The Hills Are Alive with the Smell of Rabbits, and Other Lessons I Learned from My Dog

On Skye, the wind and rain will happily continue unceasingly for days, even weeks. Waiting for the weather to improve before going out is not an option. And so this morning I did not wait long watching the weather deteriorating from the comfort of the house before deciding to drag the dog up the hill for some (extremely) fresh air. He looked a bit confused at first, but as soon as the lead was on, he was pacing ahead, as though the gale-force wind and driving rain was not causing both of to lean into it at unnatural angles just to make it up the hill.

Once he was set loose on the moor, he leapt forward with his usual enthusiasm, bounding and sniffing, deep,deep into the heather. As I watched him snuffling down, looking up quickly, then looking longingly at the bird so far from his reach and jumping onto the next spot, I could hardly believe this hill was the one he is taken up almost every day. And yet to look at him, you would think it was a whole new world.

I can only hope that one day I will be able to treat each new day with a fraction of the attitude that he has to each new day – boundless in its possibilities, excitement and joy.


How to carry puppies

I am tempted to say nothing at all here.  However, just in case anyone cares for context…I met these pups when taking a donor to visit the centre where they breed and train dogs to detect mines. When they were showing us some of the young puppies, I just loved the Afghan innovation of how to carry a bunch of puppies – pop them in a bowl of course!

Loving care

Today was a Good Day. It was was one when I had the privilege to be out in amongst people in a grassroots project. A time when I could just chat with children and families about the daily humdrum of their lives. Something that can be heart-breakingly rare in the secured environment of Kabul and an often office bound existence. The project I visited is an orthopedic centre and the visit was specifically focused on finding out what they did for children with disabilities. Although most disabilities in Afghanistan are not caused by landmines, many are, and so the broader area has become part of our project’s interest.

This centre is an incredible place in many ways. It is run by a woman, who has a woman also as her deputy. As the director is currently running for parliament, we were met by her deputy – a warm, articulate and compassionate individual. All the staff I met there, mostly physiotherapists and a teacher, struck me with their gentleness – with the children themselves but also with the families who had brought children in and were worried about their futures.

It turned out we had timed the visit well as the centre had recently started a small pilot project supporting children with disabilities to go to school. There were ten children with many different kinds of disabilities who were in the centre for a monthly meet up and ‘exam’ to review what they’ve been learning.

At one point my colleague got a bit confused chatting to a young boy who was so upbeat about life and his plans to become an engineer, she thought he actually didn’t have a disability at all until he cheerily lifted up his trouser leg to show her his prosthetic, but still proudly proclaiming “I am just like other kids.”

In the pediatric unit, there was a young boy with cerebral palsy being fitted with his first supportive legs that would give him the chance of being able to walk. It was obviously a painful experience for him as the supports were stretching his legs in a way he wasn’t used to and he would shout out continually. But what really made an impact on me was his parents. I am so bombarded with reading and even writing about the negative aspects of this culture. Parents who don’t value their children if they don’t have disabilities. Parents who don’t think it is worth sending them to school. These parents were clearly not rich or educated, they were not playing to a crowd and were mostly apparently oblivious to our presence. The wife had her burka flicked back over her head obviously feeling comfortable in the clinic to remove her ‘street wear’ and the man wore simple clothes. They told me they had nine children in total. And yet both of them were there with this one son of theirs holding his hand and calming him whenever he hurt. I felt humbled by the loving care that they demonstrated. Today, for a few minutes, it was on show. But I couldn’t help thinking about how this must be a minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day thing for them in the midst of eight other children to be looked after and cared for. I felt humbled and so grateful that there was this place that was providing care for the child, giving him more hope for his future life, however long or short that may be. But mostly I just loved this family for their love. For their demonstration that the cruelty of some Taliban acts that fill the papers and TV stations is not a reflection of how real people and families live their lives and relate to each other. That sometimes its in the midst of the most heartbreaking suffering that you can see the most remarkable depths of love demonstrated by otherwise unremarkable people.

A Comedy of Errors…and other Corruption Tales

I am continually reading and hearing about corruption in Afghanistan and how it is holding the country back. But sometimes, it lands right on my doorstep. This happened just recently when we were given two notes, one day after the other by the Police guards on our street.

One, on official headed paper said (paraphrased):

‘There has been a new commander appointed to oversee the Police in your area. His name is xxx and he is paid by the Government, please do not pay him ‘backsheesh’ (the slang for bribes)’

The other was a hand-written note which simply said:

‘I am the new commander of the Police in this District. Please contact me to arrange ‘backsheesh’ payment as soon as possible.’

Personally, I thought this was wonderful and suggested a simple switch of the papers should clear up the problem – the official note to the Governor handed to the Commander and the handwritten note back to the Government should clear things up.

Perhaps learning from their commander, these guards are continually asking for things – pots, kettles, chairs, coats etc. Often, knowing that they don’t have the best job or a great salary we do what we can to help. But recently, we really were aware of how much we were being taken for a ride. Having bought them chairs a few months ago, then replaced one a month later they suddenly announced they needed new ones again,

“But what happened to the ones you had?”

“They were stolen” they told us with not a hint of irony or a smile. These guys work as a team of four so that they can provide 24-7 guarding, one on duty, one asleep and two actively guarding. And so the thought that they weren’t even capable of guarding their own plastic chairs did not exactly fill us with reassurance.

However, it was soon revealed that this was not actually a true representation of events. It turns out that their commander had actually taken their chairs, since it was in fact against their rules to be sitting down when they were on active guard duty….perhaps he is trying to prove that he is earning his backsheesh after all.

The Prophet is a Pisces…and other non-PC tales

One of the things I love about Kabul is the sheer variety of people living and working there that I have had the privilege to get to know. My friends and colleagues who are not Afghan, are from every other country and continent imaginable and have brought me a similar range of perspectives on life. What I particularly love is that in this cultural and religious mish-mash, there is a distinct lack of political correctness.

Here’s a little sampling:

1. On finding out we had a public holiday for the Prophet’s birthday, an African friend looked like she was thinking quite deeply about the issue and then said ‘Hmmm, so he’s a Pisces…interesting’

2. A Chinese friend was recovering from an eye op and felt very self-conscious about the bruising and exclaimed

“I feel like I look like a panda!”

I would not have commented

To which, she got the compassionate response from another friend, “Well, you are Chinese..”

Was she offended? No. Shocked? No. She simply pondered this and said, “Yes, that’s true”

3. One morning when rockets were had been fired on Kabul in the night, I contacted an embassy friend who was hosting drinks in their garden that evening to see if it was still on. The wartime Britain attitude apparently lives on since her response was simply “Yes of course, it’s hardly the Blitz”

4. A French friend, who had spent some time in the UK was telling me that she reads the Daily Mail online. I was shocked (I have to say) – it’s not regular humanitarian reading material.

For anyone not familiar with this venerable rag, see today’s article on how a ‘Local Hero Turns Villain’ for what crime? The crime is ‘renting her land to traditionally nomadic ethnic groups’ aka. ‘gypsies’ for a Christian festival they wished to hold. The festival lasted a week and the land was cleared up by the next day. Hardly Glastonbury and yet…

I often feel as though I am reading the onion when I come across such an article.

Her explanation of her reading choice was simply : “I have to, we do not get wrong news in my place”

I won’t use any cliches about the importance of good friends or laughter as the best medicine. But if I only came to Kabul to meet these people and share these moments, I would do it. Ten times over.

Joy Irrepressible

I recently travelled out of the confines of Kabul and was overwhelmed by some striking encounters of joy, irrepressible:

Joy: Strike One – I was wandering around the beautiful blue Mosque in Mazar when I heard a squeal and a thundering of little feet in my direction – I looked to find these three children standing to joyful attention. Once captured, they turned and ran back into the Mosque behind to join their family.

Joy: Strike One




 Joy – Strike Two: As part of the trip I visited a school in  a rural area,  where they are bravely teaching both boys  and  girls, despite Taliban threats to the headteacher. On  arrival, many children ran towards me, greeting me ‘Salaam alee  kum’ with outstretched hands, although  many were timid  and held back. During the class, the  girls at the back  were trying not to look round at me and  hid from photos,  then this one girl coyly turned round  and slowly steadily  took me in. Although just sneaking  out, this is joy. And a  lot of spirit too. 





Joy: Strike 3

Joy Strike Three: At this same school, I let the kids take photos of each other (with my hand pressing their finger down as they were too nervous to press down without it) and I just loved what they captured. 

What I particularly love here is the look on the girl’s face on the edge looking away from the camera at ‘tongue boy’.

Sow Flowers

When I was out visiting a once highly mine-contaminated community a few weeks ago, much of which has now been cleared, a farmer was showing us one part where the community still would not go as they feared it was contaminated. A couple of kids told us that they had lost cows they had been herding that had wandered into that area. Certainly it was wild and overgrown and clearly not in productive use, but I couldn’t help noticing some beautiful flowers growing there. The farmer saw me admiring them and plucked this one from the edge and gave it to me. They are called ‘gul-e-lala’, which roughly translates as ‘tulip’.


At the time, it struck me as somehow poetic for this minefield to have these colourful, soft flowers poking through its soil but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then I stumbled upon this piece of Pashtun poetry, called ‘Sow Flowers’ by Rahman Baba and somehow it fitted and spoke deeply to me of what Afghanistan needs:

Sow flowers to make a garden bloom around you,

The thorns you sow will prick your own feet.

Arrows shot at others

Will return to hit you as they fall.

You yourself will come to teeter on the lip

Of a well dug to undermine another.