Through Those Dark Days: The curve of despair and other friends
I wanted to go to Afghanistan. My Dad had been through there on his way from Singapore to London overland in the 70s before the Soviet occupation and I wanted to experience that silk road too. When I was denied my application to deploy in 2007 I kept right on applying and by 2008 people got tired of me asking and got me on a tour. The prospect, despite my enthusiasm, was daunting. Being from an Air Force background and with my deployed role being embedded in the green machine, I knew that being on the ground with the Army was going to be a very different experience from my previous overseas flying tours. Still, full of confidence I set off, enthusiastic, believing in the mission to go over there, far from home, and make a difference to the locals in Bamiyan as part of the Provincial Reconstruction effort. And I was so desperately naive.
I ended up living with my 12-man patrol for six and a half months in a dusty little village called Nayak, at an intersection between trade routes in the Bamiyan Province, right in the centre of the country. Apart from the newest buildings since the reconstruction effort had started only a few years earlier, everything was brown mud-brick construction, with one long main street bazaar selling bottled water, naan bread, and blacksmithing services. One of the guys on my patrol called it biblical. Patrolling around the remote outlying areas of our District I couldn't think of a better description, as we passed guys leading donkeys over the mountains and heards of goats scrambling through the rocky tundra.
I quickly set my enthusiasm to work, my humanitarian aspirations, my western ideals. What you find out pretty quickly in a place like Nayak is that for thousands of years people have survived the only way they know how, the only way you can survive in a place like that, and none of your ethics and morals matter there. One of my roles was to go into villages and meet with the village heads, the Shura, to discuss what we could do to support their 'continued development'. Even writing that now makes me laugh. Ten years of brutal Russian occupation, followed by ten years of civil war, followed by the tyranny of the Taliban, and we were there to somehow help with the 'reconstruction'. So I would go into these places with my patrol, unannounced because there was no way to communicate with anyone in the wilderness of the Hindu Kush that we were coming, and the leaders would gather and we would sit for hours and drink tea, and I would listen and take notes through my interpreters about what I was hearing. Some days I would ask to go and see some of the village, if they had a little medical clinic, or where they got their drinking water from. Often, this was just a muddy hole in the ground, where the woman would be washing and gathering their water right next to the animals who were drinking and soiling in the same spring.
"Do your kids get sick in this village?" I would ask the Shura.
"Yes, yes, many children die."
"Well that's because you have no way of keeping the animals out of the water you're drinking, see look there. I can give you some cement to build a clean catchment around the spring to keep the animals out, and some tools, and some easy to follow instructions on how to make it drawn up by my engineer" I would enthusiastically offer.
The Shura would look at me: "Are you going to pay us to do this work?"
A variation of that happened every day.
One of my other roles was to 'mentor' the District officials and help them organise and mobilise their resources to somehow or another get something happening. Aid wasn't in short supply. In the huge warehouse across the road from the District sub-governor's office was 800 tonnes of humanitarian aid donated from organisations the world over. Many that you would know, and some you have probably given money to. When I arrived in Nayak in late autumn the seasons were about to change, and soon the mountain passes would snow shut for 4 months and no-one would be able to drive in or out to the hinterland villages to help or support them. The summer harvest had been terrible that year. Food was scarce. Even when we drove into villages and the locals would offer us a meal by way of hospitality we would feel ravaged with guilt accepting it, the meager rough naan, the hacked up tough goat stew. But you had to play the game and honour their hospitality, so we learned to choke down our concern with our gristle.
I asked the District sub-governor every day since the day I arrived what his plan was to distribute the food and clothing aid to the villages that we had seen that needed it most. Everyday he would smile and shake my hand and completely blow me off. And then the winter snows came. We woke up one day and the pallete of the tour had turned from muddy brown to stark white. At 14,000 feet above sea level you're not driving through any mountain passes in winter no matter how much you care. One day my four vehicle patrol got caught in a snowstorm and we almost didn't make it out. So there wasn't anything else to do for those most remote and cut off villages but to sit and wait and plan our next patrols to their areas once the spring thaws arrived.
One day there was a knock on the compound door. One of the Afghani police who helped us with security came and found me and and my interpreter and we welcomed our visitor in with tea and sweets and sat down in our mud hut enclosure to talk in the late afternoon sun. I thought I recognised this man but I couldn't be sure right away. But after he started outlining his situation I clicked that he was someone I had seen in the Shura of one of the farthest villages, and it soon became clear that he had been walking for four nights to come to Nayak to beg for help for his village because they had no food. He had been walking for four nights because during the day the snow would thaw making it impossible to walk though, so he waited until night, and when it would freeze solid again he would walk on top of it. He wasn't wearing socks. He had a tattered Afghani suit and a blanket.
The mantra we had drummed into us from our training was that we were there to encourage "Afghani solutions to Afghani problems". So I did what I was supposed to do, and that was to encourage the man to leave our compound and go talk to his District sub-governor. The man with 800 tonnes of aid sitting across the street from his warm comfortable office. Who I had been petitioning for months to help his people. The District sub-governor saw this man, heard what he had to say, then sent him away back to his village, empty handed. He promised them food in the spring if they could come back to carry it home on the backs of their donkeys. A few weeks later, me and my patrol stood by helplessly and watched as the District sub-governor handed out all those sacks of rice and piles of clothes to his friends, his family, and his associates.
It was around that time I gave up my hope for Afghanistan.
Many people have written about what to do with despair, but my favorite is the treatment given to it by Seth Godin. He calls it The Dip. He describes the place where those of us who embark on hard things come face to face with the reality of doing those hard things. Where you know too much now to have any lingering naive impressions that you're going to ace it. In fact, if you've taken on something big enough, worthy enough, you will one day inevitably arrive in the bottom of the curve of your morale, tanked. That's the Dip. That's where I was 4 months into my tour in Afghanistan.
Seth says that when we get to the Dip we should be thrilled. Because it's the spot that few people ever get to, that elusive place where we need to dig in and do the real work. It reminds me of another favourite, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Where the author Rob Persig discusses not being able to get a screw undone on a bike while fixing it, and you try everything and then you run out of ideas and then you get stuck:
Let's consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that the stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn't the worst- of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in. After all, it's exactly this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to so much trouble to induce; through koans, deep breathing, sitting still and the like.
Stuckness, The Dip, can only mean one thing. That if you keep going, eventually you will start coming out the otherside. You will arrive at the revelation. A new way of seeing.
A New Way of Seeing
Another day, another knock on the compound door. This time I knew exactly who the two guys were who were standing there, smiling expectantly at me. I had been to their village a few weeks before and they were the most vocal of the Shura who had been petitioning me to build a culvert for them over a muddy irrigation ditch. And tired of being seen as just the giver of western handouts I had told them no, go away and get an engineer to draw up some plans and then organise the village to each contribute half of the project cost by each household paying a couple of aghani dollars each. And then we'll talk.
And so here they were. Holding the plans for the project they had found an engineer to draw up for them. Having rallied the village to pay a couple of precious dollars each for their future and a way to reach their school during the spring snowmelt. Having seen that there was actually something that they could do to help themselves, if they could only just work together.
So I'm glad I despaired for the future of the Afghan people, and I'm glad I thought that I had given up on them there for a minute. Because it forced me through the agony of the Dip I would have never gone through willingly. It made me recognise my pattern; the naive enthusiasm at the start, the growing frustration as it all becomes real, the trying and the striving and by the force of my will I can fix this. Until there's no energy left and no way of talking myself back into it...
And then, finally, you can start to do some good.