Wednesday, 30 April 2008

29th April - Kunduz RAD and Toot Mazar

Posted by Paula - no photos yet, but will upload as soon as they are available...

I was a little afraid for the first time today. Until then I can honestly say that I have not worried about our security since I arrived. I have not felt threatened or remotely worried. Even now I don’t understand what really happened, but anyway, we are all fine and nothing came of it.

We had a wonderful morning in Kunduz at the RAD – (The rehabilitation of Afghans with disabilities Centre) I have been there 3 times since last March and when I arrived, the girls threw down their books and threw their arms around me. It was a fantastic welcome.

There are 45 boys and girls at the centre and it is a place of miracles. Children who are deaf, blind and mentally disabled, and who would have had little chance of an education or a life outside their homes, come to school by bus every day. Girls and boys studying under the same roof. It is a simple building but well equipped and the teachers are very gentle with the children.
The first class we visited was a class of the younger boys. None of them can hear or speak. The time we spent with them was all conducted in sign language and laughter. I showed them photos of their twin school – Arbour Vale in Slough and all the photos of them I took at my last visit - they loved them, couldn’t get over their photos and pointed very excitedly at whoever in the room was featuring. They studied all the pictures of life in England sent to them by the English students and the maps of where the school is and where I come from. The girls were overjoyed to have us back in their classroom and we had an amazing time showing them photos of a special needs school in England and the facilities they have there and showing them on my laptop, all the photos I took of them last time.

Once we had visited all the classes, we rushed off to the bazaar and bought sports clothes for all the school children. They all changed into it when we arrived back and came outside together and held a volleyball match, got out all the skipping ropes, did cartwheels and played ball. I have never seen girls and boys in Afghanistan playing in the same playground, attending school together ...and here were these children all playing together and all so happy. There was no talking---because they cannot speak, just the sound of happines.

They really love you —the teacher translated for us with a big smile....and we certainly felt loved as they left for home, hugging us goodbye and waving and blowing kisses from the car, hanging out of the windows for final waves as their bus took them off home.

On to Khanabad and Toot Mazar School, twinned to Bradfield College. We crossed rivers and mud tracks to reach the school. It was all very dusty and remote and not renowned as the safest area.

We visited the year 9 group as they are twinned to yr 9 Bradfield. The ages in the class vary hugely - from 13-20 I would guess, depending on how many years of schooling the boys had missed. We decided to interview the class about their day and their lives. They all started very quietly and it seemed very hard work. But as we progressed, they all started to join in and it was fascinating. They are all awake at 4.30am to pray, then do home work and help in the house until school at noon. Some walk over an hour and a half to reach school and then they just have 4 hours schooling. In the school holidays they are expected to work on the land, ploughing and helping sow the crops or harvesting or looking after the animals.

We left the classroom and the whole school gathered in the school yard, supervised by a splendid English speaking Afghan with a long beard, who had been a refugee in Canada for many years. We talked about the twin school project and then handed out the sports clothes and the computers ...given by the students at Bradfield. The team put on their strips and we all gathered on the football pitch to watch the match.

It was then that our driver came up and begged us to leave. We said our farewells and the children gathered round the car and waved us goodbye. Ally, our driver—an ever cheerful, ebullient joker, was sweating and anxious and told us we had to go back by a different route because the Taliban were present and could have laid a remote controlled explosives device on the road.

Just weeks earlier, the Mullah, one of 5 in the area, had gone into the school with a gun and told the teachers it was unislamic to have the children at school. Then a device had been used to blow up a car which was similar to the headmaster’s car. The wrong person had been targeted and the headmaster had survived.

Ally was panic stricken as we drove through high walled dusty tracks between villages. We saw a motorbike with 2 turbaned men in white and he put his foot towards the main road. We crossed the river at high speed, the water washing over the vehicle and the tyres lurching over the rocks.

I didn’t really know what to think...just as I always reflect - it is like swimming on the surface of the sea—you never quite know what lies beneath. I do not know what was or wasn’t true about the stories of the Taliban. What I do know is that it didn’t feel great - there was an atmosphere. But the school is what matters and they will make sure that they can keep functioning ....there may be some bargaining with the Taliban elements, but it will stay open and education will go on.
Ollie, (our camerman) suddenly announced he had left something at the school.
Ally’s response ..."you can go back by taxi - I no go! “

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Monday 28th April

A rotten night with one bad Kabul stomach - and up at 5 to travel to Kishem. Felt so rough and was thrilled to see that the road (which last year had taken hours and was appalling) had been asphalted....bliss! There is so much progress in Afghanistan, so much has changed since coming here a few years back. This road is a prime example and a journey taking 4-5 hours is reduced to one. Distant towns become accessible. Electricity is inching its way across Afghanistan, mobile phones are everywhere.

Chesham is a beautiful city at the foot of the Hindu Kush. It is lush and green and lies along a river, surrounded by poplars and fir trees. It is rare to see such huge amounts of trees in a land where so much has been pillaged for firewood.

Our first visit is to Mashhad Girls school which is twinned to a Swedish school. I am being brought here because they are desperate to have new classrooms and want AC to try and help. They have 2700 pupils and only 15 classrooms. They operate in 3 shifts and still there are 15 classes outside each shift. Everywhere we look there are girls of all ages chanting their lessons under trees in the morning sun and others bursting out of tents. An idyllic scene on a warm April morning, which turns pretty horrific in the freezing cold of winter or the crushing heat (45oC) of high summer.

We drive on to Jeri-Shah Baba-twinned with Holt School, Wokingham. We have been there 3 times before and know the teachers and children now. It is lovely to come back. We have funds to build 6 new classrooms so that all the girls studying outside can come in and sit at desks and benches. We presented them with a new computer (note name of supplier-Dell, we are counting on obtaining some free computer equipment from them based on this and other photos!) Any similar sponsor deals much welcomed?

We visit all the children and talk about the twin school project. They give us beautiful gifts for their twin school and we hand over the gifts from Holt.

This school seems more liberal than most. The female teachers uncover their faces in front of the men ... one even reads us her poetry. It is bizarre that most of these girls have a television in their home, things are changing so fast ....and yet they still sit on the ground outside in the open for school. They all have such aspirations to continue their studies and become teachers, engineers and doctors.

I ask them in one class how many of their mothers are literate - only 4 out of 20 girls have mothers who went to school and are literate. The four are now all teachers! Things are changing ... it is slow, but through education we will see more change. This is the first generation of girls in rural areas to be educated...what better place to help.
I apologise if this blog takes time to appear but the electricity situation is invariably very poor, not to mention the internet.
This is the author up to her normal evening entertainment: writing up the blog in a power out, snapped by an irritating cameraman!

Sunday 27th April

Public holiday today. We are invited by the local SCA staff to a picnic in one of their villages. It is a beautiful day and it is lovely to go out of the city into the countryside. There we reach a small village and find a picnic area under the trees—all set out for us with cushions and carpets. Food arrives in big bundles. The local disability worker brings us tea from his home and plates of raisins and sweets and almonds, all beautifully presented on lace doileys. It is so peaceful that we all start to drift off to sleep under the trees.

There are visits planned for the afternoon. We will visit two cerebral palsied children in their homes. The first stop is with a woman whose husband died in a mining accident. She has a cerebral palsied 4 year old daughter and 3 other children.

She greets us in her burkha and we all go inside her mud walled home. She is an illiterate woman who has little touch with the outside world and is so brave to have us to her home and to be filmed. We ask her about bringing up her daughter and all the difficulties she faces. She just says it is Allah’s will that her daughter is disabled and she loves her and is happy looking after her. I reflect that really the Afghan way of life is ideal for care of the disabled and elderly. These communities look after their own.

The extended family are all under one roof, there is constant child care and the disabled child will always be able to stay in the home. What is lacking is the expertise to help the families and maximise their children’s care. We have these brief moments where we have a snapshot glimpse at another world, one persons life and struggle...we see their homes, talk with them and then we move on.

The next home was through the village. We entered by a tiny door carved into the wall. It was a poor home. We were greeted by the father of the disabled child—a man in his seventies, widowed and re married. His second wife is 40 and looks worn down by life. Their disabled daughter is a beautiful 3 year old who stares and fixes her eyes on yours, but doesn’t smile. She comes into my arms and curls up against me and her mother holds my hand through her white burkha.

They say the girl as a six month old fell on rocks. But there must be more than that—she cannot hear, cannot walk. The mother believes that there must be a medicine which will cure her daughter but says they are too poor to go to a doctor. I tell her that there is no medicine she can buy and beg her not to---having seen the prescriptions of myriads of expensive, dangerous drugs prescribed by poorly trained, greedy doctors and pharmacists; I do not want her money wasted.

None of the family goes to school and neither parent is literate. They give us tea and put out all their precious supply of sugar, but typically Afghan, they offer so much hospitality, all they have.
As we leave the village a strange young man approaches us and starts reading questions at us off a list:-

What is your name?
Where are you from?
What is your religion?... now that is a hard one to answer in this conservative village... the Mullah has just walked past and we are told he is as hard line as the Taliban...and here we are being asked about our religion by some mad man reading without humour or the vaguest smile from his English Language crib sheet ... not the time to mention Christianity!

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Extra photos...

Posted by Paula

Here are some extra photos that form part of the blog below. They show the journey to Zouhuruddin, the Headmaster and his Deputies, the girls studying inside and some outside, while they wait for the building to be painted.

26th April - on to Zouhruddin

An early start and another cloudless sky. Ahead of us a 5 hour journey to Worsaj and our favourite village in Afghanistan- Zouhruddin. The journey is totally spectacular and incredibly uncomfortable—the road is the worst I know! We passed through gorges and along the river and on up into the mountains, past fishermen, herds of goats, nomads. At one point we saw lines of men up on the mountain side wielding vast nets. Hidden behind a wall, they sent their children beating with flags in the valley below. As birds flew up into the skies, all the men would leap up from behind the wall and throw out their nets in unison and trap the birds ... I guess a practice which had been going on for centuries in these hills.

Our arrival in Zouhrudin was like coming home. The limping, toothless, turbaned guard nearly knocked me over in an enthusiastic welcome which brought tears to my eyes. The lead teachers, by now old friends, held out their hands and touched their hearts and took us into the tiny staff room for tea. They thanked us over and over again for bringing hope to the girls in the valley by building them a school.

Thanks to our wonderful donor who paid for the new classrooms, I was able to tell them that we can also build a further 8 classrooms to house the science lab, computers and library and all the students that have signed up since we started building. There are well over 1000 girls coming to school now. I also told them that he had agreed to build them an outside wall .....and they promised that should the wall go up, they would let all the girls play basket ball and volleyball ......a massive step forward and one which thrilled the female teachers and students.
They haven’t yet moved into the new building as the painting isn’t finished and we visited them in outside classrooms and tiny dark rooms in the rented building they currently use. There we found girls who spoke immaculate English and had written beautiful letters in English to their twin school -Sholing in the UK. They had made books full of letters and drawings and descriptions of life in Afghanistan and also beautiful woven baskets.

They all asked for computers and for us to hurry with the painting so they could move to the new school. I gave our first computer to them ....they have a new teacher who speaks English and has had training in computers and they are incredibly keen to learn. If you could see this place and how far it is from civilization and how primitive the villages are it would help you to understand how utterly amazing these girls are –and if they are only allowed the opportunity to work, then Afghanistan is set for a better future. 27 of them went to university last year. All the teachers were once pupils at the school.

We had lunch under the trees on rugs and tapestry cushions. They had caught us fresh rainbow trout from the river and they were absolutely delicious and so fresh.
Saed Oberdin is the retired headmaster and now just teaches. He was a commander in the Russian war and worked along side the National Hero Ahmed Shah Massood and became close friends with him. He brought education to Zouhruddin and has fought for it ever since...his son and daughter were the first two people to go to university from this valley. It is due to his efforts that girls came to school and that we were given the land to build a school.

After lunch he led us through the hills and over the river to the new school. On the way we passed a 500 year old mosque hidden in a courtyard. It had beautiful carved pillars and overlooked the mountains. Little girls sat outside chanting the Qu’ran.

The new school looks magnificent and just needs its final painting to be done. As I stood outside, people came down from the villages around and asked if I was the woman who had instigated the new school....was so touching as they all asked God to bless and protect me and held my hand in thanks. It is something that all the community wants and 70% of girls and 90% of boys in this valley go to school---way above the average 33 percent in rural areas.
As we left, they begged us to come and stay in the village next time we come and have all offered us their homes as our own.

We visited the Boys School and saw tents of kids studying outside and promised to help them as we are helping the girls. In this area , whatever we give will be used and the return will be huge ....I have never seen such a will amongst children and whole communities, to fight for education.

25th April - Sari Sang

A glorious sunny day. We had been invited to Sari Sang village to meet a family and interview their daughter. Sari Sang School is twinned to St Catherines School in Bramley and lies in a very conservative area of Northern Afghanistan. It is a testament to the gradual, painfully slow improvement for the opportunities for girls.

We met the headmaster at the school, which sadly, was shut for the day as it was a Friday. He showed us the school well, which, since my last visit, has dried up, leaving the 550 girls there with no access to water during their school if the wonderful James Moberly is reading this blog then a huge thank you ---he ran the marathon for Afghan Connection and wants to build wells with the money he raised---I was able to promise them water.

We walked through the village, through manicured fields, down mudwalled paths and over irrigation channels and streams, passing donkeys and farmworkers and giggling children on our way. We arrived outside a village house where we met Nargas—the 13 year old girl who had agreed to be interviewed. Her father was with her and I thought him incredibly brave, allowing us to interview his daughter in such a conservative village. But we still had to be incredibly sensitive and certainly couldn’t film the women of the village.

We sat in a lovely shaded quadrangle outside their home and started asking questions. Nargas was so composed. She talked of her life in the village, her aspirations to succeed at school, to graduate and her one wish---should she be allowed anything in the world, was to be a doctor. She talked of the childhood terror of war, of the Taliban coming and bombing her village, of fleeing to a village far away to stay with distant relatives, where there was not enough to eat and she missed her home.

Her school had been shut down for 2 years by the Taliban and she had been without an education throughout that time, but had never given up hope that she would get back to school. Her short life had held so much and her will to do well and to succeed and to help her country was humbling. She asked us for just one thing ---for water for her school.

I was led into the house after the interview—the boys were unable to come in as they cannot see the village women. I was greeted by dozens of smiling women and children, taking my hand and showing me around their home. One room had been made into a school room where one of the daughters held English classes for girls. It is so hard for these girls and their determination to further their education is fantastic.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

April 24th - Another new beginning...

It was difficult to better yesterday but today was the best day I have ever had in Afghanistan and one I shall never forget. We were off to Syab School- a 4 hour drive towards the mountains of Bangi. We were taking a donor to open the school he had funded. The journey was as beautiful as ever, the Afghan countryside and rural villages fascinating and rugged.

As we came over the last hill before the school, the entire route ahead was lined with children....all the girls dressed in bright clothes and headscarves, the boys in their best clothes. They all clapped and cheered as we got out of our car and lined our route as we walked towards the school. The choir sang us a traditional Afghan welcome song and then we were followed by the hundreds of children up to their new school. We were all brought to tears by this incredible welcome. It was so humbling ---so far away from home in such a distant corner of rural Afghanistan. The girls took my hand as I walked up the hill and the crowd surged behind us and I felt more than ever before how worth while this work is and how wonderful it is to bring hope to these children.

As we climbed the last part of the hill we were greeted by all the elders—hundreds of them, lining the way, wearing their traditional striped badakshani coats and turbans....all the elders from all the villages around. They each took the boys hands and shook them and to me they touched their hands on their hearts in traditional Afghan welcome. Being greeted by the old and the young of the area was so moving.

Then we were ushered to a platform and all the children and elders sat in front of us. We were joined by the Deputy Governor of Takhar Province—who steamed up in his tinted windowed jeep complete with a carload of bodyguards and the local Education Minister. There followed endless speeches and endless rounds of thank yous. Then we too had to address the crowds. It was amazing to look out on a sea of faces, old and young perched above the villages and fields of Afghanistan.

After the ceremony, our donor handed out sweets, biscuits and drinks to everyone at the school---then we were ushered in to a carpeted room, where I sat with 30 men, having lunch....all provided by the local community who must have killed many sheep! I reflected how sad it was that not one woman had been allowed to attend the opening ceremony.....and yet could comfort myself with the knowledge that the school girls were at last allowed to school—only since 2003 have they been offered an education at all.
As lunch came to an end, men came in carrying gifts for all the guests—beautiful coats for all the men and a scarf for me

We left the school and head back to Taloqan.

23rd April - San Boran and more cricket!

A beautiful morning as we left Kunduz at 5.00am and set out for Eton’s new twin school, Sang Boran. Stunning early morning Afghan light on the hills and mountains … so different from our route up in the storm. Very frustrating having to retrace our steps from yesterdays journey all the way back to Dushi.... about 3 hours, before heading off for Sang Boran, 2 hours off road to the East and into Baghlan and Andarab beyond.

Drove through adobe walled villages strung along the river and perched over vivid green wheat and paddy fields; through wooden bazaars stacked with fruit and brightly coloured scarves and butchers stalls where halal meat swung from hooks in the crowded street and goat heads littered the pavements below.

As we continued the landscape became more beautiful as the valley led into the snow capped mountains beyond. At last we saw the school and were welcomed in by all the teachers. The school is on a hill, surrounded by green valleys and the snows of the Hindu Kush. In front of the school building are lines of tents full of classes of giggling, waving children and also classes of children outside on mats.

We met the headmaster and the twin school teacher and explained all about their new twinning with Eton, reading letters from the boys there and showing them photographs ...even produced the Keate House flag for them. Then they gathered the whole school morning shift-1000 out of the 2000 pupils outside in the school playground —and we were introduced to them and they were told about the link with Eton.

It was a wonderful sight—hundreds of boys, backdropped by mountains, all listening to the teacher’s speech.

We had brought some cricket kit with us and asked if anyone knew how to play. Cricket is a new game in Afghanistan, brought back to the country by refugees returning from exile in Pakistan. It is very popular in the East especially and is gradually spreading to the North. 2 students came forward who had learned to play in Pakistan and hadn’t had a chance since. We kitted them out and in front of the whole school, started a demonstration cricket match----it was fantastic ,with the ball flying into the crowd and boys clapping and longing to join in. These two students will be in charge of cricket coaching at Sang Boran and have asked Eton boys to make a training DVD for them.

We then gave out all the football strips and balls and volley ball nets and balls—all purchased from money raised by Eton’s chapel collection. The teams dressed up and held a match in front of the school and then went on to play volley ball. They were so grateful for the help and kept on and on thanking us.

There are only 14 classrooms for 2000 children---I promised that I would go home and try and raise the funds to build them a new school block---and I will!

We were given a lunch in the school and then had fond farewells ....interrupted by local security chief, who, with nothing better to do, turned up with is heavies and asked for a meeting with us......we escaped, said our goodbyes and head off back on the 6 hour drive to Kunduz. As we drove away, we saw the two cricketers, surrounded by boys begging to play cricket ....could be the start of cricket in this valley...

Our journey was interrupted when we saw a cricket game taking place on the floodplains by the river of Aliabad. We drove down in the fading evening light and sat watching boys playing cricket. It was a marvellous sight and we soon had an interview underway with one of the team captains. He had fled to Pakistan as a refugee during the Taliban regime. He had returned with a passion for cricket. He and a friend had founded two teams—one South of the river and one North. Each evening the two teams come together and play a match. They have one bat and a ball made out of rubber and white sticky tape.

We still had some kit in the car—some wicket keepers gloves and some cricket balls......I have never seen such a response ....they were absolutely thrilled ...very humbling that such a small token caused so much joy. We drove off into the twilight feeling so happy and also wishing we had had a whole boot full of equipment to give these worthy and passionate players.

22nd April 2008 - A frustrating journey...

A bad start to the day as our driver went to collect the wrong Sarah, SO OUR 5.30 START TURNED INTO 6.30 ! Then we were caught in a huge military convoy which blocked off the road. Dozens of helicopters buzzed overhead. The drizzle came down on a grey city, where side roads were drenched in slippery mud and rubbish and barbed wire and watch towers dominated the dismal scenery. It all looked so depressing as we desperately tried endless jumbles of side streets trying to avoid the convoy.

We were snarled up in a mesh of American blacked out jeeps, revving their engines in a desperate attempt not to risk being stationery and sitting targets. We tried to squeeze in beside them and incurred the wrath of a machine gun toting Afghan soldier....but when he saw us smiling, the situation diffused and he allowed us and the Americans to speed out in a gap in the convoy and storm our way out of Kabul.

The Jalalabad Road—the main route from Kabul to the East and on to Pakistan, was closed for bridge repairs. We took a diversion route which was pitted with pot holes and swathed in thick mud and rocks and headed at last for Roghano School—an hour East of Jalalabad.
But our luck ran out again as we climbed higher into the mountains and rugged desolate crags of barren hills overhung the road. We suddenly hit solid traffic. Thousands of brightly painted lorries stacked up in a huge seething queue of frustrated vehicles along this road which clings precariously to the edge of a massive ravine. Taxis and toyotas, spattered by the mud from their uncomfortable route, tried to weave in and out of these lorries and caused one huge snarl up of motionless vehicles, unable to move in either direction. The hills resounded to hoots and shouts but nothing moved. The Pakistan border had just reopened after 2 days of closure and thousands of stranded lorries had disgorged into Afghanistan and on to the infamous Jalalabad road...only to be diverted to this old mountain route, where they crawled to a halt. We decided to give up as we knew that even should we reach the school, we would not make it home to Kabul before upsetting not to reach Roghano.

We rushed into Kabul for meetings, picked up Oliver—a 25 year old who is coming out to make a film on AC, from the airport and head off to the North ....another 7 hours of road ahead of us after our 5 hour morning thwarted trip! We climbed the mountain road towards the Salang and the highest mountain tunnel in the world. We stopped by the river and ate kebabs, sitting on red tapestry cushions, perched above the water on a balcony looking out on the snow capped Hindu Kush and the spring fields below...

There was much less snow over the Salang than last year and the tunnel was not blocked by snow and lorries—just kilometres of stygian blackness and fumes and thoughts of all the Russian soldiers burned alive here during the Russian invasion. Then a massive electric storm in the mountains and hours and hours of driving until, at last we came to Kunduz, arriving in the dark and relieved to have finished the journey.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Sarah is in the North

Posted by Paula 23rd April...

Sarah has sent me a text to say that she is unable to travel East, so has travelled North and will be visiting Eton's Twin School, Sang Borat. She is unlikely to have access to the internet until later this week - I'll keep you informed when I get more details.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

A new trip - starting with cricket...

Posted by Paula on Tuesday am - I had an email on Monday to say that sarah had arrived safe and well...

21st April 2008

At Dubai terminal 2, I was sitting waiting for my Kabul flight when an Afghan asked me what work I do in Afghanistan. I told him about our schools and asked him from which province he came. He replied that he was born and brought up in Pakitika. This is a drought ridden, war torn province which receives very little aid.

Just before I left England I had received a call from a new donor. He said he wanted to help with a project which would be unlikely to attract aid and suggested building Shahid Nemat School in Paktika. This is a school for 900 boys and girls and needs 18 new classrooms.... it is a huge project in a difficult area and I had not imagined that I would ever receive funding. It was the most wonderful news. I told the Afghan—Abdul Khatima, about the good news and he asked me in which village the school would be built. When I replied in Spina his face lit up in disbelief and joy and he proclaimed “this is my village, this is my village!” It was a perfect way to start my trip.

On arrival in Kabul after a 24 hour journey, we were whisked off through the rain drenched streets of Kabul to the National Cricket Stadium to meet the Afghan Coach –Taj Malik. As we drew up, the thunder, lightning and hail crashed down around us. Thousands of Burkhad women, school children, street urchins and market sellers, huddled together under makeshift shelters, lashed by rain for which they had being praying at every Kabul mosque for the last months.

The National Stadium is near the infamous football stadium, where the Taliban carried out public executions during their grip on Kabul. We were met by Taj Malik and led up the staircases to our meeting. As we climbed the stairs I glimpsed the vast field where men and women had been led to their deaths. It was grey, raining, and the place seemed unable to free itself from its grisly past.

The meeting was not quite as straightforward as imagined—but very complex and Afghan… finishing the stadium seems a long way off, but we are not giving up yet! Then we took all our cricket equipment—donated in UK and carried all the way to Kabul—to the cricket Academy. We were met by the Under 19 teams and the future hopefuls of the Afghan team. They emptied out the bags and put on the cricket kit and said they had been wondering what to do as they had so few cricket balls - we had arrived with 100. It was a great and truly eccentric afternoon.