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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

From Kabul to Nairobi – the girl gets clean…

I felt a very bizarre lifting of my senses when I suddenly encountered the green of Kenya, looking from the window of the plane I was aware of a restriction around my heart that was now less tight. I was no longer face to face with desert lands and I was closer to the lushness of my home country. I was bound to compare the two countries; Kenya with Afghanistan and, having so recently survived the myriad frustrations of the one, to find the other, by comparison, a paradise. This illusion was fleeting as I got stuck in at the house: a beautiful villa set in a well kept garden, but here there was little running water, the cold tap ran city water, the hot tap ran from the tanks on the roof, none of them produced hot water. Afghanistan seemed suddenly quite sophisticated. A rather stylish water filter sat atop the fridge in the kitchen, 70’s in design it was a large space egg with a column of tiny stones and gravel in pretty layers through which the water flowed to be cleansed. It was something that I desired simply for the design features, that and the fact that water we were putting into it came out of a barrel that had sat in the bathroom for weeks. The boys blithely told me that it was fine and that boiling killed everything, my medical senses told me otherwise but not wishing to appear a wimp I grimaced and followed suit. The situation worsened when the water completely ran out and a large water tanker came to fill us up, lacking receptacles, the boys thought it would be a good idea to fill the bath for later use. By the evening the bath water was awash with a pleasant selection of flying insects and martyred moths that had been unlucky and now flavoured our kitchen water; no amount of filtering was going to get moth dust out of my mouth and off the spaghetti.

So several sluice baths later I was beginning to miss my shower in Kabul, my electrical heater that lives cheek by jowl with the ornate but largely leaky sink. Whilst in Kabul I thought often of the stories told of foreign places where an unsuspecting visitor might chance the dodgy electrics in a downtown hotel and, whilst stood in an innocent looking pool of water, find themselves brutally jolted to somewhere that they hadn’t quite expected to be, sometimes alive, sometimes not so. Now in Nairobi, I shivered on the stone floor and plunged my empty coffee mug into the barrel and attempted to wash my hair. The soft water here proved to be a bit of problem when ten minutes later I was still washing out the copious lather; still I was now vaguely clean. Kabul had been relentlessly dirty, nothing can clean the grey dust away and it covers everything. The Afghan men say that a woman past thirty already looks old, apparently, they thought that I looked 18; I thought that was flattering but naïve and probably that they weren’t looking all that hard. Feeling chapped but chipper I consoled myself that years of expensive moisturizer must have done me some favours. For the ladies of Afghanistan harsh winters, wood burning stoves, thickly polluted air and relentless early mornings washing in icy water clearly takes its toll on the old complexion. They really could do with a Clinique counter, and Harvey nicks would make a killing in Kabul, I thought to myself, even the lowly Avon lady with her catalogue of potions would be a blessing for the parched cheeks of Afghanistan.

Here in Nairobi the atmosphere is so very different from Kabul, it’s difficult to describe the freedom to be, the space. Are the people here happier? Well they certainly don’t risk being blown up quite so frequently, and women don’t get stoned in quite the way they might in Afghanistan. There are poor people here, those who lack food and clean water, those who lack education and opportunity. Religion features strongly as does male control of women. The street and shop signs here are often hand painted and for many, more than one pair of shoes is a luxury, do these small features describe a nation? Is it patronizing to comment on the difference, to note the simplicity as an adult would commend the efforts of a child?
Even here I don’t feel entirely free; I am part of an elite, educated rich and white. That sentiment remains the same from Afghanistan to Nairobi, I am still able to buy what I want, leave when I want, choose what I want and to get others to do my bidding; these things are not something I have earned, it is part of my white person package. It makes me feel bad. By default, I am less than equal because those around me are less than equal to me, we dance around each other in an uncomfortable fashion.

Back In Kabul, we driving along to the airport, Mazzar said to me, “Better that I wash a dog in Europe than sit in an armchair in Afghanistan!” At first I thought he was telling me what he’d like to do, the concept of dog washing being quite a nice one in my eyes, then I realized that he was expressing his utter disdain for his life in Kabul, at 26 he felt like he was going nowhere, would never be anything that he wanted to be. Even though this might include having the luxury to sit around in an armchair in Kabul, that was not what he wanted. Again I felt the weight of the guilt of my privilege, I tried to brush off his comment and to lighten his mood but I knew that I was leaving, my shiny UK passport was taking me out and he was returning to his daily grind, something that he could not easily escape. He told me that he hated his life in Afghanistan, like so many that I had spoken to, they loved their country but they hated the corruption, the parasitic feeding frenzy, the selfishness of their fellow citizens and most of all, they hated their lives.

And now I sit here, on the verandah of the villa in Kenya, gin and tonic beside me, dog snoozing on the couch, and I know that I am incredibly lucky. I have the liberty to observe without having to take part; if I take part it’s by choice and not by necessity. We talked long into the night last night about why film, what to film and how to show it, I am driven by the desire to tell those stories that have been told to me, those that I have watched unfold. I want to convey the emotion of those circumstances and give others that opportunity to see if not to feel, taste, and smell the gritty reality of another’s life. Last night I was so tired, and I guess a little despondent, making the film is happening so slowly and each tiny step feels like it takes all my sticking power just to stay positive. I want to have those rubbery lizard feet, that climb me up walls and ceilings – a minor distraction if not a solution to my challenges!

Ants crawl across my laptop and I contemplate the showering arrangement, adapting, I now boil a kettle of water and manage to splash around a bit in hot water rather than freezing my bits in aqua laced with mosquito. I’m waiting for the boys to get back from tennis, the others have arrived from a day of shopping in town, laden with gifts to take back to Denmark. The house here is a peaceful one, six of us, one small baby and a dog. Next to no internet, no hot water and a shed load of mozzies but still, we are the lucky ones.

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