Jenn Miller has been on the road with her husband and four children for over five years now and is well versed in all aspects of long-term travel. Each week Jenn will bring a unique insight into extended travel, touching on topics ranging from inspirational articles to practical trip planning to family travel to education on the road to interviews with interesting people she’s met along the way.
Today Jenn interviews Anne Christensen, a Danish woman who studied the Pashtun language in order to (voluntarily) work in Afghanistan (as a solo woman). The following is her story.
She shifted nervously in her seat, “I’ve never done an interview before,” she confided, in perfect English with just a hint of lilting Danish accent.
“Don’t worry, it’s easy, we’re just going to talk. I love your story, and there is so much you’ve learned that inspires me. Thanks for agreeing to tell me more about it!”
Her eyes smiled, and she nodded.
We met Anne Christensen in a little hole in the wall place, aptly called The Secret Sanctuary, tucked into the fringe of Kuching, on the western end of Malaysian Borneo. She gamely crammed herself into the back seat of our tiny rental car and shared a couple of days worth of adventures with us, and in the process the story of her extraordinary young life unfolded.
She took her first big trip at eleven years old, to attend a summer camp in Tennessee with 80 kids from diverse international backgrounds. The point? To build bridges through play and friendship and to open up the world to young kids at a formative point in their lives. If only her camp counsellors could know who she’s becoming and the good use she’s made of the gift they gave her.
When Anne was just 19 years old, she applied to a very rigorous program, run by the Danish government, to learn Pashtun, a language spoken only in Afghanistan. She worked hard for three years before the government deployed her as a translator in a UN Camp. She celebrated her 22nd birthday the day after she arrived in Afghanistan on a pile of moving boxes and found herself the head of the Culture and Linguistics Department, with a staff of 12 interpreters under her.
Anne is the first woman I’ve ever met who chose to go, alone, to one of the most war torn nations on earth, a place that is hostile to outsiders and hostile to women.
We’ve met a lot of travelers; very few who’ve been to Afghanistan. Anne is the first woman I’ve ever met who chose to go, alone, to one of the most war torn nations on earth, a place that is hostile to outsiders and hostile to women. But Anne didn’t just go there for a summer’s trip. She spent three years of her life working hard to learn an obscure, and what some might consider “useless” language, so that she could go and serve, to help rebuild a place she’d never seen. That impressed me, and inspired me, more than I can tell you.
Come sit with us, will you? Pull up a cushion on the bamboo floor of the open air room, lit with silk lanterns in deep reds and oranges. Let the sound of the waterfall soothe away the sounds around you now and listen to the laughter filtering in from the three backpackers sipping brews at the bar. All I ask is that you sit quietly, Anne is nervous, after all.
Tell us your story: Who are you? What did you do? Where have you been? Inspire me!
I went to a German boarding school and international college and have been traveling on and off to new places ever since.
I began learning Pashtun at 19, got paid to learn it and then had to take one deployment for six months to Afghanistan. It’s within Danish government, but you worked with in the civilian arm of the program.
In Afghanistan I was the head of the Linguists and Culture department, consisting of 12 interpreters and me. I was the cultural advisor and in charge of sensitive material.
Most of the translation was for the government agencies and NGOs helping to improve infrastructure, education of teachers, prisoner rehabilitation, ESL education, supporting the development of the legal system, and other long term sustainable projects. The Afghans were doing the work, managing the projects, and we were funding their own self sustainable work, and monitoring it.
What is the one thing you learned from travel you could never have learned in a classroom?
That people are alike and everyone has something to offer. Our way may not be the right way.
Our outside ideas would not necessarily work in their culture. It’s very easy to say, ‘Okay you have to do this because it works,’ but they might have a better way of doing it.
Often the Afghans would offer a solution that we thought was kind of weird, but it worked for them and had worked for them for hundreds of years in their culture. Our outside ideas would not necessarily work in their culture. It’s very easy to say, “Okay you have to do this because it works,” but they might have a better way of doing it. You have to have an open mind to a variety of solutions and different ways of doing things.
How did your experience change your life upon returning to Denmark?
I’ve been more outspoken when people have prejudiced opinions. Whenever I hear a story, not just from Afghanistan, but anywhere around the world, and it’s negative, I’m now thinking twice about what’s behind it and the reasons that it might have happened.
Seeing the difference between what was in the press and what life was like on the ground taught me that. And beginning to understand the value systems of different cultures that motivate what they do helped me to see how there are very different reasonings behind the actions we read about in the press. I’ve recognized the power that the press has in shaping how we think about something, on both sides, no one knows the whole truth.
I’ve recognized the power that the press has in shaping how we think about something, on both sides, no one knows the whole truth.
I also learned that I can do more than I think I can. Doing a job that was hard for me and succeeding at it. I learned that it doesn’t matter what other people think of what you are doing. It matters what you think of yourself.
I learned about myself that I love talking to people and being able to speak their language. I’m a good interpreter, but I learned that that’s not what I really want to do, I want to be the one talking, sharing my ideas, and reaching across cultural boundaries with my own ideas, not as someone else’s mouthpiece.
Travel has taught me how to live in my own culture with humor, laughing at people when they perceive something as Danish. It’s taught me what it means to be Danish and what I value in my own culture. When I was young, I had disdain for much of that. The older I grow the more and more I appreciate my own culture and the opportunities that it has given me. I think we’re really privileged because of all of the opportunities that we have and the choices that we have. We have the power to change our future if we want to… in other cultures that’s not always the case, especially for women.
What, in your opinion is the single greatest factor that keeps people from traveling?
Fear of the unknown. They don’t know what to expect and it’s easier to stay at home.
What enabled you?
My parents were very supportive; they wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do, as long as it was my choice. They were really great at finding other people to inspire me toward my dreams. They pushed me towards learning Pashtun – it’s very hard to get into the program, and they believed in me and encouraged me to do the hard work to get in on the first try and work hard.
I love meeting people everywhere and seeing beautiful things and learning. Traveling is a great way of doing all of those things combined.
What was your biggest obstacle to overcome?
The fear that I wasn’t good enough to survive the experience, that I would fail and people would see that I didn’t know everything and would hate me for it. Instead it was nothing like I had feared. Everyone came to me for advice because they admired what I did and respected me even though I was only 22 years old. That was the biggest surprise when I arrived, that people actually listened to what I had to say and I was respected for my own thoughts and opinions and experience.
Who did you meet on the road who changed your life? Tell us about that.
An Afghan police woman who had been a police woman for thirty years and was an officer.
The first time I met her I was sitting within a police unit waiting and drinking tea. She was the first woman I’d seen who was not in a burqa, only a veil and her uniform. When she got into this unit everyone jumped up and offered her tea and cookies and asked what they could do. They treated her like they would treat the chief of police. She was a happy person, smiling and talking, talking. She had been a police woman since the time before the Russians. She was married to a man 30 years older than her and had two kids. Having only 2 kids is amazing in Afghanistan because most women are expected to stay home and have lots of babies. She told her husband that she wanted to be a police officer and he supported her, which is unusual in her culture.
It inspired me to believe that you can do anything if you want it badly enough, and no one can stop you.
In the Taliban years she still worked, under cover in a burqa. She captured the bad guys. She told me this story of how, during the Taliban when she was wearing a burqa of course, and was not able to go outside as an unescorted woman. She saw a a man who did something wrong, she followed him and captured him in her burqa. He bit her (you can still see the teeth marks on her arm) but she got him and arrested him. She has a really big heart and helps women. It’s important that they have female police officers because men are not allowed to search women, and it’s because of her that there are now about 30 police women in Helmed. She inspired me a lot. Meeting her was a completely different world from seeing the men in the meeting. She was an amazing woman with a lot of charisma, the men respected her for the work that she was doing. It inspired me to believe that you can do anything if you want it badly enough, and no one can stop you.
She’s called the black widow because she wears this black veil, and she’s lethal if you get on her bad side. She also runs two brothels in town, which is illegal… everybody knows, but nobody talks about it and it’s protected because she’s the one running it. Everything works underneath the table. My opinion is that the reason that she can continue to be outspoken and prominent in the police department is that she has something on most of the powerful men in the city, which gives her leverage. The corruption level is very high, and that would definitely help her protect herself and her family.
This project is about giving every young person the freedom to travel, tell us how we can do that.
Tell people that there is a choice to make. There is no rush, you don’t have to hurry through school to work. There is plenty of time. The experiences traveling can give you are not something you can get from school, and the experiences you get in real life are the lessons that are most valuable and give you more to work with as you develop your life.
The experiences traveling can give you are not something you can get from school, and the experiences you get in real life are the lessons that are most valuable and give you more to work with as you develop your life.
Educate people, let them know that they have a choice, that they can make their lives however they want to.
What are your plans moving forward?
I see myself helping people with organizations that help people set up businesses. In the short term, I’ve applied with an organization that sends out response teams for natural disasters, helping people recover. I’m really interested in Central Asia. I see myself in ten or fifteen years with my own company in Denmark and traveling to Central Asia to do humanitarian work. There are six of my friends, we all have different interests and areas of expertise, and our dream is to set up a business that creates links between businesses in Denmark and small start-ups in Central Asia… looking for marketing opportunities and needs to fill and making the connections that allow that to happen. The idea is that with the skills we each have, that together the six of us can work together to impact the world from our corner of Denmark. I will definitely keep traveling and working to make the important contacts that will allow us to change the world.
Want to connect with other travelers? Check out Anne’s traveler profile, then fill one out yourself to become part of a community of like-minded travel lovers!
Photo credits: Afghanistanmatters, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.