Day 3: Helping to Feed Hungry
6:30—Convoy to United Nations Compound
After breakfast at 5:30 we are briefed by our security team on the day’s events and head out to a U.N. compound. There we will link up with the World Food Programme for a day of touring four of the projects they are working on with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation (HGBF).
This might have been the most dangerous part of our entire trip, as we found out from the in-country head of the World Food Programme during our debriefing at the end of the day. Our security detail is forced to work with the WFP security team, and we’re not happy about that, nor the fact that we’re traveling in a convoy of six white, armored Land Cruisers with "UN-WFP" painted on the side in big, blue letters like bull’s-eyes.
8:30—Arrive at Hofyan Middle School
Hofyan is a suburb north of Kabul. Here HGBF has teamed up with the WFP "Red Cup" school food program and we participate in handing out 20-lb. sacks of wheat to three hundred 10- to 11-year-olds, mostly girls. All four programs on this day’s tour focus on engaging and elevating girls and women and bringing them into the mainstream of Afghan society and communities. Little girls, like the one below left, coming home with 20 lb. of wheat to make flour are encouraged by their families to return to school to get educated (and get more food). Red Cup is one of the two principal charities supported by Farmers Feeding the World, and it does good all over the world, including parts of the U.S. Below right, Howard G. takes the opportunity to ask a class of boys how many want to grow up to be farmers.
10:30—Arrive at Hofyan Health Center
Along the same lines as the school food program is the WFP/HGBF Mother and Child Health and Nutrition program that we witnessed at the Hofyan Health Center. Pregnant and lactating women are encouraged to come in for a health checkup and 50 lb. of dried peas courtesy of HGBF. Many of these women—who resist having their photograph taken by pulling their burqas over their heads—drag toddlers and small children along with them, so the center keeps on hand a supply of "Plumpies"—a gooey health bar made of peanut butter, honey, etc., that packs 800 calories of high protein for malnourished bodies.
12:00—Arrive at Women for Women International
Women for Women International is working with WFP on a vocational skills training program for women who are widows, single heads of their households, physically challenged or refugees to give them the basic skills they need to support themselves. Upon completion of classes, they go home with 80 lb. of U.S. wheat courtesy of HGBF.
14:00—Arrive at the Afghan Women’s Business Council
We’re still north of Kabul in the same general area. The Afghan Women’s Business Council is backed by WFP and has organized and trained women to work in horticulture businesses that grow, brand and export dried vegetables and spices for cooking. For the first time in their lives, many of these women now command respect in their households, as they have become the breadwinners, able to cross the highway for the first time and go to work. The women who run these businesses are increasingly welcome in men’s business circles, as they are contributing new ideas for success.
16:00—Back at the U.N. Compound
Our security guys have really been on edge all day and are glad this day is over. Matty, Drew and Doc, along with Dan, Tug and the senior guy, Croz, work together like a well-oiled machine and there’s always two of them to a vehicle with two of us—each packing two Glock 19s and an M-4. The fact that we were in a highly visible U.N. convoy with U.N. drivers left them feeling out of control.
The in-country head of the WFP briefs us at the end of the day and is even more relieved we are back, as U.N. compounds have been targeted recently—especially with that idiot in Florida burning the Quran and the fact that Howard G. is a high-profile target for kidnapping or assassination.
There were two common themes today that we saw play out in all of the WFP/HGBF projects. One was the use of food in exchange for demonstrable progress—either in education, health and nutrition or in acquiring and deploying business skills. What a great use of food, both for immediate hunger relief and long-term hunger abatement. The second theme was elevating women in the Afghan culture at all stages of their lives—through early education and teaching business skills—so they can either contribute to society or be self-sufficient. That is a permanent change and a permanent difference.
18:30—Back at our place (below: Croz and Doc with two of our guards inside our compound)
Dinner and trying to capture the sunset over the mountains from our rooftop. Lou and Eric, on our film crew, haven’t had any luck two nights in a row with the sunset. I share a cigar with them and we listen to dogs barking and people chanting. We traveled through downtown Kabul today—a city of six million with a ton of cars and motorcycles and a kid shepherding a goat herd down a main street in the middle of it all—and ended up about 30 miles north. WFP is a very effective organization that leverages its assets incredibly. It was great to see them in the field today—we’re proud to be partnering with them through Farmers Feeding the World.
I cannot say enough about my traveling companions, game for everything and anything. Both Buffetts are like Teddy Roosevelt in their enthusiastic approach to life—Howie has all his dad’s sense of adventure but not quite as much emotion. Kip is like our ambassador; there isn’t a child he won’t engage or an adult he won’t welcome—there is no language barrier for his approachable, friendly demeanor. Lou is smooth as butter and finesses every situation, and he has a great appreciation for anything new and different. Eric is a total pro and comfortable beyond his years with the situation and people.
Day 2: A Day of Travel
12:00—Depart Dubai for Kabul
Dubai is the wealthiest city in the world—never seen anything like it. Even from the air, it makes Vegas look low-key. Everything is new, plush and expensive—the kind of place where you’d expect billionaire sheiks to spend their money.
15:00—Land in Kabul
What a difference a day makes. After a two-hour Safi Airways flight from posh Dubai, Kabul looks like a slurry pit. I cannot describe the poverty and desolation. Six million people live in this valley at 7,000 feet, surrounded by a ring of incredibly beautiful snow-covered mountains up to 13,000 feet. This photo is from the highest lookout point in the valley, right in the middle of Kabul. From this high point, we can see people flying kites and hear religious chanting down below in all directions. Sunday is just another day here; Friday and Saturday is their weekend.
We’re traveling around Kabul in a Land Cruiser armored to withstand a .762 caliber machine gun at 20 feet, with a big Marine driver named Drew and Special Ops medic Henry, aka Doc. Drew went through an ambush a couple of weeks ago outside of Kabul and machine-gun fire didn’t penetrate either the windows or body. The Land Cruiser has about 3,000 lb. of armor on it and cost about $150K.[[This sentence is unnecessary, but is it a Land Cruiser or a Land Rover?]]
Car bombs are still the biggest threat here, but the newest threat is old magnetic Russian mines placed on vehicles from speeding motorcycles. Drew and Doc say the most dangerous time is from 5 a.m. to noon near any government buildings. They tell us to watch for drivers in parked cars acting funny, the disappearance of people from the street (somehow they know when something is about to happen) and the sudden appearance of lots of police—also for cars that are weighed down in the trunk.
We are in a heavily armed and barricaded compound andare briefed by Matty—DOD personal security—about where to go in our villa if we hear gunfire or bombs. There is a well trained security force and a hospital right inside the compound.
Our TV crew takes a lot of dramatic footage and does some interviews with us, but today is just a warm-up that sets the stage for our mission to show agriculture development and hunger relief in an "area of conflict." Our hunger mission starts in the next couple of days with the U.N. —we’ll take a Black Hawk helicopter to a remote area with Special Forces. The agriculture mission starts later in the week, then we go to Iraq for a few days for more agriculture development.
The Defense Department task force people that we are working with are phenomenal. Whereas the Washington, D.C., bureaucrats and USAID people here do all their analysis from the protection of compounds and bases like this, the task force spends most of its time in outlying areas working directly with Afghan farmers, which carries a lot more risk but also delivers the best results. The bureaucrats won’t mix it up with the locals, but we are going to venture out to help assist local farmers and hunger relief efforts.
Our day starts tomorrow with a briefing at 6:00 and then we head out into the countryside to work with the World Food Programme.
Day 1: How This Came About
We began working with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation (HGBF) in November 2010 through the Farm Journal Foundation’s Farmers Feeding the World (FFW) initiative and, through Farm Journal Media, on information programs concerning sustainable agricultural production.
In the first planning and strategy meeting, Howard mentioned that he was looking to hire a film crew to accompany him to Afghanistan to document the anti-hunger and agricultural development initiatives he had started with the United Nations World Food Programme and the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture.
When I volunteered the Farm Journal TV crew that shot the "More Than a Promise" video for FFW, Howard jumped at the chance, especially if Kip Tom, the farmer representative on the Foundation who is featured in the video, would accompany the crew. Kip readily agreed, and I was invited to tag along.
The original plan was to travel to the mountainous region of the Afghan-Pakistan border near Jalalabad. Because of security issues, we had to eliminate that part of the trip, which was unfortunate because HGBF is funding a new building there, overseen by the Borlaug Institute, for the agricultural college at Nangarhar University.
Howard and his son, Howard W., replaced Nangarhar with a two-day trip to Kurdistan in the northern region of Iraq. This provided an incredible before-and-after comparison: northern Iraq versus Afghanistan. It also provided a good look at what a true grassroots, entrepreneurial development effort can accomplish in working with people on their "home court."
Howard W., director of agricultural development for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, and Paul Brinkley, undersecretary of defense in charge of the Task Force, made sure that we witnessed situations and developmental activity, especially in Afghanistan, that few other American politicians and business executives ever venture out to see. It’s a story that is not told at all in the American media, because it’s not considered headline-worthy—but it completely turned around our impressions of Afghanistan and what needs to be done there.
I left Philly on Friday evening, changed planes in Frankfurt after a long layover, and landed in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, late Saturday evening. Our layover hotel in Dubai was inside the confines of the airport, a fact that escaped me, and after two hours in Passport Control, I found myself outside the airport, unable to get back in to check into my hotel. So, without currency, language skills or companions, I found a hotel close to the airport and finally got to bed about 3:00 a.m.
Back to From the Ground Up.