Hello Canadian friends and colleagues – Update from Kabul

They say that the first three months of any new posting are your very worst. With 41 days into my one year contract, I can heartfully agree.

They say that if you work the 15-18 hour days you need to get on top of your job, you should be ready to reap the benefits of said crazy workload by the 6th or 8th month (depends who you talk to). By then, you should see progress in systems, processes, strategies and ultimately deliverables. And they say that if you don’t see progress, you’ve been doing something wrong. However, at this stage, I find it impossible to look beyond the end of the week (which is Thursday here) and 6-8 months seems an eternity away.

They say that if you can tough it out in Afghanistan for one to two years without getting killed, maimed or kidnapped while still showing results to your clients and building capacity for the nation, then you can work anywhere in the world. Because anywhere in the world would be easier than this. I heartfully agree (although I do question whether Iraq would be easier).

No bones about it. It’s tough here. Luckily I am made of tough material. There are new lines on my face that weren’t there six weeks ago, I’ve lost weight (well, really that’s a silver lining!) and I’m trying real hard to continue to find the good in people and situations and not become hard and (more) cynical. But there are days when even the strongest are felled. The first month was a blur of sights, sounds and welling emotions. I really am grateful for all the years of knowing how to work hard, on deadline, as a journalist and as a consultant. It has stood me in good stead here.

You would think the tough part would be the worry about security, about random bombings and being kidnapped on the street. Yes, they are real concerns. We don’t walk anywhere; a foreign woman never walks alone. A car picks me up in the morning at 630 am and drops me back to the guest house at 7 pm. I stay on the government compound for the rest of the day, usually in my communications bunker which houses my 35 employees and all of our broadcasting equipment, studios and editing booths. We broadcast a radio newsmagazine, radio features and a soap opera for 30 minutes a day on national radio. More to come this fiscal year if my plans work out.

But the worst thing is not security but not having a good support/escape systems. Things you take for granted in your home country. Contact with your family, heart to hearts with your friends, a hike in the Gatineaus, a camping/canoeing trip, a movie to escape to, a cultural event to attend. A walk down the street to the nearest store. Belgian chocolates. Di Rienzo sandwiches. I’ve been longing to once again experience that peaceful stillness you get from being out in nature or at the edge of the water at dawn or dusk. But I still remember that feeling and I hook into it when I need it. Learning to take time off from the constant work schedule is also a challenge.

So, am I having a good time? No, not yet. I’ve been working too hard to have much of a life. The responsibilities are enormous. 35 staff, $2M budget, lots of communication challenges and demands from multiple client groups including our biggest donor, the World Bank. There isn’t enough capacity. Talent pool is shallow. Like all my consulting contracts, you’re thrown into the water and you better know how to swim and how to reach the finish line.

Yet…it was exactly these types of challenges I was seeking. By the end of this year I’m going to be an expert in critical situation and SWOT analyses, organizational development, procurement and capacity building plans, logic model frameworks, workplans, inception reports, planning and managing budgets, and all HR endeavours including training, staffing, terminations, employee complaints, writing Terms of Reference, employee assessments and salary grading. However, in this case, there has been no time-outs or a preliminary ramp-up stage to prepare me for working in a fragile state, with people that have a dramatically different culture from ours and with the constant threat to my security in the background. Sink or swim. Sink or swim. My choice. Many people don’t make it. I will.

All is not negative. I have also met nice people. There are some amazing, knowledgeable and wonderfully kind people at the guest house I’m staying in. We have become a makeshift family, the long-termers staying here for 6 months and more, separate from the short-termers, in for a week or two then out again. I know I can call on any of them to discuss work and cultural issues. At work, my direct report, the Executive Director for the program, is behind me 110% and realizes the importance of communications (ahh!!! enlightenment!) We also have strong support from the Deputy Minister and the Minister. A good thing too as we are working for the flagship development program in Afghanistan and we need to be on the same page when it comes to communications.

From what I’ve seen of Kabul and Afghanistan flying in and out of the Kabul airport, this is really a beautiful country. And if it wasn’t for the land mines buried in the gorgeous mountains that surround Kabul, I would be hiking them every weekend. A few weeks ago someone introduced me to the Hash House Harriers. I didn’t know there was one in most every country. I try to join the group every Friday on a hike in and about around Kabul. Several members of the group are in security and are armed so I feel relatively safe. Even so, the group tries to ensure that women are located in the middle of the group for additional security. I leave the post-hike/run drinking and partying to the men. You’ll find a picture attached of me in front of King’s Tomb on one of the many mountains surrounding Kabul. Yes, I shouldn’t have been wearing short sleeves but I had forgotten that day and was using my scarf to cover my arms. The pic was taken moments after a huge wind storm passed through the valley and the dust was getting into our mouths and noses. For once, I was glad I had a scarf to protect my face.

Every morning I look out my window and stare in fascination at the sun glistening off the snow-peaked mountains in front of me. But it took me a week to notice they were there because of the constant smog. Two huge beautiful pine trees are in front of my window and if I close my eyes and if the air became less dusty and fresher, I could imagine, for just a moment, that I was once again in Canada.

Going to work is a dream. The offices for the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) are located on the same protected government compound as its parent ministry – the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. The compound is in the western part of the city surrounded by mountains so close you can almost touch them. From the outside of my bunker I can see Darul Aman Palace- a stunning palace which is now a bombed out shell formerly protected by Canadians and ISAF and which used to hold Taliban weapons in the extensive dungeon system. Attached is my very first picture of a woman in a burka walking in front of the palace. Sky blue is the de rigueur colour here for all women wearing this very flattering fashion accessory.

I’m sure I’ve bored you enough. I did start a blog but didn’t get too far because it takes too much time but mostly because I have had tremendous technology problems since I arrived. Internet in this country is sporadic at best, my laptop broke, my email contacts got lost, my power supply busted, and the list goes on. But I am happy to say that I have my skype running and all technology is working well so far (fingers crossed). I’ll try to be better with my blog, here’s my blog address – http://jjafghanistan.wordpress.com/ and here is my new contact information –

Judith Szabo
Director of Public Communications
National Solidarity Programme (NSP)
Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD)
Tashkilat Street, Darul Aman Road
Kabul, Afghanistan
Mobile: 0093 (0)797 421 486 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            0093 (0)797 421 486      end_of_the_skype_highlighting
Skype: jjszabo
Web: www.nspafghanistan.org

Thanks to all of you who have been in contact with me during the first crazy month. It’s really appreciated. I’ll try to write periodically to give you updates. Just to let you know we’re 9.5 hours ahead of Canada.

Singing with Orphans

London Bridge, Deanna, Jim et al singing, The kid’s chorus,

On Friday night, I met the rest of the management staff of the National Solidarity Program for the first time.  So many types of personalities and so many opportunities for conflict.  Already one person has been asked to leave.  A contract issue apparently but it’s not certain.  Wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that one.  The person’s fiery personality would have given as good as he was getting I’m sure.

As is usual for me, I am having a hard time keeping track of names and titles.  My colleagues come from many countries: one Bangladeshi living in England, one or two Philippino, one Pakistani, one American and others I haven’t figured out yet.  But the longer I stay here, the more I realize that it doesn’t really matter where long-term development workers are from.  No matter whether they have family and friends in their home country, a long-termers’ home is in whichever country they are working.  Which is very refreshing given the sometimes stifling atmosphere in Ottawa.  On the other hand, it is a little frightening in that when you have the whole world as your playground, the scope of it and the lack of roots might be disconcerting.  I think some people need roots more than others.  I probably need less but it’ll be interesting to see how I feel about this issue in a year’s time.

But I digress. On Friday I was introduced to the “party gang”.  The group of long-term development workers who have regular ‘meetings” in someone’s room which has been designated a bar.  Although the government has restricted the use of alcohol in the country, there is quite a healthy supply of it in this particular bar which so happens to be located in my guesthouse.  How convenient.  Beer is sold in a little kiosk just outside the guesthouse but apparently red wine is at a premium.  Having had a few glasses at restaurants here since I’ve arrived, I can assure you that waiting for the good stuff is a really good idea.

One party long-termer is Deanna, who sings and plays the guitar part-time at various safe restos geared to the international community in the city.  She and her ad-hoc band invited me along to visit a children’s orphanage.  The 12 of us traipsed across the city in our safe cars and were met by the most wonderful group of children, ranging in age from 14 to 4.  They all shook our hands and welcomed us in English.

I have to admit. I was expecting the worse.  Here in Afghanistan, children are put in orphanages because they don’t have anyone to look after them but also because their families are too large and the parents can’t feed them anymore. But this orphanage only had about 8 children and they were absolutely delightful.

They acted as our rhythm section and loved being caught when we played London Bridge.  They were also challenged learning the moves of Knick Knack Paddy Whack – we played the song 3 times because they loved it so much.  We also taught them the Hokey Pokey dance.  Bringing joy and laughter to children that live with so little was the best! See attached pics.

In addition to doing broadcasting work in Tokyo, one of my extra jobs was to teach English to little children.  They were so great because they were so receptive to different types of learning tools – singing, dancing, hugs were all great reinforcers for learning the language.

These kids were no different.  We sang songs together, munched on popcorn we had brought, played balloons and they even sang special songs for us including Frere Jacques and the ABC song!

After we had presented the orphanage director with some money and a box of English language children’s books, she said that she had been so impressed with the afternoon.  The kids had initially been scared to speak English but our visit had given them so much confidence.  She said she hadn’t heard such laughter and happiness from them in a long time.  I had tears in my eyes.

After only being in the country for 1.5 days, it was the best intro to the Afghan culture I could have ever received.

Next post: my first day at work.

My first few days…

Hello All:

I’m safe and secure in Kabul, Afghanistan.  I arrived Thursday afternoon (today is Saturday night) after travelling for 52 hours from the time I left my house for the airport to the time I arrived at the guesthouse in Kabul.  Quel adventure it was.

Usually my flights are without hassles but this time, I knew from the Ottawa airport that I was going to be in for a challenge.  The Ottawa-Mtl flight was delayed and then cancelled because some sort of knob fell off in the cockpit and they couldn’t fix it.  We were put onto another flight and they assured me, yes, yes no problem, you will indeed make your 5:00 pm Mtl-Zurich departure.  The captain is aware that you are coming and they are holding the flight.  We rushed out of the plane to travel endless hallways to arrive at the Zurich departure door at 5:05 pm.   As good Swiss do, the plane had already left.

Well normally this type of thing doesn’t bother me.  So we take another flight or get rerouted to another destination, as long as we get there, what does it matter?  It’s the adventure that counts!  However my friends, we are talking Zurich here – we are talking important crucial things like….Swiss chocolate.  I had had my heart set on buying Swiss chocolate for me of course but also for my employees who I will meet for the first time tomorrow.  I even went on the internet and researched the best type of Swiss chocolate one could buy at the airport.  I was SERIOUS about this!

Ach, as they say in German, das is da vay eet goes!  I went to Frankfurt instead (yawn..been there, done that!) and then a direct flight to Delhi.  But along the way I bonded with other stranded Swiss flight Canadians.  Amazing the people you meet at airports.  That’s why flying is the most amazing experience, you get to meet so many interesting people.  One man, Jean-Luc, works for PCO and he was flying to give a presentation on Globalization.  The other man, Richard, flew all the way to Delhi with me.  He sits on the Board of Directors for South Asia Partnership.  Once we started talking we knew so many of the same people it was uncanny.

The best part of being in Delhi for a crazy 10.5 hour layover was visiting with my friend Claude, who is posted in Delhi with the Canadian High Commission.  The original plan was for me to stay over at her house and catch-up with her and her husband on 8 months of news.  However yours truly didn’t think that a VISA was necessary – after all India’s a commonwealth country etc. etc.  Let me say that customs people don’t make exceptions for ignorance – even if it is a transit VISA for only 8 hours.  The waiting area in Delhi airport is quite depressing.  Luckily Claude skirted some protocol and found me in the Customs line and we were able to have a good chat.  I illegally stayed in an Executive lounge (free food!, TV, newspapers) and read up on my Afghanistan papers.  Several hours later she skirted a little more protocol and returned with her husband, giving me a complete and wonderful surprise!

By now I had met many other people who were all flying to Kabul. We were a group of about 6 Americans and French learning more about each other’s projects and work.  The scenery flying into Kabul is beautiful.  Jagged mountains with a little snow on the peaks, desert type conditions.  The airport is surrounded by mountains.  As we stepped off the plane on the tarmac, my head was swivelling almost 360 degrees and I just kept saying “wow”, “wow” – all the other Afghanistan regulars coming out of the plane paid me no mind!  Another newbie in Kabul!

The airport is like nothing I’ve been in before.  Not only is it dank and dark with broken concrete and support steel cables coming out of everywhere, there were tons and tons and tons of Afghan men some wearing robes, all with beards, lined up waiting to get through Customs.  It was a little scary.  Eventually they made a line for women – there were 8 of us, most of us Western.

Airport personnel were very kind to find us baggage trolleys – very useful for my two heavy duffels and my carryon.  I wheeled my way out of the terminal and found my way to a carpark where the driver was holding a sign with my name.  He was accompanied by another man who only at the end of the drive introduced himself as being the head of transportation for the program I will be working for.  At that point I didn’t care.  I wanted a bed and a hot shower.  It would take another couple of hours before I was able to do that.  There was a dinner planned for the all the management staff that evening.  Next post:  Singing with orphans