Some old stone warehouses scattered across Kandahar are in surprisingly good state of repair given they were constructed by the British in the nineteenth century. The square masonry and precise lines catch my eye as does the stonework. But the slowly gathering crowd is watching us approach and I take my eyes off the building and pay more attention to these local Afghans in rags. They are a collection of the poorest in the community. They don’t project any sense of destitution, but rather a sharp curiosity about what is going on around them. In this place everyone watches everyone else. And here at the old wooden gates to the British warehouse compound everyone watches more than most.
The gates are probably the original gates and I fancy colonial uniforms guarding the place. But the sharp eyed swarthy Afghan in his filthy robes is no glistening trooper. He takes some convincing but I am soon allowed inside along with my Afghan colleagues. I step into an area the size of a tennis court and the gate clunks shut behind me. This is a food distribution point and the NGO with whom my company is collaborating has set it up to channel food aid to those who need it. Naturally there are those who would try and get their hands on this food so they can sell it. Silk Road DNA runs deep in this place and any opportunity to make a buck is seized at the first opportunity. So my colleagues are careful to survey the community first, putting in the time and effort to identify those who will directly benefit from the largesse of western donors. Korean vegetable oil and Australian wheat in this case. Having surveyed the community, and pre approved the poorest citizens to receive this aid, there is now a careful effort to ensure it is only those folk who are granted access to the compound where the food is stored.
Small mountains of grain and oil stand stacked across the yard. Blue burqas squat round the wall. Children cry. Others run about. Sombre men perch above us on the old steps leading up to the warehouse building. Hawks. Barely moving through their dark eyes never cease scanning. Our Afghan colleagues set up a table and are opening ledgers and a small crowd of excited people start to gather around. While this has been going on a small girl has been watching us. She is gathered up in the dirty robes of an elderly woman but I have been aware of her stare for some minutes now. Her gaze is direct and intense. Suddenly she detaches herself from the grandmother and makes a beeline to me and hands over a sheet of paper and earnestly rattles off a plea I cannot comprehend. I take the paper and hand it to my colleague who enters into a brief conversation with the girl. She looks crestfallen and returns to the grandmother who has now joined the food line. I look at my colleague who shrugs.
‘Her father is in prison.’
‘The paper is a summary of his claim that the man is in prison on trumped up charges and asks for the reader to help.’
‘How would anyone know what the charges really are?’
‘Few will and none here.’
I look back at the girl who is now distracted by the process of having food assigned. She was so earnest in her plea I feel bad for not being able to do anything.
But then I watch grandmother ink her thumbprint in the ledger once my colleagues are satisfied she is entitled to the food aid. And the sentiment changes. If I could have no impact in response to her appeal I can at least be the flux for some other positive impact. Her family is not starving to death. Doing it tough? Oh yes. But not starving. I watch the next woman ink her thumb and press it into the ledger. And then another. And I am increasingly moved by what I am witnessing. And glad that I am in a job where what I do has such a direct and deeply profound impact on the lives of people. It’s not every job that allows you to make a difference but this is one where even the ordinary work I do in the office has great impact on the people in Kandahar. And other places.
But it’s Kandahar after all and I’m very noticeable for not being a local. The hawks perched above us are watching me closely and my colleagues are starting to get nervous . The crowd is shifting and getting restless and I’m told I’m the reason for that. It’s time to leave. The last thing we need is someone to think I am a handy source of income. Kidnapping is a business they have refined to an art around here and I don’t want to be part of their business plan thank you. We wrestle our way out through the clunky gate and walk to our car and drive off. It’s a slightly tense moment but it takes nothing away from the powerful and emotional sense of gratitude that I am employed in a place where I can make a difference.
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