Finally the day dawned, my last day in Afghanistan. I spoke to Julie and the kids on Skype, then went for breakfast.
After breakfast I wanted to fit in my last crack at shopping. On Tuesday I had been to the Afghan Artisan’s Workshop, a store (with armed guard at the gate, like many buildings) which sells only products made by Afghans, mostly Afghan women. At other places it’s hard to guarantee the products aren’t from Pakistan. Here it’s all beautifully handcrafted, handmade work, and you pay accordingly.
This time I decided to give Chicken Street a try, so I wandered over with John from the delegation. Chicken Street is as close to a tourist district as you’ll get in Kabul at the moment – mostly jewellery and scarves for the women and hats for the men (‘Karzai’ hats, as we call them). It’s a bustling street with labrynthine arcades and tiny stores so packed with merchandise you almost have to trade places with the shopkeeper to get inside. They’re only too happy to throw scarves and hats around the room until you find the one you like (always, “oh, this one is beautiful. Oh, you no like? No, is no good…”).
Finally I was cornered in a store and chose a couple of scarves. Looking through my pockets I found I didn’t have as much left as I thought. “How much?” I asked.
“$65,” he said. That was an outrageous price – twice what I would’ve paid at the artisan’s shop. “65 Afs?” I responded, hoping I hadn’t heard him correctly (Afghani exchange rate is 45:1). “No, no, dollars,” he said. Of course, dollars here are always US dollars. Every imperial power imposes their own currency I suppose.
“30,” I said, knowing that was more than generous and hoping that would mean the matter would be ended. I’m not a haggler. I hate conflict (yes, yes, I know, I know) and would far prefer to avoid it. Especially when I have relatively so much, it seems silly haggling over money that would probably make a big difference to this guy’s life. Hakim, however, insists that we not pay any more than an Afghan would pay – he thinks the double standard is outrageous and dishonest and that Afghans should charge everyone the same and be content with it. So here I sit with a dilemma: do I err on the side of being generous and reinforce the double standard, or do I err on the side of principle and risk being seen as a greedy Westerner?
I decided to err on the former (sorry Hakim!), but still insisted $30 was all I would pay. Actually it was all I could afford if I was going to get the few other things I needed; the only other money I had was US dollars and there was no way I was going to pay with that. “Alright,” he said. “45. But I won’t make a profit.” Again, I knew that was far from true. He threw in a small purse, and began wrapping up the items. I said “Neh, Tasha kour (no thankyou),” and began walking out.
He grabbed my arm. “Ok, ok, 40,” he said, and continued wrapping up. I told him I didn’t have that much as I needed to keep some for other items. He looked at me incredulously and I felt like a fraud even though I was telling the truth. I looked at John and made my final offer. “35,” I sighed, feeling somewhat ripped off. “No, no, no,” he insisted, and again I went to walk out. Again he grabbed my arm. “Ok, ok,” he said. “I no make a profit but you get beautiful scarves.”
Actually he probably made a 99% profit on that sale, but whatever. I scampered out, breathed a sigh of relief, and bought the other things with my remaining Afs.
Still, you know you’ve had a good trip to Afghanistan when your most stressful encounter is haggling over the price of scarves.
Before I went home I wanted to see the work of Mahboba’s Promise, an orphanage started by a strong, courageous Afghan/Australian woman. It featured heavily in the film The Garden at the End of the World, which I highly recommend. Everywhere you walk in this city (or outside it) you see children – some with their parents, but mostly not. Many are simply homeless and living on the streets, surviving on begging or, if they’re lucky, on selling phone cards or chewing gum. Not much of a childhood to say the least.
Mahboba started looking after one street kid, then two. The third and fourth followed and pretty soon she had started an orphanage. After thirty years of war, so much poverty and illness, and an average life expectancy of 44.6, there is no shortage of children without at least one parent, often two.
We met Mahboba’s brother Sidiq in the office of Hope House, and received the customary warm welcome and tea. Not many Westerners come to visit, so they’re always delighted when they do. We asked him everything we could think of: all about the projects they run, what he thought of the government, the military, security, etc.
There are many projects run under the banner of Mahboba’s Promise (in fact he could barely remember them all). They have a service where they deliver food to widows and their families once a month, sewing classes and a shop for the products of the sewing classes, the orphanages and now permaculture gardens.
Sidiq believes the foreign occupation is not making Afghanistan stable or secure. He named the places he used to go, but now could not due to insecurity.
In fact, the corruption (everyone talks about the corruption) means that much of the aid money spent in Afghanistan goes into the pockets of the warlords and strong men. Afghans know this very well and are angry that the aid organisations allow it to happen. As the money only rarely ends up in the hands of those who really need it, people blame the aid organisations. For this reason, as well as rumours that they proselytise, NGOs are now targets according to Sidiq.
Mahboba’s Promise, however, runs on the smell of an oily rag, with only the money Mahboba can raise back in Sydney through fundraising dinners and evenings. Others have tried raising money in the West, but have been unsuccessful, which means all the effort falls on Mahboba.
The kids here are happy. In fact, they couldn’t wait to show me their rooms, their schoolwork, pretty much anything they could point to (floor, ceiling, downpipe) they wanted to show me in excited pulls with all their body weight. I felt like a rock star (well…maybe the Wiggles). At the same time, it was sad to see missing body parts, and even more, to hear about missing family members.
We played outside for a while – this trip has reaffirmed for me the value of games and sport as ways of connecting across cultures. I might not have three words of Dari, but I know how to play cricket or downball, and so do they.
This kind of organisation is, I think, the future of Afghanistan. If anything is going to change, it will emerge from the people themselves. Here was more hope – an organisation surviving on their wits, love and just a few Western dollars. No pretensions, nothing showy, just hard work and a lot of care. It’s certainly fragile – Mahboba called on our way back to the hotel to speak with Donna, and said they have just 4 months of funds left. They could certainly use your help – what happens here deserves your help. But mostly it’s home grown, clever, and held together with love.
The failure stories we heard over and over are ones of Western NGOs or militaries coming in and telling Afghans what they need and how to get it. But the most impressive, most successful organisations I came across survive on just a little outside help, and mostly Afghan hard work and ingenuity. “Help us do it ourselves,” said the teacher at the school last Saturday, in a seeming contradiction in terms. I’m not sure it is a contradiction anymore.
We raced back to the hotel in time for me to pack and say goodbye to the delegation. I was to go to the airport on my own, with others to follow later.
After going through security (and no less than four pat downs) I have mixed feelings. Relief is one – it’s a little daunting being by yourself in a foreign place with no language, especially such a place in the middle of a war. Of course I recognise how fortunate I am to speak English – most foreign people experience travel as this kind of foreign (and that’s if they’re able to travel at all).
Sadness is another. I leave friends here, beautiful people, precious to God and now precious to me. They remain in harm’s way, while I return to the security of a first world country. It’s simply not fair.
Of course another part of me is also delighted to be going home – seeing my wife and kids on Skype the last two days has been great, but has only reminded me of how far away I am.
The departure lounge is about a third full of ‘private security’ and military – the former you can tell by their steroid inspired builds and arrogant swagger. Actually the military are like that too, but they have particular passes hanging from their thick necks and army issue backpacks. Incredibly there are almost as many private security involved in this war as regular soldiers, you just don’t hear about it when they’re killed.
As I was walking out the gate, I received a tap on the shoulder. It was Chris from my delegation with a bolt of the blue chiffon material the AYPVs used in their march through Kabul a week ago. She thrust it into my hands, said, ‘Just made it!’ and with that I was on the plane.
As luck would have it our plane ended up sitting on the tarmac for an hour. It seemed Afghanistan didn’t want to let me go. Finally we climbed up into the sky, leaving those snow-capped peaks beneath the clouds. It would be a long journey ahead, but I would see my family again soon, and be at home.