Losing some preconceptions in Afghanistan


August 19, 2010

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I should know by now, but the important lessons are always worth repeating. Although blessed with the opportunity to travel often, I packed a lot of preconceptions when I set out for Afghanistan; this country that dominates our headlines but whose people we know so little.

I was ready for palpable tension in Kabul; no one wanting to linger on the streets, a pervading sadness. But in my short time there (and it was a short time), I saw nothing of that. Instead bustle, chatter, shops with names like “Kabul Asia Fashion”, advertisements for mobile phones, clothes, college courses and smiling teenagers — everything I ought to have expected but somehow didn’t — the old truth (and one time British Airways slogan) that there’s more that brings us together than keeps us apart.

Alongside the more immediate tragedies of this conflict are the missed opportunities of our mutual isolation. It’s a pity that the construction contractor I got talking to on my flight home never got to see anything of Afghanistan except the inside of Kabul compounds and armoured vehicles. It’s a shame that Afghans with expertise in development can’t always get visas to attend training courses in the United Kingdom that will help them contribute even more to their country.

Mercy Corps works closely with communities and implements programmes together with them, wherever security allows. It is a privilege in these difficult times to have the chance to meet with ordinary Afghans in an uncomplicated way.

I had the chance to visit a Mercy Corps agricultural programme, funded by the European Commission, in a comparatively stable part of the country in the east. This programme is demonstrating improved seeds and planting techniques, setting up women with poultry as a source of income, linking farmers to markets and putting money into the household budgets and local economy by hiring local labour to build and improve infrastructure, not least irrigation.

From the air, it’s hard not to be struck by the difference that canals make to the otherwise sparse and arid country and just how important these arteries are to rural life. Building this water infrastructure and helping Afghans improve its management is a big part of what Mercy Corps does around the country.

I accidentally stepped in one of the water channels, to the amusement of local children in one village. I’m claiming this was a deliberate ice-breaking strategy…or at least I’d use that excuse if we hadn’t already been warmly welcomed. Everywhere we were met with great warmth and we had to reluctantly decline many offers of lunch, (although still managed to eat some excellent watermelon). We promised we’d take up their lunch offers next time.

I hope we can.