Review | BIKE RIDING IN KABUL — not written by an RPCV
Bike Riding in Kabul is the story of Jamie Bowman, a woman who works as foreign aid in several post-war countries. The author’s story is a unique take on the travel memoir genre. We don’t just read countless stories of an individual eating world-class dishes and laying on the beach; we watch someone help entire countries find their own peace. Through it all, we learn about the invaluable pieces of wisdom she learned along the way. From learning how to truly help people and understanding how many of these countries found themselves in their situations, there is so much wisdom to devour.
A review published by Literary Titan
Bike Riding in Kabul: The Global Adventures of a Foreign Aid Practitioner by Jamie Bowman is a MUST READ for anyone working in the international development community or seeking a career there. Her book reads like a modern-day version of the movie and TV series MASH, filled with the rebellious factions led by Hawkeye Pierce combating the American military establishment represented by ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan and Frank Burns. Pierce and his allies ‘buck the system’ with the assistance of the ‘Deep State’ maneuvering of Radar and Klinger, while Colonel Blake, then Potter, turn a blind eye to the ‘shenanigans’ within the camp. All the while Chaos, Mayhem, and Destruction reigns around them created by the incompetence and stupidity of military ‘upper brass’ and Brain Dead politicians in Washington, who consider soldiers nothing other than pawns and cannon fodder in a ‘Winner Take All Game’ of an Amoral and Parasitic ‘upper crust’.
Bowman does an excellent job of engaging her audience in the realities of a contractual foreign aid worker, professionally and personally, by combing humor with serious and disquieting issues to her subject matter. Her journey begins in the sleepy, tropical paradise of Micronesia, which she leaves for an assignment to modernize the mortgage laws in a post war-torn Kosovo at the turn of the century. Her ensuing contracts takes her to Ukraine (2003), Bangladesh (2004), Moscow (2004), Afghanistan (2005), and Southern Sudan (2006-07).
Unfortunately, not only is she faced with elitism, micro-management, bullying, office politics, substandard housing, lack of office space and supplies, and ‘sloppy’ and ego-centric co-workers, but also the ‘go along to get along’ culture within the development community. She is also confronted with anti-American sentiments based on the United States’ failure to provide the Leadership to which the world has looked since WWII, which instead of Leadership has provided Tyranny, Exploitation, Poverty, and non-ending Wars.
Her journey ends in Paris in 2011 in a conversation with an Australian foreign aid worker, Martina, where her experiences in the past decade are summed up, and serious questions and issues they have raised, are discussed,
“Growing up in the States, there wasn’t a lot of discussion about America and its role and responsibility to the rest of the world. As one of only two superpowers, we were the world stage—or at least half of it. I don’t remember ever thinking about how America’s policies or actions affected other countries because who could dare fault us? We were the ‘good’ in the battle between ‘good and evil.’ It was easy being an American back then.”
“And now you’ve discovered that America has its critics,” [Martina] offered.
“No, I’ve known we’ve had critics’. But I love my country and want other people to love it too. Our countries are like our families. It’s fine for us to find fault with our own, but I don’t like it when other people feel free to criticize my family and expect me to agree and join in the condemnation.”…
“In Afghanistan, in 2005 a British woman told me that America deserved the 9/11 bombings. Over three thousand innocent people died—and she said we had it coming.”
“Now, that would definitely bother me,” [Martina] agreed. “If someone had said something like that about the bombing in Bali, where most of the victims were Australians, I would have been livid.”
“I didn’t take it well. Roberto and I had a bit of an argument over it. He said something like, ‘Americans will always have enemies because they’re full of themselves, privileged, and hypocritical.”
“I’m not going to comment on that,” [Martina] said, sitting back in her chair.
“But you know, I’ve seen instances where tough criticism of the United States is warranted. Sometimes, we’re our own worst enemy. It’s as if we leave our values and even our common sense back home.”
“Give me an example?”
“There was a guy named Patrick in Kabul, who told a conference room full of Afghans his version of the Golden Rule—he who has the gold makes the rules. And he was sitting in an office on the embassy compound when he said it.” Martina put both hands over her mouth to stifle a laugh.
“Did that really happen?” She laughed some more. “So much for supporting a democratic government in Afghanistan.”
“I know. It was the absolutely worst message to come out of the embassy,” I agreed. “And, just before I left Kabul this las October, I had a discussion with another consultant who believed it was better to choose a paycheck over principles. It was so disheartening. And yes, while it’s okay for me to knock our performance, it’s still hard to hear people from other countries criticize the States.”
At that moment, a man wearing a Roman collar, a member of the clergy, hustled into the restaurant… In a loud, pulpit-worthy British accent, he announced, “Oh, it looks as if our American friends are having more troubles. What did my mother always say? “The Americans have more dollars than sense.”
I leaned over to Martina and whispered, “It’s almost on cue. Now a man of God is dissing my country.”
The woman piped up, “Why would anyone want to go to America? Shooting, bad weather—and really, what is there to see?”…
When it came time for the table next to use to pay the check, the woman with the bad haircut took the opportunity to bring the young waitress into her anti-American discussion. “Would you visit the United States? Would you want to go over there?”
The waitress looked very uncomfortable at being put on the spot.
I leaned toward Martina again. “This is exactly the king of anti-American baloney that I’ve lost my patience with…
The Nigerian put his book down and spoke to anyone who might be listening. “Was that woman asking about going to America? He twisted around in his chair and faced our table. “Well, I want to go.”
“As a young boy in Lagos, I was taught by Peace Corps volunteers. Because of their instruction, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. I want the opportunity to show my teachers the man I have become.”
“I agree,” Martina said supportively. “Some of my very best friends are Americans.” I laughed.
“I have been to America,” the waitress responded in her heavily accented English. “I studied a year at a university in West Virginia and lived with an American family. They made sure I was as much of the country as possible. I’d go back tomorrow if I could afford it.”
That day in the restaurant, I didn’t defend my country. I didn’t have to. The waitress, the man from Nigeria, and Martina did it for me….
I was the first to admit that my work in development was no noble calling. As a financial attorney, I didn’t feed the poor, tend to the sick or educate the masses. And it wasn’t glamorous. No president had ever called me for advice—but some fairly influential people had taken time to yell at me.
Unfortunately, a decade after her journey ends, the fundamental problems that countries and the international community are dealing with are not only omni-present, but escalating, due to the Bad Leadership of the American government as much as Elitist staffers in the United Nations, World Bank Group, and International Monetary Fund (IMF) who are, as highlighted in the book, “arrogant, annoying, and frequently wrong.”
Bike Riding in Kabul raises issues about the long-term effectiveness of policies and practices of the international community’s elitist, upper-crust as well as the governments whose interest they serve, yet whose generous salaries and benefit packages are paid for by taxpayers across the globe. This book is not one to file away on a bookshelf and forget about, but one which should be recommended and gifted amongst foreign aid workers; as much as amongst taxpaying citizens who vote in the politicians whose policies and practices maintain a steady supply of ‘failed states’ which need ‘rebuilding’ after the dust settles from perpetual wars and revolutions.
Bike Riding in Kabul follows the professional and personal adventures of international legal consultant Jamie Bowman, an attorney from California.
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The review of “Bike Riding in Kabul” makes points I, too, noted in my career, which included work as a Peace Corps Volunteer (Ethiopia), a Fulbright lecturer (Sumatra) and a USAID Chief of Party (Sana’a). In a addition to the points the reviewer highlights, I also fault a US Foreign Service employee evaluation system that encourages toadyism, and worked to force out many of the highly committed and idealistic new recruits. It perpetuates a system of privilege and comfort.
Maybe evaluation protocols have changed. I’ve been out of circulation for quite a while now. But I certainly saw it grind down a lot of persons who came into the foreign service with Peace Corps’ types of hopes and dreams.