And so it goes



Yesterday, my office had a retreat. We’re in the middle of a messy, stressful workplanning process, so we took a day to relax in the sun (and finalize some of our logframes). During lunch, after the swimming, my colleague A turned to me. I don’t know if it was the vodka or the Tajik sunshine, but he said to me, “I started doing surgery as a medical student. It was the war, and they needed every hand.”

I was pretty sun-dazed myself, and I answered, “Did you save people?”

“Some people,” he said. “Not all of them. I remember every one I lost.”

After that we took the baby swimming for the first time, and then he lay on a towel in the shade, naked and kicking his feet. About 80% of my colleagues are doctors, and an undressed human being was irresistible to them. They’d walk by, stop, and do a brief physical. I now know his eyes are good, he is properly symmetrical, and he’s big for his age. (Actually, I knew all that already, but verification is always nice.) I was quizzed about my breastfeeding practices, my plans for introducing supplementary foods, and where he sleeps.

That led naturally into long conversations about Tajik children. They tend to fall off their growth curve when supplementary food is introduced; parents give them too much bread and not enough food with caloric value. We brainstormed ways to educate mothers, and grandmothers, about feeding young children. We want every baby to be as chunky and happy as my little guy is.

It was a really good day, the kind of day that reminds you why you choose to do this.

Driving home to Dushanbe, I was suntanned and contented and full of plov. When my husband called, I answered the phone happily. He told me that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs won’t renew the baby’s visa on a technicality. The visa expires Saturday. We need to leave the country by then and reapply for the visa from outside the country.

So now we’re scrambling to find a place two American citizens can get to easily from Dushanbe, without a visa, since the baby doesn’t have any visas yet besides the Tajik. (Odds currently favor Frankfurt, though I am pulling for Dubai since I haven’t been there since I was a kid.) It’s going to be expensive, and disrupt my work, and I’ll miss seeing my older son, who comes back from Iowa on Monday. Plus I don’t know how we’ll resolve the visa technicality even from outside the country.

Up, down. That’s the life. It’s worth it, but this sucks.


(photo credit: Wayan Vota)

Chosen because when I did a Flickr search for “naked baby” and it gave me a picture of someone I know, it seemed like a sign.

Making Mistakes

overturned SUV
overturned SUV

(photo credit: Kim Scarborough)


1. In Tajikistan, where I currently live, and in Central Asia in general, married women wear scarves on their heads. So do unmarried women older than about 25. It’s not a religious thing at all. It’s just what women do. Visitors often come to Tajikistan for a week and leave thinking that it’s a deeply religious country because of all the women wearing hijab. If you either a) asked someone or b) knew enough about Islam to know what a hijab has to cover, you wouldn’t make that mistake. But people don’t know, and they don’t ask. They walk around, they make assumptions, they go home and share their misinformation.

2. In order to graduate from my alma mater, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, you have to be proficient in a foreign language. My roommate and I both chose French. In the weeks leading up to our proficiency exams, we spoke French to each other at all times to practice. Once, I heard someone comment as we walked by, “That’s why I love Georgetown – the constant exposure to other cultures.”

That’s my convoluted way of saying we get things wrong all the time. Sometimes our science is bad, sometimes we haven’t bridged the culture gap as securely as we’d like, sometimes we’ve made so many compromises that we ended up somewhere we don’t belong. Some of that we can prevent. Both of my examples above could be prevented through spending more time and doing more research.

We can’t prevent all of it. As long as our programs are designed and run by human beings rather than infallible robots, mistakes will happen.

We do, however, need a resilient system to catch our mistakes and a corporate culture that lets us make changes when we realize we’ve screwed up. We can catch our mistakes through monitoring and evaluation. That means not just collecting data, but looking at it, thinking about what it means, and using that meaning to guide program decisions. And we can keep our errors to a minimum by cultivating an atmosphere where people are encouraged to admit their mistakes. If you maternal and child health director realizes that the patient education classes aren’t doing anything, she needs to be free to re-design the curriculum or cancel the activity and spend the money on childbirth kits.

Humbling Hospitality Experiences

1) I once did a focus group with women in rural Tajikistan, talking about increasing hunger and food insecurity. The women told terrible, desperate stories, of burning fruit trees for warmth and watching their kitchen gardens wash away in heavy spring rains. At the end of our discussion, three different women invited me to come home with them for a meal. They did realize the irony; one woman said, shyly, “I don’t have any fruit or sweets, but I have bread and tea.”

2) In 1997, I went to Jerusalem for Thanksgiving. My wallet was stolen. I told a Palestinian shopkeeper in the old city what had happened to me, and he took me into my shop and made me a cup of tea. Then he told the managers of the shops around me what had happened. Shop employees came, and brought me money. Small amounts – 5 or 6 shekels (about $2) each, but these were not people who had a lot of money. They brought me, a rich American by any standard, money, because I was alone in their country and needed help.

3) When my husband and I lived in Turkmenistan, we had a good friend, Katrina, who was a Peace Corps volunteer. Her host family treated her as a true daughter, and she reciprocated their affection. When the government marked their house for demolition, she helped them as they packed their things and got ready to move to the apartment they were being given in return. In the same period, I was re-posted to Tashkent. Katrina’s host family was determined to have us over for a meal before we left, since we’d never eaten there. We would be leaving before they moved into their new place, so they had us over to their house.

They had us over for dinner as their house was being torn down. The house had been two stories, but was down to one. It was raining that night, and the roof in the living room leaked, since it wasn’t really a roof; it was just the floor to the second story. Katrina’s host mom moved us to the kitchen, and sat us at the kitchen table while she made lamb pilaf and salad for us. We ate, all together, in the corner of the warm damp kitchen.

You can always find a way to give, if you want to.

Photo Credit: Turkmen soda pop, taken by me