12 Sep Bringing Tuberculosis Treatment to Afghanistan
A book review of one family’s story of doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan in the years following 9/11.
Going for a gap year or short-term service abroad can be a life-enriching, mutually beneficial experience. We survey the needs and sign up for risky ventures, savoring the opportunity to make a difference in the world. And in the midst of the most challenging of moments, we relish the idea of the great stories we will be able to tell when we return to the comfort and stability of our life back home.
But what would it look like to move into a remote, war-torn setting to do development work with a longer-term mentality? What would it look like to bring along young children and to create a home in the midst of terrorist threats, military coups, harsh conditions, and extreme poverty?
Three Years in Afghanistan: An American Family’s Story of Faith, Endurance, and Love provides a humorous but honest answer to what, for many, would be an unthinkable challenge. Matthew Collins (pen name for an American Christian aid worker) details his personal journey from a well-situated life in his home country to the highs and lows of living among and working with the war-torn communities of Afghanistan. Beginning with a survey trip just one month before 9/11, this narrative account walks with a young family through the process of discerning their calling, counting the cost, uprooting their lives, learning a new language and culture, setting up a very different sort of home, and settling in as endangered but beloved members of an Islamic community.
Far from the saintly picture that such biographies tend to paint, Matt Collins treats his readers to an endearingly honest portrayal of his struggles to navigate a foreign and often perplexing culture, to figure out approaches to sustainable development that actually help more than hurt, to hold together the tension of sheltering his own precious children while engaging the desperate situations of myriad children all around them, and to overcome his own feelings of frustration, pride, inadequacy, and fear. Through rock-bottom lows and pinnacles of exhilarating success, Matt Collins demonstrates what authentic Christian faith looks like when put to the test.
My favorite chapter is the one in which Matt gets roped into teaching Cultural Anthropology to a group of Muslim women at the local University. I laughed out loud at his bumbling, indelicate attempts to build bridges between their veiled, tightly restricted world and the vast diversity of peoples and cultures they had never been allowed to encounter. But as this macho Texan learned to see the world through the intelligent comments and sensitive questions of a class full of gender-oppressed survivors, neither walked away unchanged.
Another highlight of the book for me was the night Matt sat up swapping tall tales as a guest in the home of a tribal warlord. This humorously recounted event captures the complexity of building relationships with people that transcend cultural, ideological, and national loyalties. In Matt’s case, humbly accepting hospitality and creatively finding points of shared interest resulted in an open invitation (and promised protection) for community health workers to bring tuberculosis treatment to a vastly underserved population. As of 2016, the World Health Organization estimates that tuberculosis is responsible for 11,000+ deaths per year in Afghanistan.
Though the story of the Collins’s life in Afghanistan goes beyond the end of this book, Three Years in Afghanistan: An American Family’s Story of Faith, Endurance, and Love captures what life can look like for someone seriously committed to making the world a better place. It ends with a snapshot of this family’s life in their new community. Having survived cultural faux pas, development fails, anti-Western mob violence, and their own bouts of uncertainty, illness, isolation, and burnout, the Collins family celebrate the birth of their son with their whole Afghan neighborhood. For a blessed evening, music and dancing, good food and shared laughter bind their hearts to the people they have come to see not just as a project, but as their own.
While this story can seem like one in a million, it sets the bar for what is possible when someone sets aside their fear of the unknown and launches into a life as radical as the Kingdom of God is.
What might it look like for you to consider moving long-term into a needy community? Have you been blessed to give (and receive) more than just a year?
Tiffany Clark travels Africa and Asia to teach Spiritual Formation for Development Associates International‘s MA program in Organizational Leadership. You can find her inspiring blog at messytheology.wordpress.com.