My first morning in Kabul, I went with Momajan and Roz Mohammed for my first real taste of the outside, a walk to the shops to change my money and top-up an internet dongle. I stepped out into the bright cold streets of Kabul. Initially I was blinded by the brightness of the sun and then choked by the pollution.
My immediate thought was that I had stepped into Dickensian London only far worse, piles of rubbish on the street, open sewers running alongside the dirt pavements (also containing rubbish), bric-a-brac junk shops made out of dilapidated shacks, beggars every few yards, the number of people with disabilities is extreme. Air thick with pollution, nothing like anything I’ve experienced during my 18 years of growing up in East London. Pavements are improvised or sometimes non existent; there are no traffic regulations, no zebra crossings or traffic lights. To cross a road you take your life into your own hands zigzagging cars, motorbikes and bicycles. Perhaps the most worrying is the number of people with guns, guards stationed outside buildings, shops, banks all carry a gun slung over their shoulder.
Momajan changed my money up at a street vender; a man with a mobile counter and a calculator. We popped into the shop to buy a top up card for the internet dongle, a man sat at a table surrounded by junk soldering bits of (what looked like) rubbish together. We then walked to a nearby river which is more or less dry except for a grey trickle which wriggles through piles of rubbish. Every so often you can spot relics of the former Kabul, a redundant red fire hydrant near the river. If there was a fire today there would be no fire service or means of mobilising the fire hydrant, not that it would work. I can’t help but wonder where does the US’s daily budget (2011) of £33.4 million go? Walking the streets of Kabul it’s clear to see it certainly hasn’t gone on basic infrastructure.
When we got back to the calm of the apartment it was something of a relief, it was the most intense short walk of my life. However it wasn’t long before I was getting my stuff together for a trip to an orphanage. Our driver, a short Hazara man with a wild glint in his eye turned up with the people carrier which we all piled into. As soon as the door slammed shut we were hurtling off down the road; past a cemetery around the size of a football pitch crammed with graves- headstones made out of bits of slate; we sped inches past a shepherd with a small flock of hardy goats grazing (on rubbish) by the side of the motorway, a small boy sitting on a bollard in the middle of the road cheerfully eating a flat bread; a motorbike with 3 people somehow all crammed and balanced… at one point we had taken a wrong turn so our driver turned the vehicle round and we continued our journey down a small motorway in the opposite direction to the oncoming traffic…
The orphanage and widows refuge was on the edge of town in a fairly calm area; the house where around 100 orphans live was fairly descent with a playground area and garden. We spoke with the office manager who was polite but obviously patriarchal in attitude as any comments made by the women on the delegation were more or less ignored and during the introduction go round he skipped the women altogether!! His behaviour really irritated me, however it can’t be denied that the orphanage was doing great work, the women (who would otherwise be destitute) were receiving training in cloth making and the orphans were well looked after and given an education. We were taken to meet some of the orphans who all seemed very happy and healthy; I have to admit I was in typical Western mode- I bought a tone of clothing from the widow’s clothes shop and was totally up for adopting an orphan there and then.
The journey back to our apartment was as hairy as the one out. When we reached home it was certainly a relief, I was finding being out of doors in Kabul emotionally and physically draining. I sat down in the room which we spend most our time in, a medium sized unfurnished room with quilts which we sit on or wrap up in (our only form of heating are 2 small halogen heaters).
I was chatting with Ali when the door opened and Farrah walked in with an icing laden birthday cake lit with candles followed by Momajan carrying a bunch of balloons. I had sincerely forgotten it was my birthday, the day before it was explained to me that birthdays don’t really exist in Afghanistan, it’s not a custom so most people don’t know when their birthdays are or even their exact age… It was extremely touching, there I was less than 24 hours in the country and I’d already made fantastic friends. I made a wish and blew out the candles, 17 years of veganism went out the window, I wasn’t about to miss out on one of the sweetest gestures I’d ever experienced.
After a dinner of rice, potatoes, cabbage and bread the AYPV settled down to their evening studies of English (this is in addition to the 2 hours of study in the morning). Roz Mohammed asked me to help him with some English vocab pronunciation, I was more than happy to help. Again I was astonished by how outstanding these young people are; I’ve never know such keen, determined and hard working teenagers, it really does feel like an honour to be in their company.