Below is an excerpt from a promotional document for USAID that I wrote recently, it gives a good initial overview about the program I’m managing here in Afghanistan.

CRS works with the poorest and most isolated communities in Afghanistan to strengthen means for self-sufficiency and improve the quality of life.  The emerging Women’s Participation and Livelihood Improvement (PALI) program connects and builds upon the core strategies and activities of CRS/Afghanistan.  PALI aims to strengthen women’s capacities to contribute to family livelihoods and participate in the development of their communities.

Women’s socio-economic support units, or self-help groups (SHGs), form the core foundation of PaLI activities.  In 2004, women participating in the CRS Agro-enterprise Support Program began to mobilize into specialized groups to collectively market the produce of women farmers. CRS/Afghanistan decided to begin exploring SHG programming with the assistance of advisors from the CRS/India program, which currently supports over 24,710 self-help groups with more than 335,492 members.

An SHG is a group of 12-20 women who gather together on a regular basis to save and lend each other money according to their own rules.  Savings activities build group cohesion, support micro-enterprise development, and provide an economic safety net for participants and their families.

Simultaneously with the formation of women’s SHGs, CRS began partnering in early 2005 with local NGOs to diversify the incomes of rural families and add value to the fruits and vegetables produced locally.  With the help of partners Welfare and Development Organization of Afghanistan (WDOA) and Voice of Women (VWO), CRS has established 5 women-run food processing centers in local villages for the production of jams, juices, pickles, tomato paste and dried fruits and vegetables.  The centers collectively employ 100 women, each of whom has received training in processing methods, marketing, and financial record-keeping, as well as sanitation and quality assurance practices. Their products are processed, packaged, labeled and sold in local markets and in the new women’s store run by WDOA, Thulidath Bano (Product of Women).

Both through the food processing and SHG activities, CRS has found that the regular meetings and income-generating activities of the groups help participants to build self-confidence, group solidarity and a collective strength that enables them to challenge traditional norms for women in their communities.

In June 2007, CRS began implementing a project with the Ghor Provincial Department of Women’s Affairs (DoWA). Through administrative and technical trainings, CRS aims to strengthen the long-term capacities of DoWA to respond to women’s needs, report critical trends and advocate for the addressing of women’s concerns on a provincial and national level.

Overall, CRS recognizes the potential for women’s contributions and participation in all activities and for women to act as change agents for their communities. CRS/Afghanistan’s core programs in agriculture, education, and watershed development all include components targeting women through activities such as young women’s accelerated learning programs, women’s agriculture projects assisted by female agronomists, and hygiene and sanitation trainings for women to manage the safe and clean and efficient use of water in their communities.

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The calls to prayer clearly resound and blend agreeably tonight, perhaps because of the unusual stillness of the evening, allowing for the percussion of crickets to keep a steady rhythm. We’re at the tail end of the “120 Days of Wind,” the summer period in Afghanistan when air pressure differences between the North and South produce heaving wind gusts of up to 115 mph. But even now in the seemingly calm evening, the screen doors to the mud-brick building where I sleep continue to bump, creak and slam in a lazy habitual manner.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here almost 3 1/2 months. During this time, I don’t think that I’ve ever been so terrible about keeping in touch with family and friends. For the first time, calling family or friends to pour out the craziness of my week has become an overwhelming task, because somehow I can’t figure out how to express the immensity of everything in just a few sentences at a time.

Still, as I find myself saying over and over again, I’m really thrilled to be here. I go through phases, or maybe cycles. But in general, I’m far from being lonely, and the everyday struggle to live and work here is manageable. I spend about half my time in the field, which I think has helped to keep me sane. My “home base” in Herat consists of a compound of around 10 international staff, a number that constantly fluctuates with everyone coming and going between trips to the field and R&Rs every 3 months. We also seem to always have a consultant or some sort of international visitor that is staying with us from a few weeks to one month at a time.

It’s tough at times, living with the same people that you see at work every day. Kinda makes me feel like I never “leave the office.” But that’s in a sense our reality here… I haven’t worked so hard since studying for finals and finishing my thesis during the last few weeks of grad school. Crazy how easy it has been to get used to it again.

Below are some pictures from my first few months in Afghanistan… enjoy.

Women’s Meeting in Chagcharan

Coordination meeting with CRS field staff, members of the Provincial Council, Ghor Province Deparment of Women’s Affairs, and the girls’ high school principal

 

Chagcharan airport

The airport near our field office in Chagcharan, the capital of Ghor Province

 

Chagcharan airport runway

Runway of the Chagcharan airport

 

Foreman, guard and Sonya

CRS guard Kamal, foreman Khalil, and Sonya (daughter of my assistant program manager) outside of Chagcharan staff house

 

Chagcharan Bazaar

The Chagcharan bazaar

 

Village woman and son

On a field visit

 

Station 2 Garden

Garden in the middle of the staff compound, “Station 2,” in Herat

 

Station 2 BBQ

Barbeque at Station 2

 

Station 2 party

Beating up Kurt, the misbehaving consultant

Dad in Prague’s Old Town Square A beautiful door next to the the Old Town Hall Tower and Astronomical Clock Elaborately painted Easter eggs in Prague… a tradition of Eastern Europe Thanksgiving at Mike and Sue’s house On a Kosovar winery tour with the International Women’s Club and employees of the U.S. Office (embassy) Vineyards somewhere on the winery tour… bummer that I can’t remember the name and location The different ages of construction in Kosovo… photo taken on a hike with the Shtegu walking/hiking club near Skënderaj in central Kosovo Lunch at the Ex restaurant in Mitrovica with colleagues Adnan, Azra (former public relations officer) and Enisa My computer screen and colleague, Burim, working very hard (as usual) Colleagues Adnan and Burim with Dad and I at Burim’s bar, the Black Pearl

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here for over 10 months now. Crazy. But life is good… I have great colleagues and a supportive network of friends, the electricity stays on now almost around the clock, and I’ve been running quite a bit every day, which is a good balance with the amount of booze and chocolate that I’ve been consuming.

No political or otherwise profound thoughts in this post… just a bit about what I do and who I see every day.

So first thing in the morning, if I decide to go running, I’ll get up around 5:45 to 6 am. If not, I’ll get up between 7 to 7:30, depending on the events from the night before. Plus the water pressure (if any) sucks before 6:30 or so. After finishing my morning routine, I leave my apartment between 8 to 8:15, grabbing something at the nearby bakery before heading to work. (note that this all takes place within a radius of about a quarter of a mile, no hills or gorges involved)

Walking into my office, I greet my colleagues in their respective languages, trying to impress them if at all possible with any new vocabulary that I have learned. I find that my vocabulary in the languages consists of mostly single words in Serbian and entire phrases in Albanian (without knowing the meaning of each word in the phrase). Recently, I’ve become more proficient in using the different phrases, at least a dozen of them, that Kosovar Albanians have for somehow asking, “how are you?” Generally you have to use at least 3 different “how are yous” after your initial greeting to someone. So I have to giggle a little sometimes when an Albanian, speaking in English, asks me how I’m doing two or three times in a row. “I’m good… Yep, I’m still fine… I already told you, I’m not tired and really, I’m doing quite well.”

After greeting my colleagues, I go turn on my decrepit computer, and while I wait for it to wake up, I make some “filtered” coffee for myself. Unfortunately, I haven’t developed a taste for Turkish coffee, which the rest of my colleagues drink… a sort of gritty, syrupy form of espresso. No filters involved. So I get pretty psyched when my colleague, Enisa, sometimes decides to join me in having filtered coffee.

We then sit, read email, and bitch about “this f–ing Outlook!” or the software program and related network that we use for our CRS email accounts. I sit in the same room, essentially, with my four colleagues: one Serb (our chief Prica), one Bosniak woman (Enisa), and two Albanian guys (Burim and Adnan). They talk throughout the day in Serbian and Albanian, both of which I am beginning to understand about 10 to 20% of the time (muahahaha). They speak in English only for one of five reasons: 1) if I initiate the conversation, 2) if they want to bitch about something with me, 3) if they want to make me laugh or make fun of me (and be sure that I know it), 4) if it is a general story or news item to be discussed about one of our projects, or 5) if someone else is in the room that doesn’t speak Serbian or Albanian.

Initially, I was a bit hurt by the fact that they didn’t include me in most conversations. But now, they do talk in English a lot more. Plus, I like the balance of not understanding most of what is being said, because I’m able to concentrate on my work while still enjoying (and being entertained by) their chatter. I’ll definitely miss their chatter when I go to Afghanistan.

Sporadically throughout the day, I run into folks from other offices in our building, both Serbs and Albanians that work for strong, locally-run NGOs (some still with international ties). Really great people. Also there’s been two Dutch interns that have each worked a few months for the local NGO below our office, and I enjoy calling down from our balcony to harass them while they are out having a smoke. Milo, the current intern, has become one of my closest friends here in Mitrovica.

Finally, sometime throughout the day, I’ll run into one of our landladies, three sisters aged somewhere between 50 to 70 years old. They sit out on their second-floor balcony (adjacent to the CRS office), often with an iron grip on one of their grandkids, and manage to keep an eye on everyone… really, not just the people in our building, but all of Mitrovica. I swear. I’m quite positive that they see and gossip about everything that goes on in the city, perhaps even on both sides.

Of course, whatever knowledge you might gain from the three landladies probably depends on which one you talk to: the dictator, the silent grey witch, or the round one (unfortunately I’ve never learned their names). First, the dictator sister with peach-colored hair is by far the most outgoing, the leader of the three and the only one that ever comes to bitch to us directly at our office. Last winter when we would have frequent power outages, the dictator liked to throw small rocks at our window when we would forget to turn off our noisy generator after the electricity had returned. She probably speaks her mind quite frequently about the faults of everyone that lives in Mitrovica (too bad she doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Albanian, I’d love hear her judgments about all the different actors in the city).

Then there’s the silent grey witch, who will only glare at us whenever she gets a chance. When the witch delivers the electricity bills for the offices in the building, rather than giving them to us in person, she just places the envelopes on the bottom couple of stairs. Then when we don’t pick them up immediately, she’ll simply keep coming back to check, moving the envelopes up higher and higher on the stairs until we take notice. I think the witch most likely spends her days developing conspiracy theories about the true intentions of everyone in the city.

Finally, there’s the very round, brown-haired sister, who simply smiles at us and waves. I bet she just giggles a lot and really has nothing bad to say about anyone in Mitrovica. One time she saw me from across the road, negotiating the price on a bicycle, and she came over to make sure that I wasn’t overcharged. I like her the best.

The rest of my average day is made up of editing documents in English, writing emails, drinking coffee, drafting proposals/papers/reports, running around to visit our partner organizations in the North and South, editing more documents in English, drinking more coffee, perhaps going for a run after work, finishing my coffee and my my edits to the documents in English, then eventually meeting friends for beer and food.

So that’s an average day for me in a highly elaborated nutshell. I’ll probably write more later on my work with our partner organizations, which has been one of the coolest parts of my experience here in Kosovo.

A cloud of blackbirds obscured the fading light as I walked back to my apartment this evening around sunset. Every night as darkness falls, huge flocks of these birds settle in tall trees and in the skeletons of buildings, often receiving some unknown cue to rise again in a huge mass and circle around in the moonlit sky. Their deafening cackles and squawks continue throughout the night, rising in a crescendo together with the whirring of wings as the flocks redeploy from one towering structure to another.

Then, early in the morning when I’m out for a run, the blackbirds’ racket punctures the gentle silence of the sleeping city. But they’re gone by the time I leave for work. As if receiving an order, the flocks rise together every morning and fly elsewhere, only returning to roost above the city again at sunset.

Woven into Serbian folklore and legends, the Kosovo blackbird has served as a sort of emblematic symbol of Serbia’s struggle to maintain control of the region. The name Kosovo evidently comes from the word “kos,” which means blackbird in Serbian. In addition, one of the most commemorated moments in Serbian history, the First Battle of Kosovo in 1389, took place northwest of Prishtina on Kosovo Polje, or the Field of Blackbirds. Serbian troops lost the battle to the Turkish army, their venerated Prince Lazar was slain, and over the course of the next few decades, the Serbian Empire fell to Ottoman occupation.

I’ve been told that the flocks of hundreds of blackbirds that I see every morning and evening are the souls of the dead from that battle on Kosovo Polje in 1389. So initially, I viewed them as a sort of ominous reminder and representation of the lingering influence of Serbian nationalism and people’s memories from the war. Recently however, when I watched a flock of blackbirds rising, I was reminded of that wave of dark emotions that motivates violent conflict, as it rises, spreads and hovers over a group of people.

At the celebration marking the 600th Anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in June of 1989, Slobodon Milosevic gave a historic speech on the Field of Blackbirds. Milosevic proclaimed that the defeat of the Serbian army by the Ottoman Turks took place due to a “lack of unity and betrayal.” Therefore, he said, “words devoted to unity, solidarity and cooperation among people have no greater significance anywhere … than they have here in the field of Kosovo, which is a symbol of disunity and treason.” Milosevic went on to emphasize the need for unity, in the face of the modern challenges to such unity within Kosovo, in order to protect all Serbs from “defeats, failures and stagnation in the future.” (an English translation of the speech was found on the website, http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~bip/docs/kosovo_polje/kosovo_polje.html)

Journalists and political analysts argued later that the speech fueled a Serbian nationalist frenzy and the brutal wars and ethnic cleansings that followed. The speech was given, however, during a period in which economic conditions throughout Yugoslavia had deteriorated. Since the early 1980s, rising inequalities in Kosovo had sparked waves of rioting, ethnic violence and demands for greater autonomy by the Albanian community. Throughout the Balkans, the blackbirds had risen, and they began hover over a dark time in the region’s history, marked by Milosevic’s speech at Kosovo Polje.

On a lighter note, it’s becoming evident that spring is here in Mitrovica. The days are becoming longer, and the sun is becoming stronger. And, from what I hear, the flocks of blackbirds soon will disseminate throughout the countryside, remaining there around the clock during the summertime. I think that we might get some snow on Thursday, but it seems to me that warmer times are coming. Let’s hope that the summer is a long one.

So lately I’ve slowed down a bit, trying to ground myself in the realities of Kosovo’s past and present. One of the most significant insights I have gained over the past month or so concerns the cultural differences in perceptions of time.

I’ve been working with a cool Kosovar Albanian guy, Gezim, to implement a joint project between CRS and Caritas Kosovo involving a youth training center. Gezim is a program manager with Caritas, which has a policy that employed staff must be evenly balanced between Serbs and Albanians. Gezim, who’s pretty tolerant and open-minded (though he would never admit to it) likes to get me riled up on occasion by declaring his opposition to positive discrimination and “multiethnic” policies, for various reasons.

One day, in the midst of a heated discussion, Gezim told me that he would never be able to trust a Serbian male colleague, with whom he has worked for many years. When I expressed my doubts regarding his mistrust of the colleague, Gezim paused, then his expression hardened. He replied, saying something to this effect: “Before the war I lived in an apartment building with both Serbs and Albanians. We were not close friends, but we got along fine with each other. In 1998, a Serb in our building killed 14 of my Albanian neighbors. Now you tell me. After such events, how do you internationals expect us to trust Serbs again, no matter who they may be?”

I didn’t really know how to respond, and I still don’t. On the one hand, I have lived an extremely sheltered life and have no idea how I would feel if I was in Gezim’s shoes. Who am I to judge such feelings that arise from traumatic violence and death? Yet at the time, it seemed to me that similar attitudes, particularly those more radical, have been a major contributing factor to the cycles of violence that have shaped the history of Kosovo. I still don’t quite understand how individuals of different backgrounds can live next to each other for hundreds of years and not find some way of reconciling their differences. Yet reconciliation depends on whether or not the different groups possess the will to accept each other as neighbors and leave past grievances behind.  In the Balkans, where past events and relationships so strongly influence people’s understandings of the present, such a process is much easier said than done.

In the United States and Western Europe, we possess what Lederach (2005) describes as a linear sense of time. We feel that somehow, by just making the right decisions in the present, we will be able to control the future. We surround ourselves day to day with what we believe will help us to reach our future goals; meanwhile, we are told to “never look back.”Although we often find ourselves assessing “lessons learned,” we tend to “let go” of the past, leaving it for display in museums, photo albums and history books, which gather dust over time. While making plans for the future, our decisions rarely are based upon relationships and events that extend back before our parents’ generation. Particularly in the United States, what happened to our ancestors in say, 600 AD, has little contemporary resonance.

In contrast, as Lederach points out, for other cultures around the world, the past breathes and survives within ongoing events, the surrounding environment, and individuals alive in the present time. The future, on the other hand, is completely unknown and mostly out of one’s control.

Jebuwot Sumberiywo was a participant in a series of lectures given by Lederach in Nairobi, Kenya. Lederach describes how Jebuwot renegotiated her views of time, based upon both her adult experiences in Western European countries and her experiences as a child, raised by her African grandparents. While growing up in Kenya, her grandparents taught her, “it’s the past that lies before me and the future that lies behind me” (p. 135). Jebuwot, who developed a European understanding of time while attending English-language schools in Kenya, never quite understood what they meant.However, one day in Lederach’s classroom, she revealed a new insight into the meaning of her grandparents’ teachings on time. “This morning I understand that what we know, what we have seen, is the past. So it lies before us. What we cannot see, what we cannot know is the future.” She then stood up and began to walk backward. “So the past we see before us. But we walk backward into the future. Maybe my grandparents’ way of saying it is more accurate” (pp. 135-6).

Jebuwot’s demonstration illustrates an understanding of time similar to that which is held by so many populations around the world, those that do not assume the mindsets of U.S./European mainstream culture. “Backward” in this sense does not at all connotate underdevelopment, weaknesses or inefficiencies. Rather, the term describes a view of the world that prioritizes family connections, shared histories, and wisdom from experience. Such a mentality clearly recognizes that despite proven theories, scientific discoveries, and increasing technological capacities, we are limited as human beings and cannot control the future.

Particularly for people and institutions from the United States, I believe that the incongruity of our perceptions of time with those of other cultures prevails as one our biggest challenges when attempting to assist communities around the world. The work of governments and international development organizations is shaped by the pressures imposed by donors to demonstrate progress and plans for achieving immediate results. How can we expect the individuals with whom we are working to accept and conform to such plans, to imagine a future that is completely different from what is familiar in the past and present? How can I convince an Albanian that it is in their best interests to trust and become reconciled with their Serbian neighbor (and be sure of the argument that I am making)? In so many areas around the world, particularly in Latin America and the Middle East, it seems that a primary reason why our efforts have backfired lies in our halfhearted consideration of cultural and historical factors and our limited understanding of how such factors influence the relationships and structures within a community.

Furthermore, I believe that our perceptions of time, our blind concentration on the future and sense of urgency to achieve immediate results, will increasingly backfire on us at home in the United States. We need to learn and to assume the discipline of stillness. Before reacting and making influential decisions, we need to gain a broader understanding of how our past mistakes and successes continue to influence our present realities. Unfortunately, however, mainly due to the way our political processes are structured in the U.S., the fostering of such disciplines at an influential level would be somewhat of a formidable task.

I struggle to find words to describe my thoughts and emotions at the present moment. As melodramatic as this sounds, I feel that so many of my past struggles and experiences have prepared me for this point in my life. I love my work, the people I talk to every day, and just being here at this time in Kosovo’s history. With the future status of Kosovo still up in the air, this is a time when change is tangible, when past histories and future uncertainties weigh so heavily on the day-to-day realities of the present.

Every day is a learning experience. I still find myself compelled to act quickly, to somehow enable social change and the building of peace in the fleeting moments before Kosovo’s independence is declared. Yet I understand so very little. My sheltered and privileged childhood in the United States continues to structure my understandings of time, progress and the formulas for creating a strong and vibrant community. In the first month of my experience here in Kosovo, I was so consumed by my desire to build possibilities for change that I found myself constantly stumbling. I concentrated so intently on the road far ahead, on that desired destination of peace, that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the insights and relationships right next to me, to the obstacles that exist before me.

I’ve been reading an amazing book (that also became my dad’s birthday present) by Notre Dame professor, John Paul Lederach (2005): The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. One of the passages in the book on “the discipline of stillness” parallels so much of what I have learned so far from my experiences working in Kosovo. Lederach writes, “the discipline of stillness…is one of the hardest lessons to learn for those impelled by social activism and a desire to understand how change can be sustained… Stillness is activism with a twist. It is the platform that generates authenticity of engagement” (p. 104). As I have come to understand after my initial stumblings, stillness is a prerequisite to building peace that compels us to “pay attention to what is around us … When we focus on the really big things, we often miss the greatest potential of resource, insight and change that is present right in the location where our feet our planted” (p. 105).

Enough for now, stay tuned for more on time and some stories that illustrate what I’m talking about!