Letters from Afghanistan
A number of years have passed since I last landed at Kabul International Airport. Not much has changed. Only half of the gate docking piers were functional then, and there were even less capable of moving to towards the plane now, and it was the usual scramble from the plane down some corridors and stairs to find the shortest line at immigration. After that, the baggage hall was, if anything, worse than last time as “meeters and greeters” jockeyed for position at the Foreigners Registration desk, manned by a sole individual trying to deal with about 80 foreigners who were also trying to spot their luggage doing circuits on the sole functioning belt at the same time.
And then, having secured both the foreigners’ registration card and luggage we were off to my home from home for the next few weeks.
I am delighted to report that rules of the road are still optional, and you just pick a line that seems least obstructed and go. It still makes absolutely no difference what side of the road you are driving on, it is highly unlikely that a traffic policeman will intervene unless you attempt to rush through one of the many checkpoints in the “ring of steel” that encircles the city centre.
I reside down a lane which is also home to a number of Afghan generals and thus guarded by some armoured vehicles with 20mm weapons pointing at the checkpoint at the end of the street. If it ever kicks off here, the sound of that going off, will give us plenty of warning to reach one of the two safe rooms in the villa.
As the Municipal Capacity Development Advisor to the Deputy Ministry of Municipalities (DMM) and the Mayor of Kabul, who does not report to the DMM, but has direct access to the President’s office, I have been playing catch up for the last week and a half, reading historical data, Municipal Governance Capacity Index (MGCI) reports, the local draft Municipal Law, (which has still not been accepted by parliament despite being submitted a year ago), DMM’s Strategic Plan while at the same time trying to formulate a revised MGCI for the larger cities, like Jalalabad, Hirat, Kandahar, Mazar I Sharif, and another version for Kabul and its 22 Districts.
My other task is to plan the implementation of four capacity building learning centers in the regional hubs which will be staffed by a mobile training team, but first things first. I need to establish where the deficiencies are, and then plan the infrastructure and training to address them.
For those of you who are still awake at this stage, “CONGRATULATIONS!”
This trip is also an opportunity to close my local bank account which I have been trying to do, on and off, for five years. The bank that holds my $300.00 has changed hands twice in that time but I am hopeful that I will get it done in, at most, two weeks, with a couple of face to face visits.
By the way it is the year 1397 here and that is what it feels like.
Today was the day that I had planned to close a long-forgotten bank account. And so, at 1.25 pm precisely, the security dudes, (the lady security dudess is in France on vacation) and I got into the B6 armored Landcruiser for a short(ish) ride to the Headquarters of the Afghanistan International Bank. This bank has been teasing me for the last five years with monthly emails which informed me that I had $332.46 in an account I had used whilst working here for the UN. Not soon after leaving Afghanistan in 2011 I had tried to close the account by mail, email and messenger – all to no avail. The sticking point was that I had to be there in person to sign the necessary paperwork.
And now I was finally here in person and determined to retrieve my money. I should have known better than to expect things to go smoothly at the HQ of this august organization. Whilst there was no problem getting into the underground carpark and past the local security staff, I did set off the metal detector and got patted down in a semi-intimate way by a disinterested guard, and we reached a customer service officer who appeared friendly.
After the usual greetings, I asked to close my account. “No problem, let me see . . .” and he went to his keyboard to pull up the details of my account. Big pause . . . .“This account is dormant, you will need to go the branch where you opened it, to close it.” I thanked him for his help and we departed, still full of hope.
Wending our way back down a road where I had had an office years ago, I noted that the Kabul Fried Chicken shop is still open and is still using the logo of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The Wazir branch of the AIB now operates behind steel vehicle barriers and gates and is next to “Boccacio”, a pseudo Italian restaurant, presumably so that dinner guests can get a loan quickly to pay for the expensive pizzas and even more expensive red wine.
The bank was not doing much business today. There was only one other customer in there by the time we arrived just before 1.45 p.m. Despite the reception being unmanned I was quickly seen by a nice customer service officer and I explained my need. “No problem, let me see . . . “ and she punched my details into her keyboard. “Aaaah, this account is dormant. What would you like to do?”
“I would like my money and then close the account please.”
“No problem let me get the process started.” And then she typed a lot, and out popped a couple of forms from the printer. Then she asked for my passport and I was asked to sign some forms, which I did and I was informed that I would have to take the forms to the cashiers to deposit $5 into the bank’s coffers to make my account live again, and then bring the forms and a receipt back to Ms A.
Five minutes later, after some more forms and signatures at the cashier’s window I went back to Ms A with a receipt for $5, duly stamped and signed by the cashier. And then she assaulted the keyboard some more and informed me that it would take 10-20 minutes for my account to be brought back on line and I would then be able to get my money from the cashier.
A couple of rounds of Candy Crush Saga later, I was handed another pile of papers to take to the cashier. This time it was a ‘cashier in training’ and while he appeared to be bashing his keyboard with confidence, whilst his mentor was making suggestions as to how to proceed, I managed another couple of levels of Candy Crush.
“Sir, we will have to charge you $5 for making this withdrawal.”
I nearly dropped my phone. Now my experience of byzantine bureaucracy and gross overcharging, which was acquired in Turkey, kicked in:
“Whatever. . . just please give me what is left over.”
I thought I was going to receive $331.45 but less $5 this was now $326.45. Add to that the $5 I had handed over earlier to breathe life into my account, and I was now hoping to be $321.45 better off. Sadly the AIB does not do US coinage, so two more receipts forms had to be signed for the $326.00 and Afghanis 36.00 which I was finally handed at 3 p.m.
As soon as I had the cash in my hand I checked that everyone was happy and we headed out into the rain.
The rain should have been a clue that all was not well. Less than two hours later I received an email from Ms A asking me to return the handful of account closure forms that I apparently had in my possession.
I require advice at this stage. Since it took me five to six years to close the account, using various approaches, how long do I wait to send the forms back?
Up and Down
On to more cheerful subjects. The local CCTV balloons, manned and operated by the Afghan Security forces have been going up and down like yoyos here. I think they do it to annoy the boys who fly their kites in the neighbourhood.
Kabul is the only reasonably safe place to launch and fly these blimps. That said they must make the helicopter pilots twitch on occasion. Out in the sticks they were tried but failed, as they attracted the rifle fire of many people and lasted less than a week.
Electrics and Building Codes
Below you will find a couple of pictures of my bathroom. It is a fine bathroom offering the user both a flush loo (with a permanent flush as the seal in the cistern is shot), a heck of a triangular Jacuzzi (jets are untested), and a rain forest shower head (some rain and very little forest) and finally a year’s supply of toilet paper.
Some of the more eagle
eyed amongst you will have spotted the electrical outlets and surface wiring. Rest assured that I pay really close attention to NOT splashing too much when showering.
In the picture on the right below please consider what possible use the wall socket, indicated with the blue arrow, could have. I will only accept suggestions that make no sense at all, just like the positioning of the socket.
The meeting at the Kabul Mayor’s office went well, and on the way back to our office I spent some of the cash that I finally retrieved yesterday on two packets of cookies, some shower gel and Robertson’s marmalade. The current selection of preserves in the guesthouse consists of Peanut Butter and Nutella, neither of which make my top ten list of things to spread on breakfast toast.
Kabul’s “Finest Supermarket”, that is its name, and not a marketing description for the corner store, employs about half a dozen young men whose sole task is to wipe every jar, tin, bottle and packet on the shelves and remove the dust that settles on everything every day. This also explains my need for a generous supply of cotton wool ear buds as the Kabul dust gets everywhere.
It is a Thursday and local staff are off in accordance with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and USAID employment rules and regulations. This means that those of us who are in our cubicles in the basement are getting a lot done, since there is utter silence and none of the usual chatter from the numerous interns who are hypnotized by their smart phones, when they are not discussing the lunch menu.
March 16 -22
At about 5.30 p.m. yesterday a couple of us headed over to Darya Village, the most secure hotel accommodation in Kabul (their words, not mine) for an inter-project chili competition and as advertised, ten different pots were lined up for the expectant crowd. I say crowd, at most there were 30 people, but I am told that is the equivalent of a good turn
out from a bunch of assorted expats here on a Thursday night. Darya Village is the place to stay if you want to live in something that resembles several barrack blocks surrounded by some serious blast walls and fences.
After a lengthy booking in procedure we finally moved to the bar where the competition was to be held. The bar décor was, as can be seen from the picture to the left, “colourful”. The streamers hanging from the ceiling paid homage to St Patrick as did the green lighting in parts of the bar.
The advantages of this facility are that they serve alcoholic beverages, $8 for a can of Carlsberg, have an inside smoking room for the unreformed, with open access to the bar (so why have smoking room?), a couple of pool tables, and a Fussball table which still had its ball.
I am no fashion connoisseur, but the manageress did make an impression with a fringed dress whose dangly bits had not been cut, and had continued to grow, since it was worn by Annie Oakley in the Wild West Show circa 1890.
The same building also housed a couple of vendors in its corridors, selling everything from cargo pants to Bluetooth speakers. There was also a hairdressing salon whose barber was still doing business at around 8 p.m.
The ten pots of chili, including a vegetarian variety, were duly tasted, beginning promptly at 7 p.m. In this case the tasting committee was comprised of all the people in the bar who had arrived hungry and were prepared to pay $10 for a scorecard (profits to go to an animal shelter in Kabul). Happily our team won despite that fact that they had produced a chili without beans. That said it was very tasty.
While there, I had occasion to visit the bathroom facilities. And here comes the quiz:
In the picture below, what makes you think that the builders did not use a tape measure when installing the urinals?
Do they really flush with hot water? The clue is the hot water heaters on the wall directly above the urinals. Surely not?
Given there is a bunch of 20 boys between the ages of 8 and 14 in the bathroom, how many of them could pee into the electrical wall sockets when ostensibly aiming for the two urinals on the right of the picture?
When will I stop sending pictures of Afghan bathrooms?
Answers on a $20 note please, as that will help with costs of visiting these fascinating places. As usual the first prize will be the satisfaction of knowing that you are better than the rest.
Officialdom is coming to a grinding halt this week. Anyone who is anyone is heading out of town as it’s Nawruz, literally “New Day”, the Afghan New Year, depending on which particular schism of the local religion you support.
Am off to meet with the donor’s representatives at the US embassy in the morning and will now organize a packed lunch as it takes forever to gain access.
In the meantime, the Afghan International Bank is playing its joker. Despite no longer being a customer, I am now in receipt of emails advising me that they have opened ever more ATMs around the city. Ah well, I will attempt to unsubscribe, not that I ever subscribed in the first place.
It is a rainy Monday in downtown Kabul and whoever decided to make the place a safe zone by installing 4 meter high cement “T” walls everywhere and then very steep sleeping policemen from curbstone to curbstone totally forget about drainage. Thus the main roads are down to one lane in each direction as the inside lanes nearest the sidewalks are swimming pools whose depth varies from ankle high to hip high, depending on the depth of the potholes you happen to stand in.
A quick project review indicated that we are making progress and deliverables such as gender mainstreaming, finding positions for many interns, more than 50% of who are females, and capacity building for municipalities and staff is proceeding on schedule. The latest Citizen Report on Municipalities published by Integrity Watch Afghanistan also indicates that citizens around the country are finding that services are improving, and satisfaction levels are rising. More and more municipalities are being trained in the use of GIS for the purposes of introducing a standardized addressing and house and street numbering system all around the country.
There are three compound cats. One black one, one off-white one and one multi-coloured moggie hang around waiting to be fed the left-over chicken that does not get consumed during lunch. The black one is loud and constantly bullied by the other two. He also has a wonky eye which appears to be useless for seeing but elicits much sympathy from the humans. The net result is that they favour him (or her! Who knows?) and he is getting decidedly chubby. I decided to try and get a photo to demonstrate my point, but he has decided to disappear for a few days, so a shot of the off-white one will have to suffice.
This reminds me of the saying that a dog has an owner, a cat has a staff.
The basement cubicle which I share with a colleague, who is working on another part of the project has been almost silent for the last couple of days. Apart from the hum of the cooling fans in the computing equipment, all is quiet. Much like the McDonald’s advertisement, M “is lovin’ it” and since productivity has been high, she may yet finish her deliverables early.
It is the second day of spring here. Temperatures are rising, and the sun is shining. I write this with a slight chuckle knowing that there is snow on the ground in other parts of world at a time when there should be blossoming going on. Global warming! What global warming? Only kidding.
You know they say: “It takes two to Tango”, well “it also takes two to fly a kite” here in Kabul. I have observed numerous pairs of boys standing on the flat roofs hereabouts, launching their flying machines into the air, with one person, usually the bigger of the pair, tugging the thin nylon cord and the other shouting incomprehensible instructions and gesticulating wildly with flailing arms, in an attempt to encourage the ‘tugger’ pilot to persuade the kite to rise into the stratosphere.
In most cases this a forlorn hope. In most cases, failure to launch is inevitable, and even when they do, an unforeseen gust of wind can cause instant catastrophe. This is due to a couple of factors. Flat roofs on houses are not really big enough to allow the flyer to run and thus persuade the kite to rise about the neighboring buildings which stop the steady breeze from assisting the initial launch phase of the kite. But these eternal optimists are not put off by minor obstacles. Sadly the end result mostly appears to be what you can see in the photo below. The kite takes an unexpected dive and ends up entangled in the rolls of razor wire that are on top of every compound wall.
The pink square of plastic sheeting used to be a kite and it has now gone to join the three slightly older and more bedraggled bits of left over kite that already adorn the wire that separates us from our neighbors. No amounts of gentle tugging can extricate it from the sharp pointy bits that may offer some protection from unwanted guests determined not to use the front gate but they do also mean the end for any kite that lands amongst them. And thus, while the boys may be unhappy, the kite sellers rejoice at the prospect of another sale.
It has been reasonably quiet over the last couple of days. The black cat has returned and demanded to be fed. His diet is obviously over since he has been absent for three days, or maybe he too headed out of town for the Nawruz holiday.
It is a sunny Sunday here. The blossoms are out and there have only been a couple of unpleasant incidents over the holiday period. As in Turkey, I continue to go to the gym every day, purely to check that no one has stolen the rowing machine or the weights. It is not really my job, but I need the exercise.
Traffic was heavy on the way to “Finest” this morning and if that is the worst thing that affects me this Sunday, things must be getting better. But wait, the price of cookies appears to have risen since my last visit and the mouthwash is definitely dearer. While the economy appears to be in limbo, inflation certainly is not.
There is better news elsewhere in the country. My colleague in the next cubicle is making progress with his GIS project and some of the larger municipalities are now getting on with the introduction of an addressing and house numbering system. Thus there will be street furniture (as it known in the official jargon), this means signs displaying the name of the street, and houses will be numbered in a systematic way, which in turn may lead the re-appearance of the gentleman below.
The postman in the picture used to deliver mail to the British Embassy in the 1950s and one assumes, the surrounding area. The Afghan postal service may just become a growth industry again, now that it will soon be easier to address letters and parcels, rather than relying on “Please deliver to Hamid, second cousin of Ali, who lives in the third house on the left as you come into town from the East on main road, after you have crossed the river”.
Level 122 of Candy Crush Saga is starting to be a pain. If I see another message telling me that I was “So close” to finishing the level, when I was already aware that I was “so close”, this app may not survive much longer.
The need for x-ray vision when shopping is becoming more apparent. Since Kabul is a good many miles from the production facilities that generate cookies and biscuits, they have to be trucked in overland, along roads which are not necessarily a perfectly flat ribbon of tarmac snaking through the Khyber Pass, on trucks that are well past their “safe to drive” date. The packaging of my current choice of cookies and biscuits is not particularly protective and my most recent purchases consists of 20% crumbs. I need to be able to see into the packages to determine the least crushed whilst they are on the shelf. Shaking the boxes is not really an option and in most cases only exacerbates the problem. If I were looking for a “ready to go” crushed ginger biscuit base for cheesecake I know where to shop. The trouble is I am not and would prefer to have a firm ginger biscuit which is not liable to dissolve instantly upon being dunked in a cup of tea and then settling at the bottom of the cup forming a sort of biscuit sludge.
There is more progress to report. After a couple of productive meetings which took place yesterday, both at the municipality of Kabul, and subsequently at the embassy, initial baby steps have turned into adult leaps and bounds. Thus there will be a small celebration tonight when we head over to Darya Village to sample some more $8 beers. I pale at the thought of parting with so much money for a tin of Carlsberg but what the heck.
March 31 onwards
The start of another week and spring has sprung here. Temperatures have rocketed in the past few days to above 80 degrees F. The clumps of grass in our compound are growing like topsy and the rose bushes are sprouting new spiny growth.
I have been cogitating what my task here is contributing to peacebuilding and have come to the conclusion that when we succeed in improving municipal service delivery to the population as a whole, this will not only improve their lives, in that they will have a more responsive municipality staff which is sensitive to their current and future needs, and when they are satisfied, they are more likely to participate actively in the political and decision making process at the local level and by extension at the national level. This can only be a good thing. Thus the schemes to ensure that citizens’ views are taken into consideration when constructing the annual municipality budget, and more importantly which services and projects to spend the cash on, are vital to progress and peace. The special focus on the participation of women’s and youth groups in local affairs bodes well for the future if it can become a self-sustainable model that continues to flourish after the project has finished.
Happy Easter Sunday! Not that this day is particularly high on anyone’s calendar here. Press coverage of the impact of genetic engineering on spaghetti farming in Italy does not appear in the local news. Rather more pressing is the weather forecast which indicates a high of 80 degrees F plus some sandstorms. They appear to be covering the region as a whole today.
Here is something that may amuse you. I have discovered a bathroom that offers a brand new take on internal and external cleanliness with a facility that may make you blush.
Please look closely at the photograph below. By tilting the shower head slightly the occupant of this bathroom might just be able to use two facilities at the same time and shower whilst in the seated position.
And “yes” the last person to use this facility was apparently male!
I continue your guided tour of Afghan bathrooms with another photograph demonstrating my contention that builders and electricians here are on a mission to drive foreigners crazy. The apparently totally random choices they make regarding the positioning of wall sockets is further illustrated in the following picture:
Once again there will be a prize for the person who can explain why there are two sockets on this wall and why one of them is at a height of 7ft 6in.
The efforts of the anti-corruption commission and associated fast track court system seem to be having an effect. Several fairly high-ranking officials in the sector that we are supporting, appear to have been prosecuted and sentenced to terms in the slammer varying from 3 months to 16 years. This makes life occasionally a bit challenging as the elected representatives of our beneficiaries disappear overnight and occasionally surface in Istanbul some time later.
This Monday is as all Mondays should be, overcast and dull grey to reflect the start of all working weeks in the West, but there is no rain and the hose pipe season has started. Every compound and villa in the neighbourhood has at least one chawkidar who hoses down the yard and driveways well before dawn each day, to keep the dust down. This is a temporary solution to an insurmountable problem and whilst it provides a small respite for those breathing the local air, is about as useful as attempting to change the course of an ocean liner going full steam ahead by poking the paddle from a canoe over the side and wiggling it about a bit.
The sun is up, the Dow is down and pig farmers and wine producers in the US may have trouble exporting their products competitively to China. Meanwhile here in Afghanistan neither commodity is openly available, so this part of the trade war affects no-one here, yet. In any case whatever challenges this country and its inhabitants face is the fault of the British. Some of you may have seen the piece on the BBC website penned by a local journalist a few days ago explaining why this is the case. Please look at http://www.bbc.com/news/stories-43560523 to get a view from the street. It will explain a lot.
My cubicle colleague and I had a discussion the other day about how long we, as in the international development community, had been here and it turns out that we are heading rapidly towards the second decade, which appears to be an awfully long time. I have also met two expatriates recently who have been here continuously for ten years. Which group do they fall into? Missionaries, mercenaries or misfits?
We are not undertaking any external visits at the moment as a precautionary measure and so all is quiet as we approach the one-day weekend tomorrow, apart from the never-ending stream of shuttling helicopters landing and taking off from the various government and embassy compounds that are close by. As we are not undertaking any unnecessary vehicle travel today I will be missing out on my weekly comfort food shopping trip to Kabul’s “Finest” supermarket. No broken cookies for me to complain about, in fact no cookies at all.
The earth moved for me last night. Not a lot, but I and a few others felt a little tremor at about 20.40 hours local time. As a result of being shaken, but not much stirred, I took some time after work today to check where and what magnitude it might have been and a quick glance at the Google answers indicated that there are about two a day in this region. It would seem that getting rocked in bed at regular intervals should not be a surprise.
Another sad kite on the roof terrace
The handyman in our villa demonstrated his handiness this morning by wearing a woolen glove while twisting together some bare wires which poked out of a hole in the wall just up by the ceiling. So there he was, most of the way up an unattended six foot ladder, getting much useless advice from the six people watching him from a safe distance, who, I suspect, were hoping for a flash bang event, which would brighten their day. I had to walk away since I am not Health and Safety qualified and was not prepared to give CPR that early in the morning.
Attended several meetings today with both local municipal officials and at the US embassy. Much fun was had by all as we tried to avoid the heavy downpours of hail and rain which formed instant lakes once on the ground. Drainage systems do not appear to be uppermost in the planning and engineering process when constructing new highways and byways.
The availability of city power is as unpredictable as ever and the villa generator gets a daily work out, as the city electrical grid goes off line at irregular intervals. That said, we have a system that kicks in the generator almost instantly and we are not sitting in darkness waiting for the contents of the refrigerators to defrost gently in rising spring temperatures.
For those of you with an interest in history and particularly the topic of Afghan-Turkish relations which go back a long way, my visit this afternoon, to one of our partners in this enterprise that I am supporting, proved informative and I finally understood the local love for paper records. The room that we were meeting in, contained 25 burlap sacks of file folders stacked about halfway to the ceiling at one end of the room. When I enquired as to the contents, I was informed that they contained transaction records going back more than 10 years. When I asked why they were still around when the law only required them to be kept for 5 years before disposal by fire or shredding, the answer was that the files also contained papers from other departments and no one really had time to get permission from the owner of each piece of paper to destroy it. And thus the stack of records keeps growing to such an extent where it is now taking over space in working offices and conference rooms.
And who is to blame for this I hear you ask? Well, apparently, it goes back to a time before the First World War, when the then King of Afghanistan encouraged Turkish support and they influenced how governance should be applied, and how government policy was drafted and implemented. I can testify that if Turkish bureaucracy, which I encountered during my time in that country, is being mirrored here, where every single official document requires the stamp of a notary before it is even looked at, in some offices, it will be a little while before we can even think about e-government.
This relationship may also explain why Turkey is high on the list of places to disappear to, when the local fraud squad may be on their way. There appears to be no extradition treaty.
And as if there is no end to this interesting relationship, the Turkish PM is visiting this coming weekend.
Rest of the Week
VIPs from foreign governments who visit Kabul always have a disproportionate impact on the already numerous traffic jams. Whole sections of the city are closed to vehicles and this makes getting to and from meetings a bit of a challenge. A journey that normally takes about 15 minutes, now takes a minimum of 30 minutes and sometimes up to an hour. I have decided not to include a badly framed photograph of a traffic jam. Just imagine 6 lanes of traffic, attempting to squeeze into two lanes for the purposes of passing a military checkpoint. None of the drivers have ever heard of giving way and taking it in turns to proceed, and despite this, there are remarkably few road rage incidents.
It is now Sunday and it has been decided to have a BBQ on our roof terrace tonight. With less than two hours to go, the weather has changed abruptly and it is now getting dark and heavily overcast. The rain has started falling and we are unlikely to need the water spray bottles to cool the glowing charcoal embers. In fact we will be lucky to get anything to glow apart from the fairy lights on the terrace if the electricity supply holds out and our shiny red noses as the temperature is also dropping abruptly.
It is a gloomy Monday morning and the rain we have been experiencing may just be sufficient to get the Kabul river flowing again and to move some of the plastic materials that currently cover the river bed as it passes through town, downstream.
The owners of Mr. Cod, a brand spanking new fish restaurant should avoid getting their hopes up that they might soon be able to offer locally sourced piscatorial products. It is not going to happen in this decade, but at least there are initiatives within Kabul to “clean and green” the city.
Spring has arrived – street vendor under a tree with leaves
After a frantic last few days trying to get the required outputs put out I have come to end of this trip and thus this is my last missive for a while.
Farewell for now.
Peter Reynolds is the Vice President of the Forage Center. He is a highly regarded, enthusiastic consultant and trainer with over 29 years in leadership positions in the military and 10 years as a lecturer, management and environmental safety and security consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com