Monthly Archives: September 2009

A kite flying lesson…

IMGP5836_1From the rooftop of my Afghan friend’s home, we had a good view of Kabul and the many flat rooftops, the mountains set in the background and colorful kites gliding through the air as far as the eye could see.

If you’ve ever read or seen the Kite Runner you’ll remember the day of kite flying and the competition of cutting your competitors’ kite strings.  We successfully cut two before being chased and cut by someone we’ll never know from a far away rooftop.  I asked about the cut kite and the response was ‘it doesn’t matter what happens to it, it has no honour!’ I smiled and wondered who would catch it as it fell. It would live to see another day.

Some of the kids looked so professional, they seemed to have all the right moves and were extremely focused on the game.  I don’t think they were very impressed by my ‘skills’… I shall have to practice some more.  You can buy kites here for 5 Afs to 250 Afs.   With weekends and Eid, they must get through so many kites! Now that would make a good social enterprise…IMGP5806_1

It’s Small Eid, the 3 day celebration post Ramadan where people dress up in their sparkly clothes and visit each other, bless one another and eat good food! The rule is that Day 1 is for your family. You meet with your own parents first, who normally live in the same compound as you, and then you aren’t allowed to visit or receive others until you’ve visited your in-laws.  Day 2 is for visits to other relations and friends and also a time to receive guests so at least one relative needs to remain home in case someone drops by.  With large families living in the same compound, visitor shifts are somewhat smooth.  Visits can last between 10 mins and 30 mins, unless invited specifically for lunch or dinner.  A group of young people visited my friend’s home yesterday and were there for all of 2 minutes, just enough time to drink a glass of green tea and to say ‘May God grant all your prayers prayed while fasting’ or simply ‘Happy Eid’… ‘Eid Mobarak’… I perfected this bit of Dari the day before.

As a visitor you always bring some cake, sweets or nuts, placed subtly on the seat beside you so as not to draw attention to yourself. You drink enormous amounts of green tea and eat some wonderful food. Before you leave you need to remember to give the smaller kids some money, anything from between 10 and 50 Afs.  The little girl I met had asked her dad ten times already that day how much money she had collected.  ‘Dad’ also becomes advisor on what the children can buy after Eid.  For girls it’s dollies and for the boys… you’ve guessed it…kites!

I visited two families during Eid and had a wonderful time with them.  What a privilege to be able to share in what is a very special celebration for the Afghan people, learning a little more about this fascinating culture.   As the sun came down, more sparkly clothes appeared as people got ready to visit other friends.    Driving home under the light of the street carts selling all sorts of fruits and cakes, everything seemed alive and exciting.  As my friend reminded me earlier in the day as we discussed the differences between a collective and individualistic society, no matter the difficult times people face, all around the world people take the opportunity to celebrate together, and as far as kite flying is concerned, well time will always be made for that!

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Afghan Childhood…

19th September 2009

“Significant in the childhood of Afghans is the lack of adolescence… life in Afghanistan is too short and resources too scarce to allow such a luxury.”   Shon Campbell, Lost Chances – the changing situation of children in Afghanistan, 1999-2000

Driving through the streets of Kabul is always an interesting journey, watching the everyday life of the Afghans through a small window, men selling fruit and vegetables from their carts in the road, women with or without their burkas quietly walking past, school children in their smart uniforms heading to and from school and then of course there’s the traffic….

While we were looking out at the goings on around us, people were looking in at us, intrigued by this minivan of foreigners in Afghan attire, heading out of town.  One little American boy was telling us all about his kite flying experience in the US and now in Kabul, while his 4 year old brother slowly told us about his hope of catching tadpoles at the place where we were headed.  It’s always nice to hear children chatting away, and these little boys had our full attention.   As I listened to them chatting away about ‘things that children like to do’, I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought about the children outside the van, the ones coming up to the window in the busy Kabul streets and asking for money, or the children walking past, carrying heavy loads on their shoulders… that would make an interesting conversation.

I read the other day that by the end of the 90s, 12 out of 20 boys and just one in 20 girls of schooling age were going to school. With the Taliban many qualified teachers fled and schooling for girls and female teachers were banned.  Since 2002 the situation has changed dramatically with many in school, even in the villages. 

Driving up to the village, we passed a school just as the morning session ended and there were so many school girls coming out of the gate.  It was a beautiful sight.  The further we drove the more rural it became, with dusty uneven roads and stunning landscape.  The area we went to was particularly green and there was a little stream where we sat for a picnic while the kids got completely soaked looking for tadpoles…  Going for a walk along the stream we met a little old man with a heavy load on his back, heading to town to sell.  He was so happy to chat with us and asked us to come for a cup of tea, which would have been back up the hill for him… we of course thanked him and said we’d let him get to market and perhaps another time, he was full of smiles and chatter and continued on his way.  Further up the track we met some little boys, with a little home-made kite.  They kept asking if we had a pen… I wish I had, I’d have gladly given it.  We met a lot of children as we walked, brothers minding the goats, young siblings carrying branches of eucalyptus leaves up to their home, kids knocking down walnuts from the trees, collecting for food and for market. Most were shy, but intrigued…. following us as we walked, while others kept wanting to feed us walnuts!

There’s no schooling for these kids. Perhaps when they reach 10 or 11 they will be big enough to walk down to the village for school.  It’s a strange paradox. Surrounded by beauty, fresh air and family, you can’t imagine a more wonderful place to live. But at the same time, life is hard, everyone has to work hard to support the family, village girls are often married off by the time they’re 14 and boys are considered adults by the time they reach14, expected to start providing for and protecting the family. 

For now though, these kids are kids.  They still have time to play together, to climb the trees and to fly their kites…

A Better Afghanistan…

9th September 2009

Two civilians died yesterday morning and six were injured in a suicide bombing that hit Nato vehicles at the Afghan Airport… hearing the helicopters flying over head in the early hours of this morning and seeing the trail of armed police vehicles driving by today while we sat in the car waiting to turn into the main road, it started to hit home… this is Afghanistan… the many years of unrest and war enduring.

With the news of yesterdays attack, one Afghan woman decided to tell me a story not uncommon to many Afghan families. As a very young girl when the Soviets invaded the country, her family escaped to the north, returning years later when the Taliban were in place.  Many of those who left Kabul as children returned with a husband and children of their own.  Unable to support a life under the Taliban, some men left for Iran or Pakistan, leaving behind their wives and children in Kabul. For those who stayed, as this one mother did, life was very hard.  There was no employment available outside of the home for women, and some days there was no food for the family.  Women wove mats in the day and tailored by night, making enough to feed the family.  If a woman needed to go out to buy food she would wear the burka (chadori) as did all women at that time. 

For this one Afghan woman, her husband eventually returned from Iran and took her and the kids to Pakistan, where like many others, they lived in refugee camps and tried to survive as best they could with little hope of a better Afghanistan.

Once Karzai was placed in power, many returned to Kabul, as did this Afghan family. But the sense of unrest and insecurity remained.  For the following few years women continued to wear the burka when out, and for those who didn’t, they risked acid being thrown in to their faces by Taliban supporters.  And no-one knew if the Taliban would soon return and who would dare risk an uncertain fate for being ‘unfaithful’.  To this day, this fear remains and burkas can still be seen.

With the current unrest, sleepless nights are had by many. Questions surrounding the future of the family, of what they’d do if the past returned, increasingly encroach on their sleep.

My impatience and frustration with slow internet and problems with the computer, are suddenly made obsolete when I listen to the Afghan people share about their lives.  One thing striking is their warmness, kindness and openness.  The big discussion at the moment is the upcoming Eid – The 3 day Afghan holiday after Ramadan, where families visit each other and eat and share together.  I already have two invitations and a promise of a kite flying lesson!  These days we see many children in the streets flying their home made kites. 

I’m sitting in the rose garden, listening to Hayley Westenra on my MP3 player… looking up at the sky, at the kites breezing by, and dreaming of another Afghanistan, where peace and security are experienced by all.

From Phnom Penh to Kabul…

5th September 2009

Flying into Kabul is one of the most amazing flights I think I will ever make! Breathtaking rugged mountains which seem endless at first and then quite unexpectedly hamlets of homes speckling the valleys… Despite the turbulence which had me gripped to the seat in front of me, there was a huge welling of wonder and excitement for this country that will soon become home. 

There’s that well known saying that home is where the heart is… Home is where my family are in England, thatched cottages and summer punting in Cambridge… Home is where my colleagues and friends are in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the Russian Market and moto dop rides through town.  Leaving Cambodia after 6 years was a very painful experience.  I love Cambodia and my work with Hagar, seeing so many lives transformed, my colleagues… what an amazing opportunity Hagar Cambodia has given me over the years to learn and to grow.  It’s somewhat easier knowing that though I’m no longer in Cambodia, I am still a part of this family, just branched out to another part of the world where the work of Hagar is so clearly needed in a country where human rights abuses and injustice are felt by many.  

Getting the visa was an interesting experience.  I shall have to put together some step by step guidelines for others coming in.  The first step will be “Don’t let the plastic door leading to the shed like office with absolutely no signage deter you from walking in… it really is the Embassy”.  Step two will be “Don’t pick up the receipt from the ground that gets thrown from the slot in the glass window… it’s proabably not for you but some other person waiting for a visa…but if after 5 mins it doesn’t get picked up please go ahead and check”.  Step 3… “give your absolute full attention to the visa man or risk having your phone grabbed from you and the line cut”…. 

I was amazed how quickly I got my visa, I think Ramadan helped… at any other time you can be waiting for  hours on end and with a crowd of visa applicants all hoping the receipt flying through the air is theirs so that they can get on with their day as quickly as possible!

And so here I am in Kabul.  It’s been two days and I have already met some amazing people.  It’s the weekend and so it’s been the perfect time to go explore the local bazaar wearing my ‘chador’ and to catch up on some reading… learning the importance of drinking cups of tea in a culture where relationship and trust come first.  In the next few days I hope to start learning Dari… being the only expatriate in an all Afghan team, language learning should be interesting!

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