Thursday, October 16, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part VIII)

Friday, April 23 2004

Bamyan, Afghanistan

Dear friends,

My warmest wishes to you all.

Another episode of my life here in Afghanistan is over. It has been more than six months since I have arrived. Many things have happened since then and many more would come in the next few months. For now, I can only share some of the more significant events or incidents that had happened.

Friday, May 7 2004

Panjao, Afghanistan

The previous “entry” of my life in Afghanistan was disrupted until now. As you can see, I’m now in Panjao, a district about 6 hours away on the road from Bamyan. I was deployed to Panjao on 26 April 2004. I have been here since then.

I am now the Provincial Civic Education Officer in charge of civic education activities covering Panjao, Lal Wa Sarjangal and Waras districts. There is no internet connection or phone line here. I’m hoping to send this off whenever I get the chance to do so. We have been promised internet connection in a month’s time but the prospect looks bleak as things; i.e. logistics implementation, are moving very slowly here.

As I have mentioned, many things have happened and I have often lost count of the days spent here in Afghanistan and don’t know where to start.

I think the last time I wrote was in March and I have written a lot about the International Women’s Day (IWD) in Bamyan. As it turned out, the celebration went well and I have not heard from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) since then.

One significant incident related to the IWD worth mentioning was the night before the event took place. Although the Department of Women’s Affair (DOWA) and Save the Women and Children of Afghanistan (SWCA) were meant to be the forerunners of the event, they never executed their responsibilities and at the eleventh hour, we had to take over the tasks which they have failed to implement. Hence, in the end we acted as both the donor and also the “beneficiary”.

It was a new lesson learnt for me and each subsequent event contributed to my loss of faith and also respect for these women.

However, to be fair, a lot of credit goes to Homa, who worked really hard as she put all her energy in the event. I did a lot of the office work and left a lot of the running around to her. But on that night, I knew that she needed support and assistance and promised her that I would spend some time in the evening to help her with the decorations, etc. We were at a crossroad, where we were forced to decide either to leave the DoWA and SWCA women to their own devices and had all the guests disappointed with the outcome of a failed event, or to clean up their mess and make sure it was a success. We chose the latter of course.

By that time, the workers had set up the tent (Rubhall) provided by WFP. I had a really long and stressful day and a lot of the stress came from the event itself. I was not too pleased that I had to spend the rest of the evening doing somebody else’s job. But when I entered the tent, the sight of some women and men working together really washed away all the frustration and stress.

There were tonnes of multi-coloured paper frills, balloons and heaps of other bright and beautiful decorative items on the floor waiting to be put up. Homa had gone to Kabul to buy all the stuff and I was amazed at how much stuff we can get from Kabul. Most of the decorations are meant for weddings and as poor as most of the Afghans might be, they have no qualms lavishing on weddings.

I thought to myself that even if the event did not go well, I had somehow felt the satisfaction already. Men and women working side by side in Afghanistan is truly a rare sight and what matters most is the team spirit and solidarity amongst the people, which was clearly seen that night.

It took us a long time to set up the decorations as the tent was huge (it can accommodate about 200 people) and by nightfall, it was completely dark which made our task very difficult. Then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, 2 UN cars came to the rescue.

The tent had an opening at each end. Each car had then parked at each opening of the tent with their head lights turned on, illuminating the tent. It was all very surreal and exciting and we managed to finish our work by 9pm.

I can’t explain how it felt like. I guess it was somehow an event which had really brought all of us together and the most satisfying part was that I was the only foreigner and in essence, it had truly been their event. The consciousness of knowing how the team; whether they are drivers, translators, (and most of them were not even working for my programme) or educators, they all wanted to make sure that the event would be a success. Assistance of any kind was offered voluntarily without being asked for.

One person who surprisingly rose to the occasion was Halima. Halima is a very special woman. Not only is she a real beauty, she is humble, sweet, shy and if I can say, an introvert. She carries herself with a certain quietness and mystery in her, which is not surprising that she is an object of many men’s desire.

Since Homa has that leadership quality in her, Halima often remained in the background. But since Homa and I had been in Kabul for awhile, we had to put Halima in charge of the event in Bamyan. I think it was the best thing that had happened to the team. Halima managed to prove her potential by handling everything in her calm and dignified manner. While being left alone to drive the force in Bamyan, she has gained a lot of experience in playing a leadership role, which in turn has increased her self-confidence.

So, while observing the dynamics of my fellow Afghan colleagues working together, I couldn’t help but feel proud of these two women, who seem to have blossomed in their own special ways. Watching them giving suggestions, sharing ideas, laughing together with their male colleagues was a joy. They have finally gained respect from their male counterparts. In a way, you can say that it was a defining moment in my career in Afghanistan.

After we wrapped up, we all went to the local bazaar to have dinner together. I treated all of them to what had cost me very little but meant so much to them. We had a good laugh and forgot about what was looming in front of us. It had been a good day after all.

Needless to say, I was very impressed and pleased with the work done when I saw how beautiful the tent was in the morning. Our event was published on the Voter Registration Update newsletter in Kabul. It is really good to see Bamyan on the news after being constantly neglected by the media.

Although the event concluded successfully, the remnants remained a constant headache for me. DOWA and SWCA had washed off their hands conveniently and we had to pick up the tabs/bills for the workers and guests; food, transportation, accommodation, etc. It would have been easier for me to just leave everything to them but it would leave us with a bigger headache when UNDP starts chasing us for the financial report.

But the beauty of being the “focal point” for UNDP is that, I am in the position to write a monitoring report and to recommend whether the group/organization should receive future funding. And in this case, any future recommendation from me is close to a clear negative. I have only one comment for DOWA – TROUBLE, STAY CLEAR.

Working with these women was a challenge which resulted in major disappointment. Although the event was worth having, trying to empower and encourage them was in a way a failure. Not only they did not embrace the opportunity given, they took advantage of everything. Sometimes, I wonder whether it was my fault. Perhaps, I have not tried harder and if the circumstance was different; i.e. we were given more time, it might have been different.

A typical day for me at work in Bamyan was meeting with a lot of people that came in with problems and expecting me to solve it. I spent half of my day having different people; whether they are staffs or not, coming into my office with a bunch of problems. Instead of a civic education office, it slowly turned into a trouble shooting center.

I had a really small office in Bamyan. We call it the Cogim. It’s basically a sea container with about the size of 2m x 4m. We had 2 tables, 1 phone, 2 computers, 1 printer, 1 shelf, 5 chairs and tonnes of posters and materials in the container. Phillip and I shared the office with a bunch of other civic education staffs.

Usually the office had about 7 or more people in it; groups of NGOs, organizations, etc. coming in to talk. So, imagine the space we had. Phillip tended to ignore the people who came in and I would be the person listening to their woes. Frankly, I wished that I didn’t have to deal with these people because it wasted a lot of my time and energy.

However, it is part of my responsibilities to listen to them. All this left me with very little time to do my own work.

Things got worse when we had to recruit hundreds of new national staffs for the start of the second phase of registration. I was in charge of recruiting civic educators and for nearly 2 weeks, I was occupied with shortlisting of applications and interviews.

What had gotten on my nerves many times was when the applicants would come straight into my office to hand me the applications hoping that they could put in some good words for themselves and then expecting to be employed. We had somehow established a system whereby, all applications should be sent to administration and then handed over to me for shortlisting at the end of the deadline.

But no, nepotism and cronyism that are so rampant in Afghanistan made my life that much more difficult. After telling the security guards many times not to send any person applying for jobs to my office, they did it anyway. After telling my Afghan colleagues many times not to do the same, they did it anyway.

Often, they would bring their friends into the office and then asked me whether they would be employed. Not to mention, some mornings when I entered my office, I saw stacks of job application staring at me from my table. My instinctive reaction was to tear the applications and throw them into the bin. But thank God for that inner voice in me that constantly reminded me to be patient.

Some of my Afghan colleagues even send me letters recommending their friends for the job. I never entertained them and that, I did throw into the bin. I even received private emails asking me to recruit friends and people stopping me on the street to talk to me, etc. There were a couple of people who had the nerve to come to my accommodation to speak to me about jobs. These kinds of things really annoyed me.

(I realise now that I had been overly-protective of the whole process. My inexperience in life as well as idealism had prevented me from understanding the cultural context of the situation. Instead of dealing with the whole thing calmly, I made a big deal out of it, to my own detriment. From this, I have in a way learned a lesson. I failed to put myself to the test and instead chose to judge others. I should have asked myself whether I would have done the same, if I had been in their position.)

Being sort of like a local “celebrity” by virtue of the power entrusted on me to recruit people may all sound like fun, but it wasn’t. I have never been a person who relishes in power.

Fortunately though, I had no qualms telling people quite bluntly that I will not take any applications directly from them and I will not entertain any lobbying. Shortlisting was hell because a lot of the Afghans tend to make decisions based on emotion.

We had a shortlisting panel consisted of our own civic education team (local and international), a representative from UNAMA and UNOPS. As we are doing this Afghanisation process, we are trying to include the Afghans in a lot of the decision-making. But often enough, I had to interfere because they would shortlist people based on the applicant’s financial status or if they are their friends/relatives.

In the first phase of registration, we did a lot of mistakes by recruiting a lot of family members. It wasn’t intentional because we were new and we did not know the people there. They can be quite sneaky as well. Most of the time, they would not put their full names; i.e. their father names on the applications which made it impossible for us to identify whether they were related to each other.

Another problem we faced was the limited pool of educated and qualified people in the Central Highlands. It is easy to recruit qualified people in bigger cities like Kabul, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif. But in Central Highlands, you get 14-year-old female teachers and secondary school graduates.

We would then put up the names of shortlisted candidates for interviews. Again, people would march into the office and demand why they had not been shortlisted. Some would start bitching about those who had been shortlisted and questioned me why so and so was chosen and not them.

I swear many times I wished I could tell them that that kind of attitude reinforced our decision not to select them. I usually have no patience and tolerance for such attitude. I would just tell them that applications do not warrant an automatic employment and it was not up to them to select people. It was up to us and they should not argue with the decision. Period – end of discussion.

Some of my international colleagues would spend considerable amount of time entertaining these people which infuriated me. Yes, it’s a rat chase and everyone is fighting to get a job but let's not forget we have a job to do ourselves.

Things wouldn't have gotten out of control if it wasn't the UN's fault as well. The UN is paying big money to these people and it’s stupid. Other NGOs are paying national staffs USD200 per month and the UN is paying USD500 per month! The UN is spoiling the market and also making these people go money-crazy.

The Ministry of Education and health care NGOs are pleading to us not to “poach” their staffs. We have come up with a policy not to recruit teachers and health care workers. It used to be a dilemma for me because I really believe that people are entitled to apply for new jobs especially if it’s a better job with better pay. But after a lot of discussion with my other international colleagues, I soon understood the negative implications if all teachers and healthcare workers leave their jobs. Most of the educated women are in these 2 professions. During the Taliban regime, the women were deprived of education and healthcare and my conscience does not allow me to recruit these women. Once these women receive such a high salary, they often refuse to go back to their old jobs and tend to migrate to bigger cities.

Because of a tight budget, the UN authorizes very limited national staffs to the Central Highlands. For Panjao, I am only entitled to 22 Civic Educators for 3 district; Panjao, Lal Wa Sarjangal and Waras. The estimated voter population for Panjao district alone is close to 30,000 people. We are given only one month to register these people. Now, tell me how on earth are 10 Civic Educators going to educate 30,000 people within one month??!!

So, someone on top there is really smart to pay USD500 per person instead of USD500 for 2 persons. We could have doubled up the number of educators by paying them the market price. I don’t think it takes a genius to figure this out.

UNOPS, the agency responsible for the payment of national staffs is paying the national trainers and educators the same salary. The trainers are supposed to train and supervise the educators. So in essence, the educators are the trainers’ subordinates but they are receiving the same pay scale. This is demoralizing for the trainers and many of them are beginning to feel the “humiliation”. The UNOPS chief is screwing up a lot of things for us here and it just pisses me off to know that person is being paid probably more than USD10,000 a month to make bad decisions like this.

Anyway, interviews were another joke to me. I had spent days “entertaining” lies and deceit. Many times, I would discover in the interviews how the applicants have lied in their CVs and some went to the extent of sending someone else for the interview. I had to answer to question like, “I need to go to Kabul on my interview date, may I send my brother for the interview instead?” This kind of question is a potential threat to one’s mental health.

Some classic examples which would probably send most of you in stitches or even incredulity are as below:

…to be continued in Part IX…..

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