Monday, June 25, 2012

Kids in a Village

One of our patrols was out in a village the other day.  As always, kids came running up to them, calling out "Chocolate!  Chocolate!"  One was a little girl, maybe 8 years old.  The soldier didn't have any chocolate, so he tossed her a Clif bar.  She looked at it a second, then threw it back at him hard enough to bounce off his helmet, and shouted "Chocolate!  Fuck you!"

Don't mess with a little girl who knows what she wants!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chicken Training

My post yesterday triggered a note from a reader today.  Here's the text:

Hi Skip,
I am reading you blog and came across your work with your tem in Afghanistan.

Although I thought you doing a good job there that make people happy and save but when I came today reading you latest post I cannot hold myself from laughing loudly and I reach to point falling from my chair.

Are you serious that you really smart guy by teaching Afghani how to raise chickens?
I lost my words what to say more that mother nature have giving and doing all things to humans from the day of creation you don’t need to bother for teaching what human learned for centuries how to each or drink and get their food.
Just get sick and tired of this Whiteman stupidity over others.

I was about to send a note back, but then thought that this raises some issues that others might be interested in.

Yes, we arranged for an NGO to teach 20 local women how to raise chickens.  Some may think that all Afghans know how to do this, particularly way out here, far away from the big city of Kandahar.  Unfortunately, they don't.  There are too many women around here who do not have a man to take care of them.  Maybe they're widows, or abandoned, or whatever.  In this society, men are responsible for women.  If a woman is not lucky enough to have a man to care for her, then her economic options are severely limited.  

Here in Maiwand, such women have not been able to benefit from the US-sponsored seed distributions for some very dumb (in my mind) reasons.  They are generally shuffled off to the outside of society.  I've seen them begging at the District Center.  Many have children, and these kids suffer when the mother suffers.

So we arranged to have an NGO come in to do this class.  Raising chickens, you may think, is a no-brainer.  Not so.  It's not rocket science, but there are things that need to be done to ensure that the chickens remain healthy and produce eggs.  This class taught them how to make chicken coops that were reasonably cool in the summer (important here), had adequate ventilation, were easy to clean out, and provided security.  They were taught how to care for their adult chickens as well as the chicks, including feeding, water, what sort of health conditions to watch for, and more.  After the women built adequate coops and showed that they knew how to properly care for their chickens, they each received about 40 of the birds.  So now these women have a source of food for themselves and their families that they can sustain over the long term.  

This course did more than just teach them how to raise chickens.  It provided them with a shared experience and a sense of both community and empowerment.  (I can't speak from first-hand experience here, I'm relying on what our female soldiers reported).  Most of these women had virtually nothing, but now they have something that will help them survive.  

I have seen many programs in Afghanistan that I thought were really stupid, that wasted time, money, and effort.  Afghan men figured out how to game the system long ago so they could make maximum benefit from these programs.  I see lots of focus by district leaders on these large, expensive programs, that too often result in little benefit to the district, but in which they make large sums of cash.  This chicken program was a low-cost effort that directly benefited a small number of people who needed help very much.  So, while it may seem ridiculous to teach an Afghan how to raise chickens, I make no apologies for it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


We had a big event over at the District Center today.  A class that was teaching a bunch of local widows how to raise chickens, so they could feed their families and earn a little cash, was completed.  As their graduation present, they each got a bunch of chickens to take home and keep in the chicken coops they had built during the class.

As is typical of Afghan activities, it was chaos.  Things that were supposed to happen, didn't.  The start time came and went long before things actually started.  Things that weren't scheduled, happened.  This is Afghanistan, and if you're wedded to a schedule, you won't make it here!

But finally, each woman came up and received her chickens.  The fun part was putting the chickens into cardboard boxes to take home.  The chickens were not at all interested in being stuffed in any cardboard box.  So every couple of minutes, one of them would escape and go running around, chased by wildly screaming kids, until it was captured and brought back.  A few minutes later, another one would make a run for it.  Eventually, though, all the chickens were loaded up and taken off to their new homes.  Twenty women now have a way to help themselves, and their kids, survive.

Kids were everywhere today.  This is a small part of the batch.  One of our soldiers wanted to take a picture of a couple of kids, and one of the women saw that, so she started rounding up every stray youngster in the area.  She was definitely in command: these kids did as they were told!  They just didn't necessarily look at the camera, though.

I've said before that soldiers are kid-magnets.  Female soldiers are girl-magnets.  Here's one of our young soldiers playing patty-cake with local girl.

As the soldiers left, this young girl hung onto their hands all the way out the gate.

These three young princesses came late to the ceremony, but were definitely the belles of the ball.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Another Week

It's been a busy week here in the wilds of southern Afghanistan.  My little team has been wrapped up in some very contentious issues with local officials.  What it boils down to is a matter of trust, or rather, the lack of it.  We have tried to move some projects along, but local officials don't trust the contractors, and the contractors don't trust the local officials.  Meanwhile, the local residents don't trust the district governor (who is not from here), nor do they trust the police, the provincial government, the national government, my little team, or ISAF.  How do you get past that?  Well, you just tell the truth, don't over-promise, and do what you say you're going to do.  Same as anywhere in the US, except here we're starting from way behind the 8-ball.

One of the things that has hampered us this week has been the organization charged with carrying out some of our projects.  See, the way we work is that the US civilian government does not do these projects on its own.  We use non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out our programs, simply because we don't have the people to do it all ourselves.  NGO's are the organizations who provide managers, hire the contractors, buy the stuff that needs to be bought, hire local labor, coordinate with local officials, and do all the actual grunt work of carrying out a program.  For the past week, one of the NGO's has been a real headache for us.  Essentially, they over-promised and under-delivered on too many things.  This really irked the locals (as well as us).  Partially as a result, they do not have a good relationship with people here.  So some of our programs are stalled while people yell at other people.  Some of the meetings got really ugly this week.

But other meetings went surprisingly well.  There is one area in which there has been some tension between different sides, but they all made an extra effort this week and really moved things along.  I was impressed.  Unfortunately, it wasn't MY area, so I can't take any credit nor enjoy the fruits of improved coordination.  Rats.  But I'll keep banging my head against the brick wall of local officials and NGO's this next week, and sooner or later I might make a dent.  Or not.

One thing I was able to do earlier this week was more pastel work.  Here's one of them:

Village Elder
Pastel on toned paper, 12"x10"

I think it turned out pretty well.  I'm still working at doing more.  Sometimes they go on my studio Facebook page and sometimes they go in the trash can.

During the shura earlier this week, I did some more ink drawing as well, and here's one:

Bazaar Merchant
Ballpoint on paper, 9"x6"

Today (Friday) was our "weekend".  So I took some "me" time.  I got up a bit late, cleaned up my little hooch, dusted (coff coff coff), aired the place out, and basically just fluffed my nest.  This afternoon, I had to write a couple of reports, so it wasn't all play.  Now that I'm caught up here, I think it's time to get the pastels out again ...

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Color Sketch

Abdul H.
Pen, ink, and pastel on toned paper

This past week, a box with my art supplies finally arrived.  I broke out my pastels, drawing pen, and toned paper today to see what would happen.  Well, this is what happened.  This gent is one of the elders in our district.  I worked from a photo this time, in contrast to my pen and pencil sketches, which are almost all done from life.  I think it turned out pretty well.  It sure was fun working with color again!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

A Few More Pictures

Okay, I'm back in my normal state of having lots of stuff to write about and no time to do it.  So I'll post a few pictures instead.

Soldiers are a magnet for kids.  Anytime we head over to the District Center, all the kids come running. This day, several of us were standing around waiting for something to finish up, and we were surrounded by kids the whole time.

Carpool, Afghanistan-style.

This is my normal view from my little hooch.  Scenery here on the FOB is mostly T-walls (essentially, great big Jersey barriers), huts made from 2x4's and plywood, desert-tan tents, and varying numbers of MRAPs and Strykers.  And crushed gravel.  Lots of crushed gravel.

On Friday, I did some house-cleaning.  My rug was filthy, so I took it outside and beat it to death, then washed the corpse down with water and soap.  Surprise!  It's still useable.  And very red.  I'd thought it was brown.

Moonrise over Maiwand.  Full moons always give everything an air of mystery, don't they?

Rest easy, America.  Soldiers and their Strykers are watching out for you.