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or at least on my subconscious!

Around the time that I left Afghanistan, several of my close friends were also leaving (either because their contract was coming to an end or, like me, the funding for their project was suddenly cut). At the time, it gave us a certain shared experience of leaving within days of each other. But each of us had our own lives and our own circumstances to determine what we would be doing next. My friends ended up all over the world when leaving Kabul.

Since then, rather surprisingly to me, almost all of them have returned or were seriously considering returning to Afghanistan.

Like I said, they have their reasons for returning, but each time I learn of a friend going back, I end up spending some time thinking about whether I would go back. I already met the goals I set for myself in going there last year. Further, the security situation has clearly worsened (as it always does in the summer months), the financial situation has grown tighter, and I have already seen what a tiny impact our projects are having. [Clearly, I don’t write to be politically correct.]

I always come to the conclusion that 1) I have already had that experience, 2) It’s important to focus on my personal relationships and things at home right now, and 3) I’d rather go somewhere else if the opportunity presents itself.

I feel comfortable with this decision. And right now I have a ton of other things related to moving to California on my mind. But while in the middle of moving, almost every night I have a dream about returning to Afghanistan. I haven’t had a dream, that I remember, having anything to do with California. I’m sure that it’s a lot easier for the brain to create stories around the known than around the unknown, but it’s a strange way to wake up.

Yesterday, I got an email from my old translator in Kabul. He has moved to a different position, and the office of guys where the greatest amount of cultural exchange happened for me is no longer anything like when I was there. It’s rather bittersweet that the best parts of my experience no longer exist. (Too bad I can’t tell my subconscious that Afghanistan would indeed hold plenty of unknowns, too.)

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I really enjoyed some of the Afghan dishes that I had while I lived there. Each of the cooks taught me how to make one of my favorite dishes.

This is Hussain showing me how to make eggplant. This dish was so good that if someone came to dinner a little late they often didn’t get any! However, once I learned how to make it, I wasn’t sure if I would actually do it. It has 3 major steps, making it time-consuming (although far from the most time-consuming Afghan recipes). While I enjoy cooking, that’s quite a commitment. But I finally attempted it last week, and I’m so pleased with it. Here’s the basic recipe, although quantities are eyeball estimates.

Eggplant with yogurt

Preparing eggplant

2 eggplant* (long, skinny “chinese” variety recommended”)

Salt

Vegetable oil

First, slice eggplant, sprinkle with salt, and set for 30 min. Next, rinse eggplant with water to remove salt and juices (I patted them dry after this). Heat oil in shallow pan and deep fry slices for 3-5 min on each side until lightly brown. (Note: this is the time consuming step because you can only cook so many at a time.)

Tomato sauce

6 tomatoes

4 garlic cloves

1 t. salt

1 t. pepper

Combine above ingredients. Cook on medium heat until tomatoes resemble a sauce. Layer cooked eggplant and tomato sauce in oven pan. Bake at around 350 degrees for 20 min.

Yogurt sauce

1-1.5 cups yogurt (sour or natural plain yogurt)

1-2 t. salt

2 cloves of garlic

Combine yogurt, salt, and garlic (I recommend doing this toward the beginning and letting it sit). Place yogurt sauce over the eggplant dish and serve.

The dish is blissful!

Note: I tried using canned tomatoes and the sauce was a little too watery, but I can adjust that. And now that I’ve made it successfully, I’m going to try some tweaks to see if I can find a quicker way to cook the eggplant, such as broiling the eggplant in the oven.

If you attempt to make this, you will be pleasantly surprised in just how good it tastes!

*I have to mention that until I went to Afghanistan I didn’t think I liked eggplant. I was completely surprised to eat it there and love it! I’ve since learned that eggplant varieties vary substantially in taste. The nice round ones are typical in the US, and the slender ones are found at specialty stores (and at your local grocery are often called chinese eggplant). If you haven’t tried different kinds, I highly recommend it.

There has been a lull in my posts due to an emergency in India. My heart grieves for that family and their loss; I wish them strength in all things to come. In the meantime, I am lucky to be able to spend this time with my own family, since I am often quite far away from them.

This congressional investigation to be released today includes most of the information that I would provide if someone, like Obama, asked me about US programs in Afghanistan.

  • Aid money to stabilize areas is a short-term fix
  • There is little evidence that any positive results are sustainable
  • Enormous cash flows overwhelm and distort local culture and economies
  • There is little oversight, particularly more so in Afghan-run projects, which encourages corruption and mis-use of funds
  • The “single most important step” is to stop paying Afghans “inflated salaries” — often 10 or more times the going rate — to work for foreign governments and contractors

It’s good to see that this information is making it’s way to US policy makers and the public. I just hope they will listen and make changes accordingly.

This happened to me and my work, although on even more specific topics, on a couple different occasions in Afghanistan.

Dilbert.com

The only real difference is that the person/people/donor who tasked us with the assignment was rarely the same and never in the room…

I don’t want my negativity (over my job, project mismanagement, or lack of a coherent US strategy) to imply that I was unhappy living in Afghanistan or that I think poorly of the Afghans.

On the whole, my time in Afghanistan was very easy. My post Spoiled never stopped being true. Living outside the US was one of my goals, and I’m really proud to have accomplished it, especially through my job. And while I often felt like I was in a bubble, isolated from the average people of Afghanistan, I had the advantage of living and working with people from around the world (including Irish, British, South African, Australian, Afghan, Indian, Pakistani, Pilipino, Sri Lankan, Iranian, French, and German). This increased the cultural exchanges exponentially.

I really came to enjoy the Afghan people on a social level. This is by far their strength. I understand a lot about their work norms, but I can’t say that working with them ever became easy. There is just too great a divide between the expectations I came with, at least for white collar work. (Here I’m strictly talking about Afghans who have never lived outside Afghanistan.) By far, my biggest complaint about Afghans (which is completely justified considering their history) is their tendency to just wait things out (process, system, government, etc. will fall eventually) rather than thinking strategically about what they want to become and how they can get there with existing resources. Way too much time is spent trying to figure out how to get flat screen tvs or video conferencing equipment, which aren’t needed or used for work purposes, rather than how to make their departments actually effective. Of course, I know this happens everywhere, but it is much more blatant here.

And since this is my farewell post, I have to include a few of the things that I will truly miss:

  • I really came to appreciate living in a guesthouse with other expats. It was like being put into a place where everyone is instantly part of the same club (knowing the same people, speaking the same lingo, struggling with many of the same issues, etc.). Usually when you move to a new place, you have to slowly meet people, try to get to know them better, become friends, but all of this can happen in the course of 2 or 3 days when you’re living and working together.
  • Within a few months, I had created a good situation with friends, exercising, classes, work, and get-togethers that fell into an easy routine. This will take a lot more time to create in a new place, but on the up side, I will get to incorporate outdoor activities!
  • Travel facilitates cultural exchange. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot by getting to know people on your street. But it’s much more in-your-face and people are way more open to talking about differences and similarities when you’re a visitor. You’re allowed to asked questions without offending anyone (for the most part). I’m going to miss the guys in my office, who were always so open to explaining things that I noticed, asking me questions, and comparing and contrasting situations.
  • Lunches. Have you ever wanted to entertain friends at home without the headache of planning, cooking, and cleaning up? Do you need a break in the middle of the day to just unwind, maybe vent about your job or maybe talk about what you would do if you ruled the world? Do you wish you ate delicious food made from scratch more often? If I had to pick the top thing that I will miss from these past 10 months, it is going home for a delicious lunch (5 minutes away from work) and chatting with my best buddies or hosting friends, and no planning involved.
  • In my last week, I said a lot of goodbyes, but it was actually saying goodbye to Housain, our cook, that left a lump in my throat. Of anyone in Afghanistan, he was the one who worried and fretted over me. He always knew if I was sick. He always made my favorite foods. I wouldn’t say it was a deep friendship; our limited language skills wouldn’t allow for that. But when he had a headache, he would come to me for an ibuprofen, and when he got hit by a car on his way to work (did I mention he rides his bike 1 hr each way to come to work), I was the one to send him home to rest. I am going to miss him, and I worry that others will not appreciate him. And what really bothers me is that due to the large cuts in our project, my company will need to close some of the houses that it has been renting/managing. In the process, I think it’s extremely likely that he will lose his job in the next few weeks.
  • As you know from Changing Roles, I was really looking forward to working in a different role, one that would create tangible results that my colleagues could use to improve a very important government process. I’m going to miss the opportunity to complete that work as well as working closely with some of my friends.
  • I got to know 2 Afghan women in my counterpart’s staff. I enjoyed getting to know them and learning about their families. However, our relationships didn’t really move much beyond this because I worked more closely with several of the men on the team. And then just 2 weeks before I left, I had the chance to meet and work with another Afghan woman. She is 23 yrs old and had fairly recently returned from the US, where she studied for almost 3 years. Our friendship blossomed immediately. She is from a conservative family who never wanted her to go to the US in the first place, and now she is having a very difficult time adjusting to living with her family again after so much independence. Further, even many of her friends feel she has turned her back on her culture. She no longer fits in where she once did, and I’m really going to miss the opportunity to be her friend and mentor.

Today is International Women’s Day! And if you have no idea what that means, you’re definitely not alone. You might think it was another holiday created by hallmark…

Actually, it was created to celebrate the political and social achievements of women. And each year has a different theme. I think of the day as a celebration of empowerment – women recognizing that they can create the changes they want to see. However, not particularly surprising, the spirit of the day is lost on a lot of people.

On the ground in Afghanistan, it seems to be all about women getting gifts from their employers. (And pretty significant gifts, I might add. I know some government employees got $100 in local currency, which has a lot of buying power here.) Of course, there are also speeches and time away from jobs for tea and lunch (this is Afghanistan after all).

In the US, I might have questioned the need to have a special day for women, but living in a place where women are clearly not equals has definitely adjusted my mindset.

Consider for a moment – when is a girl no longer a child? Is it at around 13 when she starts menstruating? Is it when the government recognizes her right to vote? Is it when the government says she is responsible enough to buy alcohol? Or, is it when she gets married? Here, in Afghanistan, girls are children until they get married. They move from being dependent on their fathers to being dependent on their husbands. This is reflected in the language; the same word is used for all unmarried girls.

 

And if you’re wondering what this particular international woman is doing these days, stay tuned…

For the past 9 months, I have been working in the same role, embedded in a government unit. In consulting, that’s a long time to be doing the same thing. My role has been to build the capacity of a group of Afghans by advising them as they do work, which I’m experienced with. The past 3 months have been quite difficult for me, and I have complained about being bored, not having enough work to occupy my time, and not having any real impact. I have been bummed to think that my remaining time in Afghanistan would be more of the same work-wise.

Luckily, there is a short-term role within the project available for me to move into. This new role will be quite different. Instead of being mostly an adviser, I will be doing the work myself. That means I set the agenda, the pace, and much of the results, without having to convince a team (of guys who don’t want to listen to me) to follow my suggested approach. This work cuts across different departments and ministries so I will be going around and gathering information. Again, it’s a very independent role. This is the kind of work I really enjoy so I have high hopes for my remaining couple of months in Afghanistan.

Third example of learning more about my own culture:

Planning

Afghans rarely plan what they will do for the day, much less the week, month, or several months from now. (I touched on this in the first Culture post.) For example, there are a lot of holidays, and different holidays have different implications (think Christmas vs Columbus Day). It is very normal for our contract staff to get an email around 3pm the day before the holiday explaining if the day is a holiday for all, day off for specific staff, work from home, or work as usual.

Here’s an example of an email that went out Monday, the 14th, around 11am:

Dear All,

The Afghan Government will be closed for holidays on 15-17 Feb and in consideration of the fact that the majority of our local staff are embedded at XXX and Ministries, the XXX management has determined Tuesday and Thursday are work from home for all local staff.

For your information:

?         Tuesday, 15 Feb is  Liberation Day

?         Wednesday 16 February is Miladul Nabi (S) –  a national paid holiday for XXX local staff in Afghanistan

?         Thursday, 17 Feb is a national holiday

Please note that:

XXXXXX

Enjoy a safe and long weekend.

Regards,

XXXXXX

Human Resources Manager

Since Fridays are the weekend, this email effectively informs the staff that they have a 4-day weekend. Each time I see these emails, I balk at the fact that they are only informed of this the day before. I wonder how do they plan, how do they take advantage of their holidays, and why don’t they complain about getting such short notice? But the reality is that they really don’t plan, they don’t have a need to “take advantage” of holidays because they don’t take trips to see family in other parts of the country*, and they don’t see anything to complain about (they are getting holidays after all).

The US is so focused on planning and maximizing that something as great as a 4-day weekend could be frustrating if we aren’t given the time needed to be organized (think sudden snow days).

Note: you may have noticed that the email actually says that 2 days are “work from home” days and I said that they have “a 4-day weekend.” This is because almost no Afghans do office work in their homes. They do not have internet access at their homes. Those who have laptops usually leave them locked in an office at work or they take them home for their kids to play on them (I know because I sit in an IT office, which has to deal with all of the problems that result on the computers). It is a common mindset that if you are not in the office you are not working (it is completely beside the point whether work gets done in the office).

*The majority of Afghans live with extended families in their homes, and it’s rare that they would need to travel to see other parts of their family (because they are in the same city). However, the big exception to this is men who have moved to Kabul to make money for their families, who live in one of the provinces. These men do travel to their home province about once every 2 months, usually around government holidays. If they are flying, it is quite easy to get tickets the day of or the day before because this is such a small group of people.

Bonus Material – We have a guy in our office who changed roles and was provided a new office in another building probably about 2 months ago. He continues to come to our office for part of each day. When people are looking for him, they look in both offices. While I was writing this post, he came into the office for 2 minutes, and as he was walking back out, we teased him that he couldn’t live without seeing us. He responded,

“Change in Afghanistan is usually very slow. You cannot just change jobs or offices suddenly. You must do it slowly. There is only one exception to this kind of change, and that is marriage, where suddenly the girl is no longer in one house and is now in another house.”

The interesting cultural feature is that in the US, most change can be very fast (i.e., change of offices, jobs, or homes), but generally relationships/marriages are a slow change.

Another example of learning more about my own culture:

Showing respect

On my first day in Kabul, I attended a large meeting with government officials, and as certain people came into the room everyone stood up. I didn’t think too much more about it. Then when I was working in my office and someone would enter the room all of the Afghans (usually 8 guys) working in the office would stand and greet the person who entered. When I was sitting in small group meetings with my counterpart or his staff and his boss entered the room, it was the same thing. Everyone stands, and everyone takes a turn to greet the boss. Seriously, this impacts getting work done, staying on task, etc. in an office setting. (I should probably add that for my first week my counterpart’s staff would stand when I entered the room, but I put an end to that pretty quickly.)

I asked the 2 Afghan women that I work with why it is necessary to stop what we are doing to stand and greet the boss, especially because the boss was not coming to see us (he was there to speak to someone else in the room). They said it is to show respect. I told them that in the US there are few people who we would stand up for simply because they enter the room (The President being the only example I could come up with off the top of my head). One of the girls asked me, “What do you do when your father enters the room?” Hmm, my dad, well, I pictured sitting on the couch watching tv and my dad entering the room (back when I was lived at home because these girls live with their parents), and I said “If my father enters the room, I would glance up and say hey.” They were pretty astonished by the lack of respect that I show him. However, what they see as a lack of respect is actually much more a lack of formality in the U.S. This is something I’ve definitely touched on in other posts.

One of the things I really enjoy about being here, or traveling in general, is that I end up learning more about my own culture. It’s often like there is a bright spotlight shining down on my assumptions. The next few posts are going to be examples. (I tried to make this one post, but it became entirely too long.)

Answers

Time after time I will ask my translator, counterpart, or staff some question. It doesn’t matter if it is factual, evaluative, or rhetorical – they will provide me with an answer. And the most common answer is “Maybe.” Let me give some examples:

Me: Will Mr. Koshan be back in the office this afternoon?

Translator: Maybe.

Or

Me: The unit has asked me to provide them with [insert topic] training. When will they all be in the office so I can give the training?

Counterpart: Maybe this afternoon.

Me: I know one team has a meeting this afternoon at the ministry. What about tomorrow morning?

Counterpart: Okay.

Me: Is there a projector available tomorrow morning?

Counterpart: Maybe.

Me: I’ll go track one down before the training.

Or

Me: Have you completed translating the flowchart?

Translator: Almost.

Me: So you will be finished by the end of the day?

Translator: Well, maybe tomorrow.

Me (smiling): Do you know the definition of “almost?” (I can ask this sarcastically because we’ve had this discussion numerous time.)

Translater: Well, yeah.

 

What is obvious from these conversations is that I’m looking for exact information, which I clearly don’t get. There are 2 cultural issues.

First, Afghans cannot say “I don’t know.” It literally is impossible. Saying you don’t know something is like indicating you have a personal failing. To say “I don’t know” implies that you are irresponsible and not to be trusted. (I’ve asked Afghans and Afghan-Americans about this.) In the US, while we are supposed to know a lot, we put a lot of value in understanding the things we don’t know. And in business, we give bonus points to people who not only understand what they don’t know but also have initiative to find the answer. We would expect the response: “I don’t know, but I will go ask/find out.”

Second, what is true or isn’t true is quite fluid in Afghan culture.  Whether you can plan for something (even if you are the boss), is extremely difficult because you never know what will happen to change the situation. When someone goes on vacation, you never get the exact date that they will return to work. There are so many reasons someone could be delayed that it’s best just not to plan. In the US, planning things in advance is extremely important; it’s what keeps things moving forward. And this is probably a large reason why things do keep moving forward even when, for example, the boss is out of town.


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