There are a lot of benefits to working in Kabul right now. A lot of these are personal benefits and other things are nice-to-haves. But of course, there are a lot of drawbacks, as well. Sometimes, I struggle to give a full, balanced picture. While I really don’t care to dwell on the negatives, I have to be sure to talk about these items too. Note: This is not a balanced picture; I have been adding to this post whenever I think of something, not all at one time.

  • Security– might as well put this first because it’s on everyone’s mind, is a huge drawback, and is the overriding issue behind many other items.
  • Missing cultural events – So far there have been three weddings that in normal circumstances (living in Afghanistan) I would have been invited to. However, getting approval (see above point) is so difficult that people know better than to invite me. This makes me sad.
  • Inconsistent rules – for every (potential) rule or policy, there is a complete inconsistency in how they are applied. On 3 separate occasions, I have been denied access to the road that leads to my office because (insert what ever reason you can come up with, or) the guard at the entrance said so. After my driver and shooter argue with the guard and have a little standoff (meanwhile numerous vehicles are driving around us, not having their passes checked), they drive me to the project management office where I get in another vehicle and try again. Second time around, with a salute, a wave, or disregard for the entrance guard, we just drive in (no checking of our pass).  [Of course, I know some level of this happens everywhere.]
  • Wet toilet seats – Ok, seriously, I should simply be thankful for finding a Western toilet, but I have yet to get over being grossed out by finding the toilet seat wet. It makes me prefer squat toilets, but don’t get me started on wet floors.
  • Bully expats – Some of my colleagues see the locals as lesser people whose job it is to serve and clean up after them. While we do have cleaning staff and cooks, I don’t believe that means we should be rude, demanding, or expect them to be our personal servants.
  • Being viewed as a dollar sign – Have you ever looked at my face and thought: “$$” Probably not! My co-worker says her face looks like a computer monitor. Because we are from the West, because we are supported by donors, because we are trying to improve the current situation, because this is what the Afghans have learned, almost every meeting (outside my team) I attend I hear about the need for more money, staff, and technology. I am here to help, but I think a big dose of critical thinking skills would go much further than the items they are asking more.
  • Lack of initiative – The Afghans are so used to having donors throw money at problems that they spend absolutely no time thinking about what they can do to improve things on their own, with their own time, energy, and resources.
  • Work-only-happens-in-the-office mentality – The idea that you’re only working if you’re in the office gets old very fast. It is particularly poignant because the office is often a social scene where very little gets done. Combine that with the fact that when you are in the office you will be pulled into other things (meetings, presentations, social hour, etc) that have absolutely nothing to do with your work and you wonder how anything gets done. I’ve been pulled into a meeting on gender simply because I’m a woman. I’ve been pulled into presentations, which were entirely in Dari when I was without a translator. The list goes on.
  • Training because – There is a lot of training for training sake. Many of the Afghans feel that training will solve the problems of the world. It doesn’t matter that the training may not be relevant to them or their position, that half the team is out on leave, that they fall asleep during the training, that they walk out to talk on the phone or smoke, or that they don’t apply the relevant material to their jobs. They insist on training. Note: coaching, one-on-one, on-the-job, mentoring, or anything else that doesn’t involve a standard lecture with a powerpoint presentation is not considered training.
  • Slow or non-existent internet – Whether it’s trying to skype with friends & family, check out a 30-second youtube clip, or complete online company training, the state of the internet (or electricity) is often a frustration.
  • Personal discussion free-for-all – I can’t count the number of times that some well-meaning Afghan tells me that when I return to the U.S. I should get married and have babies or that I should read the koran to become knowledgeable. There is an assumption of one, right way to live your life AND there is an assumption that anyone can tell you about it. (It really isn’t up for discussion at all.) I am getting better at biting my tongue, but it’s particularly difficult because they always say something like “Don’t you think you should…?” I’m not good at finding a culturally appropriate response.
  • Misunderstanding around germs – In the West, science has come quite far in understanding how germs are involved in illness. But here, even among the very educated, there is a sense that there is nothing you can do to avoid getting sick. If the weather turns cold, you will get sick; germ theory/immune systems are irrelevant. (I’ve also heard stories of hospitals reusing needles because of a lack of supplies. Scary!)
  • Being sick! – I have just completed almost 3 weeks of being sick. I’m worn down (from cold, bronchitis, sinus infection, throat infection, intestinal cramps, diarrhea, and head and neck aches). It’s difficult to maintain a positive outlook while your body is constantly fighting the next issue. And, I worry that these issues will impact my overall health long-term.

Some of the negatives are perceptions and others are physical realities of working here. They are all realities that you have to adjust to mentally.

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