Monday, September 15, 2008


So I am leaving for Kenya in a couple days and hope to keep a journal during my trip at In the mean time, I have posted my Afghanistan journal from March 2007 at It is really just a series of daily summary e-mails I sent to my wife at the end of each day. In other words, it's long so here are some highlights:

Foot for foot, Dubai is one of the richest places in the world because of an unusually high concentration of oil money. But there are still signs of poverty everywhere you look. This is perhaps the greatest contrast I’ve seen.

We worked a solid 12 hour day today. It seems fairly common around here, but it was rough given the jet lag and three nights of rocky sleep. It has been a rough time to give up soda for lent. It is free and I could use it. But I face my jet lag unmedicated and feel oddly heroic for it. Once in a while I use the cravings to meditate on the darkness of my unregenerate life and the longing for Jesus to make things right in the world and in my heart.

My body armor makes it difficult to get in and out of vehicles. I kind of have to awkwardly roll out of my seat. It made me admire my pregnant wife.

The embassy café was selling candy bars made in Iran. This was strangely hysterical to those of us at dinner. (They dissapeared the next day).

Speaking of potato, whenever we get hassled (usually by strangers walking by us) for not speaking one of the languages (which happens a lot here and the ‘I’m only here for two weeks’ answer is not satisfying) John always shows off the one Pharsi word he does know: catchaloo or potato. It is such a fun word (especially if you draw out the ooo sound) that it always makes the accuser laugh and become less aggressive.

Seeing the daily workings of USAID has really helped to demystify the ‘international development’ industry. It is true that they appear to have a sense of mission and purpose…but they also write reports, deal with annoying co-workers (possibly to a disproportionate degree) and just slog it out through the bureaucracy of multiple governments. Some could be in it for the money and adventure (which both can be plentiful if you play it right). Meanwhile, it has encouraged me regarding the usefulness of a professor of hydrology/hydraulics in a country like this. The engineers I am dealing with are really hungry for training, but are, for the most part, not well trained. Of course, I have also often felt that precisely what I am doing is what I should continue doing.

John’s quote “How better to make life long friends than a bomb blast and a very bad bathroom.” About hanging out with the 2 AID PRT’s in our house after the blast.

I found out today that Kandahar means 5 brothers referring to the legend in which 5 brothers were sent south to build and ancient dam. Water engineering is even in their lore here.

Thursday is a half day (one of the students said T.A.I.T. – “Thank Allah its Thursday” – John is thinking about opening up a chain of restaurants with that name).

I have always contended that many of the psalms would make more sense in a war zone, because they were often written in war zones. I feel more so now: “In Yahweh I take refuge. How can you say to me “flee like a bird to your mountains.” For look, the wicked bend their bows; and set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows…When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? Yahweh is in his holy temple; Yahweh is on his heavenly throne. He observes men; his eyes examine them…For Yahweh is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face.” Ps 11

I like dog tags. I find them existentially helpful. Each morning, when I put them on, I feel like they have two effects. First, as I put them on, they are just substantial enough and cold against my chest that I feel like I am starting something important…like my day. Second, and more impactfully, dog tags exist for one reason…to identify your body. Beginning each day with a reminder that it is not promised is really helpful.

We watched Dogma after dinner. Dan asked me, “Are you ultra religious.” I am never sure how to answer that question. To say yes would probably describe the situation accurately in his mind, but it grates at my self understanding (as well as my theological training) and is not how I would describe my attempted life of worship and obedience.

One of the benefits of lecturing with a translator is that you get to review the next slides and form the flow of your discussion in the time that the translator talks (usually longer than you talked). It gives you a couple of minutes to plan the way the next couple minutes will go. Another interesting detail about teaching with a translator: I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten board during my own lecture before, but it has happened here.

One of the professors commented on how the schedule we were keeping was sustainable because of our youth. We asked him how old he thought we were…he said 24 (John) and 20 (me)…he was only off by over a decade for both. A couple things about this: One, it is not uncommon to be age underestimated in the hard environs of a country like this. People just look older sooner. But also, it astounds me that these people would sit attentively under the teaching of a practical teenager. If they think I have scarcely finished undergrad, they must either have been disappointed, impressed and/or desperate for training. I wish I knew all this at 20.

It was Mongolian night at the CAFÉ (which is funny because it is St Patrick’s day).

We have decided that spice before the gym is not a good combination. Several of the cooks are Gurkas from Nepal. In fact, several of the USAID folks did a tour in Nepal back in the early days of western influence. It is the first time I have had a serious conversation about the state of a monarchy in several years. One of the guys who went to Nepal remembered a couple sayings including ‘the red road cannot be trusted.’ I have no idea what that means.

In the US there is a much smaller temporal standard deviation of lifestyle.

Then my phone rang. It was John. There had been a suicide attack. They were bringing me in for at least the rest of the day.

Woodberry (the top scholar of Islam at an evangelical university, Fuller) spent much of his adult life in Afghanistan. Apparently he helped pastor the only sanctioned church in the country. Finally, just before the Taliban rolled through, the government gave them 1 day notice that the church building was to be torn down. The members showed up the next day and served tea to the construction workers as they demolished the building. I found that pretty moving. Also, after they had destroyed the church they started digging in the ground around it. Someone asked what they were doing. They said they had heard about an underground church. Woodberry and Co. smiled and said, ‘terribly sorry sir, but you will never destroy that.’

Tomorrow I finally start teaching again. I am looking forward to it but am embarrassed to face the students having been forbidden to travel their everyday streets with body armor and an armored vehicle.

(My driver) has been to the US 2 times with the US government. The first time was to Alabama. He said he got back and told his friends America was just like rural Afghanistan. He can’t read though his English is quite good. He said the worst part about not being able to read was to not be able to keep the mullahs accountable. During the war all the combatants were claiming to be Allah’s righteous warriors. He wanted to be able to study for himself.

Another thing about the cell phones. I think it is a really interesting bit of technology to introduce into a relationship based culture like this. My understanding of middle eastern culture is that relationship trumps schedule and people fully concentrate on the relationship they are tending to at the moment. Introduce a cell phone that allows some relationships to trump others, and it makes for a very interesting dynamic. Students are always taking calls in class and chatting.

Dan said that he couldn’t believe how well our training went. He said that it was the first training out here he has seen that was worth a sh**. He said he wished we had come out for two weeks each class…and he’s pretty cynical.

No comments: