Wednesday, 22 October 2008

19th October

The most wonderful day and one to inspire me - just wish people could see what we saw today and meet the Afghans who showed us such magnificent hospitality. It makes everything so worthwhile. We left at 6.30 and headed for Keshem, Badakshan. It used to take 4-5 hours,but with the new road we manage the journey in just over an hour. It takes you up into the dusty heights and out towards the Hindu Kush.We stop in Keshem bazaar to buy sewing machines for the school.

Jari Shah Baba is a school for 1250 girls, grades 1-12 half an hour down a dusty track from the beautiful city of Keshem. The track takes you through the adobe walled villages of Keshem district and is lined by water channels and poplar trees. With the snow capped mountains ahead of us, we make our way to the school. We pass the timeless activities of harvest and watch men,women and children casting the husks of wheat into the dusty air. Donkeys heads protrude ridiculously beneath huge thatches of hay, their bodies immersed, so that from behind it looks as if haystacks are trotting down the track.

Our greeting is splendid. Hundreds of girls are chanting beneath the trees, all our old friends are there to see us. We spend the morning handing out letters and cards form the twin school —The Holt— and giving the girls presents. We hold a ceremony to hand out the equipment – requested specifically by the students. They have asked for sewing machines for their tailoring lessons and cookery equipment so that instead of learning cooking from text books they can have demonstrations and cook themselves.

Also, teaching aids in Geography and History are coming from Kabul as well as Geometry sets. They desperately want more computers and to be helped to attach the school to the micro hydroelectric power in the village. I show them a film of their school that we took last visit and also slides of their gifts being handed to the UK students - its a wonderful sight watching masses of head-scarved girls staring at my computer screen and seeing these images and recognising themselves or their gifts arriving in England.

Outside I see our new buildings —funded by 2 donors, 6 large classrooms and 4 admin rooms and a surrounding wall, well and games pitch under construction and to be completed by the spring —then all the kids will be out of tents and from under the trees and into classrooms at last.

In the afternoon, we visit Mashad Girls School—a school for 2500 girls in Keshem centre. The eccentric, toothless, Nehru-hatted headmaster is there to greet us and clasps our hands and shakes them interminably whilst shouting welcome welcome welcome! Inside, I am presented with a beautiful tribal dress in pinks and silvers and told that I will be remembered for generations for building this school. The construction work is on going and we go and visit it.

There are few moments so rewarding as this - there are hundreds of workers in full action. Cement mixers, ropes, great tripods stretching into the sky to make a well, men working on bricklaying, cementing and plastering - just incredible and in total 19 rooms are under construction. It is also wonderful to think of the employment we have created, let alone these buildings which will mean that instead of being taught in 3 shifts, the girls will just have 2 shifts and therefore extra hours of education....and also they will all study indoors,whereas now there are 55 classes a day outside.

More girls will be allowed to school. I have a Walter Mitty moment and cant quite believe that we have instigated all this and managed to find a fantastic donor to fund it. I know in that moment too, that I don’t want to give this up.

We speed off up the most incredible off road route through desolate rocky, dusty, drought ridden land to visit a Community Based School, run by Swedish Committee. These schools – of which there are 300, are based in communities which are so far from the nearest school that the children remain uneducated. They are held outside or in Mosques and serve children of the villages aged 6-10.

In this desolate, poverty stricken area, we are greeted with great warmth by hundreds of villagers on our arrival. We are led through a wooden door in the Mosque wall, to the area within. This houses 160 children in 5 classes with 5 teachers. Some study in tiny rooms, huddled on the floor. Others sit under the trees or the open sky. We hand out gifts and balloons and the kids become totally overexcited. Everywhere we go we are surrounded by a mass of villagers. They have managed to set aside a plot of land to build a school. They are trying to get primary school status from the Ministry of Education and then they can extend the age group they can educate and want us to build a school.

They serve us tea and almonds outside and bring us melons and apples to take home. All the kids and villagers then take us off to the plot of land set aside for the school. The kids stand in a line where they need the school to be built, I take a photo of them standing there on that desolate hillside which could promise so much for their future - and say a little prayer that the next time i come they will be standing in front of a new school..........

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