Easy money and rotten eggs

Another hot and slow day as we are inching towards Ramadan. Kabul is blanketed by a stupefying heat. Food is spoiling easily, even a hardboiled egg I had on my desk for a day had gone bad. And so, not surprisingly, people get sick, either from food gone bad producing sometimes fever sometimes persistent stomach rumblings or rashes and breathing problems from the stifling and polluted air. Aside from some minor rumblings (I took one bite and swallowed it before realizing that the egg should not be eaten) and very low energy I am doing OK.

I was invited for lunch by the midwives and their allies in the house of the (midwives association’s) president. It is near our house, on a quiet lane off the busy main shopping street, right past the Mann Continental Restaurant which features the McDonald arches. They do serve burgers and Afghan kids apparently love going there as much as kids around the world love going to McD.

From the windows of the second floor salon, the place to receive visitors, covered in traditional Afghan style with carpets, think mattresses and pillows, I could look into neighboring compounds, all hidden from the street by high walls, and imagined myself in a rural area. I could have stood there for a long time, observing, eavesdropping on ordinary lower and middle class Afghan lives I have so very little contact with.

While mom and sister were busy downstairs turning raw materials into a copious and delicious meal, we sat upstairs, eight women in total. I listened to countless tales of corruption, fraud and sexual abuse perpetrated by people, some I knew and had worked with and some I don’t ever want to know, who are all protected at the highest levels of this country’s government.

I heard about the battles to get rid of these folks. Most of these attempts have been unsuccessful and the solution in some cases has been to get rid of oneself by quitting jobs or worse, leaving the country. It was all very discouraging and it made me regret even having had contact with some of those folks and believing the things they told me (about how good and committed they were). I now know they had dollar signs in their eyes and smelled greenbacks when seeing me, a foreigner who could get them a piece of the money pie. My sisters tell their stories with laughter even though I know they hurt deeply inside. But what else can you do if this is your home?

One clever tale was about a man, since found out for many fraudulent actions yet also still in his job, who proposed to open a ‘chance account.’ Later, in the office I asked my colleagues to explain what that was. It was, I learned, a gimmick started by Kabul Bank (now of ill repute) and followed later by others, where one could open a special account that was like a lottery. For every 100 dollar in your account you got one ticket. (Presumably) random drawings paid out to the winning numbers. Prizes would go as high as several million dollars. People could tell me about lucky winners they knew. Of course now we know that this money was ill gotten money after all and the scheme has been abandoned since.

This clever man suggested that the money for a project be put in a chance account so that, if there were any prizes, these could be pocketed. Of course, compared to the Kabul bank fraud this is all petty corruption – but we know that petty can easily slide into serious. I am afraid that the abundance of easy money took many down that path. It also makes me have even more respect for the honest people in this country.

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