Saturday, 23 April 2011

20th April 2011

Wonderful to leave Taloqan and head off to the mountains of Worsaj. The familiar drive through the gentle hills of Taloqan and on to the wilder floodplains before Fakhar with the snow topped mountains of Worsaj growing ever nearer. Such a familiar route now and past schools which we have built- Ledgei and Wahdat, still there and in their beautiful surroundings serving the local communities.

The welcome we receive at Bibi Ayisha is legendary and today was no different with rows of children standing in lines, singing us a greeting and showering me with glitter and flowers and placing garlands over my head. I love seeing the guards –splendid old men who have more wrinkles added to the contours of their face at every visit and who greet me like family.

After breakfast of fresh trout from the river, wild rocket with fresh cucumbers and naan with carrot and plum jam, served with the most delicious green tea, we went to see the boys’ school. I had opened the school last year and again we received the most magnificent welcome with the whole school standing waiting for us with more flowers and garlands.

Qawunduz Village was next and a visit to the Khadeja Kubretal Girls School. I had visited last year and we were asked to build a school for the 750 girls, most of whom were studying outside. The Bonita Trust has funded the majority of the building and the donor who came to visit last year has funded the rest and part of another girls’ school further up the valley. It was incredibly emotional arriving to find all the village men out laying the foundations of the school and moving the village road so that classrooms could be built. This is their contribution to the project and I saw them all and thanked them and watched the first foundations of the school being laid.

All the girls had come out to thank us and there followed another procession with flowers and garlands and cheers and then I was asked to give a speech. The visit was made even more emotional as our donor is very unwell and I so wished he could have been here to see the beginnings of his school and the joy he has helped to bring to these children. We were not allowed to leave without another delicious meal and more green tea!

We continued on to Anoy School which is in deperate need of classrooms. From the ridge we could see 2 tents and a classroom outside and all the other classes being held in an old building with no roof and broken down walls. I know I could get funding for this school. The need is overwhelming. However a grim man arrived and told us in loud aggressive tones that we would have to buy the land if we want to build the school. The community told us that he is a corrupt politician and never owned the land but has a fake certificate of ownership. So they refuse to pay him for the land and these children will not get a school unless some other land can be found. So depressing.

To cheer things up I distributed the beanie hats knitted by the women of East Woodhay and soon hundreds of children were wearing brightly coloured hats. Wonderful sight! Well worth bringing them all this way!

Then on to a community based school in Viruf which is being funded by AC. We are funding 30 CBS in Worsaj for 600 children and without these schools the children would not receive an education because the nearest schools are too far away. They are run out of houses or the mosque by arrangement with the community and AC pays the teachers and for the stationery and teacher training. Fantastic to see the young children studying- some of them in their first year at school. Had great fun watching their classes.

Then mats were brought and laid out by the river under the shade of the purple blossoms of the pistachio trees. Tea was served with fresh almonds and raisins.

Lastly a visit to the teacher training centre where 50 women were having training in the fading light- the future teachers of Worsaj.

And now we are in a carpeted room in a home in the hills of Qawunduz. I am sitting on cushions with 12 men sitting smiling and watching me write. They are so hospitable and arrived with bags of fresh trout to cook for our dinner. It is so rare for foreigners to stay in villages these days and we are incredibly privileged. I feel very safe here. But I am afraid of Friday and just pray that the madman in the US is not planning to burn the Q again as we have been informed which case we will leave here tomorrow and get to Faizabad.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

19th April 2011

Very early start after very bad nights sleep, but a beautiful clear morning and the journey to Keshem was stunning , with the morning light on the mountains and hills and the clearest blue skies. Drove to Jari Shah Baba School, where we have built 2 classroom blocks and were greeted by the children and teachers standing at the gate. They came forward one by one and put garlands around our necks and gave us bunches of brightly coloured flowers and sang the Afghan song of welcome to us - so many familiar faces and wonderful to be back.

Gareth and Jane received a wonderful welcome and we went round the classrooms, chatting to the students. They asked us questions and told us about their lives and all the difficulties they face with getting a good education. Wherever we go we are told that the biggest problem is the standard of teaching.

They had prepared a feast for us, cooked by the students with the equipment Holt school bought for them last year. After this we did more interviews with the students for our film on Education, which will be shown to Parliamentarians in Estonia, Solvakia, Sweden, Uk, the European Parliament and in Afghanistan. The girls who came forward to be interviewed were amazing and one had been to Kabul last month to take part in our Video Conference with the European students. She has illiterate parents -her father is a bus driver and has been desperate for his children to have an education to better themselves and leave the life of poverty they lead. She wants to be a female police woman because she believes that if the country had a good police force, security would be much better. Brave girl! She had heard that we were coming and had stayed up all night to crochet a table mat for me. The head mistress gave me a beautiful scarf in pink with silver embroidery and the headmaster gave me antique silver pendant “for my daughter “ and an embroidered handkerchief for my son!

We said our goodbyes and then headed off to Mashad School where AC has funded classrooms which were completed when I visited last year. Then there were 2500 students, now there are 3000 and there are only 63 teachers. Again, we were greeted with flowers and garlands and a choir. Prefects kept the children in order by wielding sticks! Hundreds of girls came to see us and we walked around visiting the classes. Then more gifts were presented - this time Afghan clothes for us all.

To my horror, we were then invited by the local education manager back to a local house for lunch. We were already full up from the first lunch! We were welcomed in to an immaculate house and sat on the floor and served the most enormous amount of food, all beautifully presented-salads and local herbs, huge plates of rice, whole chickens, big lumps of mutton, soup, yoghurt and fruit. I had the worst possible place to sit, between the two Afghans who were responsible for the feast...they kept on and on filling my plate until I could have wept! I could hardly move to stand up. Fond farewells. Slept all the way home.

Monday, 18 April 2011

18th April 2011

From Kabul to Faizabad

Yesterday in Kabul full of very useful meetings and a wonderful evening with Leslie Knott, who made the film Out of the Ashes, Miles Amoore, journalist and Raees Ahmadzi, cricketer, joining us. But today we left Kabul and I was SO happy to get away. Boarded the UN flight for Faizabad and reflected that it was on a UN flight from Peshawar almost exactly 10 years ago to the day that I flew in to Afghanistan for the first time, landing in Faizabad.

At that time Afghanistan was in the grip of the Taliban who had just destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan and were fighting the Northern Alliance and causing misery across the country. I was terrified then, but at the same time,I remember the feeling of exhilaration as I landed and began my incredible journey to a clinic in the Panjshir. Back then there were no tarmac roads and few foreigners and we never knew from day to day where we would arrive at dusk or where we would stay. We relied on the hospitality of strangers and finally made it to the clinic, where I saw hundreds of women and children and heard the stories of their lives, which had neither joy nor hope. There were hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people living in refugee camps which stretched out as far as the eye could see and hospitals, bombed by the Taliban, operating out of shells of buildings on patients from the frontline. It is strange to look back on the ten years and seeing how that journey has changed my life.

The landing strip is the same and the approach as treacherous and beautiful, over the Hindu Kush and hairpinning down to the metal runway and an isolated Badakshan. It is uniquely beautiful, with vast lush hills and massive mountains and villages perched impossibly on to the steep shale strewn slopes. But the road has tarmac and we sped along past timeless scenes of donkeys with bright saddle bags, men in purple and green striped Badakshani coats and women clad in brilliant blue burkhas.

Arrived in Taloqan within a few hours and were greeted at the office by Mukhtar, whom I have known for years and the familiar faces of the guards. Splendid lunch and off to Sari Sang School, twinned to St Catherines. Deeply conservative area in a village hidden in the midst of adobe walls, narrow dusty lanes and fields where men followed the oxen ploughing as others had done centuries before. The girls were great and begged us to get them better teachers. But as with everything else in Afghanistan, it is fraught with complex issues and the headmaster has little power to hire and fire -so much is dependent still on the powers that be higher up and who they know and which teachers they favour. The girls spoke English, though it sounded as if they had learned the phrases off by heart. They loved the cards and letters from St Catherines and asked lots of questions about the girls in England.
And now about to sleep in my dorm of 4 – Sima, Olympia and Jane and we will head off at dawn for Keshem to visit Jari Shah Baba School.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

15th April 2011

Kabul one year on. A fortress city with more fortifications.

I am here with two teachers, Jane, an English teacher from The Sholing Technology College, Southampton and Gareth, a History teacher from Eton, who are here to give teacher training, and with Ollie, who will be making a film for us.

After a security briefing from SCA (always enough to make one want to turn back and run home) we set out for Said Daoud Khan Girls School where we were running one of our girls cricket coaching camps. Miles Amoore, Sunday Times Correspondent, (who came to Afghanistan with me years back when he was on the Newbury weekly news desk) joined us fresh from Libya where he had been reporting, escorted by Gadaffi’s henchmen.

50 girls from 5 different ethnic groups, had come together from 5 schools across Kabul for a 2 day camp. Dressed in whites emblazoned with the Spirit of Cricket, Afghan Connection and AYCSO, they received coaching from 3 female and one male coach -all siblings from a wonderful cricketing family. The female coaches play for the Afghanistan Women’s Cricket Team.

Most girls were playing cricket for the first time, but a few had played before and one or two were magnificent and have been spotted for the Afghan team. One had been taught by her 3 brothers in the refugee camps of Pakistan. Judging by the strength the ball that whacked me off her bat, they taught her well! Another, called Diana, comes from a cricketing family too and all her siblings and both her parents play. A beautiful girl with green eyes and henna in her hair told me how she had her parents’ blessing to be at the camp but all her aunts and uncles were very against it and had criticised the family. She loves cricket and says she is very very angry that girls have so few opportunities and that “uneducated” people across Afghanistan make life so hard and restricted for women. Some spoke excellent English and loved talking to us about everything from cricket to hair dyes, their passion for romantic novels including Romeo and Juliet and their determination to have careers as engineers and doctors. They begged us to come back again and do another camp for them.

When people ask me, as they often do, why I continue to work in Afghanistan when there is such poor security and such a huge cloud lying over the future, I wish they could meet these girls. It is when I see them and listen to them and witness their determination and indomitable spirit despite all that they are up against, that I know that we cannot give up. Jane told me how her Nicaraguan daughter in law had told her that the one thing that gave her hope as a child during the worst years of civil war, were the teachers who came to Nicaragua and risked their lives to bring them education. It allowed her to become literate and made her feel that people outside of her country cared about her and she has never forgotten.

I think of the letter I received from a girl in Bibi Ayisha Girls School in remote Northern Afghanistan, saying that the best day of her life was the day I visited her school, which had no classrooms. Now she studies in a brand new school with 1100 other girls. She has hope. And as I look at Kabul one year on, with a cold drizzle falling from skies which hum with helicopters and sirens and feel slight despair at the lack of progress and the uneasy atmosphere of fear, I will keep those girls in the forefront of my mind and not give up!