Interning in Afghanistan
In March 2010, Max Clarke was offered a once in a lifetime opportunity teaching English at a school in Kabul, Afghanistan. Here, Max talks about his exceptional experience, and explains why undertaking the six month internship – which paid expenses only – was one of the best decisions he has ever made, even despite the precarious situations he regularly found himself withinâ€¦
With a warm applause rising from the 150 boys and girls seated below, I mount the makeshift stage and receive with gratitude the gifts being presented to me. Turning towards the sea of bright and smiling faces, I see optimism reflected in their young eyes that the violence and terror raging relentlessly across the country has still failed to extinguish: an optimism I continue to feel the warmth of to this day.
Yet barely a week before the â€˜Teachers Dayâ€™ ceremony, a section of the city had been erased from existence by 1,500 lbs of explosives packed into a taxi. Detonating itself just minutes after our schoolbus had passed; it narrowly spared the lives of 22 of Afghanistanâ€™s gifted young children, and my own.
So how did I come to find myself in this situation: in this disparate world of hope and terror, hatred and generosity that is Afghanistan?
After casting my net out into the world of â€˜the NGOâ€™ at the end of last year, searching for work experience in West Africa to complement my degree, I was met with nothing but rejection.
Then, out of the blue, I was contacted by Vision International Afghanistan Ltd and offered a position in the countryâ€™s capital, Kabul. In light of previous rejections, combined with a strong craving to get abroad and do something different, I felt obliged to accept such an exciting offer.
It all seemed to happen so quickly. The next few months spiralled into a blur of preparation; booking in jabs, collecting the right garments for the unusual climate, researching all the available information, and stocking up on medication I may (and often did!) need during my 6 month placement. Before I knew it, I was in Afghanistan, being driven through the maze of new, shining glass offices and the bullet scarred, mud slums of Kabul on my way to my new job as the head of an English department at a local school.
Recently founded by Dr. Howard Harper – the only westerner to have been awarded Afghan citizenship – Glory High School is a coeducational private school and, like much of Afghanistan, a stark expression of contrast where dirt-poor orphans receive a free education beside the children of the wealthy. A three storey cube of thick concrete, the school is set in the hills of Kabulâ€™s western suburbs immediately between the towering mansions of the super rich and the crowded slums of Barchi – where one million souls live in a maze of mud bungalows without electricity, sewerage or water.
I lived in a house shared with an Afghan family and an American man. It was located in an area of Kabul far removed from the peace of the suburbs and the money and security of downtown; a place where contractors on $100,000+ salaries flocked from their fortress homes to their Western hangouts amidst scores of security personnel from whom they never separate. All in all, I had got a pretty good deal.
On paper, the house had all the amenities on which we have come to rely in the West, though each with its own complex idiosyncrasies that took months to master, like, for example, showering. This basic hygiene requirement seemed to require a calendar as water was delivered to the tanks only every three days. On the day water is delivered, a shower could be had; on the second day you stand under a dribbling showerhead; and on the third day, there is no water. Attempting to anticipate the power cuts was an especially useful technique as being plunged into darkness dripping wet and covered in soap is an experience best not repeated. My bed was a thin mattress, or towshak and my bedside table an upturned tub. Washing clothes was a lengthy operation and shopping for food an adventure in itself…
Clouds of dust rise above Seraka Alaouddin- our local High Street- as decaying, battlescarred Toyotas rumble past over its uneven surface, throwing up yet more dust. Dodging crowds of thickly bearded men shouting loudly at the streetâ€™s traders, I continue past the rows of butcherâ€™s shops where carcasses carpeted in flies hang in the hot sun, dripping dark fluids into the standing drains at the roadside. Carefully stepping over the piles of offal that lie discarded on the pavement, I continue my journey and soon my nostrils tell me that I am approaching what I seek: at the junction stand men fiercely fanning beds of hot coals over which long skewers of mutton sizzle, dripping fat onto the coals below; generating thick, choking clouds of smoke that tangle with the Cityâ€™s dust and diesel fumes and hang heavily in the thick air. Unsurprisingly, respiration problems are rife- a problem much exacerbated by the prevalence of Iranian made Pine cigarettes.
Such Kebaabs- great chunks of tough and flavourful grilled served with naan bread- are a staple for Afghans who can afford them and formed much of my diet.
Soon, the days turned into weeks, and my life in Kabul was assuming an air of normality. No longer did the frequent power cuts or water outages seem an inconvenience. No longer did I yearn for the pub, and drinking 20 cups of weak green tea a day became ordinary. I was friends with my fellow teachers and familiar with my students; becoming wise to their misbehaviour, accustomed to their loudness, and learning to ignore the (thankfully infrequent) attempts to convert me to Islam. Even the occasional rumble of rocket strikes and the guttural thud of distant car bombs failed to shock as they once had before.
All too quickly my six months was up and it was time to go home, something I did with a strangely mixed feeling of sadness and relief. I returned not only with enough astounding stories to fill a book, and a stack of photos that still surprise people to this day, but also, importantly, a lifetimes worth of memories and lessons necessary to be reflected on during those quieter times.
The friends I made, the experiences I lived and the skills I developed during this incredible, unique and sometimes terrifying (!) internship will be with me for life. Though at times emotional, and often dangerous, I will never regret taking on such an opportunity, and would only encourage others to do the same.
You can read all about Max’s time in Afghanistan on his blog, http://maxinkabul.blogspot.com/