Friday, 27 June 2014

From Kabul to Moss Side

This journey took place a few days ago in Dublin. I was talking with Concern's new head of operations for Afghanistan and asked him if he was worried about being kidnapped or murdered by insurgents in the course of his work.

He assured me that he took security very seriously, but personally he didn't feel under threat. Why, I wondered, because he had armed bodyguards? There were guards on all Concern workplaces, he told me, but these guards weren't armed. After all the footage I'd seen on TV, I was surprised by his response. But isn't it really dangerous in Afghanistan, I asked, especially for foreigners? It depends who you are and what you are doing, he replied.

He went on to explain that Concern's operations in Afghanistan depended on the support of the local communities in which they worked. If what you were doing was perceived as being beneficial to the community then you received support from that community. He told me that this support included Concern staff being warned when it would be dangerous to travel to and be in any of the places in which they worked.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world: it is ranked 175th (out of 187) on the UN index of development, calculated from a range of indicators such as under five mortality rate, life expectancy, years of schooling and so on. Concern's operations take place in Kabul and two rural districts and are focused on maternal and child health, water and sanitation, agricultural development and the empowerment of women. Despite the threat of the insurgency, these developments are wanted by the communities in which Concern works.

It was a fascinating conversation, over lunch at a Concern away-day (I am in my tenth year as a member of the Board), and reminded me of an experience I had thirty years previously. Whilst studying for a PhD at Manchester University, I was supporting myself by working on an experimental community project in in Moss Side, Manchester. The team ran a drop-in advice and education project from an empty unit in the Moss Side Shopping Centre. I worked there for two years.

At that time Moss Side was a notorious district synonymous with very high unemployment, enormous social deprivation, drug gangs, drive-by shootings and riots. My friends and acquaintances were shocked at where I worked, they would never have ventured anywhere near the place. Yet the project team were told again and again how valuable our work was for the community and all of us felt safe working there.

There is a further link between Afghanistan and the inner-cities of developed countries. Afghanistan is the source of 90% of the worlds heroin and the production of this cash crop is largely in the hands of the Taliban: this is how the insurgency is financed, how small farmers in remote districts are kept under control and how some people choose to try and escape from the disadvantage that shapes their lives.


Thursday, 19 June 2014

Have You Seen the Fish?

Over the past year, I've often asked this question. Unfortunately, the answer has been no.

I built a wildlife pond in my garden in 2012 and a botanist installed a mix of plants chosen to provide oxygen naturally. After frogs, water beetles and invertebrates had colonised the pond, I decided to try some fish.

At my local pet-shop I purchased two small goldfish and brought them home in a plastic bag, as if returning from the fair. I needed to find out if fish could survive in the pond; they were going to be the canary in the mine. Last June I put the goldfish in the water. I checked every day and was delighted to see them. They liked to nestle under lily-pads in the centre of the pond.

Pleased that my experiment had succeeded, I began to think about koi. Then, after a couple of weeks, the fish disappeared. I kept checking, but nothing there. Oh dear, I thought, perhaps a heron had eaten them. Or maybe they had died from a chemical imbalance in the water and a crow had scooped them up for breakfast.

As time went on, I stopped looking for the fish. There was plenty of wildlife in the pond after all: great diving beetles, water boatmen and so on. But I couldn't really hide my disappointment.

Then, one sunny day last week, I noticed two orange bodies under a lily-pad. Their fins were slowly moving as they raised their mouths and sucked in air. It was lovely to see the fish again. The prodigals had returned after one whole year. And, yes, they had grown; so there was oxygen in the water and enough food too.

All along the goldfish had been living in the depths of the pond. They had hunkered down and got through the winter: not only surviving, but thriving. I wont be buying koi now. I'm happy with my resilient goldfish.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The New Normal

Today is my anniversary. I've been all clear for three whole years now. When I was first diagnosed, I never expected to get this far. Happily I have, and from here on I'm regarded as having a much lower risk of recurrence.

On my first anniversary I had a meal out in a Belfast restaurant, one of the first times I'd done this since my surgery. On my second, I hired a motorbike and relived a much younger normality of mine by doing a weekend tour of the northern counties.

For my third anniversary I'd booked an away from it all weekend on Rathlin with T. This was a place I'd never visited and I was really looking forward to it. But fate intervened and I went down with a bad head cold and sore throat, so the weekend away was postponed.

Instead, I've been at home having a quiet time with paracetemol, vitamin C and throat pastilles. It's been ordinary and mundane instead of celebratory. But in a strange way this is entirely appropriate, for the occasion marks my return to normal, everyday life. After all, there's little so human as having a cold.