Monday, June 22, 2009

Sweet Milk and a Kidnapping

Today was a special day at work which, I think, really draws out what my experience in Kabul has been like so far. First, I got to drink the sweetest, most fragrant almond milk that might be known to man (it was the kind of wonderful tasted that every kid’s childhood should’ve tasted like). And then, while I was gulping it down with a sample of delicious cookies, I was standing next to a man who had just been released from a Taliban kidnapping.

To explain: We had a meeting at the deputy ministry of youth affairs today. The meeting room was in the cellar (which seems a popular set-up around here). There were no tables in the room, 2 beautiful carpets though and then just wooden chairs all around the walls. In order to put up the projector two chairs had been pushed together and the machines was balancing on the backs of the two chairs. We were told there were six office laptops, none of which could be found… so someone ran and must’ve convinced a co-worker who had brought in their own laptop (to work on it themselves I would suppose) to lend it to us.

We started with our presentation once the deputy minister was there. He does not speak English, but French (in addition to Dari etc.), so we held the meeting in a mix of English, French and Dari. Half way through he let us know that we would have to take a break because the department was having a celebration in honor of the return of an employee who had just been released after having been taken hostage by the Taliban on a trip of official business.

So we paused, as if this was an expected, average-day occurrence and went to a different room, where about 25 men (I only spotted three female employees) had been waiting. In the middle of the room was a table with tons of cake and cookies (which are both really good here). A small man with a white beard, in the traditional light colored baggy pants, lose shirt and dark vest entered and served everyone a glass of hot, thick milk. First I thought it a little odd. It’s rare that I’ve seen anyone above the age of nine having a glass of hot milk, so I would’ve expected tea or coffee or something. But the moment I had taken a sip of the milk, I was reminded that not only are milk&cookies still a fabulous combo, but also that THIS particular milk put any coffee/tea/whatever to deep shame. Heavenly.

Just when I was about to get comfy in milk-cookie-heaven, the deputy minister began to tell the story of the kidnapped employee. He recounted that the employee had been traveling on official business in the south when his car was stopped and he and two colleagues were pulled out violently. Luckily they had stored all office documentation under their seats, so there was no ‘proof’ of them having done anything ‘wrong’. Still they were blindfolded, hand and feet tied and taken to some unknown location. They were accused of working for the U.S. and they (and their families) were threatened that the kidnapped men would be killed (a very real threat around here). The kidnappers (who may or may not have been ‘real Taliban’, or else ordinary criminals) held the men for several days. We were told they were only released after long negotiations by their families. Whether these were entirely verbal or whether the families had to pay (what sometimes amount to an annual salary of an entire family) was left unsaid…

Another sip of milk and back to our meeting … Bitter, bitter, sweet

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

She works hard for the money - My typical day at work:

Went back to work, after taking off Sunday (week here is Sunday – Thursday) and thought it might be interesting to give my typical work routine.

6:00 am – wake up to switch on the hot water boiler so that I can take a hot shower, then go back to sleep on my deeply uncomfortable bed. Most of the time there is city power (or the generator). So far there was only one morning without electricity (which also means no water!).

7:00 am – Get up properly, open all windows and doors so that the musty smell of my shed can be replaced by fresh air. Shower and get dressed for work (some wide tunic, long trousers, headscarf). No need to comb my hair as I keep the scarf on all day. Most women (including many nationals) take it off in the work compound, but anyone who’s seen me taming my ‘fro, knows I’ll gladly use any excuse to avoid that ;-)

7:50 am sharp – Be picked up by a work car to be taken to the office.

8:00 am – 12:00pm – Working away. Anything ranging from proof-reading draft documents, doing background research on topics like youth policy, microfinance or civil service policy to taking the minutes at meetings (we meet with donor countries, other departments and we do so a lot), visiting workshops and training courses that we are organizing or allocating money towards. On good days there’ll be a workshop (like on politics and development), on a really good day I get to leave the office to have a meeting in a different office or even accompany someone doing some monitoring and evaluation of a programme and I get to interview trainers or participants. Seeing anything in Kabul is still quite the thrill, since security restricts us so much.

Around Noon – Rush to the Afghan canteen. It gets really crowded from 12:00pm when everyone in the office (around 40 people I’d estimate) comes down into the courtyard to get their lunch. The crowds aren’t really a problem at all though, because one of the upsides of the much talked about status of women here is that we don’t have to queue. It’s really rather fabulous! The majority of workers are men anyways, and my female colleagues and I get to walk to the very front of the line where the gentleman next in line will politely offer you his space. It rocks big! I was lucky to have been taken under the wing of my lovely colleague Homa, who meets up with some of her colleagues for lunch every day. They try and speak English most of the time for me, but I am starting to pick up very little pieces of Dari too. The discussions are always interesting and fun. Though much more sophisticated that my lunch-talk at home… They send each other poetry for instance and will then talk about literature and poetry over lunch. These things are an intrinsic part of the culture I was told. And while I would instantly leave the table if someone dared pestering me with poetry over my pizza back in the US, this is really interesting (and humbling as I read my last poem at age 9 or so;-)
12:30 – Get back to the office. More meetings, more write ups etc.

4:30 pm sharp/ 6:00pm sharp / 7:00pm sharp – Run down to the parking lot, where there’ll be about a dozen cars taking all staff home again. They leave super punctually. I was three minutes late once and that was already too late. Most national staff at the ‘lower ranks’ leaves with the first shuttle and then depending on the work load, the more senior the person the later their shuttle home. Luckily being an intern is pretty much the bottom of the hierarchy, so if I’m still on my desk at 4:31pm someone will come and shush me out of the office. Especially, the national staff is very sweet about this and always worried that I am working too hard.

Post work – Twice a week I spend an unacceptable $30 to go the town’s only gym (per visit that is). It’s at a fancy hotel, but rather badly equipped (6 cardio machines, only 3 of them work) and some weights. Still with the delicious food here there’s really no choice. I spent about 2.5 hours there to make sure I get my money’s worth. The good thing is that the gym’s connected to a spa-area with sauna, steam room, fancy towels etc. I make sure to shampoo and soap myself about three times to really max out those $30. If I don’t gym it up, I usually meet up with friends, go home sit in our Garden Eden trying to teach one of the parrots to say my name or try convince one of the males around me to accompany me somewhere (work rules say I’m only allowed out with male company…). Later we have dinner at my house. Not always all 6 of us living there, but I rarely eat alone. After that I might go out again, read, etc... And then go to bed to be awoken again at 6am…

Ps: just to clear things up, I don’t really work hard for the money, seeing that the internship is unpaid ;-) But didn’t wanna miss out on the title.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Everyone had warned me, repeating over and over than ‘everyone get’s ill in Kabul’. Having been to and lived in much filthier places, I was pretty sure they must’ve meant ‘the common person (but not Adi) gets sick in Kabul’. Turns out I was wrong and I fell ill this Saturday.
My immune system is certainly not award-winning and I am the master of catching unsightly rashes (preferably in my face) whenever I approach the equator, but I’ve never had to consult a doctor about stuff, so I was really upset (mainly a bruised ego) that I had to degrade myself and go to the German Clinic and beg for a cure this weekend.
The facility is in the middle of Kabul in an inconspicuous looking building, but is surprisingly well equipped, clean and knowledgeable (as far as I could tell). It was started by two German medical workers who had worked at the German Malteser Hospital in Kabul and felt the city needed something more sophisticated in terms of diagnostics. Not surprisingly now everything runs according to German standards (very reassuring I must say ;-) and all equipment and medicine is imported from Germany (again, very welcome seeing that I could actually read what I am taking). The nursing and admin staff are all Afghan and from the names of the doctors I suspect that at least two of them will also be Afghan.
You have to pay USD 100 upfront before they will even look at you, which is more than most Afghans make in a month (the overall country’s average monthly wage has been estimated to be at USD 30, it’s higher for Kabul but people who make $100 or more are few). Still, the waiting room, in which I got to spend a whole three hours, was filled with 90% Afghans. Among the national patients about 85% were men… I tried to come up with all sorts of theories trying to convince myself that there might be an acceptable reason for that, but fact is this country has among the highest maternal death rates in the world – and the waiting room observation is likely to be part of that equation. Even though the doctor was a lady and so were there nurses that were with me in the examination room.
Anyways, the lab was efficient and 24 hours later I had a diagnosis (salmonella and something else with a name too long to remember). Was immediately put on meds, which the clinic’s own pharmacist counts out and then explains to you with pictures (and words of course) to make sure illiterate patients can follow too. So hopefully, I’m done being sick in a week.
All together I thought it reassuring to know that there is a decent facility here, though the question of access to its services remains.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Accidental Apartheid

Since Afghans aren’t allowed to drink alcohol and since expats could probably not be convinced staying anywhere without the occasional/daily drink(s), there are special licenses issued to restaurants and bars here. That means that those places are allowed to serve alcohol, but in turn Afghans aren’t allowed to hang out there. I have been told that if one looks ‘too Afghan’, you are asked for ID and might even be turned away if you had headed to such a location for a work dinner with an international. These tend to be the more expensive restaurants and I imagine that it must be infuriating to any wealthier Afghan living in Kabul to be denied access to such places. Not that there aren’t any other nice places, but if there was anything in my country that I was denied access to I’d be seriously upset! This also makes it doubly hard to maintain normal friendly relations between nationals and internationals as they simply don’t tend to go out to the same venues after work. To make Afghan-non-Afghan friendships still harder, international staff is really limited in their movements as we are confined to a ‘safe box’ (a area of the city, which is considered to be safer) and many Afghan live outside it, so officially you aren’t even allowed to visit each other.
At work there are two canteens – one catering Afghan food (which I have found to be rather delicious). It’s cheap and served outside on a beautiful sun-lit terrace under some trees. It’s really rather lovely. Then there’s the international canteen, which is inside, cooled to temperatures that would even make a Bostonian put on a sweater and heavily overpriced. They serve pork they everyday (don’t ask me why) and some other rather questionable cuisine that is neither Western nor tasty. Quite a few internationals do brave it regularly though (one reason may be that the Afghan canteen’s menu doesn’t ever change) but I haven’t seen a single Afghan eat there yet. Again, probably not the most healthy set-up to encourage friendly relations between Afghans and internationals.