Friday, 8 May 2009

Thursday 7th May - Home!

So the end of the trip has come and we have seen a great deal of hope and joy along the way. Much needed hope in a country of bad news headlines and fragile peace. Fond farewells to the drivers and to Gul Noor, who have all cared for me as their own.

News that SCA has formed 2 cricket teams from the Afghans in the Kabul and Jalalabad offices…and cricket seems to be the flavour of the moment…the guard at the Compound asks all about the cricket camp, my driver asks me if I can help supply his village with cricket equipment, the soldier searching my car at the airport asks me for a cricket bat ….the beginnings of this sport now firmly planted in Afghanistan.

28 hours and 2 flights later I arrive home. I receive the photos of the last two days of the cricket camp…..and they encapsulate the joy of the event and reinforce determination that we can arrange more in the future. I also receive photos from Elstree school… some of the cricket fixtures this week celebrated cricket in Afghanistan, with all home and away teams wearing caps emblazoned with Afghan Connection Cricket Club ….in solidarity with those boys 3500 miles away in the fields of Jalalabad.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Tuesday May 5th - Jalalabad Road

It is never easy to sleep, however tired I am and last night the sounds of the city, the dogs barking, the American helicopters flying so close that the whole building seemed to shake, the guards talking and the drums at a wedding party mingled with the call to prayer and the soft thud of distant thunder, conspired together to interrupt the short hours of night.

Said farewell to Matthew and he went off to catch his UN flight back to Kabul. I was just heading off to the cricket camp, when he reappeared. The flight cancelled. His UK flight is this afternoon, so we had to make a swift change of plan. With the weather so changeable and the flights so unpredictable, I decided to get us both back to Kabul by road. Bismillah sorted us out 2 cars for security. As we were leaving, the logistics head, Najibullah, came up to Matthew and said ” excuse me sir, but am I right in thinking you are THE Matthew Fleming, the famous cricketer ?” Matthew gave him his MCC shirt and he was completely overwhelmed with joy... his passion is cricket and there is nothing he doesn’t know on the subject and this was his great moment!

So, we set out under dark clouds along the infamous Jalalabad road. We had tried hard to avoid it but with fights cancelled, had little choice. Everywhere, signs of war. Walled, wired in military posts along the way. Through Sarobi –the bleak place which has long been known as the badlands ...where 5 journalists were taken from their car and shot....and on up the heights towards the magnificent gorge and tunnels which lead to Kabul.

There we meet chaos! Long lines of lorries and cars are at a stand still on the steep hairpins. Men stand on the back of lorries carrying large rocks, ready to spring into action should the lorries start slipping backwards down hill! Kuchi nomads with their entire homes piled high atop camels weave in and out of the traffic with herds of sheep, goats and cows and to add to the extraordinary scene, a military convoy tries to steer its way through the traffic in huge armoured vehicles bedecked with guns and dark-glassed soldiers. The tunnel is blocked by this strange mix of humanity and we question whether Matthew will make the flight ...... but at last we move on and snake our way through the last high bends and on towards Kabul beyond.

It is lovely to arrive, greeted by familiar guards and Gul Noor—who has a delicious lunch all ready on the table and great mugs of cardamom tea. I say goodbye to Matthew again... and long to be heading home to my family...... just wish so much I could catch that plane!

Monday, 4 May 2009

Monday May 4th - "very raining"!

Great pics for Sun & Mon - For Sun scroll down. Paula

It never rains in Jalalabad in May......thats what I have been told. As I lay wrapped up in a sheet (from someone elses bed I later realised), the most dramatic storm hit Jalalabad. The thunder crashed, lightning tore open the skies and rain pelted the tin rooves in a deafening assault. I just couldn’t believe it. Of any day in any year in Jalalabad, why now, the eve of our cricket camp? All night long the storm revisited the city and kept waking me with loud claps of thunder and the heartbreaking sound of rain hammering into my dreams. I knew that at this rate, by dawn,the city would be under water and all our hopes for the camp would be in ruins. All the planning...all those worries over details ...but we never ever questioned the weather!

Running to breakfast through the massive puddles I was quickly drenched. Matthew and I sat eating bread and watched the drips coming through the ceiling and hitting the carpet where we sat. In disbelief! Matthew, a wonderful optimist and full of humour lightened my mood as we set out for the University grounds. As we left, our driver looked up to the sky and said "very raining"...and that summed it up perfectly!

The streets of Jalalaad had become small rivers. Rickshaws looked like bizarre half submerged fish as they battled through the waters, men walked to work with water over their knees, shops were flooded, stalls were floating and we felt amphibious as we made our way slowly through the floods.

But God is great! The children arrived, the Afghan team arrived and the kit arrived. The great hall of the University harboured us all from the elements and the childrens faces lit the interior in an incredible, tangible wave of happiness and anticipation. We all sat down and the team stood up one at a time to be each stood, huge applause and cheering filled the room and when the captain stood the children went wild.

Matthew and I had to give speeches and then, orderly queues were formed by the 150 boys for a photograph and a presentation of the kit. Each boy received whites emblazoned with MCC Spirit of Cricket and AC, a cap, T shirt and shoes. They were presented by the Afghan team members and I am absolutely certain that not one of those children will ever forget that moment .

Then the team went around the boys and chatted to them and posed for photos with them and at that moment the sun came out, the pitch almost dried off and we all headed outside for the coaching session. Armed policemen were utterly useless as, as inactive looking as can be, they allowed the crowds to come and watch. A wonderful scene as each player took 30 boys off and did warm up exercises and then coaching. These men are so gentle and so good with the kids and very very patient. Raees Ahmadzi came up to me and said ”This is a historic day for Afghanistan, this has never happened before and it is the start of something wonderful”...he also said that since he was born, he had never witnessed this weather in Jalalabad!

2 boys with disabilities from Polio from the SCA special needs school turned up and received special bowling training from Karim. We discovered some real talent and about 5 of the boys, including a 13 year old fast bowler who was outstanding and may well be recommended to the Afghan National Cricket Academy for training. It really was a miracle to see all these boys here and all the team here and this amazing event unfolding.

Lunch was provided from great cooking pots and piled high onto plates. I sat with the team and it is so fascinating talking with them. I was next to Sammi, who grew up in the refugee camps of Pakistan having fled the fighting with his family when he was two years old. They were there for 19 years. Cricket was his saving grace and he said that he could never in his wildest dreams have believed that one day he would play for his country....his mother is very proud of him!

More coaching after lunch as the skies unleashed a steady shower of rain adding a distinctly British flavour to the day. Then end of the first day of camp. Children ran back to their buses and we all went home to dry off over steaming cups of incredibly sweet tea!

This is the first camp of its kind funded by the MCC and has brought so much happiness and hope to the children and I am sure it will inspire them for the rest of their lives.

Sunday May 3rd

I hate turbulence! Matthew and I left Kabul airport in a PACTEC plane, the only two passengers on board. It was a grey morning with thick dark clouds over the mountains and drizzle falling over the city. Amazing to have the plane and two pilots all to ourselves...though perhaps mildly disconcerting as to why!

Afghanistan from the air is usually an arid and desolate place, but the rains really have made a difference and it is like looking out over a different land. Everything so much greener, rivers and lakes full.

Before we reach Jalalabad, we watch the blackest clouds creep in around us and the turbulence starts...last time this happened I described it as like being a butterfly in a washing machine and I stand by my description......really unpleasant!!

Jalalabad is just a handful of miles from Torkham, the gateway to the tribal areas of Pakistan. The Americans are here in force and the airport we will use to land is now a military base. We are in a less friendly place now than Kabul. We are warned by the pilots that we have to make a very steep descent as a precaution and sure enough the plane banks hard to the left and we nosedive down towards the runway. Lined by vehicles of war and razor wire, we make our approach to Jalalabad airport. There we are dropped and have to make our own way the 2 km road to exit the base. By absolute chance there is a blond man dropping his friend off to take our plane back to Kabul. He is an American and has his two sons aged 2 and 4 with him...all three are blond and dressed in shalois chamise and it seems surreal to see them standing in this inhospitable place so far from home. They are one of only two expat families in Jalalabad and very kindly offer us a lift to the perimeter.

We immediately notice a change in atmosphere as we walk out into this Eastern province of Afghanistan. We are ushered into our car and told to lock the doors and off we go to the office. Lovely to see all the drivers again who used to take me round the schools here and in and out of Pakistan in the early days. We meet up with SCA members, Lucy, Leslie and Ollie and Raees Ahmadzi from the Afghan team. We have 3 local cars so as not to stand out too much along the road and head off to Roghano school.

It is like being in a different country compared to the North. The landscape is flat and fertile. The homes are large compounds with massively high adobe walls and look very sinister and unwelcoming from without....but judging by the tree tops protruding over the walls, they are havens within. We head off road and soon arrive at Roghano. Twinned to Marshgate and Brighton and Hove schools, Roghano houses 1300 boys and 1200 girls in 2 separate shifts. AC has just funded 7 new classrooms here and the twin schools have provided computers, science kit, sports kit, sewing machines and a generator.

The new classrooms look amazing and have been painted with murals of Afghanistan. The well is up and working. The boys are anxiously awaiting our arrival. We are here to open the new cricket wicket, funded by MCC through AC and to give coaching to the boys...they are totally overwhelmed that Raees, their great cricketing hero, is here at their school to give coaching. Matthew gives out Spirit of Cricket clothes and caps and we distribute the Fairstead Trust funded equipment.

The wicket looks great and we open with a demonstration by Matthew and Raees......and there follows a wonderful morning of cricket with several balls being hit right over the boundary wall and into the dust beyond. Lovely to hear Matthew explaining the meaning behind The Spirit of Cricket and discussing sportsmanship with these boys.....most of whom grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan, having fled the years of fighting...and it was here that they learned to play cricket.

I visit the girls classrooms and distribute the letters and gifts from Brighton and Hove High School and show them a film about the school . It is a very conservative area and these girls are not allowed to play sport. None of their mothers had an education. We are not allowed to take photos of the older girls. When asked about the 3 most important things in their lives, they say Religion, education and community. They long for better trained teachers and a chance to go on beyond Grade no girls have managed before...but they say they will not leave the school until grade I can already see the determination in these girls as I have seen in so many on my travels.

The head teacher asks us to his village for lunch. Feeling incredibly tired as this trip has been so full on! So was an utter delight to drive through the fields into a village by a stream with beautiful trees and to see before us a leafy square, shaded by mulberry trees, spilling their fruit on the cool ground. Laid out in a square were string beds covered with red tapestry cushions and in the centre, huge ochre Afghan carpets. Such a peaceful and timeless scene and so welcoming in the heat of the afternoon.

Lunch soon arrived and was laid right down the centre of the rug and we all sat together, with children milling around us and little faces peering through the gateway, discussing families, age, travels and life.....our hosts, the two brothers in their turbans and grey beards, with huge smiles and wicked eyes, described their 27 children to us of whom is doing a masters in Thailand.....all marvellous and extraordinary and once again a true example of Afghan hospitality. Delicious breads and okra and beans, cucumber and tomatoes and coriander fresh from the fields

We are sad to leave but security means we should stay nowhere for too long. It had seemed so calm and hospitable, sharing food outside with those wonderful characters......and then as we drove back through the strange adobe walls and closed doors of the villages, we saw a huge cloud of dust ahead and a black hawk US helicopter rising out of the dust just metres ahead of us. It circled above our cars, so low, so near and for one moment I wondered if they were going to fire, but they moved on and did a practice landing just beside us engulfing the area in a sweep of dust. So menacing.

As I write..electricity has gone out and I am plunged into darkness in this rather bleak and lonely guest house. Cricket camp tomorrow.....wonder how on earth it will all work out many kids and so much organizing....and so much that could go wrong! As Raees mentioned over supper...”oh yes....people have heard Afghan team is coming may be thousands will turn up to watch...but don’t worry, everything is under control!”

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Saturday May 2nd

Cricket comes to Andarab!

An amazing feat! 2 Brits an Afghan and a Swede drive 12 hours to and from a school in Andarab and deliver cricket equipment to the kids.

Set out on a stunning dawn in Kabul, clear skies and a long road ahead. Ali, our driver is a splendid character and drove me all round Afghanistan last year. Rotund and jolly and sporting a moustache and a heart warming smile, he is larger than life and a great companion.

We head up towards the Salang ...yet again for me....and stop half way up by the river for a picnic breakfast provided by Jorgen, the Swedish Programme Director for SCA.

A Wonderful breakfast looking up to the snows of the Hindu Kush. Most perfect morning to see the views from the top of the pass stretching for miles along the spines and great for Matthew Fleming to have a first taste of Afghanistan beyond Kabul.

The tunnel seemed longer than ever, with visibility down to feet in the three kilometres of Stygian darkness, thick with pollution and choking fumes.

On up towards the North for 4 hours and then off the tarmac and on to the off road part of the trip. I didn’t recognise the landscape...there has been so much rain and my last visit was during a drought. The views are so beautiful—valleys stretching for miles, straddling the river, everything so green. Poppies and wildflowers everywhere, farmers in the fields and intricate networks of irrigation channels all full and crisscrossing their way over the land. Huge bands of the Hindu Kush dominate the horizon.

Then ahead, we meet a military ISAF convoy travelling painstakingly slowly and looking wholly out of place in this peaceful, timeless scene. Great armoured vehicles with men armed to the hilt surveying the landscape from the turrets. Huge red signs warn against trying to overtake, so we follow this line along the bumpiest of tracks. None of us can remember how far the school is down this track and as the minutes and hours pass we keep expecting it round every corner...but it never comes!

Then at last, I recognise the local bazaar and see the school. 6 and half hours after we leave Kabul, we finally enter the gates to the school.

So worthwhile. The school is Sang Boran and is twinned to Eton College. They have 2000 boys and only 10 classrooms and everywhere the children are outside or in tents studying in the heat of the Andarab noon. AC has managed to get two donors to build a school for these boys and the workmen and engineers are hard at work on site and it is really exciting to see. We are greeted with a warm welcome form Nasrullah—my favourite teacher- and the headmaster and other staff. They all say how happy they are in the community and the school that the new buildings are going up and at last they will have a proper school. They say that they are amazed that “a lady from another land” has found the means to build them a school.

We visit all the classes outside and see the new cricket pitch funded by MCC well under construction. Then Matthew is introduced as a famous cricketer from England and we start to hand out all the cricket equipment provided by the Fairstead Trust. Hundreds of children crowd around the vehicle as 15 are chosen to try on all the new kit. Matthew puts the stumps in to the hard ground and a space is cleared and he begins a coaching session ...just marvellous and everywhere I look I see children perched on piles of bricks or hanging out of windows or joining the crowd to watch the scene. So happy.

The boys play on as we are led to lunch in a tiny room overlooking the hills and mountains in this idyllic spot. Have a wonderful lunch all sitting on the carpet eating kebabs and naan with the teachers and watching on my computer, the film of my last visit...which they love.

We say our goodbyes, conscious that with another 6 hours drive ahead of us, we will not reach Kabul before nightfall.

Quite a few days for Matthew—who only arrived after 24 hour flight from London yesterday, played in the Kabul Cup and then travelled to the remotest parts of Afghanistan to touch it with cricket!

As we come back into Kabul, there is a dust storm and the winds sweep across the Shomali plain. The distant hills come alive with light as the lightning strikes to the East. Tiny stalls line the route with little swinging lamps and the streets are alive and full of stall holders selling their wares. A car with a bemused looking goat strapped to the roof overtakes us. Ungainly wedding halls are lit up like great ships in the night and as we drive through this scene of a chaotic evening, which is so vibrant...Ali tells us how it was under the Taliban...with no electricity, no music, no thriving businesses, no joy.

But we have seen so much joy today and perhaps we may one day see an Afghan cricketer who heralded from Sang Boran and was inspired by some English cricketer who chanced to call at his school!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Friday May 1st

Pictures have arrived! Paula

Amazing day ...left far too early at 5am and fantastic views throughout journey especially of Hindu Kush as we crossed Salang clear we could see for miles. But also very hard on the back as have done so many miles! 8 hours later rocked up In Kabul and raced straight off to ISAF where the Ditchling Cricket Team were playing the Afghan National team in the Kabul Cup - a truly eccentric event .... first started when the Afghan team visited Ditchling a few years back and beat them and this is the return match.

I arrived at ISAF and walked through the barriers and was given a charming Macedonian soldier armed with machine gun to escort me to the cricket. Bizarre walk through an Afghan bazaar which is especially set up for the Forces. All the soldiers walking around and shopping. Then arrived at the cricket pitch and could have been anywhere in the world. A stand had been set up and it was full of journalists, BBC, ITN name it! Also just happen to be 8 Old Etonians working in Kabul—most as journalists. The Guardian gave me an interview, the Times/Telegraph/Mail ...all there to cover this extraordinary event. It has already been on Radio 4 this morning and will be on ITN tonight. Lovely to meet up with Matthew Fleming, former Captain of Kent and England player who has helped us get all our funding from MCC and will accompany me from now on.

Needless to say the Afghans thrashed Ditchling in a very good natured match with a marvellous and very biased Afghan commentator. At the end an Afghan blowing an instrument and his friend playing the drums were serenading the players in sheer delight and then one of the English cricketers got out his bugle and the two of them had a competition to serenade their team...all great fun. The cup was presented and the Afghans whooped with joy at yet another victory over the British! All the Afghan team came to greet me. The British Ambassador talked to us for ages and promised to help AC with any of our work.

Then the blue skies vanished and a massive storm cloud approached. The wind got up and the skies went black and thunder and lightening crashed across the area. All the tents from the bazaar went flying into the air, the barbeque tent was torn from its pegs and collapsed on all the food, swirls of dust blew plates and food into the air and people dashed for cover as the rain poured down...a dramatic end to this extraordinary event!

Off to the Gandermack tonight for a celebration with the team and then another massive journey tomorrow to Sang Boran school.

Thursday 30th April

Sarah has sent so many great pictures I couldn't resist adding as many in as possible ! See 29th April for picture of boys playing cricket. Paula

Another glorious morning and up at 5am. Invited for breakfast with Ramanullah—an Afghan lady I had met in Sweden…. so we all went to her home very early. In the courtyard plates of fresh fruits and nuts, naan breads straight from the oven, eggs, cakes, cheeses, dried fruit and sweet green tea was laid out. It was all brought in to us as we sat down in a carpeted room and met Ramanullah and her 5 daughters. Had a wonderful time in this gaggle of women.

Raced on to Kunduz and to the RAD Centre for deaf and cerebral palsied kids. Incredible welcome with children throwing themselves into my arms, gesticulating wildly in sign language and kissing me. They are so affectionate and I have come to know them so well. Gave them all the presents from Arbour Vale kids …lovingly made by these very special children in the UK who are excluded from main stream education and, like these Afghan children are incredibly affectionate and giving and love preparing things for me to take to Afghanistan. This time T shirts for the boys with cricket pictures painted on them and scarves for the girls with messages in their own script ….they are thrilled. So sad to tear ourselves away as we usually manage a much longer visit. Sad farewells and promises to return.

Speed away back to Taloqan falling asleep and crashing my head at every bump. Arrive at the Taloqan centre for deaf and blind students, run by SCA and twinned recently to The Mary Hare School in Newbury. A lovely little school with amazing teachers awaits us …they are so dedicated and teach all the families and friends of the deaf students,to sign language…so they are no longer isolated in their communities. They study the mainstream curriculum and aim for university—it is a unique place here in Afghanistan. They teach the blind children braile.

We meet all the children and tell them about their new link school and present them with a stunning wall hanging made by the children at Mary Hare. They are so happy and stand up one at a time to give messages …which are translated back to us from sign to English and we will carry home with us.

Then on to Sari Sang School –twinned with St Catherines. Took a class of 70 girls aged 16-18 and gave a talk on the Millennium Development Goals, illustrated with lots of slides. Was fascinating to have their comments on these MDGs. They had never heard about them ...the 9 goals created by the global community in 2000 aiming for an end to poverty and hunger, primary education for all ,reduction in child and maternal mortality, gender issues..equality for men and women/womens rights/ security, and others by 2015 and by 2020 in Afghanistan.

They discussed why Afghanistan has problems with these issues many of the village women die in childbirth because there is no clinic near by, how poor security is the main barrier to achieving all of these goals by 2020 in Afghanistan, how some parents still wont let their children be educated because of economic reasons, security and tradition ...but they also described the positives - the fact that so many more children are coming to school, that they have some chance now to go on to become teachers and doctors and to serve their communities.

When asked for three things they valued most it was health, school and family and when asked what one thing would change their lives for the better they all said a road - a tarmac road would enable them to get agricultural produce to the markets, women to medical care, students to further education .....and when asked what order they would place the goals in in terms of importance to them they put security first and gender last a fascinating insight and a very good lesson into how we should take more notice of what is needed and wanted rather than what we think the Afghans want.