Tuesday, 14 October 2014

10th October 2014 - a return visit to Bibi Ayisha Girls' School

I am sitting in Bibi Ayisha School at dusk. The mighty Anjoman Pass in the distance blushes radiant orange/pink in the evening glow as the sun sets over the Hindu Kush. The mountain ranges on ever side reflect the light of the falling sun and a cold wind whips up the dust below.
We set out early from Faizabad along the extraordinary road which was built by the Turkish and the Koreans with funds from USAID.  This road used to take forever and crossed what seemed like the top of the world through areas like those one sees from aeroplanes and imagines that no life can exist amongst the harsh contours of rock and dust. Now we race along its smooth tarmac which cuts the journey time from days to short hours.

Mud brick villages perch impossibly upon the steep slopes which tower over the Korcha River. We follow the river all the way to Worsaj, its waters becoming ever more translucent and a palette of emerald, turquoise and aquamarine. Full of fish too! The beauty of this area never ceases to impact, a hidden jewel ironically protected by conflict from the outside world.
The road has now extended past Farkhar and half way from there to Worsaj. This road was built by the Germans and is an engineering masterpiece complete with road markings and signs. It is transforming the region. I see Rickshaws for the first time and am told by Mukhtar that they have become a new form of cheap transport allowing women to get to clinics, teachers to schools, girls to education and further training. Buses can reach the villages and farmers can get produce to market in double quick time. There are more motor bikes but no more cars yet. But one can sense progress.
Harvest time and a Friday and all the villagers are out helping in the fields. The countryside is alive and dotted with the bright chadars of the girls and the chiselled outline of turbans.
Potatoes and onions are being unloaded in large tents where men pile them in to sacks and weigh them. Donkeys are scarcely recognisable under their huge loads of grasses, hay and firewood. Oxen pull ploughs through the empty fields and men attack grass with scythes as they have done for hundreds of years.
Because it is Friday and all the schools are closed we chose to film today and headed for Abdul Basir School. This is a Community Based School, set up in 2005 by The Swedish Committee and now funded by Afghan Connection. Before the CBE started, the children had to walk 10km to reach the nearest school. Many simply couldn't get there and so failed to have an education. Classes were started by SCA in 2005 in village houses. AC took over funding in 2011.  All the children were studying in the open or in tiny dark rooms. We were asked not only to fund the classes, but to build a school. We ran a Christmas campaign and managed to raise the funds thanks to wonderful donors ...and there were many of them.....and started building in 2013.

The road to Abdul Basir is a rough track that winds up through the villages and then into a dramatic plain which sweeps into the mountains beyond. It is a desolate but beautiful place with a dramatic view down into a valley hundreds of feet below which is the brightest green and such a contrast to the arid peaks all around the school. The nearest village is made of mud brick and scarcely shows, seeming almost to spring from the earth and to be a part of it.
There on this huge expanse of dust and rock is the bright blue Abdul Basir School, like a beacon of hope calling children to learn!  Always such a great feeling after the blood sweat and tears of fundraising with the girls back home at the office to see a beautiful new school!

The village elders and the school management committee (Shura) came to greet us. It is run by Mr Niazey,a magnificent character with a long beard and a Pakool, who remembers me from when I was a doctor in the Panjshir back in 2001....small world!! He thanks us on behalf of the community and says they are so happy to have a school and it has transformed the learning for the children.

There are now 195 children in the school, 89 of them girls. He says there is not a single family in the area who does not send their children to school. Rather than dividing the area into villages, they divide it into mosques....with each mosque community having roughly 50 families in it. We have 10 mosque areas attending this school and the new building is attracting more and more children.
We then met our lovely teacher, whose name I shall change to Farzana. She was there with her husbandand is very happy to be on the film for us.

She described her education. From Grade 1-6 school was held in a ruined building and they had just a little support with text books and stationery.  From Grade 7 things stared to improve and they sat on plastic mats and chairs. She remembers my first visit to Bibi Ayisha School, when she was in Grade 10 and the school was twinned to Sholing Tech in Southampton. I arrived with letters and cards from Sholing and they all begged me to build a school. At this time they were studying in a rented house with tiny dark rooms and half the girls were studying outside.
I had said I would do my best to build a school for them and their headmaster had not believed me because so many people had made promises before. So she was delighted when, by the following year they had a new school building by the river, complete with science lab, library and computer room.

She said that when she started learning there, she realised what school life could be like and her whole learning experience transformed. Finally she could sit in a classroom.While she was in Grade 12 she was recruited as a teacher to a community based school and was able to do teacher training, which also took place at Bibi Ayisha, once the school shifts were over for the day. She was married to a dentist at 18 years of age but allowed to continue with her studies. She now has 3 children and teaches at Abdul Basir, where once again she has benefited from AC support. We pay the salaries of the teachers and provide books and last year we started building a school, which is now complete and she no longer has to teach outside.
We stayed the night at our monitors home, sleeping on the floor with Woolayat and her baby. Not a quiet night! What with the dogs barking, the baby crying, the clock ticking and the fridge gurgling...amazing new addition in Worsaj......it was a long sleepless night!

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