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Food guilt in Ghor [seven years later]

Saturday, February 1, 2014 by Marianne Elliott

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This week I’m revisiting posts I wrote nearly seven years ago, when I was living and working in Afghanistan, as a way of reminding myself why I decided to commit myself to creating resources and tools to help aid workers – and other people in caring professions – to take better care of themselves.

Here’s a post from November 2007, in which I wonder what the ethics are of flying in food to make sure I’m well fed in Ghor, when the rest of the province is in the grip of a devastating food shortage.

Food issues in Ghor, posted 10 November 2007

food distribution ghorI’ve caught myself complaining lately about the poor quality of the food I can get in Ghor, and the failure of my colleagues in HQ to send up the boxes of fruit and vegetables they’d promised me. I love to feed my body well and to eat healthily. In the Ghor market there are often only one or two vegetables available and those are never fresh, having been transported over bad roads for days to reach our remote location.

While in the USA recently I visited a Whole Foods supermarket where I stood in the middle of a deli section completely overwhelmed by the abundance and range of food available.

In Ghor, I’m thrilled if I return from the market with some homemade yoghurt or white cheese. So many people here had to sell their livestock during the big drought two seasons ago that very few local families have dairy products to sell.

I am always happy when a colleague or friend comes back from their village and bring me eggs. Eggs, I should add, which people in that village almost certainly need more than I do, but which constitute the basic form of protein in my diet.

I struggle to know what is ethical in this situation. I’ve heard of people living in this kind of remote post who refuse to have food shipped in. My tendency is to the opposite. I’m happy to support the local shop-owners by buying tinned beans and pistachio nuts from him, but when it comes to fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products and eggs I feel uncomfortable consuming the local supplies when I know there is already not enough to go around.

This feels like a question to which there is no right answer, whether I ship food in or buy from the very scant local market I am always going to be so much more privileged than anyone in the local community. On the one hand that’s completely unjustifiable – there is no justification for me to have more, to enjoy more, than anyone else here. And on the other hand I want to maintain my health for the long term, and this poor diet has had a noticeable impact on my immune system and my general well-being (skin, hair and nails are all showing signs of degradation).

I was overwhelmed with the easy access to good food that I enjoyed during my two week holiday in the States. Even here in Kabul, if you have the money you can get hold of pretty much anything you want. In Kabul I recently ate imported French cheese with a friend who got it at one of the stores targeting international workers in the city.

In Ghor, we are still struggling to get in place the 14000 metric tonnes of food aid, which it we calculate will be required to get the population through the winter without too many casualties. The security problems on the southern ring road (which passes through Kandahar, Helmand and Farah) have been causing endless hold-ups and several serious losses.

In the face of that scale of suffering how can I possibly complain about not getting my box of fruit and vegetables this week? Or feel a pang of envy when I read about a friend’s morning juice?

One of the reasons I do this work is because we are all connected: the suffering of starving families in Ghor is, whether we like it or not, connected to over-stocked supermarkets in the West. It is not a comfortable truth, but it is true and it stops me in my tracks when I start (again) to complain about the poor food available to me.

Still – it is fair enough for me to want to take care of my long term health and there are serious negative physical impacts of life in Afghanistan including lung infections all from pollution and dust, loss of bone density due to restrictions on all forms of walking, and malnutrition from the poor food availability and quality.


Seven years later, I’m clearer than ever that we need to ask hard questions about how much good we are really doing as aid workers, and whether that good justifies the expense and risk (to us as well as to our host community) of being there. But I’m also clearer than ever that each of has a primary responsibility to take care of ourselves. When we don’t, not only are our effectiveness and usefulness undermined, but we also undermine the very principles we are ostensibly representing: the fundamental dignity of all humans and the interconnectedness of our well-being.

Over the intervening years, yoga has been the foundation of my practices of self-care and self-awareness. It has helped me see myself, my work and my place in the world more clearly, at the same time as it has helped me learn to take care of myself. So I’m thrilled to be launching a re-vamped and revised edition of my online yoga program specifically designed with aid workers in mind.

30 Days of Yoga for Aid Workers is an online program to help aid workers (and anyone else whose work or life involves a lot of travel, stress or exposure to the suffering of others) establish and maintain a home yoga practice which will support your mental and physical well-being and help you do your good work in the world more effectively.

Read more, and sign up, here. Registration closes on Friday 7 February and the course begins on 10 February.


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2 Responses to "Food guilt in Ghor [seven years later]"

  1. Mike' says:

    I often wonder is feeling guilty to have access to things and priviledge distinctly female. After being social services and other helping industries, for so long I have come to realize you cannot sacrifice yourself and truly help others.

    • Marianne Elliott says:

      I think there may well be a gender dimension to this, Mike – and I see it outside of the aid world as well. Women are socialised to put the needs of other people first, and to sacrifice their own well-being for their children, their families and the people they work to serve. It becomes a problem, often.

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