Going slowly

My impatience, already a characteristic that I have had to keep in check here, is wearing thin as the days creep by. Half of my head is with my work, things to complete, solve, settle and hand over; the other part of my head is pre-occupied with the logistics of my departure and questions about what next.

I have received official clearance to head home from our donor. My ticket out of Kabul is being purchased, my day room in Dubai reserved and, daily, bags with stuff leave the house to be distributed elsewhere.

I sit in our early morning senior management meetings with a different perspective. We discuss the daily running of the project and ponder tactical and strategic considerations. The long term issues are taking on importance in a more abstract way; only the very short term, a matter of two weeks to be precise, still remains very real.

The traffic is so bad these days that our shuttle drivers take a very long way around. I like this route because it takes me, quite slowly, along roads that are buzzing with the most basic of economic activities – in ways that have probably not much changed over the last few hundred years. The source of energy is still primarily human or animal – donkeys, carts, wheelbarrows, horses dragging in front or behind them sacks piled up high with this or that desired commodity, most of it in bulk.

Most of the houses and warehouses along this road are still in ruins from the fighting, now more than a decade ago, and are, with few exceptions, of the mud-brick type. Occasionally one can see the remnants of and exquisitely carved but dilapidated wooden facade of an old caravanserai, a relic of this place’s ancient trading past.

I arrived late at an empty conference room that should have been filled with 5 teams busy with their management and leadership learning assignments. Instead it is filled with brand new chairs that have replaced the fancy looking but rather dangerous Chinese chairs that have seen many senior ministry officials fall unceremoniously onto the floor. The new chairs can’t go up and down (an improvement) but they do allow leaning backward. I hope the legs will hold. They are all covered in plastic and, I am quite sure, will remain this way until the plastic hangs in dirty shreds off the chairs, one year from now. I have a tremendous urge to rip the plastic off but I restrain myself.

The progress that had been booked about coming on time appeared to have vanished over the weekend and the facilitators all reverted back to old behaviors that have them wait for late comers and punish those who came on time. Nowhere in the world have I, over 25 years, been able to get people to change this behavior, even of my closest co-workers who should know better by now. Actually they know, but some forces other than knowledge push them to act contrary to this.

In an interesting reversal of the usual pre-occupations of Americans with time and Afghans with paying respect, the dispatcher called me and was noticeably irritated that we let the shuttle, out in front of the ministry, wait as it was already 5 minutes past its departure time. It was hot, colleagues were inside, impatient and there are always illiterate police around with big sticks who make trouble for cars that are not moving.

I told him we were making our way across the ministry’s courtyard as fast as we could without being impolite which meant we had to spend at least a few seconds greeting every one we met and knew. Traversing the courtyard with most of my senior colleagues cannot be hastened without offending – it has to be done slowly.

1 Response to “Going slowly”


  1. 1 Larry August 23, 2011 at 8:01 am

    Re: “The progress that had been booked about coming on time appeared to have vanished over the weekend and the facilitators all reverted back to old behaviors that have them wait for late comers and punish those who came on time. Nowhere in the world have I, over 25 years, been able to get people to change this behavior, even of my closest co-workers who should know better by now. Actually they know, but some forces other than knowledge push them to act contrary to this.”….

    One group in my office has, of itself, started to fine people who come late to their meetings $1 each time. There’s no enforcement except peer pressure. The pot for these and other sins will go to a good cause at the end of the year. My boss says this has changed her behavior and now getting to those meetings on time is a priority to her.


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