I do try, but generally, my admin is shocking. I know you’d expect a member of the RAF and the armed forces in general to be good at admin, and to be sorted and stuff, but sadly, I think I am a little bit to ‘right brained’ for that.
My worst thing is paperwork…I try, but I lose paperwork. And the very worst for me is car paperwork – insurance documents, MOT’s that sort of thing, so that each year when the old Car Tax comes around, I have a mad panic trying to find the right bits of paper so that I can get my Tax disc…
But I know that this isn’t true for everyone, and I have a theory that the amount of paperwork you have is inversely proportional to the importance you place on it. So, there I am, with wads of paperwork…a form for this, a paper for that…and they end up all over the place. Each important paper has an important place for it…not that I can remember where each one is.
But I was shown a different way out in Afghan. The main bulk of my job was dealing face-to-face with locals, with their problems, their desires for building projects, claims for damages caused by our troops out on the ground.
And bits of paper were amazingly important to the locals. And with a piece of paper, even though the vast, vast majority of the people couldn’t read what was on the paper – be it in English or even written in Pashtu by one of the interpreters, it was the most important thing in the world.
Even when comparing it to money – it was worth more to them. It became power. It became credibility. It became a promise.
The usual case would be, for instance, a patrol would walk across a field, and a farmer would come up to them and ask if the government would help to build a well for his farm and the surrounding compounds. In the area we were, at the time, there was very little government representation and so the locals would use the British as a conduit to get information to their representatives. The Patrol Commander would give the farmer a bit of paper with the details on – exactly where the well would be, who would be building it, how many people would benefit…and so on. And then the farmer would LOOK AFTER THAT BIT OF PAPER.
And when I say LOOK AFTER, I mean guard with his life. It became more important than we would treat our passport. More important than anything. Despite it being just a scrap out of a notebook that was scrawled in tricky handwriting because writing is difficult in thick gloves, with a rifle in your hand bent on a knee in a field, it was treated like some ancient and valuable manuscript by the Afghan. The local would then keep it safe and bring it long to a ‘projects clinic’ held by me at the Check Point where I would collate all the details of potential projects, interview the local, and write a submission for the project to go off to the government so that they could make a decision about which one to build.
I often was giving out these ‘chits’ as we called them and once I had written it down the local would always treat the paper the same way, in fact the farmer would always do exactly the same thing.
After giving the chit to the man, he would always look at it, as though he was reading it. Smile broadly, and wave it a gently in the air. He would then reach inside his jacket pocket – local farmers out there always worse a single or double breasted suit type jacket over the top of their traditional ‘dish-dashes’ (even in the high summer) – and pull out a small plastic bag. Maybe like a money bag used at the bank. Or maybe like a ‘plastic pocket’ that students use at collage, maybe just a thin, clear, plastic bag. He would then take the paper and fold it just once or twice, and then place in reverently in the bag and return the bag to his jacket and pat the pocket saying ‘Manana’ (Pashtu for ‘thank you’).
And the following Monday morning at the projects clinic the man would turn up – having come straight from farming in his fields, often barefoot, most of the time with filthy hands, covered with the rich Helmandi soil, and sit down in front of me and fish out the paper and pass it to me.
I was always amazed that even though the farmers lived in very poor conditions, with very poor houses, often un-educated, that the paper would still be pristine, perfect. The paper was more important than anything.
The movement of pieces of paper was amazing, and the importance placed on them was incredible. ‘He wants a chit’ would be one of the common phrases that the interpreters would say to me, so much that I quickly learned what it was and often, when they were asking for a chit for damage (that often hadn’t actually been caused by us) to a compound or a field, then I would, without the need for a ‘terp be able to say ‘Ya! Ya chit!’ – (No! No Chit!) and go on our way.
Project chits were important to the locals, but by far the most important to them were when I had to give out a cut for genuine damage. Take, for instance, early in the tour of the Rifles lads, who were learning to drive the massive Huskey vehicles through the tiny, twist-turny streets of the villages. Occasionally the drivers would not quite make it round a bend without clipping a building and damaging it. Here the local would rightly make a claims complaint. He wall might be knocked down or his door frame damaged. And as we had caused the damage we would have to pay to put it right.
The proper procedure would be for a claims form to be raised and given to the owner of the building and he would go along to Lashkah Gar to get his money to repair. I would fill in this form, providing evidence of the damage and proof that it had been caused by us and then give this to the local. This paperwork – several pages of form (god bless bureaucracy!) would be treated with reverence folded and placed in that same small plastic bag and looked after as though lives depended upon it.
It’s a good lesson really. Maybe I should follow their lead. They never lost any paper. They always knew where to find the important paperwork. They wouldn’t spend hours searching through drawers and folders and envelopes searching for their MOT documents…to make sure that those bits of paper that are really important to me are kept safe…I should just get a small plastic bag…