Wednesday, 15 October 2014

13th October – Onwards to Rustaq

It felt so good to have a hot shower in Taloqan in the SCA guest house.  We were filthy after our trip and the dust and glitter has nested in our hair. Always makes me feel how harsh the lives of those people are when I come away from Worsaj and back to the haven of the guest house.

We set off early for Rustaq. We have a new guide for the day as Mukhtar is busy with a foreign diplomat who is visiting Kishem. She has armed guards and bullet proof cars and a bullet proof vest on and it is her first visit out of Kabul since arriving some months back. We are so lucky to have the freedom to travel and to experience parts of the country as we do. 

The Call to Prayer had woken us at 4.30am and had been followed by a very loud sermon type session from the Mullah. Our guide was telling us what it all was about - how people should behave as good Muslims. The Muezzin is the person who climbs the minaret to do the call to prayer which is called Adhan in Arabic. In the Mujaheddin times and Taliban times, people would come knocking on doors to get people out of bed and to the mosque to pray. From 2001 this stopped happening and less and less young people get out of bed for Morning Prayer at 4.30. He said it is often just the old people who cannot sleep! He feels that life has changed very much. He has 4 televisions in his house and travels abroad once a year with his wife. He describes transport changes in a city where everyone used to walk and now they all wait for a car or bus or Rickshaws to take them places. He tells us how Ashraf Ghani is cleaning up corruption at the Palace. Apparently Karzai had 50 advisors, all earning $100,000. Ghani told them that teachers earn just 7,000 and said he would pay them $12,000 a year to stay on and advise him or they were welcome to go. He also got rid of 43 of the 50 cooks employed there. These are the changes the people need to see and our guide was feeling very encouraged by it.

Rustaq is a district which borders Taloqan. It has a population of about 350,000 and its economy is largely based on agriculture. There is an ethnic mix of roughly 75% Tajik and 25% Uzbek. There are 196 villages here and only 93 of them have a school. There are just 45,000 children attending school and 18,000 of them are girls. Thousands of children do not have access to education and this is often due to the remoteness of their villages as well as conservative ideas on girls’ education. This will be our challenge as we replicate our Worsaj Education project here. The security is stable but we will never find it as easy as Worsaj where we have such strong ties going back over many years.

The landscape is of hills rather than mountains and everything is arid, dusty, brown. Even the river is a mud brown in contrast to the turquoise waters of Worsaj. As we drive along we see the corpses of villages which were burned down by the Taliban.

We visit 5 schools and the first 3 are near or in Rustaq City. It is market day and thousands of people have descended on the centre. The roads and fields around have become donkey parking areas - rows and rows of them standing with nose bags on and brightly coloured saddles. A game of Buzkashi is taking place... like polo only using a goat's body rather than a ball! The market place is crammed with people.

We visit teacher training which is taking place for 25 young teachers from government primary schools, and is funded by AC. Then we head off out to the countryside. Our first stop is a very poor village. There is no education here and we interview a young boy of 12 called Rafiullah.

He cannot go to school as the nearest school is 2 hours away. He cannot read or write and spends his days helping his father, mixing mud for bricks, tending animals and helping in the fields. We ask him what his dream is for his future. He says he has no dreams. We also interview 2 seven year old girls. They all long to go to school and AC is hoping to become involved with setting up a community based school for these children in this village and in other areas where there is no access to education. This is where Worsaj began and when I think of it now, with almost every child at school, I know that it is not impossible to do the same in Rustaq, but there is so much need here.

It is sad to make decisions on priority. All the schools we see have huge needs for support, but I am reminded of what AC is all about. We want to support people in remote areas who stand little chance of receiving help due to their location. The schools we see after lunch certainly fit this. The first is called Bibi Ayisha and is in Beskent village, which serves some 2000 families. There are 460 girls in this school, from grade 1-12. We are greeted with flowers. It is an astonishing sight. A large field dotted with plastic mats and carpets, on which classes are being held out in the open. Hundreds of girls are sitting looking at blackboards. The only building is a latrine block, built by the government. Otherwise there is nothing.

And yet last year one of these girls was the top student in all Takhar Province and gained a bursary and a place to study medicine in a Turkish University. So very humbling. We interview a young 17 year old girl called Qandia Ghul. She says she can bear the lack of books, the discomfort of sitting on the ground, the long walk to school, all of which she has suffered for 12 years now, but the sun is relentless in the summer and makes studying outside a trial. She longs for a school building and dreams of studying computer science at university. There are no classrooms here, let alone computers.

So this will be our priority, to build a school for these girls, which will not only help them, but will encourage fathers, who have so far been reluctant, to send their daughters to school. 

We are getting late.  It is the first time we have ever had "security" with us. We have 2 armed guards. I ask why and am told it is not because of any threat, but is a mark of respect for our first visit - I wonder at the truth of this! We want to head home but are told there is one more school waiting for us.

We arrive at last and are shocked by the appalling conditions we find. There are hundreds of girls outside and the rest are in tents which are more like rags. There are no female teachers as there are simply not enough educated women in the area.  These girls are all Uzbek and yet the text books are in the Dari language. This will also be a priority school.

We head home as the sun sends shadows over the parched hills and clouds of dust pervade the air as cows are herded homewards. So much to reflect upon. A vast new area with so much need.  It is a tragedy that 100 billion dollars of aid has been given to Afghanistan and yet so relatively little has been achieved. The government and the international community have failed these children.

12th October Ghulam Rasool School

We left early and stopped to picnic by the river. Afghans are experts at picnics and soon carpets and cushions were laid out on the grassy banks of the Korcha River. Clear air, clear skies, clear water and all framed by the Hindu Kush. It is so very beautiful here and it is a life so close to nature.

Fishermen and boys have rods out for trout, men crouch behind walls with nets ready to spring up and catch sparrows, every ounce of land is being harvested or ploughed, dung is being dried out on house walls to dry for use as firewood and the villages are carved from the earth with their baked mud bricks and adobe walls.

We stop off at a school which used to be used as a hospital by Masood. It has caves behind it with wooden doors barring entry, where supplies used to be hidden in times of conflict. The building is falling down and there are holes in the roof and broken down walls. This is the school and it houses 250 children.

Further down the valley is a community based school with 2 classes which started 3 years ago and is supported by AC. The pupils come from the very poor village of Pul Mastan, alongside the river. They belong to a Tribe called the Goger who are a special minority group who moved 100 years ago from Gujarat in Pakistan. They own no land and graze their animals wherever they can find pastures.

Before we reach the road back to Taloqan, we drop down off road in huge clouds of dust, to head towards Ghulam Rasool Shaheed School. This school was the focus of our Christmas fundraising campaign. National Geographic gave us $80,000 to use as a matching fund to build the school.  We raised the money in just 5 weeks thanks to the tremendous response of donors. The community is very remote and has been trying to get help to build a school for over 10 years, but due to its very remote location, no NGO has been able to help. It is a project very close to my heart as when I saw the way the children were studying in such atrocious conditions, and the determination of both them and the community, I was so determined myself to find a way to support. Now as we approach the place of the old school, having travelled across river beds and impossible rutted tracks... and even  stopping along the way to help right a vehicle which was on its side, we see the new school construction, almost complete.

In front of the building and climbing all the way up the hillside towards us  are rows of school children and lines of village elders. It is a great mark of respect when the elders come to meet us and at every school in Worsaj this visit, they have been there. 

Every child has a garland of flowers, so I am soon unable to see over the top of them all, and they also throw bagfuls of glitter and there is a new hazard ... snow shakers - so it is like arriving in a storm. Then all the children run down to the new building, which is still under construction and pack the area in front of the school, perching on piles of sand and rock.

I have to make a speech and then the headmaster thanks us and says we will always be in the hearts of the people.

Finally the District Education officer thanks us for having the courage to come so far from our homes and to such a remote area to support these people.  The construction is a masterpiece and I simply cannot imagine how they managed to get the machinery here. They are building a massive flood wall and we watch as the men load great rocks on to each other’s backs and haul them on to the half built wall.

We all come in to one classroom and sit on huge red carpets. There are 30 elders and us. Huge plates of rice and meat are served to everyone and we exchange conversation with these splendid people, learning about the time the Russians came, how the mountains protected them from the Taliban and the problems finding work for their young people.

We say our goodbyes feeling emotional and inspired.

11th October 201 - A Day in Worsaj

We were up at dawn to film the sun rising over the mountains and the moon slipping away behind the great range of the Hindu Kush. The mornings are a hive of activity in Worsaj. The narrow streets are filled with shepherds taking their animals to pasture. Women and children are out collecting water in large yellow cans, and the fields are already busy with farmers harvesting and ploughing. All in the most beautiful morning sun which sends long shafts of light through the dust.

Abdul Basir looks remarkable surrounded by the snow peaks and vast plains. We watch the women at Farzana's house making bread.

One woman flattens balls of dough on a giant curved cushion, stretching it out in to huge rounds before pricking it and handing it to the other woman. She flicks water across it and leans right over into the fiery bread oven and slaps the dough against the inside wall.  

When it is done she removes it with a cloth and throws it into a basket. I long to take it out and smother it in honey...but instead it is time to walk to school.

We follow Farzana along the mountain path, her tiny  frame hidden beneath her deep blue burka which catches the light and makes her look as if she is floating within the billowing folds of blue.

She is framed against the mountains as she walks and looks so small and insignificant against this rugged but beautiful backdrop.  Children are arriving at school, climbing steep slopes and approaching from every direction. Some have garlands and flowers for me and they come up and put them over my head and into my hands as a thank you for the school.

We have fresh trout and plates of meat stew for breakfast...the trout freshly caught and delicious, the meat stew slightly less welcome!
Then into the classrooms where I have great fun celebrating Girls Day with balloons and asking the children about their lives. They then write on cards what they think education can do for Afghanistan...and they all long to create a better future with peace and security.

I head off to visit Dehpaayan Community based School. This started last year and is just two classes of children. It is held in a simple but rather beautiful house, which has been given to the community for use as a school by one of the teacher's fathers. Both teachers are young women who studied at Bibi Zainab School. One of them, Soraya went to teacher training college at Bibi Ayisha, which was built by AC and is used as a TT centre after the school closes each day. The other girl, Halima went to Taloqan University and studied chemistry and physics. She was unable to find a job, but the SCA school consultant heard about her and made her a teacher at the CBE. She is delighted and the children all say she is a wonderful teacher. Things have really changed here. The women are so much more confident than they were just a few years ago. And they are happy to have their photographs taken.

The next school visit is to Bibi Zainab, a girls' school for over 700 pupils where we have just completed construction of a new classroom block. The school looks fantastic and wonderful to see.

Last stop before lunch is Kemyan School.

This is also a Community based School, but it has been recognised as a formal primary school by the government now and goes up to grade 8. As we arrive, we see a line of children waiting for us with posters with hearts on saying “Wellcom Sara Fane”.

As we walk up, they all start clapping and putting garlands of flowers over my head. In clouds of dust, they surround us in a cheerful crowd and make their way to the classrooms. This is a new school building completed by AC last year. I visit every classroom giving out balloons and chatting to the children.

We walked across the bridge for lunch in a village house overlooking the river. Huge plates of meat and rice were produced and platefuls of tiny fried sparrows, their heads still on with their white eyes popping out! The heads are a delicacy. These are the birds which are caught in giant nets. The men hide behind a wall with their nets and young boys beat further down the valley, sending flocks  of these tiny birds flying into the direction of the men, who are waiting to throw their nets up. We struggle our way through the mountains of rice and meat and the birds, rewarded by plates of freshly picked sweet pears, grapes and peaches.

The day has been condensed because of our late arrival to Worsaj and we head off to another school, Dihmeeran, after lunch. This is a CBE we have visited each year and all the children study outside. We have started to build a new school for them. Once again we are greeted by lines of children with their placards and garlands and cheers. They come into the courtyard and there are speeches of thanks. Then they all go wild with balloons and I reflect on the fun we bring and the utter disruption!

The new building is well underway and it feels tremendously exciting to think of all those children going from studying out in the dust, to secure and brand new classrooms by next year. I wish I could bring all the donors here to see.  We are the guests of the headmaster for the night. He takes us to his home which overlooks the mountains and river. The house is full of guests who have stayed after Eid and there are 30 women, children and babies in the room with us. In the evening light we all sit round on the floor, the men in one room, and women in the other. We show photos of our families to them and do our best to talk in pigeon Dari. I play games with the children. Supper comes and again, huge plates of rice and meat and we vow to live off vegetables for the rest of our lives! Then they bring in another special...sweet sticky white rice in a great pile, with a hollow in the centre filled with oil. We have not one ounce of room left and we must eat on!

It is a very lively household and we are dirty and exhausted and long for sleep. Eventually crash out in the midst of it all, watched intently by all as we prepare for bed. There is no idea of privacy here, no one has any privacy and so it is not something that is really understood and it is completely natural for them to watch our every move. A very cold night on the floor being bitten by something!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

10th October 2014 - a return visit to Bibi Ayisha Girls' School

I am sitting in Bibi Ayisha School at dusk. The mighty Anjoman Pass in the distance blushes radiant orange/pink in the evening glow as the sun sets over the Hindu Kush. The mountain ranges on ever side reflect the light of the falling sun and a cold wind whips up the dust below.
We set out early from Faizabad along the extraordinary road which was built by the Turkish and the Koreans with funds from USAID.  This road used to take forever and crossed what seemed like the top of the world through areas like those one sees from aeroplanes and imagines that no life can exist amongst the harsh contours of rock and dust. Now we race along its smooth tarmac which cuts the journey time from days to short hours.

Mud brick villages perch impossibly upon the steep slopes which tower over the Korcha River. We follow the river all the way to Worsaj, its waters becoming ever more translucent and a palette of emerald, turquoise and aquamarine. Full of fish too! The beauty of this area never ceases to impact, a hidden jewel ironically protected by conflict from the outside world.

The road has now extended past Farkhar and half way from there to Worsaj. This road was built by the Germans and is an engineering masterpiece complete with road markings and signs. It is transforming the region. I see Rickshaws for the first time and am told by Mukhtar that they have become a new form of cheap transport allowing women to get to clinics, teachers to schools, girls to education and further training. Buses can reach the villages and farmers can get produce to market in double quick time. There are more motor bikes but no more cars yet. But one can sense progress.
Harvest time and a Friday and all the villagers are out helping in the fields. The countryside is alive and dotted with the bright chadars of the girls and the chiselled outline of turbans.

Potatoes and onions are being unloaded in large tents where men pile them in to sacks and weigh them. Donkeys are scarcely recognisable under their huge loads of grasses, hay and firewood. Oxen pull ploughs through the empty fields and men attack grass with scythes as they have done for hundreds of years.

Because it is Friday and all the schools are closed we chose to film today and headed for Abdul Basir School. This is a Community Based School, set up in 2005 by The Swedish Commitee and now funded by Afghan Connection. Before the CBE started, the children had to walk 10km to reach the nearest school. Many simply couldn’t get there and so failed to have an education. Classes were started by SCA in 2005 in village houses. AC took over funding in 2011.  All the children were studying in the open or in tiny dark rooms. We were asked not only to fund the classes, but to build a school. We ran a Christmas campaign and managed to raise the funds thanks to wonderful donors ...and there were many of them.....and started building in 2013.

The road to Abdul Basir is a rough track that winds up through the villages and then into a dramatic plain which sweeps into the mountains beyond. It is a desolate but beautiful place with a dramatic view down into a valley hundreds of feet below which is the brightest green and such a contrast to the arid peaks all around the school. The nearest village is made of mud brick and scarcely shows, seeming almost to spring from the earth and to be a part of it.

There on this huge expanse of dust and rock is the bright blue Abdul Basir School, like a beacon of hope calling children to learn! Always such a great feeling after the blood sweat and tears of fundraising with the girls back home at the office to see a beautiful new school!

 The village elders and the school management committee (Shura) came to greet us. It is run by Mr Niazey, a magnificent character with a long beard and a Pakool, who remembers me from when I was a doctor in the Panjshir back in 2001....small world!! He thanks us on behalf of the community and says they are so happy to have a school and it has transformed the learning for the children.

There are now 195 children in the school, 89 of them girls. He says there is not a single family in the area who does not send their children to school. Rather than dividing the area into villages, they divide it into mosques....with each mosque community having roughly 50 families in it. We have 10 mosque areas attending this school and the new building is attracting more and more children.

We then met our lovely teacher, whose name I shall change to Farzana. She was there with her husband and is very happy to be on the film for us. She described her education. From Grade 1-6 school was held in a ruined building and they had just a little support with text books and stationery.  From Grade 7 things stared to improve and they sat on plastic mats and chairs. She remembers my first visit to Bibi Ayisha School, when she was in Grade 10 and the school was twinned to Sholing Tech in Southampton. I arrived with letters and cards from Sholing and they all begged me to build a school. At this time they were studying in a rented house with tiny dark rooms and half the girls were studying outside. I had said I would do my best to build a school for them and their headmaster had not believed me because so many people had made promises before. So she was delighted when, by the following year they had a new school building by the river, complete with science lab, library and computer room. She said that when she started learning there, she realised what school life could be like and her whole learning experience transformed. Finally she could sit in a classroom.

While she was in Grade 12 she was recruited as a teacher to a community based school and was able to do teacher training, which also took place at Bibi Ayisha, once the school shifts were over for the day. She was married to a dentist at 18 years of age but allowed to continue with her studies. She now has 3 children and teaches at Abdul Basir, where once again she has benefitted from AC support. We pay the salaries of the teachers and provide books and last year we started building a school, which is now complete and she no longer has to teach outside.

We stayed the night at our monitors home, sleeping on the floor with Woolayat and her baby. Not a quiet night! What with the dogs barking, the baby crying, the clock ticking and the fridge gurgling...amazing new addition in was a long sleepless night!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Worsaj !

Sarah is now in Worsaj and the blog will be updated in due course when internet is available...

Friday, 10 October 2014

A last minute reprieve...

We checked in to UN for the 2pm flight only to be told that the weather was again against us and we would delay to see if it improved. Meanwhile the skies over Kabul grew dark and heavy and it seemed we would never fly.The entire waiting  room was praying to their various gods to clear the skies over Faizabad! With just 15 minutes to go before cancellation, they said they would give it a go but could not guarantee landing.

The whole way there I looked down on to a thick carpet of cloud and feared the worst. But as we approached Faizabad, there was a small opening in the clouds and we saw the runway and as we touched down, we erupted into applause...a miracle! The trip was saved. Haji and Quaduz were waiting as they have been every time over the last years of travel and it was so great to see them and to be back in Faizabad. 
The sun was setting over snow capped mountains and  it was too late to drive to Worsaj, so we are staying in a guest house overlooking the river. Perfectly bizarre... we are the only guests in this echoing, elaborate building which comes complete with cavernous wedding hall. It is all very ornate and very cold... not quite what I had expected and a far cry from the village houses!

Supper with the drivers in a huge dining hall in which we felt rather small and lost. Tomorrow at last to Worsaj.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Still in Kabul!

The flight to the North proved somewhat eventful. I was travelling with Sayed Mukhtar, who we have known for many years and leads our projects in Takhar, and Leslie Knott, a Trustee and our film maker for the trip.  
The UN plane should have called at 4 landing strips before dropping us off at Faizabad. The weather was glorious in Kabul and the view of the city, so parched and dust drenched in the morning sun, could not have been clearer. The leathery spines of the arid mountains stretched to the horizon and all seemed remarkably well. But our first landing attempt at Maimana was aborted as the clouds came in and visibility was dramatically reduced. We were lucky to land at Mazar-i-Sharif, for a refuel.

There we awaited 2 hours for a window in the weather. We were told that the Faizabad stop was called off but that they would try and land in Kunduz, from where we could get a car up to Taloqan. They tried! It was a nerve searing attempt at landing. Visibility was nil and this time the clouds were stained a murky brown with dust and it was like flying through a giant puddle which had become muddied and turbulent by a disturbance in the water. The wheels came down and we still could not see land below. Then as I was beginning to pray we would abort, the nose of the plane went up and we headed back for Kabul. Bitterly disappointed. Today we have a recovery flight so we have one last opportunity to get to the villages as no more flights until Monday after this.

It is another beautiful day in Kabul. Once again I have that feeling of swimming in the sea and not having a clue what lies beneath the surface. This is how I always feel in Afghanistan. It seems so calm and yet beneath that calm, so much is going on. People are so determined to work, to have a meaningful present and a peaceful future, but there are so many malevolent forces beneath the surface, trying so hard to disrupt any hope of a better world. The sun is shining in Kabul and the garden is full of roses. But the compound is encased in high walls and wire. The security briefing is sobering. Last night I went to Leslie's house. The city was dark and just before we arrived, the side of the road was lined by pick up trucks with flashing lights and masses of heavily armed police. I asked my driver what it was and he said, probably some government party. I reflected that here instead of bring-a-bottle parties, they have bring-a-body guard! Forgive fact this scene served as a reminded of how lucky we are to live in a country free from fear and war and it was a relief to step through the bullet proof gate into the haven of a welcoming house.