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Janey in Kabul

Janey in Kabul

Hastings film-maker returns from Afghanistan

Having previously covered Janey Moffat Lalöe’s plans to travel to Afghanistan with peace activist Maya Evans by HOT, Xaverine Bates was keen to speak to Janey about how she fared over there and how the experience of being in Kabul had shaped her experiences since her return to the UK.

“If there’d been a button I could’ve pressed I would have. I fantasised about ending my own life. I felt alone, despairing and in pain.” This was Janey’s description of the experience of giving birth to her first son, where contrary to the idealised visions of childbirth she’d been exposed to during pregnancy, she found herself in a place of complete despair during labour. The combination of a difficult pregnancy, a traumatic birth, and depression in early motherhood, made her ask herself, “What have I done? I hate this. It was the opposite of the Hollywood dream. I was so shocked. No-one had told me.” Although her own mother had tried to warn Janey how hard it could be, she feels as if the reality of motherhood is neither easily nor readily available for expectant or new mothers. She decided that she wanted to connect with other mothers who were also struggling and to be in the company of other women who were finding it tough as a way of supporting each other and purging her own trauma.

Beth, Janey & Maya

Beth Tichborne, Janey Moffat Lalöe and Maya Evans

She first met Maya Evans, local peace activist and envoy for Voices for Creative Non-Violence (VCNV), at a talk she gave at the Kave Gallery and was incredibly inspired by her. “She lit a spark in me,” Janey told me, following which she made the decision to join Maya on a project in Afghanistan. On researching the country, she found that it was one of the most dangerous places in the world to give birth, thus making her compelled to transform her own terribly traumatic experience of childbirth in order to help others as a way of exorcising her own personal demons. Maya was already planning to go to Afghanistan, as she had been doing annually for the past two years with VCNV, so Janey knew she would have to go with her. “When I heard her speak, I thought this person is being totally unashamedly herself. She didn’t have an ‘activisty’ look about her or come across at all worthy, so she was still accessible to me. I hope I will be able to speak to people and encourage them to be activists with a small ‘a’ without feeling they have to be flying to Afghanistan to help others.”

Janey explained, “I had to do something drastic to sort out my feelings of motherhood. I had to move on as a mother and turn it into an amazing perspective. I risked my life ultimately for my children because I didn’t want to stay stuck in the place I was in. I wanted to be a better mother, to give them a better place in the world. What’s the point of focusing on how long to breastfeed when the planet’s going to hell?” She decided that in order to be a mother who can give her children a good mental perspective on life, a solid emotional base, a grounding in emotional intelligence, which would stand them in good stead further on in life, she needed first to heal her own ‘mother wound.’

It is thanks to her formative years in Northern Ireland that Janey felt able to go to a war-torn country. Having been born in the midst of the Troubles in the 1970s, she knew that even in the thick of political violence, normal life can and does exist. Her

Janey with an Afghan mother

Janey with one of the Afghan mothers she met

experience of growing up surrounded by conflict taught her that it is possible to survive despite being in a dangerous situation. The survivalist part of the human spirit normalises conflict through gallows humour, thus enabling people to find a way of laughing even when their lives are in great danger. When she came to England to go to university when she was 18, she realised how the media had portrayed Northern Ireland as being likened to a war zone such as Beirut, which was so far from the truth from her own experience.  Going to Afghanistan therefore “really cemented that knowledge that was like a bud in me, not to let yourself be spoon-fed by the media just because they think it makes a good story.”

On her initial experiences of arriving in the country, she said, “I was really frightened landing in Kabul. There was an Afghan man on the plane, aged about 60, who had lived in America and was returning home, who said to me, ‘I don’t know why you’ve come here, it’s really dangerous’, which really scared me.” The following day, when starting to film the documentary for the first time, she felt a sense of euphoria in sensing the vibrant colour and normality inherent in everyday life in Kabul. Knowing that it had been a hippy destination in the 1970s, she had a sense that the remnants were still there.  There are westerners living and working there and she met a British film-maker as well as a local Afghan girl, who were both helping her with the film making.
However, the trip was not without its lows as well as the highs. One of the lowest points was on a visit inside a shelter run by women for Afghan women, where she

Nouria

Nouria

interviewed a girl called Nouria aged 15, who can be seen telling her harrowing story in the trailer for the film. Nouria captured her heart so completely that Janey told me that on arriving back to the UK, having discussed it with her husband, they made a formal request to adopt her. Despite being turned down as adoptive parents, she said, “She will be in my heart forever because the thing she said was that she was really missing her mum. She was probably never going to see her mum again. She had nothing, not even human contact.”

Janey discovered that just after they had interviewed the girls at the shelter that one of them had tried to take her life. This is when she hit a rock bottom. She recalls going to a human rights photography exhibition, in which one of the photos was of a British or US soldier, which had obviously been taken by his friend, holding up the body of a dead Afghan child like a trophy and posing. “I just cried all that day.” In order to help her process her experiences, she kept a video diary, which was a necessary catharsis to the stories she was witnessing. “A myth about life is that we need to feel good all the time. I felt I was willing to share the pain, even that tiny little bit. Exposing yourself to that stuff is a very strengthening exercise. I now feel quite raw, but I do feel a lot stronger. Things do affect me in a way that they didn’t before, but I’d rather make that choice.”

I wondered, playing devil’s advocate, if some people might say that she went

Henna decoration

Traditional henna hand-decoration

to Afghanistan purely for herself in order to fulfil the role of ‘great white warrior’ as a means to purge our collective guilt about the UK’s role in Afghanistan and could accuse it of being a vanity project. In fact one commenter on the recent article in Hastings Observer about the project said, “Rather than make a film, why not give them birth control?” In response, Janey said that “Of course, part of me thinks, is film making worth it? Is this the best thing I could do? But it’s better than doing nothing. At least it was something and it started me on a journey to doing something to make things better. It’s not a vanity project because I’m not that good a film maker, but a big part of it was healing my own wounds. What I wanted to do was heal myself for my children and to help in some way to make a better future.”

Janey feels that having made such a deep connection, she can’t walk away from the women that she met in Kabul. She has now established connections with Women for Afghan Women, who are in the process of setting up a project to run a café for Afghan women in Kabul. This will be run by women themselves, thus providing work opportunities for unmarried mothers, widows and women whose husbands are in prison, as Afghan women are currently unable to go anywhere alone without their husbands or fathers. Not only this, but it will provide a place for women to get together and chat and have conversations that women here in the UK take for granted. “We may not have equality in the UK but at least we can get together and complain about it!” Janey quipped. She will be helping them to raise funds as they need $30,000 to set the project up.

Another project that she and Maya have discussed, having shown people the film, is to give people opportunities to help Afghan mums if they’re moved by their stories. “We asked them what they would like from the international female community and they always said ‘friendship: we’d like to know that you support us and stand with us’.” The death of Nelson Mandela occurred while Janey was in Kabul and made her remember that people from around the world found a way of standing with South Africans against apartheid. “That’s what Afghan women are fighting for – for their human rights, so it’s beneficial for everyone to stand with them.”

Afghan mother

One of the Afghan mothers Janey met

Their idea is a deceptively simple one. ‘Mum of the month’ would pair up a mother from the UK with an Afghan mother, to write letters, draw pictures, which would be scanned and emailed as there is no postal service in Afghanistan, as a way for British women to support mothers over there without having to give financially. There could be a way to link teenage mums or other Afghanis living in Hastings with those in Afghanistan, to take the project to mother & baby groups and try to get them involved in the project. Recognising that some of the UK based mums may well be feeling depressed and alone, and by getting to know an Afghan mum as a pen-pal, it might give them some perspective and the opportunity to connect in a profound way. It would also help the British mothers to come together as a group, to connect and realise that they’re all in this boat together. “When one person suffers, to an extent we’re all suffering. The idea that we’re separated by countries or families, that we’re all individuals just doesn’t help us. We’re all on a globe – we all need to survive. If there’s massive war in one part of the world it could affect stability in our part of the world – our children could be called up to fight. To say there’s no point is short-sightedness.”

Janey has a series of talks lined up all over the UK, for which she will be inviting donations for Voices for Creative Non-Violence (VCNV) and other grass roots organisations.  She would like to encourage anyone with creative ideas to raise money, such as mothers and daughters knitting dolls to send over to children in Afghanistan, to please get in touch with her if you have ideas of how to carry the project forward.

Janey will be discussing “A Difficult Birth – Women in Kabul” on Tuesday 18 February at 7.30pm to Hastings against War, at the Friends Meeting House.

She will also be discussing the project and screening the trailer for the film as part of Ladyfest: a celebration of imperfection, riart Grrrls’ celebrations for International Women’s Day in aid of Refuge, at Moose’s Kitchen on 6 March. Donations will be taken for the project, as well as for Refuge.

Kickstarter to fund the project

Kickstarter to fund the project

You can donate much-needed funds to the project via the Kickstarter page.

Posted 16:10 Wednesday, Jan 29, 2014 In: Hastings People

Also in: Hastings People

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