cue the inspirational music, please
May 7, 2007

 
"Any man can be 62, but it takes a bus to be 62A"
-- Spike Milligan, on his 62nd birthday

It made me laugh, so I had to share it.

My first week back has been busy busy busy. I've had lots to do at work, which makes me much more content than when I struggle for what to do. Also makes the day pass quicker. My favorite task so far since returning to work was writing an internal document about an assembly of women in a Northern district who are starting to meet for the first time in the history of the province, to identify their own, unique development needs, and the strategy used to create this group in the face of huge cultural barriers. It was my favorite because it is one of the more obviously-human activities we undertake, and IMO, could have great press appeal. I hope I can make this document, or an adaptation of it, public eventually.

I'm reading these warm, fuzzy blogs by various aid workers and I'm so envious of the encounters they are having, the help they are giving, the rich cultural activities they are experiencingŠ they write these accounts where you can hear "We are the world" in the background. They post amazing photos of landscapes and people. They attend local events and meet local people, including women and children. They talk and share. They buy lots of lovely local items. They walk or ride a bike to work. They live with a family. They are inspired and energized by their work.

And then there's me. I'm just not having an experience anything like that here in Afghanistan. There's nothing romantic about this job - and what's romantic about this country, other than the incredible natural beauty outside of Kabul - is hard to access outside of other people's photos. I'm navigating bureaucracies, editing documents, whining for information, being thrown around an SUV twice a day to and from work, and trying not to burst into tears over puppies looking lost at the side of the road - or worse. I don't get to eat with the locals in their homes. Weddings here are supposedly hurried experiences (two-hours max) in lifeless wedding halls with all of the men and women entirely separate, and absolutely no dancing - the goal is to wolf down the mediocre food offered, wait for the bride change clothes several times, and get out because there's another wedding party waiting. The only children with whom I interact are banging on the window of the SUV when we're stopped in traffic, demanding money. If my guest house didn't have live music on Thursday nights when there's local men staying here, I would have no idea what instruments local musicians play. UN Volunteers in the field here in Afghanistan are having much more fulfilling experiences than me - 'cause they are in the field, working with locals.

I work with veteran non-Afghanis who have worked in Eastern Europe and Africa. And Afghanistan is wearing even them down. Three of the internationals I like most will leave just before or just after I do when my contract is over in August. I have a feeling there are others looking to move.

I have not lost faith in the program I'm a part of - I still think the rural development projects with which we are involved are worthwhile. I'm sure that if I could go visit those projects, even just once every three weeks, and meet face-to-face with the communities benefiting from them, it would change my perspective hugely. But I can't. I can't because this is a post-conflict zone, rife with criminals, mines, and people who hate anyone who doesn't interpret their religion EXACTLY the same way as them. The first two scare me much more than the latter, actually, because the first two are much more likely.

So I have to encourage others to gather information for me - and they are government bureaucrats and long-time, jaded aid workers who just don't have an understanding of how to look at rural development projects from a human perspective - or even a TV-clip perspective. Maybe they don't have the will either. Donors and government officials to whom we report seem most interested in numbers and jargon. And I HATE jargon. Most of what I've done, work-wise, has been editing documents, from reports to press releases, because I'm one of just two native English speakers in the entire government compound where I work. I've been trying to edit reports not just for grammar and clarity, but also to ask for more human elements, and it's freaking people out - they think it's enough to say they had 12 community trainings, and they cannot understand why it's important for them to say what the trainings were for, what the participants' responses were, how it changed things a week or a month later, how many women were at the trainings, if there were none why they have to explain it, etc. I'm clashing most with the head of one unit - and I think it's because I'm exposing that he's not really doing anything. How many times can you say in a report that "activities were delayed and plans are being revised for the next reporting period" before someone says, "Geesh, what did you do, anyway?"

Even that report I talked about at the start of this blawg has caused tension - I've put in a lot of blanks to be filled, and there's a reluctance to fill them. Why? IMO, because everyone here is used to writing for bureaucrats, whose eyes glaze over on page 2 and who don't pay attention after that; UN, donor and government staff just want to be able to hold a report in their hand and check off a list saying that a report was received. By contrast, I'm trying to write things for the public and press. I see every document as going up on the web eventually, either as is or adapted for the public in a different format, both in the name of transparency and in the name of press relations. I want you all to read a report and go, "Wow, your program does GREAT work!"

My office mate and I have written a guide to writing reports, and when we started it, it was about grammar mostly, but now, it's really about style and purpose. It's three pages, it's simple and practical, and we're feeling really proud of it. We're circulating it soon to the entire staff, and then we want to see what happens. When our local counterpart starts, I'm going to have her translate the non-grammar tips into Dari, and we'll circulate it to an even wider audience.

So, do you see why my work doesn't have "We are the world" playing in the background? It's because of both the nature of my work and the country. This is just not a "We are the world" kind of place. That's why I haven't written much about my work, despite many of you asking for more info.

I wish we had two days off instead of just one each week; I'd donate one entire day to a nonprofit organization, either serving animals or women. I'd help care for animals or teach women English and promote the work of women entrepreneurs. I'd have work that would be inspire me. And I'd have a blog that was a LOT more interesting to read. I'm a UN veteran, but when all is said is done, my heart will always be with NGOs.

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If you have read this blawg, PLEASE let me know.
Comments are welcomed, and motivate me to keep writing --
without comments, I start to think I'm talking to cyberair.
 

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