Sunday, 6 October 2013

The trip begins...

Sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow, I received a call from William Reeve, my trustee, who is accompanying me on the trip. He was unable to make the flight due to a hold up on the underground. As I lamented this, pandemonium broke out, with staff rushing around looking thoroughly confused. I looked out of the window at our plane and couldn't believe my eyes. A food delivery lorry had crashed straight into the plane; its roof denting the right wing. Men clad in yellow jackets pulled ladders up to the plane and inspected the damage with torches as I wondered if I was really at Heathrow and not Kabul!   At this point William called to say he had managed to get himself on a Qantas flight and was about to take off .  My flight was cancelled and I was herded back through passport control and to the baggage hall where my bag was the last to pop out, meaning I was number 400 in the queue for the hotel bus! I managed just an hour in bed before heading back for the morning flight.I had 2 Americans waiting to join me in Dubai for  the Kabul flight which I would now miss and that would mean missing the essential flight North the next morning.

The Americans, Jean (who is on our US Board) and Diana, her daughter, a journalist doing a story on our work, had cancelled their flights and waited for me, so finally at 3am, some 24 hours after I set out, we boarded the Kabul flight, and I spent a second night without sleep.

1st October 

Arriving in Kabul, we felt overwhelmingly cheerful and relieved. We were met and taken to the compound and the SCA, as they always do, helped us to rearrange everything and even managed to get us on the UN Flight North for the next morning. A trip to the Babur gardens and a little carpet shopping lifted spirits further. The gardens have been restored by the Aga Khan Foundation.

In the evening we headed for the British Embassy and made our way through its heavily protected approach. Sir Richard Stagg has been a wonderful support to AC since he was introduced to us prior to leaving the UK for his post in Kabul. He had invited some very interesting guests and we had a fascinating evening discussing politics, archaeology and the future of Afghanistan.

The UNHAS flight took us over the Hindu Kush and dropped us at Faizabad, exactly as it had in 2001 on my first journey through Afghanistan. The plan was to go off road to see Ghulam Rasool School, in Farkhar Province, before heading on to Worsaj.

We reached the turn off to find that the bridge had been washed away and we had to go on another even more off road route! It was tough travelling and the drivers struggled over the stony river beds and dusty tracks.  We kept getting out of the car while they negotiated the difficulties until at last we arrived at the school. We were late and the children had gone home. The tents for 700 children lay empty, but the Mullah put out a message over the mosque speaker system, calling the children back to school. From all sides of the dusty hills, brightly clad children descended on the school.  Great joy ensued and we received a wonderful welcome. We discussed the building of a new school. The community are very pro education. Every child in the village and the surrounding area goes to school and the school will have its first Grade 12 class next year.

After farewells, we started for Worsaj. The small bridge we had crossed to reach the village had been destroyed by a vehicle just before we tried to cross it.  There we were in the middle of nowhere, unable to proceed. At that moment, my phone rang and it was the Sunday Times saying they may be interested in our charity for their Christmas Appeal… and then the signal failed! At such moments life seems bizarre, I watched some men carting logs to remake the bridge and a woman screaming at them for removing her logs and meanwhile wondered how we would ever get to Worsaj and what the woman from the Sunday Times was going to say!

We managed to get back to the main track to Worsaj and drove on fast as dusk fell, arriving in the dark at Worsaj. We were greeted at Bibi Aisha School by teachers and guards - familiar faces in the dark night to welcome us to Worsaj.  We walked through the village and stopped off at the little wooden shops to watch the local tailors up late preparing numerous festive outfits for their customers in time for Eid.  

Some of them had young employees who had studied at one of our schools, Zouhruddin Boys School. In another, small wooden building we found a dorm for 4 young students. They stayed there all week as there is no school which goes beyond grade 9 in their village, so they come from miles away to stay at Khanaka village and attend Zouhruddin school.

We crossed the river looking at the stars above and I felt so happy to be back here. We were welcomed into a home and the women of our party were taken to the womens quarters for supper and long talks with the women before at last we could curl up in our sleeping bags.

October 3rd – A long day

We arrived early at Kemyan School, This is a small community based school supported by AC and last year we started to build a school for the children. This year it was complete and a fantastic sight! The children crowded in front of the school and we were presented with garlands and welcomed and thanked.

We went round the classes and chatted with the children and celebrated International Day of the Girl with them a few days early. The head of the village arrived, whom we had met last year, looking splendid with his long white beard and turban, with dark glasses perched on his nose. He invited us to stay the night with him and his son who is a Colonel in the Afghan National Army, off duty from fighting the Taliban in Paktia. The school had prepared tea and fruit-huge plates of grapes, peaches, pears and apples, all grown in the valley and absolutely delicious.

After Kemyan came a visit to Bibi Zainab School, where the new classroom block we are building is almost complete.  As we walked through the gates, all the children were lined up and clapped and put garlands over my head. 700 girls attend the school and the drop-out rate is zero. There is such a tremendous desire from the people to have their children educated that none now pull their daughters out before they complete school and some are even married but still continuing their studies. 15 year 12 girls graduated to university last year, 5 more than the previous year. Not one of them has a mother that can read or write. It was inspiring visiting the classrooms. The girls in year 12 were all applying to university and the faculties included Law, Medicine, Engineering, Religious Studies, nursing and teaching. One of the girls told us that she was teaching her mother to read and write.

We visited Ashrafia Boys School next and once again were greeted by hundreds of students lining the route.  There was a megaphone and we all had to give a speech and were presented with embroidered clothes and scarves. The boys need a new school. 800 of them study in a tiny classroom block in shifts and the rooms are so old they are caving in. Sometimes the demand is overwhelming. We have done so well, but still need to build 3 more schools in Worsaj. You look out on a sea of expectant faces and understand that there is no way that they realise how hard it is for us to raise the money for each school! Great fun in the classrooms chatting to the boys and giving them balloons before being invited to a delicious lunch on carpets laid out in the shade.

The next school to visit was Annoy, a school for 600 girls and boys up a different valley. It was a beautiful journey, following the Kokcha River. The school lies in a valley in a bowl of mountains. The children used to study outside in this windswept place and we were incredibly excited about seeing the new school. It looked absolutely wonderful surrounded by poplars, in this idyllic setting. As we walked down the hill to the valley floor we could see lines of young children awaiting our arrival. Lots of clapping and garlands and great celebration ensued. There is a lovely play area in front of the school with a volleyball net. The teachers invited us in to tea and fresh peaches and thanked us for their new school. They are working hard to bring hydroelectric power to the school.

One of the cars broke down on the way back so it was late and dark by the time we finally reached our night stop at the Commander’s house. It was a slightly hair raising drive up to the craggy heights where the house perched at the very top of the mountain. Diana, Jean, Farzana and I went to the women's quarters and were greeted by lots of welcoming faces and kisses and taken in to a magnificent room, all carpeted in red.

The Commander has three wives and 13 children and most of them were with us, along with his mother, neighbours and a sad looking widow who connected to me with a most compassionate smile. Her husband had died 20 years before and 5 of her children had died before the age of two, leaving just one son who looks after her. We were presented with a feast as ever in this land of incredible hospitality. Then the girls sat telling us stories about their lives. One of them had met me at her school, Bibi Aysha 8 years before, when all the girls were studying outside. She remembers twinning with a UK school and receiving letters from the girls there when I visited. She used to write letters back and weave baskets for the girls in England. She described the excitement when AC built a new school for them. She had graduated from year 12 and gone on to teach at Kemyan school -one of our Community Schools, which we fund to provide schooling for children who live too far from their local government school. This year we also built a new school for Kemyan and provided 4 courses of teacher training to this AC has played a very strong part in her life.

The women produced huge tambourines and started dancing for us. Each in turn, stood to dance ...reluctantly and shyly as the number 1 wife dragged them to their feet. So elegant and graceful.  At last after a visit from the Commander and his father, we said our goodnights. A very disturbed night sleeping on toshaks on the floor surrounded by Afghan women and their sleepless babies!

I always love waking up in a place where I have arrived late at night and seeing it in the morning light. This morning was no exception. I looked out of the door to see we were right at the mountain top, with the ground dropping away for miles beneath us and a view, through the light mist of the valley below of the river catching squares of morning sunshine. Unbelievably beautiful. We were given fresh trout, hot cows milk with sugar, naan, and yoghurt. The old man of the house told us that once Alan Johnstone had stayed with him for 4 nights on the way to the Panjshir. He is a splendid fellow who we met last year and is very gentle. He begged his wife to have her photo taken with him, but she wouldn’t have it and an affectionate moment of him trying to persuade her and teasing her followed, and then he picked up his grandchild and kissed him in the sweetest fashion. Those few moments seemed so precious. It is a rare glimpse of affection that is seldom seen in our presence and is greatly heartening.

We were off to the lake for a picnic as all the schools were closed for Friday day off. We picnicked under the trees, on an island on the river, surrounded by mountains in the shadow of the Anjoman pass.

We spent the night with our school monitors, (Jamiullah is shown below) where we had spent the first night and had a lovely evening with the women. Very relaxed and it just felt such a privilege to be with them. Usually the entire neighbourhood comes in to join us, but as it was our second night there, it was just the women of the family. Their kindness is extraordinary and I felt such a bond with them. The brightness and sheer volume of stars, the vast shadow of the mountains and the sound of the river made me feel a million miles from home and yet looking at those faces and being with these people you feel welcome and totally at ease and safe and it is always sad to say goodbye.

October 4th – Our last Day in Worsaj

Deh Miran School is a Community Based School for over 300 children in the Tarusht Valley of Worsaj. You enter the school though a small wooden door in the adobe wall and immediately are hit by the sound of children chanting the alphabet or their numbers in some wonderful chorus of learning.

A year ago, some women who live near me at home, had knitted 160 beanie hats and asked me to bring them to Afghanistan. Finally I was to deliver them to the children and we had a great time handing out hats to one and all. The children all stood up and asked me to build them a school and this is a priority for AC for next year.

I was presented with a lilac outfit and several scarves and was taken off by all the female teachers and a lot of young girls to try it on...thank goodness it fitted and I left looking like an oversized sugar plum fairy.  They gave us breakfast in the orchard and had cooked the delicacy of guinea fowl for us!

Our last school visit was to Pastab. This is a school for 700 girls and 500 boys  which operates in numerous shifts in order to accommodate so many and so the children get very limited hours in school. The journey there is spectacular and the view of the school dramatic as it lies by the river at the base of massive mountains. We could see columns of children waiting for us and received the usual rapturous welcome. The elders had come from the surrounding villages, intent on securing a new school for the girls. Then speeches and gifts of beautiful embroidered clothes and 3 girls recited poetry for Teachers' Day.  Again we were treated to tea and fruit and then we watched the girls in their blue burkhas, looking so tiny against the mountains, heading to their homes which lie up to 2 hours away.

Now we are in Taloqan and a cold shower later I am clean at last and will sleep in a bed! It has been another special visit to this extraordinary part of the world. Great progress has been made, a tarmac road is inching its way towards Worsaj, nearly every boy and girl can go to school. There is real hope, but still so many challenges.

Standing at Taloqan airport it is hard to believe that a plane will land and take you back to Kabul. It is a strip of rocky land in a desert landscape surrounded by dust strewn hills. You can see clouds of dust rising in the distance as villagers ride their donkeys to market and young boys push barrows laden with cauliflowers to sell in the bazaars of Taloqan.

The 3 policemen there love having their photos taken and our drivers join in.  Haji tells us how desolate he feels each time we leave and he watches us disappear in the plane back to our comfortable lives. As we wait, the men bring out leather office chairs for us to sit on, which in this harsh landscape seems ridiculously incongruous. It is a wonderful to hear the distant engine of the plane and to watch its tiny white bird like body circling and then landing, sending up great plumes of dust. The door opens and we step up the ladder and are scooped out of this harsh environment and flown over the snows of the Hindu Kush back to Kabul.

We went straight to the girls' cricket camp which was being held at a Hazara School in the suburbs of Kabul. It was a truly wonderful sight driving into the school to see fifty girls clad in smart cricket kit and caps receiving training in the sunshine. They were so excited and happy. The sense of freedom was palpable as they enjoyed rare minutes of sport and fun totally dedicated to themselves.

Three of the coaches were sisters, including Diana Barakzai who received Level 1 coaching from AC and has just been to Pakistan where she became the first Afghan woman to receive her Level 2 coaching. She and her sisters and 4 other girls at the camp are members of the Afghan Women's national cricket team. The struggle they have had and continue to have is massive but the fact that they have a team is a miracle in itself and a great beginning.

They have only played abroad once, in Tajikistan, where they were victorious. Their biggest sadness was that when they returned to Kabul, there was no one there to meet them, whereas thousands turn out for the men's team whenever they return from success abroad. They are thrilled that the men's team has just made it to the World Cup 2015 to be held in Australia. The team will play the likes of India and England on a world stage and the Afghan Cricket Board has received generous funding from the ICC as a result. Afghan Cricket is well and truly on the map...a fairy tale for this war torn land, whose cricket team has struggled with little support and risen to success through such determination, becoming role models for their countrymen. Just 5 years ago I carried bats and balls out for their academy, which was a dust field in Kabul. Now they have a National Stadium.

There are 4 girls’ cricket teams in Kabul schools and twice a week the girls are allowed to play at the National Stadium. Other teams exist in Herat,  Mazar, Jalalabad and Paktika and girls' leagues will be set up in the provinces soon thanks to Diana. She is on the Afghan Cricket Board now and has her own office there and a salary from them. The girls told us how she visits their families to persuade them to allow the girls to play cricket. They love their cricket and the camp brings such joy.
One of the girls said...”we love cricket, we love sport and we love our sports teachers, we are so happy today...”

With all the problems faced by women in Afghanistan, it is heartening to see this kind of joy and spirit. As one of them said, it will take years to change society and for women to have more rights, but this is a small beginning.

And so it is time to head home and I am writing this on the flight from Kabul, as we head down the runway bound for Dubai. I feel deeply relieved to be delivering Diana and Jean back safely and think they were incredibly brave to come. The perception of Afghanistan in The States is far from good and yet they chose to visit and have had their eyes opened to the complexity and beauty of Afghanistan.

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