Sunday, October 19, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part IX)

I was recently sent to Lal Wa Sarjangal, a district about 5 hours away from Panjao to recruit some staffs. My one-week journey in Lal is another story altogether. Anyway, I interviewed more than 30 people within 2 days and had a number of frustration and stress along the way.

We were having so much difficulty recruiting the only 4 female civic educators we are allowed for Lal district. In Lal, there are only 5 female high school teachers and 12 health care workers. These are about the only educated women in Lal. The dilemma was quite obvious – who else can we recruit apart from these women because of our no teacher and health care worker policy?

We couldn’t possibly have primary and secondary school graduate educating people on democracy and the election. The only solution which I could come up with was to talk to the Department of Education and the NGOs about the possibility of allowing some of their staffs to take 2-month unpaid leave to work with us. But of course, the NGOs refused. Since the beginning, UNAMA is already in bad terms with the NGOs especially Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF), OXFAM, ICRC and Solidarites (all well-funded and influential humanitarian relief NGOs) because of the whole “poaching” of staffs issue.

I was about to give up and had a nervous breakdown by the end of the 4 days; thinking that we would have to recruit the women from other districts. Although you may think that would be the best solution but at the same time, we wanted to hire people from the local community for many reasons. First, these people would be familiar and known in the area. Secondly, it would provide equal opportunity to the local people as well.

You have no idea how I felt. I was so frustrated because I felt that this was truly a mission impossible.

At the same time, Aliase was getting really exasperated with me. He could and would not try to understand why we were implementing such a policy. Despite having recurrence discussions and arguments with him about this, he still refuse to understand and abide by the policy. He would get mad at me for rejecting applications from these people to the point of being rebellious and defiant. Even the District Governor could not understand me when we talked to him about it.

I was the only female international staff in the whole convoy to Lal. Sitting in front of the District Governor with a bunch of elders was quite an experience. I was not scared, nervous or even intimidated. I don’t know why. It can be frustrating though because they would discuss things in Dari and I wouldn’t understand what they were talking about. The interpreters were quite languid in translating things. And also because I am a woman, they normally don’t feel my presence as important enough to warrant translation unless a question is directed at me.

Anyway, I had to tell them that no doubt registration is important in Afghanistan and has an impact on its future, we cannot focus our whole lives on it. Come what may – registration will happen. But what’s also important is life itself. We need to consider other implications such as recruitment of these staffs.

Then, I went on about the whole Taliban sob stories and ask them whether their conscience would allow the girls and women to be deprived of education and medical treatment? Medical care in Lal has a particular significance for the women. There is only one health care NGO in Lal with female staffs. Many sick women from far away villages would walk for hours to this NGO for treatment.

Everyone stayed silent when I asked them about their conscience. I think they would have poofed-poofed me off if I am an Afghan woman but because I am a foreigner working for their registration process, they could not take me too lightly.

Then I proposed to the District Governor to speak with the Department of Education and NGOs about the 2-month unpaid leave in which he did. He put a lot of pressure on them and finally the Department of Education and IAM (a Christian medical healthcare NGO funded by Scandinavian governments) agreed to release one staff each to work with us. IAM told us that we could interview their staffs but only select one.

So as you can imagine, applications started flooding in and a group of women came to see me, etc. In fact, Lal has a Women’s Affair Association made up of this handful of educated women. Their mission statement is to promote women’s rights. So, these women are more forward thinking than the women in Panjao (which by the way, I have hardly seen since I have arrived in Panjao).

What was interesting to me was when the entourage of women prepared a welcome poem for me. I don’t know whether that was a custom or they were just trying to suck up to me. Whatever it was, it felt odd to receive such a treatment. It felt like colonial treatment which made me felt uncomfortable.

So, we managed to interview some of the women and there were 2 special cases which I would remember forever of my stay in Lal.

The interview panel consisted of Aliase, Latifa (our new provincial female trainer) and I. This woman, Khadijah works with IAM. She told us that she had been granted a 3 month-leave and she could work with us. I asked her whether she had applied for the leave in order to work with us. She said that even if she didn’t get the job, she would have taken that leave anyway.

So, I asked her whether it was customary to take such a long leave and to which she replied that she was entitled to it. I thought, hmmm….strange for IAM to grant such a long leave.

So, we went through the whole usual reality check thing with Khadijah. I wanted to make sure that these women understood what they are heading for. It is not an easy job with us as it requires a lot of travelling and long working hours. We normally recruit women who are able to travel far distances, walk for long hours and work alone without a "mahram" or male escort in Dari.

Anyway, she agreed to everything, etc. She was not very talkative and appeared a little bit awkward and unfriendly in the interview. I tend to warm up to people with cheerful disposition in interviews. Some girls were giggly and I thought that was charming and appealing.

So, I told her that I felt she was a little bit too shy and quiet and asked her whether she was nervous and would be different when she speaks to the local community. She gave me a monosyllabic “no” with no further explanation or justification. I asked her whether she could elaborate on her answer. She answered me, “I have answered to all your questions. What else can I say?” I thought to myself, gee, that would earn you a job for sure.

The moment she left the interview, Aliase casually mentioned to us that he suspected her to be pregnant. I turned to him and said, “Whoa, hang on. What are you saying? Did you guys discuss something in Dari and I missed it?” He said no but asked me whether I had notice how weird she behaved.

I said, “Well…she was quiet and unfriendly but that did not mean she’s pregnant.” I turned to Latifa and asked her whether she suspected the same. Latifa is a mother so I thought she would know. Latifa shook her head and said she didn’t notice any sign of pregnancy. But I told them that we had to find out because if she is indeed pregnant, we could not recruit her. The physical exertion needed for the job would affect her pregnancy and we don’t want to be responsible for any miscarriage, etc.

So, I asked Latifa to run after her to find out although it was a really personal question. Latifa went off and came back with one of the most shocking news. She told us that Khadijah was due to deliver in 3 days’ time!!!

I was completely dumbfounded. It wasn’t so much as because she didn’t look pregnant at all. Afghan women wear very loose clothing and they tend to hide their pregnancy because it’s considered a sensitive and embarrassing thing. But the fact that this woman thought that we would be paying her money to lie on the bed nursing her new-borne child. What was she taking us for?

She knew she would have to start work the very next day. I just could not fathom her mentality until today as I’m typing this out. Forget about the level of education here but what about common sense and logic? Yes, perhaps she needs the money, etc. but how was she going to lie her way out of the situation. It was not like we were never going to find out.

Secondly – HOW ON EARTH DID ALIASE KNOW AND NOT US, WOMEN??? be continued in part X....

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