Tuesday, 21 October 2014

15th October - My final day...

Ali is my driver today and it is wonderful to see him. He used to drive us up North over the Salang  Pass when security was better. He came on the trip with Matthew Fleming when we opened the first cricket pitch  and it was Ali who handed out the kit to the children, with the broadest smile I have ever seen. He is a gem and we talk about the old days as he drives me to meetings all over Kabul.

I meet with the education department, the Program Director and the engineering department at SCA. It is wonderful to hear from the engineers that AC has funded construction projects at over 70 schools since 2008... And dozens more between 2003 and 2007. This includes our cricket projects and he describes the joy that these projects bring and tells us that the last 2 pitches they completed in Kunduz are being used by the girls. This is wonderful progress. 

I have a meeting with the Managing Director of Moby.  Moby is a massive media company set up by the Mosheni family. They do a great deal to support football in Afghanistan and the Afghan National Team has just won the South Asia Cup, beating 7 time winners, India in the final, which took place in Kathmandu. Celebrations ...using the idiosyncratic Kalashnikov firing...went on all night in Kabul, causing some consternation to those who wondered if the city was under attack! 

In the afternoon I do a presentation to Embassy staff, thanks to a kind invitation from the British Ambassador. They lead a very confined life in Kabul due to the intense security that must surround them and appreciate seeing all the photographs of this beautiful country.

They give me a surprise donation of $6,000 raised from their summer ball. Just fantastic!  I return there in the evening for dinner. I am so blessed to meet such interesting people. Sir Richard Stagg KCMG is our host.  The Minister for Rural Affairs,Wais Barmak, the Ambassador for India-Amir Sinha  and 2 incredible women, Hassina Sherjan, who runs Aid Afghanistan for Education and Nurjehan Mawani, Ambassador for the Aga Khan Foundation are there. It is an absolutely fascinating evening and so stimulating.  Nurjehan was brought up in Mombassa. She went to school at an Aga Khan supported school and can remember the day when the School Board decided to open the school to black children. The British colonials there threatened to cut of their grant for doing so. She remembers not being allowed to sit in a restaurant because of her colour, but instead their family would sit in the car and food would be brought out to them. She and her sisters were amongst the first  generation of girls to go to university and she studied Law and has devoted her life to supporting others. The Aga Khan asked her to come to Afghanistan. The evening gives me a good insight into the political situation in Afghanistan and in to the work of these remarkable people. It is hard to tear myself away.

Now flying over Afghanistan on my way home after the most inspiring trip. I am determined to keep up our work for education and feel that it is such a privilege to work in Afghanistan, to support it's very determined people and to play a part, how ever small, in its future.

14th October - Return to Kabul

We say our goodbyes in Taloqan. It is always so sad. These trips to such remote areas bond us closely to our drivers, Haji and Quadus
and to Mukhtar. We have stories shared over many years. The tiny Paktec six seater plane lands late at Taloqan airstrip. It always feels miraculous to watch this plane arrive in the desert land of Taloqan, sending up huge clouds of dust as it bumps along the rough strip, a bird coming to return us to civilisation and the first step towards home.

The pilot explains they have had a difficult journey and had to use oxygen after a tough time getting over the mountains.

I sit in the front beside the pilot and wave farewell to Quaduz who becomes a tiny dot but never stops waving until we disappear. The view is spectacular from the front of the plane and we fly so close to the snow crowning the Hindu Kush. 

I hug Leslie goodbye as she races off to the Pakistan embassy with just 3 hours to go before she must leave Afghanistan, her visa due to expire today. I am welcomed so tenderly back at the guest house by Ghul noor and Abdul Rahim. There is fruit in my room, extra blankets on my bed, sweet tea made with cardamoms. I have known Ghul Noor for 14 years and he is like a father to me. 

How I wish my own father was still alive to hear my news and see all the progress we have made out here! He would, I am sure have come along with me.

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.