk to some of the women, cradle their children, take photos and laugh with them about the little communication we were able to have. Such a privilege……I wish I could express to them how honoured I feel.

After Christmas, we will have to identify 3 other rural communities and visit them, too. I was keen to complete at least one more visit before going on leave, but am not sure if we will manage, what with the need to bring 3 agencies together, the time it takes to get road missions organised and authorised, and the fact that I also need to give the engineers time to work on the technical specifications for the urban projects we have now agreed, so that we can start launching tenders for materials, identify unskilled labourers and get started on the works as soon as the materials have been purchased. Not a bad thing really, as this also gives me time to think about how we can organise the Monitoring and Evaluation sessions for the benefit of government officials which, ideally, should start taking place once infrastructure works are underway. So much to think about, so little time.

Loving siblings in Kama