Monday, 8 April 2019

Afghanistan Visit April 2019

Kabul March/April 2019 

Sitting at Kabul airport on my way to England, two weeks of Afghanistan behind me, memories to last a lifetime.
Kabul moves on. The concrete walls may grow higher, the road blocks may spread their tentacles further, the ring of steel may hold up the irrepressible traffic, but like water to a riverbed, the Afghans find their way through. Businesses continue to spring up and change continues its relentless march.

I notice an Apple store, shopping malls, fast food shops, pizza delivery bikes, more women than before with faces uncovered.  Giant billboards depict flawless, unveiled women or smiling dentists in immaculate kit, their patients with gleaming white teeth and shiny new braces.
But poverty outpaces change. Beggars tap on the windows of our armour-plated vehicles, which prevent even the softest hearts from leaning out and giving. There is no safety net here. The disabled propel themselves between the cars on handmade carts, desperately trying to attract attention and money, courting death in the choking fumes midst the angry wheels of uncaring traffic.  Young girls in dust worn scarves, cheated of childhood and school, clutch plastic bags of rubbish as they pick their way through Kabul’s detritus.

The streets of Shar-I Nau buzz with life, its vibrancy palpable. Young men, their faces veiled in smoke and shiny with sweat, fan glowing coals under sizzling Kabuli kebabs. Fish strung outside crowded stalls catch the light with rainbow scales and scents of spicy street food and sticky sweets fresh from bubbling cauldrons, fill the air. The leafy park has swings and slides, and trees which have born witness to years of conflict and now a tense peace, cast their shade over wooden benches where weary residents rest. The cinema, once derelict is now back in use. I hear it attracts few people, and mostly truant kids, because there are so many movie channels on TV, that people don’t need to go out.

The pollution claims as many lives as the conflict. Traffic is often at a standstill and the miracle is how it moves at all, often with no reason or order, vehicles just weave in and out of each other in every direction, hooting their way to freedom.
Kabul is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and the concrete walls and endless hesco almost feed the fear. The barriers are thicker, the sniper shields higher and yet after a while, it becomes a norm and the harsh backdrop becomes just that, a background to a city which refuses to give in.


The sun shone over Kabul City as we boarded the UNHAS flight which, like a bus, stopped at Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz and finally, Faizabad. As we flew over Kabul, the city stretched out like a vast old carpet, worn and faded until it reached the snow covered incisors of the Hindu Kush. It has been a harsh winter and just a few shards of silver rock face emerge from the dazzling layers of snow. The snow promises water and the water is a gift to a city in a land which has been too long parched in a relentless drought.

Faizabad holds a special place in my heart having been the first place I landed back in 2001 on an adventure that would shape the years to come. After the pollution of Kabul, those first steps into the crystal light are cleansing and powerful. Spring is emerging from winter and the fields and hills are cloaked in camouflage as the vivid green wheat emerges from the copper soil. Some years it fails, responding only to the gift of water, which has proved elusive recently, leading to untold suffering and displacement through drought.
I am back. I feel so at home in these areas, have so many years of memories, know each turn of the road. Our drivers have been with me almost from the start and it is good to be re-united. Like an old familiar record played over and over, but which never ceases to please, nuanced changes and new observations, giving colour to the past.
We reach Farkhar and there we meet our school consultants in a strange garden full of street lamps and plants, plastic pagodas and streams. We eat fresh trout from the Kocha River and enjoy our reunion before heading on to Worsaj.

The mud brick houses and adobe walls are there as ever, the terraced fields and the wooden ploughs drawn by oxen. A timeless scene and yet new life is springing up. Things are changing. There are more buildings emerging along the way. New or half built mosques are in every village and sometimes more than one. There is a vocational training centre and an agricultural college, a brand new petrol station and bright blue schools, largely built by AC, standing proud against the backdrop of mountains.
As the light fades, we are taken to a village house for the night. And there I see the most dramatic change of all. Usually we are in simple village houses, very clean, but very basic. This house is a palace! Instead of the usual thick wooden gate, elaborately carved and beautiful in its defence, the wall and gate are metal and the old door lies redundant in the garden. The house is concrete and of modern design and we enter through a hall bedecked with oversized and incongruous armchairs. The electricity is dazzling and in the men’s quarters I glimpse a huge smart TV on the wall and an equally large electric fire. There is a shower, hot and cold water in the house, a washing machine. I feel almost confused by the surprise of what I find. The house is owned by a family whose mother is illiterate, the children educated. One son is in the Ministry of Defence, a daughter is employed as an education field officer, and another son is at Kabul University. They have all been educated in schools supported by AC. Money is coming back to the village.
I am ushered into the women’s quarters and spend a delightful evening with many of the village women. One is the headmistress of my favourite Worsaj School. I am happy to hear about all the changes afoot in Worsaj. I ask her if she would mind being filmed the next day for an interview. I am very disappointed when she makes the excuse that she is heavily pregnant and having a bit of pain, but somewhat humbled when she gives birth that night!
Our first morning, we head to a school we built back in 2013. The sun is coming up over the mountains and the almond blossom is in full bloom and stretches as far as the eye can see, creating a carpet of lace clouds in the softest candyfloss pink and white. The stark beauty of this area never fails to astonish and remains a secret from the outside world.
The school is on the valley floor and as we park directly above, we can see the columns of children waiting to greet us. As we get closer, we see they are holding banners and flowers. The banners have splendid messages on….everything from we love you Dr Sarah, to thank you for your humanitarian aid and  Welcome we are happy to host you! Someone has been very busy.
This school when we first visited, was held outside under the trees. Most girls were dropping out of school at the end of primary level because of the lack of a building and female teachers. This time, I go into classrooms which have been kept immaculate and am struck by a huge transformation. The girls in the upper grades are sitting there, their faces uncovered, all asking to tell their story. We have an Afghan camera man with us. The first girl we interview has already graduated from the school and tells us it is only because of the school building that she was able to complete her studies. Before her parents would not allow her to go to school. She is from a large family and both her parents are illiterate. She got into the Medical faculty at Kabul University to study Public Health. She is full of hope for the future and she fills me with a similar hope. This is the new, literate generation, completing school, marrying later and having fewer children, a generation determined to serve their country and bring an end to the conflict, their dream, a peaceful Afghanistan.
The girls tell us what they want to do with their lives and dream of being doctors, engineers and pilots, determination etched on their young faces.

The teachers and elders, including the head of the Shura and the local Mullah, are all waiting for us in the meeting room, sitting on red carpets, their faces intense. They thank us for all we have done. The school has revolutionised opportunities for the families in these villages, giving the chance for girls to complete their education. The Mullah speaks and tells us that he preaches that all children should be educated and all his sons and daughters are at school. He sees education as the light of the future.

Everywhere we go we are smothered in garlands of flowers and scattered with bags of glitter. And  we are fed. The hospitality knows no bounds. I fear the population of sheep, partridge and chicken has been severely dented. You cannot visit a school or a home without a huge feast being laid out on the floor and many hands have been at work to provide this generosity. The problem is that it limits the time we have for visiting schools and by the end of each day, I am exhausted from the rushing from school to school. 

The evenings are spent in long discussion with the village women, who give me a privileged insight into their lives and the dramatic changes unfolding through education. These are moments to treasure, huddled on the floor, sharing plates of steaming food, cooked with love, grannies, mothers and children together, the soft babble of voices never silent. Sleep is sparse and privacy a forgotten privilege.

We spend the days visiting new school buildings and resource centres with labs, computers and libraries and community based schools, where previously there was no education at all-the rich results of years of fundraising and the remarkable generosity of donors. We interview community members, parents, teachers and students and collect a catalogue bearing witness both to the miracle of education and to the challenges of unemployment and poverty. It is hard to describe the immense joy I feel when I hear of the positive changes our support has brought and it is clear that the community holds us close to their hearts and values hugely what we have done.

The change is rather symbolically summed up for us as we leave the beautiful valleys of Worsaj and head for Farkhar. We stop to interview a farmer who is expertly guiding his oxen, ploughing a field with an old wooden plough just in front of a new school building. He tells us that he is illiterate and never had the opportunity to go to school. All his 8 children attend or have attended the first school we ever built in this region, back in 2007. He thanks us and says we have changed their lives and given them all hope for a better future, they will not have to suffer a harsh life like his.
As we head to Farkhar the clouds darken and unleash their burden of rain. The cars struggle
through river beds and slippery mud and I marvel that we have managed to build schools in these impossibly remote areas. It is Friday and in theory, the schools are closed. We have asked one school if we can do a few interviews and see the new Resource Centre, built by National Geographic and equipped with funding from the UK government. As we walk the last bit of the journey, jumping over the snowmelt and rain filled gullies, we see a bedraggled line of children, all holding garlands awaiting our
arrival. They have all come despite it being Friday and the welcome is overwhelming. I love this school. They keep it beautifully and have done so much extra work themselves to the school we have built. The doorways and window frames have all been beautifully carved and it is lovingly cared for.
We meet with Fahima, the first girl ever to graduate from school in this area. She was the girl I met a few years back and was so impressed by her ambition to be the first ever girl to complete her education. When I saw her last year, she was in despair as the Grade 12 class, her final year, had been cancelled by the government. I went to the provincial education

director in Taloqan and pleaded with him to help and he allowed her to enrol at a school some 3 hours away to complete her studies. She had done it despite every challenge. But now all she wanted to do was to teach at her school, so that other girls could complete their studies. There are no female teachers because these are the first girls to be educated. So now we will try and support her with teacher training and a teacher support job in this school. We will find a way. She is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. So softly spoken and diminutive, yet with courage of steel. She is a true hero. She is the hope for the future. Her father is desperately poor but has done everything he can to support her. He has even built a room onto
the house, so that she can teach illiterate women in the village.
The harsh reality is that most of the girls drop out of this school early because there are no female teachers and most of the boys are sent, aged 16-18 to Iran to work on construction sites. We all think about the barriers to girls’ education, but where we are working, more boys than girls are dropping out because they are so poor, they have to seek work to support their families. One boy told us of the terror of going to Iran, the beatings, the police, the abject fear.
Trump and his sanctions have had a devastating impact on income in these villages. Now there is no work in Iran, and as one villager put it, the sanctions on Iran are actually sanctions on Afghanistan too.

We reach Taloqan as the thunder and lightning crash around us and the irony is that having had electricity in the rural areas, we have none in the city. It is bleak and the rain pounds the iron sheet roof all night. I don’t feel as relaxed as I do in the villages. This is an unknown place, lacking the warmth of the villages I know so well and where I feel so safe. My room is a safe room, with thick steel grey shutters and a 6 inch steel door, with a massive bolt that I draw across just once, when my nerves fail me and I think I hear a gun shot, which is most likely just an innocent noise. As I lie in bed with my torch, feeling a little homesick and not really relishing my stay in this Northern city, I also realise that we are unlikely to reach Rustaq next day. The rain just won’t stop. The main road – a good tarmac route- has been taken over by Taliban and so we would have to travel by another way, and one which is all off road and subject to landslides and flooding. 

We set out next morning but are forced to turn around as the way is just too dangerous. By evening, the sun is out and the sky is bright blue over the snowy mountains. I have hope that we will at least reach Rustaq the next day, though sadly we have lost a day of school visits.

My journey to Rustaq is breathtaking. The rain has fed the landscape and the response is a patchwork of vivid greens against the vast white mountains. The views are eternal. Villages cling to the hills, flocks of goats caked in mud interrupt our route. It is wild and dramatic, with great sheer drops below the muddy track. I am certain we would not have made it the day before. We are well shaken by the time we reach the first school. This was funded by Euromoney and is a wonderful school in a remote community which now has girls attending school for the first time.

The next school is supposedly 5 minutes away. 1 hour of bone shaking journey up old river beds later, we arrive. The whole community has come out. A line of elders is waiting for me and I greet them all, looking at their faces which have been exposed to so much sun, snow, drought,  labour, conflict, poverty. Their histories are etched in those faces. It is at times like these that one wonders how one ever arrived at this moment, the hopes of so many people in such a remote and forgotten corner of our world resting upon
your visit. They want a school. They all sit on a mat in front of me and talk to me, the camera recording them, telling me that they want to educate their children but desperately need our support with a building. But there are 700-800 children and this would be a vast project.
How do we decide, what do we prioritise, how can we say no, or yes? A hundred questions fill my mind and I do as I always do, say I understand, say I cannot promise anything, say I will do my best.
There is a request for me to meet the women of the village. They are huddled in burkas and I
cannot see their faces. They hold my hand and pull me close and I hug them, trying to look into their eyes through the grills of their burkas, trying to connect, trying to show that I care. They are illiterate and want a better life for their children. They put garlands over my head and thank me for coming all this way.
Then there is the inevitable and obligatory lunch and the realisation that we will never reach the next school on time and still manage to get back before dark. I make the uncomfortable and frustrating decision to turn back, meaning we will not get to the school I most wanted to visit. I know they will be standing there in lines, excited that we are coming and I feel utterly miserable to let them down, but absolutely sure that we must return. I curse the Taliban for taking the road which could have given us a much easier journey and led us to all the schools.

It is the most incredible achievement that Afghanistan will be playing in the Cricket World Cup this year and we want to share the joy and celebration with young people in Afghanistan. Whilst I had been travelling in the villages, our partner, the Afghan Youth Cricket Support Organisation, led by former Captain of Afghanistan, Raees Ahmadzai, had rolled out our world cup celebration projects in East Afghanistan.
The first project was for 6 teams from schools where we have built pitches who came together and played a tournament in Jalalabad and the winner then came to play a final in Kabul. Very sadly, the Kabul venue was moved from the National Stadium, as they were re-turfing the pitch and the new venue was off limits for me for security reasons. So I sent my camera along with our film crew and was delighted to see the joyful photos after the match.
The power of sport!

I am nearly home now, just 2 hours from Heathrow and those Takhar villages already seem a lifetime away. It has been a very special visit and as ever, it is a privilege to be able to travel to those regions and I am indebted to our partner, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan.
The progress in Worsaj is dramatic and it is clear that by concentrating all our efforts on this one district, we have made a transformative impact. It demonstrates the possibility, the hope, the absolute positive outcome of education and all our efforts have born fruit and are helping the people to take a giant step towards a better future.   Rustaq remains a vast challenge. It is a very large district, with more than 20,000 children out of school. The population faces poverty, drought and the emergence of the Taliban. Education is vital and there is no time to waste.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Afghanistan April 2018

13th April 
I landed in Kabul on Friday 13th sitting in row 13 of the plane, counting myself fortunate not to be overly superstitious. As I landed, I thought back to other arrivals over the years.
In 2001 I flew into Pakistan and managed to get a visa from the Taliban in Peshawar and fly from there with the UN into Faizabad, a beautiful city in northern Afghanistan. In the years that followed, I would fly in to Peshawar and then go by vehicle through the Spin Ghar mountains, following the wild and formidable Khyber Pass that links the valley of Peshawar at Jamrud with the town of Landi Khotal, Afghanistan. It is part of the ancient Silk Route and an important trade route between Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Throughout the centuries, Pashtun tribes have regarded this area as their own and levied tariffs off travelers for safe conduct.

My guards on the Khyber Pass 
The road was rough and bald of tarmac but the sense of adventure and the value of the journey were sweet reward for the discomfort. This road is steeped in history and the blood of foreigners who had believed they could rule Afghanistan. Genghis Khan led the Mongols through this inhospitable pass. Monuments and forts left by British army units litter the hillside. I remember reading the names and ages on the grave stones when travelling as a medical student in the Eighties and being struck by the young lives lost and left in this inhospitable soil.
Then Kabul airport opened up and I would fly from Sharjah Airport, Dubai, in great rusty Russian Ariana planes. There was no ticketing for the flight and I had to search for a Mr Green at the airport in the hope that he would miraculously appear and give me a ticket…and the bizarre reality was that somehow this worked. I would then join great lines of Afghan men in proud turbans returning from Mecca and they would always invite me to the front of the queue. Steps led straight up the rear of the plane into gaping doorways marked with Russian script and streaked with rust. Seat belts rarely worked and there was an unspoken entrustment from one and all to the hands of God. We would land on the war-ravaged runway and step out into Kabul’s pure altitudinous air and look up at that wondrous light on the mountains which nowadays is lost to a haze of pollution. We would scrabble through the hole in the arrivals wall to retrieve our luggage which at times failed to appear at all.
And then came the era of the ex-pat and the troops. The planes grew more sophisticated, the terminal became modern and soulless and the passengers were a mix of aid workers, consultants and journalists alongside thick-necked tattooed tight- tee -shirted security guys.
And these are my reflections as I land in Kabul, on a plane whose passengers resemble those of the early days and reflect the era of a more forgotten Afghanistan. Very few women, very few foreigners and lots of proud turbans and the return to the past etiquette where women are put to the front of the queue and instantly given a seat.
The sun was shining and Ollie, a film maker travelling with me, had arrived just before via Istanbul. It is strange to arrive at a place so far from home and be greeted by a friend and then as we made our way through the crowds, to hear my name called out and look up to see our loyal drivers grinning through the sea of faces.
Kabul has not changed so much since my visit in July 17, but the walls seem higher and the concrete protection barriers seem to have encroached on more roads. Barbed wire glints in the sun and helicopters whir overhead. This is a city where fear is tangible and exacerbates the insecurity. Now, many Embassies use helicopters to avoid using the airport road. The skies are a symbol of war and peace. Brightly coloured kites soar and dive jauntily, symbolic of peace and joy whilst apaches guarding the passenger helicopters, fire off flares to ward off missiles.

14th April

The wind howled, and the rain fell all night and I lay awake thinking we would never take off in the tiny UNHAS planes this morning. I was happy to be wrong and to be on our way. From the skies you see the pockets of “progress” in Kabul, apartment blocks and shiny new buildings standing out from the patchwork of flat mud rooves and walls of traditional houses.The Hindu Kush spreads its great spine just beneath us, so close we almost skim its snow-covered peaks. The approach to Faizabad airport is not for the fainthearted with a sharp turn through the gap in the mountains and then a precipitous drop to the runway and the clear mountainous air of my favourite Afghan city. As the propeller fades to a halt, the silence and the brightness of the light overwhelm. We are greeted by our drivers, Haji and Qodoos, who have met us here so many times before and head off for Worsaj.
The road from Faizabad to Keshim was once a rough track passing through the mountains. Now it is smoother than any western motorway, a beautiful highway made by the Chinese. The countryside is spectacular with mountains giving way to soft green hills and all along the river animals graze. Children cross the clear waters on home-made boats. At Kishem the market is in full swing. Stalls are bursting with vibrantly coloured cloth, spring produce and huge sacks of grain. Women are shrouded in deep blue burkhas, children run around and men on donkeys jostle with rickshaws.
We turn off the road soon after Kishem and head into the mountains and to Worsaj. At Farkhar, we stop for a picnic in a beautiful garden which offers a haven of peace and tranquillity. We meet up with Najiba who heads the Northern Regional Office for SCA and several other SCA employees we have known for years. We eat trout fresh from the river before heading off to Worsaj.

As we approach our school we can see the gate open and the lines of children waiting patiently for our arrival. This is one of the first schools we built in this district, back in 2008 and it remains close to my heart. The headmaster is there waiting to greet us and the familiar guard and staff, all delighted to see us. The smart iron roof which we recently put up with FCO funding, gleams in the evening sun beneath the mighty mountains which lead to the Panjshir Valley beyond.
I am covered in garlands and glitter and the welcome, as ever overwhelms. Like a homecoming. These people and their valleys have become part of the fabric of my life.
I am exhausted after days with little sleep and try desperately to keep alert and friendly as we sit with all the female teachers until night falls. These poor teachers have brought food from their villages. They feed the men in another room, about 20 of them in all. Then they come to us and we have mounds of rice and chicken, hosh, a soup made of spaghetti, beans, milk and vegetables, flat bread, mutton and big plates of rice soaked in oil and yoghurt. 
Then we sit in the dark night, talking to the teachers. The men have gone on to the headmaster’s house for the night but the teachers long to talk and ply us with green tea.
It is time to go and we make our way in the cold dark night to our vehicle. We drive up the track gaining height until the path becomes too narrow and stone ridden for our driver. We climb out, the darkness thick around us in this unpolluted world. Lucky to have my torch, we pick our way over a stream and up a narrow path flanked by high stone walls to the wooden gateway and into the night stop home. I feel a million miles away from my home and wonder that we can walk like this in Afghanistan without fear.
We are greeted by familiar faces as we have stayed here before. We climb wearily up the steps and into the women’s quarters, where we sit down in a carpeted room, simple and clean, lined with toshaks and are served with more green tea. Again, we socialise and want to be on good form for these generous people. But it is so hard to keep going as exhaustion overwhelms and I have rarely been so grateful for a cushion on the floor and a sleeping bag.

15th April
Next morning comes all too soon. We head back to the school and after breakfast are called into the garden.
The whole school is sitting out in rows in front of a balcony area, where there is a row of seats and a microphone set up at a lectern. I am taken to sit up there and children come up and put garlands over my head, there is even one girl with a huge popper which explodes and showers down brightly coloured paper. A young girl leads the proceedings. Others perform songs, poetry and even a comedy sketch about children who pass and fail exams…the ones who pass are not the clever ones, but the ones who can pay for their result…I am interested that they know about the corruption and are allowed to make fun of it. I am given letters, written in English and about 5 students stand up and read their letters out. I am deeply touched and amazed by the confidence of these young girls.

The gates open mid proceedings and the Governor of Worsaj arrives in a green police vehicle with about 6 armed guards. He comes up on to the platform and gives a speech thanking me for all that Afghan Connection has done for Worsaj. He says that education is the greatest gift and this area has the best education in the region thanks to our work. I am presented with a framed letter of appreciation.
We talk afterwards and have a very interesting discussion. He tells me that Worsaj district borders three areas-Baghlan, Panjshir and Badakshan. There are malevolent forces at play in Baghlan and Badakshan, but because of the educated population and the attitude of the community in Worsaj the district has stayed safe and it is likely to continue that way.
The afternoon is spent at the beautiful mountain home of Sayed O. He is what I would call the father of education in Worsaj. I have known him for 13 years. He is the man who first asked us to build a girls’ school here and was the Headmaster of our first Worsaj school.  He is 62 years old but his beautiful expressive face looks much older.
His mother’s family were well educated and encouraged him to study. He went to the local school and aged 6 he moved to Taloqan City to get a better education because at that time Worsaj was a place where there was not much interest in education, and there were few teachers and schools. No girls went to school back then.
He was successful at school and went on to teacher training college in Kabul. This was during Nur Muhammad Taraki's regime. Taraki was a Communist who persecuted intellectuals. Sayed O heard that his henchmen were coming to imprison him and fled back to Worsaj, but he was pursued and put into prison for 3 years. He was tortured with electric shocks and at just 24 years of age thought his life was over.
After 3 years, the regime changed and he was released. He came back to Worsaj and organised his own group of Mujahideen to fight the Communist government and Soviets. He went to Pakistan to get arms and fought all over Afghanistan, often alongside Masood, who became a close ally.
But after the Soviets withdrew, he became disillusioned by the Mujahideen, who became a destructive force during the civil war that followed. Instead he decided to teach and to fight for girls’ education. He founded 2 schools in Worsaj. Just once the Taliban came to Worsaj, but he managed to get a group together with the support of Daoud Khan and fought them until they left.
He has 7 children, 5 of them daughters. They are all educated and have all been through or are at university. He is wearing a smart grey flannel jacket over his traditional dress and there is a Pierre Cardin label on its sleeve- a gift from his son in Kabul. I never thought I would see a Pierre Cardin label in Worsaj!

We walk back through the fields and villages, followed by a long line of children. The young boys have small tyres which they roll with sticks. They laugh and play as the evening light fades and we reach the school, by which time, there are over 30 children following us. I stand in front of them and play games and teach them English and soon have them all playing the Dari equivalent of Simon Says. It is hard to say goodbye and as dusk falls they keep climbing the wall and shouting out I love you!

16th April
We wake to rain. The drive up the mountains to  the next school is wet and muddy and the mountains are cloaked in thick grey-black clouds which disgorge onto the already drenched fields and swell the river below. It is a community-based school, set up for children living in remote villages who had no access to education. Once it reached Grade 6, we built a school for them, it was registered as a formal government primary school and we started handing over classes to the government.
The school stands high up on the barren mountainside beneath the crags and below lies the village, which is perched on the edge of a massive ravine and looks as if it has sprung straight from the mud and rock. They build their homes up high here to escape the flooding in the valleys, but it is a harsh life up on these barren heights and the school offers hope.
We follow a path which hangs on the edge of a vertical drop and run through the rain to a small house.
It belongs to a family whose daughters go to the school. We walk in and there is the smiling face of a very old man. I recognise him immediately as his photograph is hanging on my wall at home and he used to be the guard at one of our schools. I met him the first day I came to Worsaj.  He has a wizened face and few teeth. He wears a traditional green striped coat which comes down to the floor. He is the grandfather of this house and welcomes us in. It is a poor home. A single room with a small kitchen outside. The father, like some 80% of the men here, is working as a labourer in Iran and has been there for two and a half years.

The mother is left to look after three young children. We are here to meet Barishna, her name means light and she is a serene 12 year old girl. As the eldest child, she is in charge of the house while her father is away and has to clean, wash clothes and cook before school and help with the younger children. She does a filmed interview and is remarkably clear and capable and tells us that the school has transformed their lives. Before there was no school here and there was little chance of having an education. Now there is a school in her community, she can see it from her window and despite both her parents being illiterate, she can go to school.
We walk to school with her and as we draw near, crowds of children run down the steps and form a line to greet us with flowers and banners. Najiba and I are taken to the female staff room where
breakfast awaits us and the teachers have come to see us. There are also members of the school management committee- women from the community appointed to look after the school. They come in once a month sit in on lessons and make sure the teaching is up to standard and the building is well maintained. They are passionate about their work, which is voluntary, because they care so much about children having an education.
Most of the teachers are graduates from other schools we have built in Worsaj and you can begin to see how education is working its magic and producing the next generation of educators. They also comment on the change a building has made. Before they taught children outside and often had to cancel class due to the weather. They sometimes rented rooms and were constantly on the move, now they have a safe environment and the education goes uninterrupted. It has also sparked interest from the communities and now children come from 5 villages to this school and numbers are rising.
I ask them about how life has changed in recent years. 5 years ago they got hydro powered electricity and this has changed so much. They can heat water, have light and if affordable, televisions and refrigerators. This saves so much time, less wood chopping, less time boiling water, their chores take half the time they used to. It means they have time for school and social activities as well as work. This was not the case for their mothers. Far less women and babies are dying during childbirth, they have a doctor and a midwife -both of who were educated here. One of their husbands is the local doctor, he went to Kabul University and has come back to support his people. They have mobile phones and the security is good. Now they have a school at the heart of their community and every girl and boy attends. They feel they have many more opportunities than their mothers, who never had an education, and many now get to university. The one problem is employment and the fact that so many of the young must leave the villages in search of work.
We visit the classrooms and say our farewells before heading off to the next school.
This school was set up as a community-based school and has enjoyed great success. It now goes all the way to Grade 9 and has 518 pupils, 247 boys and 208 girls. At Grade 9, all those who pass their exams, go on to the High Schools, one of which was built by AC. The school has been registered as a Government school and 10 of the 12 teachers are now supported by the government, and 2 by AC.

Pupil, Kemyan
We stay the night in a village nearby. I am welcomed in to the women’s quarters with Najiba and meet some incredible young women. Wahija is 25 years old and went to BZ school. She graduated from teacher training college and then university and is now a master trainer for the SCA. She is here to deliver this year’s syllabus to the community-based schools. We will accompany her on her travels next day to see the distribution process. She also trains CBE teachers. They receive subject knowledge training in the winter when schools are closed but also benefit from bespoke training in their schools.
I also meet the Zahria, who is in her last month of pregnancy with her fourth child. She is our field monitor and visits all the CBE schools regularly, giving support to the young teachers and referring them for extra training where necessary. This poor girl will cook for us all, outside over a fire. By the time supper is ready, there are some 40 visitors in the house, many of whom are uninvited. This is the way it goes here when visitors come, others are curious and come along to meet them and also receive great hospitality. We eat partridge, mutton, rice, and at least ten other dishes of food, all prepared by her and her cousins. We talk late in to the night…it is rare to have guests from abroad so there are lots of questions. I find out that every woman in the room is married to a cousin. They know the medical risks, but this is still very common practice here and there is a high rate of disability resulting. It is fascinating coming to these villages, hearing the stories of the inhabitants and staying in their homes. It really is a privilege and though it has its challenges, including the absolute lack of privacy, it is deeply rewarding.
April 17th
One of the visitors from last night has asked us for breakfast. We go in to her village house and to my surprise there is a big double bed in the guest room, still with its headboard covered in plastic. Fancy cushions are scattered over it and around the room and our breakfast is served on beautiful china which came from her daughter-in law’s dowry. Sometimes it is hard to eat, but every mouthful brings more happiness to those who provide it. This morning is a struggle! How ever many mouthfuls of trout or eggs or milk pudding or walnut flavoured tea I have, it is not enough!
We are following Wahida to distribute books to one of our community based schools. The journey is stunning and takes us through a valley I have not travelled to before. Willow and poplar grace the river banks and irrigation channels, the grey clouds lift to reveal a crisp blue sky and we feel warmth at last from the
sun which is emerging from the shadow of the mountains. The school was established just 3 years back and is funded by AC. It is so very remote and it is miraculous that education is now reaching these far corners of Afghanistan. There is a welcoming party of elders, teachers and children and I am showered with gifts. As well as the usual garlands and bunches of plastic flowers, there are pens covered in tinsel, scarves wrapped in plastic and bars of soap! Two children come and throw bags of sweets in the air and the rest dive like starving magpies grabbing the sweets off the ground with whoops of joy.
It is a wonderful feeling to see the children stand in line and to step forward as their name is calledand receive the precious books and pencils that will be their future.

We head for P School. This was funded by AC and completed in 2017 and is a two-storey building for over 500 girls. It is nestled in the most beautiful valley, with the giant snow peaks of the Hindu Kush towering behind and the Korcha River roaring outside its classrooms.  Again the welcome! As we come to the end of the line of children who have showered me with flowers, I step into the school and all the children run in after me and there is a great scrum of white headscarves and excited faces and waving arms. The two male teachers are powerless to prevent this surge of happy humanity leaping up the stairs and filling every inch of space like a liquid filling a cavity.
Exuberance at its best.
We do interviews with teachers and pupils and are proud of these defiant and determined girls and women who believe that education is their future. Mariam, a young 16 year old, says that education is changing attitudes towards women and more and more they are thought of as equals. It is her dream to get to Kabul University to study medicine so that she can come back and serve her people.
The headmistress invites us to her village and home for lunch. She somehow feeds an army of teachers and visitors and then presents me with a new outfit. I have to put it on in front of everyone. We sit eating copious amounts of food, in a room overlooking the fields and mountains. The women around me who are uneducated are all enrolled in adult literacy classes and determined to learn to read and write. They feel cheated of an education and are making sure their own children do not suffer as they have done.
As we emerge from the house, a young boy is brought to me. Some weeks back he found an unexploded device and thought it was a toy. He has no right arm, the thumb on his left arm is missing, his eye is blind and streaming and he feels his life is over. It is hard to escape the harshness of life here. The suffering seems limitless at times and the world seems mad and cruel. What has anyone gained from his injury which has damaged his life for ever?
before the skies turn black
The clouds turn black as we head back to Taloqan and feeling unwell I drift in and out of sleep. The guest house is freezing cold and we have messages from home describing the heat wave!

Wednesday 19th
We head off to Farkhar in the rain. Despite all our layers we are cold. The temperature has plummeted and the visibility is low. There is 8km of new road which makes a massive difference to the start of the journey. It has been built with funds from the National Solidarity Programme but has not been completed because money ran out. We are soon back on river beds which make hard going due to the rains. Muddy water runs in torrents and the wheels slide on mud and stone sending showers of water into the air.
As we arrive at G School, small boys with UNICEF satchels are ghostly shadows in the mist as they pick their way up the riverbed to school. AC built this school in 2013 with funds from National Geographic and generous donors. This year, we are building a resource centre with science lab, computer room, library and special needs room, with funding form National Geographic and the FCO. Despite the weather, lines of children are there to greet us and we are taken in for hot tea in the headmaster’s room. There we sit with parents, elders and teachers. We hear of all the challenges and triumphs.
This is where Fariha goes to school. She is a remarkable 18 year old who was set to be the first girl ever to complete her education at this school. We have photos of her sitting in class with only boys as her friends had had to leave because they had been married or because their parents would not let them study with male teachers. However, this year’s Grade 12 was cancelled. There were only 6 pupils as many of the boys had had to drop out to go to work in Iran. It is a very poor village and many of the young are sent to Iran to earn money. The government would not run the class with less than 10 pupils and so Fariha’s dream of completing education came to an end. She was so upset, she contacted SCA and begged them to help her. They arranged for a teacher to be paid to cover the lessons of the 6 children who wanted to study. But still the government would not give approval. So Fariha enrolled in a school 3 hours away. She and her father trek there twice a week but they cannot do more than that because it is too far. I promised her that I would go and see the Provincial Education Department and sort it out and that she would get to study. All she wants to do in life is complete her education and be a teacher for other girls on the school. It was a rare sight to see this young woman sitting in a room full of men, all of whom were trying to find ways to help her. Her father was also there and said he would do anything to support. Numbers of boys have escalated since we built the school and the number of girls has increased but they desperately need female teachers. They have 6 candidates sitting the national teachers’ exam today and if they pass life will change for GSchool.
We made our way outside. It was freezing and vast snowflakes were falling on excited children as they waved us goodbye. It was a reminder that without this school building education would have been impossible today. We went up a very muddy slope to Fariha’s house, a tiny home on the side of the hill.
Her mother, father, brother and sister greeted us. It was a poor home, but so welcoming. There were gifts for each of us of pistachios and scarves. The house was a simple room with cushions on the floor. It was the first time Ollie had been able to sit in a room with a woman. We heard their stories. I feel a burning responsibility to help Fariha and will not rest until she has completed her education. She is a Malala and deserves support.
Thursday 19th April.
A day of mud, rain and cold which served to remind us how tough life is in these rural areas. My last visit to Rustaq in July was shocking because of the drought. It was a dustbowl and there was not an ounce of green. The rains have come late this year and probably too late to save the crops., but the farmers are still rejoicing.
In 2015, AC decided to start replication of its Worsaj Education project in Rusatq District. This is a far cry from Worsaj. The ethnic mix is different, Worsaj being Tajik, and Rustaq being a mix of predominantly Uzbek and Tajik. Worsaj has water whereas Rustaq is a land of drought and poverty, with a population roughly 5 times the size of Worsaj. In Rustaq there are 216 villages, but only 80 schools. Half the schools have no building and 12000 young people have no access to education. Following years of AC and SCA support, almost 90% of boys and girls in Worsaj attend school. The challenges are vast in Rustaq and there is little support. Aga Khan Foundation, Concern and Terre des Hommes operate here but apart form a few schools supported by Concern, they do not support education. In 2015 we took on some 300 children into community-based education classes. This year numbers were over 1500. I feel if I say no, then these children have no one else to support them. We have built 4 schools and have another funded for this year.
Today we will see three of those schools and we will visit our next project, a school for 500 girls in K village. The journey is rough, with vast potholes full of dirty rain water and large riverbeds oozing with flood waters cascading down from the hills. The rain is relentless and the cold bores down to the bone. We arrive after some 3 hours at K. The school is a field. Lines of elders are here to greet us and all the girls have come to school despite the atrocious weather. We receive the usual welcome and then some of the girls make speeches. They tell of others who have come before us and promised to build a school and have never come back. This is a huge project for us, but as I watch the hundreds of children crouching down in the mud exposed to the cruel weather, I know we must make it happen. This is such a poverty-stricken region and yet their determination to be educated is as evident as the rain is wet!

We are soaked and cold and tell the children to go home. We are taken to a village and sit in a small dark room drinking warming tea and eating chicken and huge circles of flatbread.
I meet our Monitor, Sefatullah, who looks after the community-based schools for us. He is delightful and has been looking at our website and is very happy to be working for us. He tells the others in the room about all the things we do, like the cricket.
As I step outside and slide about in the mud, I look back at the mud walled street and the homes from which we have emerged and think back on all the places where we have been taken in and given hospitality. Again, I am struck by the privilege of this and of travelling in this largely forgotten region, discovering so much about its people and meeting so many of them in their homes and schools.

The next stop is a fleeting look at the beautiful Y School, bright blue and spanking new and a feast for the eye after all the mud. These children used to study out in the dust and were it not for the school e have built, they would be missing school today due to the weather. It is good feeling to peep through the windows and see the lines of girls, heads bent over books, safe from the elements.

Then to S School-another school built by AC for more than 500 girls. It is wonderful to see the finished building and the joy of the hundreds of girls packed in to the entrance hall as they greet us. It will be painted in the better weather but already they are using it for study.

Lastly, we head for K School. The roads become rougher and rougher and the conditions are appalling for the drivers as the rain continues to fall. K School has been built by AC with funds from Euromoney. Again, it is a very poor village and the school has brought so much hope. The school awaits painting but is already in use. The welcome is even more overwhelming than usual and I can hardly stand up under the weight of flowers. A frightful loud speaker system is booming and echoing at high volume as we are
thanked for changing the lives of this community.
It is a sleepless night for me. I feel ill and cold and can’t help thinking about all the children we have seen. Something about seeing this place under such extreme weather conditions, the bleak landscape, the cold, the snow, gives one more insight into the challenges they face. By planting our footsteps in those muddy fields, alongside the footsteps of so many, by feeling the bitter cold, by lying on the floors of their houses, it is as if we are weaving our lives closer to theirs. I know that we can make such a difference, with schools, with water, with hope, I just desperately need the funds to support.

24th April
Sitting at Kabul airport on the first leg of my journey home. I feel sad to be leaving but gratitude for the wonderful home and family which await me. We had to cancel our last day of travel in Rustaq as the floods blocked the way. We spent the day in our rather bleak accommodation. Its windows, painted to protect us from the outside world, blocked out the sun which came out in the last few hours of our stay. As the skies cleared we saw evidence of the last few days of bitter weather. The mountains were covered in a new layer of unexpected spring snow which will bring essential water in the months ahead.
We were fortunate to have this break in the weather which allowed our UNHAS flight to land and scoop us up and away from the raw, wild beauty of Badakshan and our dear drivers and friends who had taken such good care of us.
Back in Kabul I managed to manufacture a plug from a sock and a cup and to soak in a shallow bath of hot water and relish the warmth! The care we receive from the guards, the cook, the driver and all those who work in the SCA compound is extraordinary.
I have 2 days of meetings and learn so much about the education system and all the changes which will come in to play over the next few years. At my meetings with our implementing partner, SCA, I am looked after so well. The engineering team make me special tea for my cough, a mixture of olive leaves and mint in a thermos which they give me for the day. Others offer me food, coffee, and any hospitality they can. We discuss plans for the future and exciting ways to increase impact.
 I have a very spoiling lunch with the Ambassador at the British Embassy and meetings with the FCO and DFID. As I walk between the Embassy and the FCO building, I hear gunfire and then a loud speaker announces that we should take cover. We dash into the building.
We find out later that two incidents have taken place. The first, a suicide bomb which killed 52 people who were registering to vote. Democracy targeted. Mainly women and children dead. 112 injured. Another day in Kabul. Another barbaric attack on totally innocent people. Another incident punctuating 40 years of war and suffering. Another statistic giving no hint at the individual suffering, grief and loss.
On twitter I see photographs of the blood on the pavements and the graves being dug and I read the despair of a nation. I also read about the peace movement which is sweeping through Helmand and Kandahar following the big suicide bomb in that region in late March. People are sick of the war.
The second incident, which accounts for the gunfire, was police firing to warn off crowds who were out protesting because 3 children had been run over by international troop vehicles in a road accident.
The Kabul traffic is heavier due to road blocks, but otherwise the city moves on as usual, with much activity on the streets and much to see from the windows of our armour plated vehicles. Life is trying so hard to resume normality. The markets and stalls are like grass forcing through concrete in this city which has given so much of itself over to high walls and hesco.
I enjoy a delicious supper with the Country Director of SCA, her Deputy and a security advisor. We hatch plans for my next trip.
As I sit here, I reflect that despite the anxiety before coming to Afghanistan, which I always feel, I have felt so calm and unafraid throughout my trip. I am sure this is because I am constantly surrounded by the generosity, hospitality and warmth of Afghans, some of whom I have known for many years. I even had a phone call from Gul Noor, who has looked after SCA guests for years before finally retiring last year. He was like a father to me. I understand the brutality, the risks and the dangers but it is remarkable how much good there is and how the warmth of the people who surround me always outpaces the fear.
The most important thing to say is that on my return to Taloqan, I visited the Provincial Education Director. He happens to be the son of the headmistress of P School and I had had lunch in his mother's home the day before. He was educated in Worsaj and is a good man who wants the best for his people. I asked him about Fariha. He agreed to re-instate the class. The happy end to my trip is that Fariha and her classmates will complete their studies this academic year and Fariha WILL be the first girl ever to complete her education at G School. 


Community based education student
Receiving books 
receiving books


The elders, parents and teachers at G School

Olli Englehart, our film maker


Students at Community Based Education, Worsaj

Fariha's sister

CBE student in national colours

Fariha's father

With my guide and friend,  head of Swedish Committee Northern Regional Office

Students, K School

The new P School for more than 500 girls

A snowy farewell.