Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Monkey? In Afghanistan??

Inquisitive school children of the Mandozai District look on as composting tools are distributed to farmers

I can't help but laugh when receiving the ever so popular question- "What's a typical day like over there?" Bless the countless hearts who have been so inquisitive to learn the work that many are doing here, but the fact of the matter is the word "typical" doesn't actually exist in this part of the world.

Perhaps a better question might ask- "What does a random day over there look like?" Random is a word that can fit into nearly every description of life here in Afghanistan, for good reason. The very mention of the word "typical" might confuse the mind to assume some sort of stability is also present. While stability is an end-state that many are striving for, I would not go so far as to say that it exists at this point in time.

Wednesday started off as a typical mission, we rolled out of Forward Operating Base Salerno in our million-dollar MRAP vehicles and set the GPS computers for the Mandozai District Center. The training of choice for the Mandozai farmers this week was composting; where they learn the benefits of recycling their waste products and even get to take home a few new tools from the training seminar.

As we arrived the district center, I overheard a few of the security forces guys in front of me talking about a monkey. Low and behold, as I approached the front gate of the compound I was amazed to find a monkey on a leash. Heaven only knows where this Afghan Uniformed Police officer found his new pet, but from the looks of the photo- it doesn't appear that dogs need fear losing their title of "man's best friend" to monkeys here in Afghanistan any time in the near future...

Take a look at those incisors!

After regaining our composure, the few of us involved in the actual training portion of the mission made our way into the district center. As we arrived, we were greeted by Wali Bad Shah, the Agricultural Extension Agent for the Mandozai District. Wali is one of the better agents we have in the province, a very intelligent man. Actually, I'd be willing to put his grammar up against a few of our team members.

In planning for a training seminar, the goal is to minimize any US involvement. Standard procedures call for notifying the extension agent a few days in advance, then allowing him to coordinate the meeting location and attendees. On the day of the training, members of the 3-19th ADT meet the extension agent and his farmers at the agreed upon time and location and all parties are happy...typically

Due to a slight error in coordinating Wednesday's mission, we had a bit of time to kill before the training started as we awaited the arrival of ten more participants. As I was taking a few photographs of the attendees, I noticed a young boy carefully studying my every move.

One icebreaker I've found quite successful thus far has been showing the subject of my photos the actual image I have just captured. It's hard to imagine, but more often than not this is the first time that some have ever seen a photograph of themselves- much less instantly on an LCD screen.

Zingham and I
After showing this young, timid boy his photo; I invited him to come to the back of the room while we passed the time. Declining with a smile, he obviously felt much more comfortable in his current location amongst his fellow tribesmen. After a bit of coaxing from our charming interpreter Ajmal, my new friend Zingham finally obliged to come to the back of the classroom.

Using my best Pashtun (it's good for a few laughs), I asked his name and age, which village he was from, his father's name, etc... the usual introductory phrases. Zingham was a 9 yr old boy, from the Mandozai District, who lives on a wheat farm. As we continued our conversation, I inquired why he wasn't in school. I was shocked to hear that he was skipping for the day in an effort to take home the free tools attached to our training, but can't say that I question his logic.

The discussion between Zingham and I went on for about ten minutes. About half way into it, others in the class started to take notice that the youngest attendee was getting all of the attention. The longer we spoke, the more people came to listen in, and the more shy young Zingham became. Ajmal- our always humorous interpreter, decided to lighten the mood a bit during a lull in the conversation. After several minutes of the others all speaking Pashtun, a roar of laughter erupted and poor Zingham's face turned as red as a fire engine. Apparently after learning that I had five sisters and Zingham had four brothers, Ajmal encouraged Zingham that it might make sense for he and I to work out a trade!

Within a few minutes, the ten additional farmers we had been waiting on arrived and the training began. Wali Bad Shah did a wonderful job lecturing to the 25+ farmers in attendance, covering all the benefits of compost that he had been instructed upon just a few months ago during the training we held for all agricultural extension agents at Shaikh Zayed University.

Surprisingly enough, students in the Mandozai District of Afghanistan are no different than students in Manchester, Indiana- the portion of class that draws the most interest is always the hands-on section. The granite faces of many of the elders in attendance usually creep into a grin when the time for tool distribution begins. This smile is for good reason- they each take home a set of five different garden tools immediately following the training seminar.

The tool distribution portion is also the segment that draws the largest crowds from outside of the classroom. On any given day, 35-40 men are usually lingering around the district center in hopes of finding work or conducting other business. Couple this with the release of several hundred school children, and a mob can quickly result if the hand-out is not conducted in an orderly fashion. It never fails, just as we begin to pass out the tools, the school children miraculously begin to appear from behind every tree and building in sight.

The crowds in Mandozai were very well behaved though on Wednesday. Unfortunately, it was the Afghan Uniformed Police who were causing the problems. This isn't the first time we've had an issue with the local police trying to take home a few of the items intended for farmers, but it was definitely the most aggressive group of officers we've ever encountered.

As I said earlier, our intention during these missions is to stand back in the shadows and allow the agricultural extension agent to conduct his training and also distribute the related take-home supplies. After watching three attempts by Wali Bad Shah to thwart off the soliciting police officers, we had no choice but to move in and assist the unarmed extension agent in ridding himself of the pesky officers loaded down with AK-47's. Ultimately, four members of the ADT set up a perimeter around the distribution area in an effort to ensure that Wali Bad Shah could distribute the tools to their intended and deserving recipients- the farmers who attended the training seminar.

From L-R: Mandozai Ag Ext Agent Wali Bad Shah, SSG Steve Gilland,
Afghan Police Major Budokhan
When the distribution ended, there were four remaining sets of tools that were now the property of the Mandozai District. Wali Bad Shah asked if we would be willing to escort him back to the district center, in an effort to avoid another confrontation with those were supposedly in place to "serve and protect". After placing the remaining tool sets in the safety of the extension agents office, we offered to drop into the local police chief's office to discuss the recent alarming behavior of the officers on duty.

Staff Sergeant Steve Gilland, a police officer in a rural Ohio town when not wearing his military uniform, conducted the majority of our conversation with the local police chief- Major Budokhan. The look on the police chief's face said it all, no interpreter needed, he was deeply disappointed in the actions of his officers. Within minutes of our arrival into his office, the chief called for one of his aides to bring in the perpetrating officer.

By this time, I have to admit that my heart rate was beginning to escalate. The same man who was loaded down with two AK-47's and a pistol was now heading into the office to answer to his boss and those of us who brought his actions to the attention of the chief. Fortunately, before the officer entered the room he had already been stripped of all his weapons. After a few choice words from the Chief (the interpreter chose not to translate) the guilty party snapped to attention, removed his bandoleer filled with ammunition, and was escorted out of the chief's office.

The Chief later informed us that this man would be fired from his position as an Afghan Uniformed Police officer and also placed in jail until he was ready to apologize to Wali Bad Shah for his earlier improper coercive actions. In an effort to foster improved future relations, Major Budokhan offered us a cup of chai. As tempting as his offer was, we respectfully declined in an effort to minimize the amount of time the 30 other members of our team were sweltering outside in the 102 degree heat as they secured the perimeter of the district center.

This was yet another great example of the unique capabilities that Agribusiness Development Teams, fielded by National Guardsmen with a broad range of civilian expertise, bring to the fight here in Afghanistan. After mentioning his background in civilian law enforcement to Major Budokhan, Steve Gilland gained instant credibility and respect from the police chief.

Call it an unexpected mentoring opportunity or anything else you'd like, I'm just going to call it another random day (with a monkey) here in the Khowst Province of Afghanistan...

Zingham got his tools afterall...

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