Thursday, 27 July 2017

Summer 2017 Visit to Afghanistan

13th July 2017 Arrival in Afghanistan

Sitting under the shade of a pear tree, the morning sun casting dappled shadows across the rose bordered lawn, only the intrusion of the helicopters circling overhead reminds one that this garden is in Kabul, a city in its 39th year of conflict. So many famous gardens have graced this the city of gardens, so many have been replaced by T walls and barbed wire. 
It feels good to be back. It always does. The anxiety of the days leading up to the trip diminish as one soaks up the bustle of Kabul, greets friends from years gone by and becomes ensconced within its mountainous ring.

The day before we left, a little bit of Afghanistan came to London when Afghanistan, which has just received Test Status, played the M.C.C. at Lord's, the Home of Cricket. Mike Atherton wrote  a column in The Times entitled, My Most Inspiring Day at Lords and that sums it up.Thousands of Afghans traveled the country, and some came from Germany, Canada and even Afghanistan, to watch their beloved team play. The atmosphere in the ground, the cheers , the delight, the joy....all made for the most unforgettable day.

I am travelling with my son, Mike and my Chairman of Trustees, Sir Richard Stagg (RS). After 30 years working on and off in this region, to bring my son and to show him a place I love and the work we have done is a privilege. He speaks fluent Dari and it is a joy to watch the surprise and delight on the faces of all who meet him as he converses in their language. 
We go out to buy fruit and local clothing for the trip and have a happy time talking to the shopkeepers. The sadness though is etched in everyone's lives, relatives are scattered across the globe, sisters in Canada, brothers in Germany, the valued heart of every family torn apart by the years of war. And those who remain are afraid for their future and for the security of their city. 

14th July 2017 Kabul City
Murad Khani is part of the old city of Kabul and much of it have been restored by the Turquoise Mountain Foundation. RS is a Trustee so we are invited for a tour. The road is closed for a funeral, but we manage to bypass the police and reach the old city which lies alongside the Kabul River. The streets are paved with large stone slabs and are squeezed between the adobe walls of the ancient houses and shops. Tiny stalls fight for space and the light slants through the mud and wooden slatted overhang above. People greet us as we pass by, travelers along these narrow walkways which have witnessed hundreds of years of history and intrigue. 

The area was restored by TMF, led by Rory Stewart with support from Prince Charles and Hamid Karzai around 2006. The old city was largely crumbling and what was left was buried in tons of rubbish. A thousand Kabulis were employed to clear the rubbish and gradually the past emerged from the dust and much is now restored to its former splendour. We are shown the beautiful central buildings of Murad Khani, where TMF houses it's workshops for artisans,  aiming to rediscover and preserve the skills in woodwork, ceramics, jewellery making and calligraphy.
We see beautiful courtyards surrounded by intricately carved cedar wood balconies and arched windows, where Peacocks grace the lawns in the shade of pomegranate trees.  We explore tiny rooms, their walls covered in ancient plaster work and we walk across the mud and straw roof from where we can watch the hum of city life stretching out alongside the Kabul River below.
The afternoon is spent in the immaculately restored Babur gardens, where hundreds have come to enjoy their Friday off. Again, painstaking work has restored the former glory of the past. This time, the work which includes the Queens Palace, Babur’s Tomb and the gardens, has been done by the Aga Khan Foundation. 

Under every tree a family is enjoying a picnic in the shade, in every fountain or waterway, children are running and splashing and laughing and it is a place of joy and hope. I sit with a Hazara group and join them for tea. They are 3 families of relatives, and are delighted that I join them and give me the most delicious cardamom scented tea.
Mike is surrounded by crowds wherever we go as he chats away in Dari. There are no other foreigners here, just hundreds of Afghans enjoying a day when they can forget their troubles and be with family. 

15th July 2017 Return to Worsaj

We climb into the tiny 5-seater plane at Kabul airport and set off following the Salang Pass over the Hindu Kush, the reptilian spines of the Himalayas spread out beneath our wings. From the air the gift of water is never so apparent. Stretches of scorched earth fan out as far as the eye can see. Every now and then, the arid landscape suddenly bursts into colour as water quenches the dust and the earth springs into life in vivid green. Tiny mud bricked houses cling impossibly to the mountainsides and I can only wonder at how these people live in such inhospitable landscapes. 

Taloqan airport is a dusty, stony runway. Quadus is waiting for us. He has driven me on every visit I have been on to the North bar one over ten years and I am so happy to see him and to introduce him to Mike. We set off towards Worsaj and I really cannot believe that at last, one of my family will see the place where I have worked for so long and which is so close to my heart. Tarmac gives way to dusty tracks as we leave Farkhar and head towards the valleys of Worsaj. 

Our first stop is at Pxxxxx school. This is a school for girls which lies at the mouth of the valley and which AC has just constructed. It is a two storey bright blue school building and as we arrive we see hundreds of children waiting in line to greet us. Others crowd onto the balcony overlooking the entrance. The garlands are tossed over our heads and young girls in a choir sing us a welcome song. Everyone is clapping. RS and Mike are given traditional tribal coats as gifts and look splendid in the purple and green striped gifts. We are plied with fish, plates of rice and mutton and freshly picked apricots and peaches. These girls were sharing the boys' school previously which operated in 3 shifts a day with many classes outside. Now the boys and the girls each have a school and more time to study. The girls are overjoyed and there are speeches of thanks.
We race on to the next school, Dxxxxxxxx, again newly built by AC. This was a community based school set up for the children in this area as there was no school near enough for them to reach. Now it goes all the way to grade 9 and has been recognised by the government as a formal primary school and they have taken on its running. This transition is not without its challenges and is an area which we will need to watch carefully and work hard to fulfill as it is the route to essential sustainability. 
Again the welcome is overwhelming and we are given flowers and gifts and swamped by crowds. We visit 3 other schools and at each the children are lined up waiting for us, flowers and new outfits are given to me and I have to change clothes again and again. The miracle is that each outfit I am given, fits exactly. The food awaits us at every school and we wonder how it is possible to eat any more! The Worsaj countryside never ceases to impress, the clear river waters rushing past every school, the fruit trees laden with cherries, pears, peaches, apples and apricots, the fields of wheat gleaming in the sun and the mountains crowding in on all sides and towering over the timeless scene below. 
The last school we visit is a community based school where all the children are studying under rough shelters, tents or in the open. The teachers are young women who have graduated from a school AC built some years back and they have received and continue to benefit from teacher training support. It is rewarding to see how our support is producing the teachers of the future and how our investment is providing sustainability. We hope to build a school for these children. Exhausted, we head off to the haven of BBA school ...the first school we built in Worsaj. There we are greeted by friends we have known for a decade and have emotional reunions. Introducing them to my son is an incredibly special moment and one I will always treasure. 

The evening draws in and the mountains reflect the falling sun. I spend the evening with Najiba, the bright and engaging education manager from Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, SCA, and female teachers who have come to see us. More delicious food, but by now, after so many meals today, it is impossibly difficult to eat, but important to do so! 
Suddenly it is time to leave and for security reasons, no one should know where we are heading. Separated from RS and Mike , I feel vulnerable as we rush off in the darkness. I had expected to stay in the same house with them, even if in separate women's area, but now they are gone and I don't know where I am heading. We eventually arrive at a house and are shown into a courtyard. To my relief, I see the friendly face of Sayed, the man who first brought girls education to Worsaj and who was the catalyst for all our work here. My fears instantly leave me and it is a privilege to spend the evening with his family. 
His daughter was the first girl to be educated at Bxxx Axxxxx school. At first it was very hard as no other girls were attending school. Sayed was advised by people he deeply respected, not to let his daughters attend school. But he refused to listen to them and strove to get all girls in Worsaj into school. His daughter remembers the first time I visited her school, when all the girls were studying outside, and the excitement when we built them a school. She remembers all the letters I brought out from England from the twin school which supported them. She went on to graduate and she was the first girl in Worsaj ever to go to university. She got a place at Kabul University to study Agriculture, despite massive competition for the few university places available. She completed her studies and now works for the Aga Khan Foundation in Worsaj, improving agricultural yields for her community. 

16th July 2017 Travels in Worsaj 

AxxxxBxxxx school was built by AC some 2 years ago. Arriving there is like arriving at the end of the world. The mountains, the dust, the desolate landscape and the bright blue school. The children are waiting in lines and the faces of the teachers I know so well greet us with smiles. We move on to Axxxx School. Built by AC when it housed grade 1-9 and 400 pupils, the school has expanded dramatically to over 700 pupils since we provided a building and parents, especially of girls, became encouraged to let their children stay in school. Now it goes to Grade 12 and has become a High School. They are in great need of another floor of classrooms for the school, more teacher training and a resource centre. The school is impressive, the headmaster, who was a teacher for a long time at BA School, is determined and my desire to help is strong as I can see that investment in this school and those it serves would be valuable. Again we are given every fruit from the orchards, fish and plates of food brought in by the pupils. Another outfit for me and coats for the men. 
Next we visit a small community based school in an immaculate house which has been given free of charge by one of the village elders for use as a
school. His daughter is one of the teachers. These community based schools are thriving. The teachers are young and motivated, they receive regular visits and training and every classroom or tent outside is bedecked with teaching aids made by the young teachers. The teaching is dynamic and less prescriptive than the government schools and there is an energy and excitement about learning which is tangible. These schools often do better than the government schools and are all in remote areas where children have never before had access to education. 
We continue on to Kxxxxx school and the children are lined up along the riverbank waiting for us holding small boards saying welcome to our school. This school was a community based school run by AC and was handed over to the government which has now recognised it as a formal primary school. This is all part of the plan for sustainability. We set up the classes and run and fund them to Grade 6 and then the plan is to hand them to the government. The process is happening but not as fast as imagined. It is also clear that we need to continue our support in some way to ensure the smooth running of the school in this difficult transition phase and we will consider more regular visits and teacher training to prevent the school feeling isolated in its position so far from the Ministry of Education. 
The teachers take us for a walk along the gentle streams to the peach orchards. We walk through the cool water and climb up the bank and through a small gate. It is so peaceful and once again it is hard to imagine that this is a country ridden by conflict. 
We have completed our school visits and so decide to head for the stunning lake right up at the end of the valley near the snowy mountain passes which lead to the Panjshir. The drive is dramatic and ultimately passes an area which looks as if it has been struck by a meteorite or suffered an angry eruption or earthquake. Vast rocks litter the mountainside.
We reach the lake and sit perched high above it marveling at its vastness and beauty. We have seen golden oriels, hoopoes and hand sized butterflies along the way. 
We spend the evening in a village perched on the high ravine, with a view extending the length of the valley below. Carpets laden with grapes, cherries and apricots are laid out under the mulberry trees for me and the women, and the men sit further down, perched right on the edge of the ravine. I watch the village children climbing the trees and shaking the branches, showering carpets below with juicy mulberries. They stuff fistfuls into their hungry mouths and fill baskets for us.
The young girls and women with me are mostly graduates from or students at BxxxZxxxxx school, which we built some years back.  Due to some appalling governmental ineptitude those who left school last year still have not received their exam results a year on and should they do so now, will face competition from current graduates for the very few places available for further education. They vent their frustrations and some are also jobless.
I ask if education has been a disappointment in light of the fact that so few have found employment. They dismiss this idea. They say that education has changed their lives. They have learned to form relationships, self-respect and confidence through their education. The men view them differently and with more respect and they have improved social standing. They laugh as they chat about marriage and say they want to marry city boys not farmers! They giggle helplessly as they discuss their dreams but they are also well aware of the confines of their lives. They ask for a resource centre where they can have further education and learn computer skills. 
Dusk falls and we walk through the fields and orchards to the village and enter a wooden gate which leads to a courtyard. The men go to one side and I to the other. We climb stairs to a balcony where the old man of the family lies on brightly coloured toshaks. We are ushered in to a typical Afghan room, with low ceiling, red carpet and cushions. The lower floor of the house is for the animals and cows and cockerels fight for space in the courtyard. The cockerels will keep us awake from the very early hours. To my joy, there is a bucket of warm water in the small room which the women use as a bathroom. They have a smooth plastered area on half of the floor with a 2 inch lip and a small drain hole and this acts as the washing area. After the dust and long bumpy journey the water is such a treat. Then another massive feast before endless chats and at last the chance to sleep. But it is a hot and long night, lying on the floor with the insects biting and that wretched cockerel bellowing! 

17th July 2017 Farkhar visit

RS leaves at dawn and I say my farewells to him and to Najiba who has looked after us so well. Mike and I continue on to Farkhar and to an incredibly remote and hard- to -reach school which was built with support from National Geographic.

Rows of children await us as we struggle along the dried up riverbed which is strewn with massive boulders and rocks and I marvel at the construction team which managed to build this school. The welcome is heartfelt and emotional. Farzana is there in the line to greet us. She is a truly remarkable and inspiring girl whose story has been passed on to us. She wants to make history and be the first girl ever from the region of Naryab to complete an education. She has just completed grade 11 where she was the only female student as all the others had left either because of the lack of female teachers, to get married, or to work in the home. Her father is
disabled and very poor and she wants to graduate from school and go to university. I have a beautiful note book and a pen for her. It is an emotional meeting and she doesn’t disappoint. Her defiance and humility, her determination and courage all shine through and we cry together in this very emotional meeting. She is everything that makes me want to continue working in Afghanistan despite all the challenges. She is the future.
All these hundreds of children who are here to greet us and all these teachers actually finished school a month earlier as this is a hot climate school. They have come from miles around just to meet us and it is so touching that we can meet them all.
We talk to the teachers over a delicious lunch provided by the students and teachers. We hear the remarkable story of this school, which was founded in the 1960s as a boys’ school but had no building.
It was closed for 3 years in the 1980s when the Soviets conducted bombing raids and warfare in this area. In 2003, WFP visited the area and offered food for education. If boys turned up to school, they received wheat. If girls turned up they received oil and wheat. Thus was born education for girls in this school.
 No women had previously been educated and so there were no female teachers, but unusually, the men allowed girls and boys to be educated together. They tried for 10 years to get a NGO to build a school for them but because of the lack of a road and the area’s inaccessibility, this never happened…until we met them and SCA agreed to help us build a school.
Since the school was built, numbers of pupils have soared and at last, it looks as if girls will begin to stay on to the final year. We need to support with teacher training and if possible, to pay supplements for travel for female teachers to come from the nearest town to teach the girls. They also need a Resource Centre with science lab, library and computer room. This school is an inspirational place, with a determined team of teachers and students and I feel strongly that we should continue to extend our support.

18th July 2017 Rustaq Schools
The last day of project visits will be in Rustaq. I leave at first light for B B school, which is some 3-4 hours drive from Taloqan, where we spend the night. Rustaq is an impoverished and underserved district right up in the North of Afghanistan. It is blighted by drought and only 20% of the population has access to water. Maternal and child mortality rates are high. It is a desolate place where, looking at the endless dust and cracked earth utterly parched and devoid of colour, one cannot comprehend how people live here and what their lives must endure.
It makes me angry that people still have to live like this, with no access to safe water after so much money has come in to Afghanistan. It is incomprehensible that people in this century endure such hardship and total lack of basic facilities. No water, no clinic, no jobs. Life is a daily test of survival. As we arrive near to B B village we stop and look at it perched on a hillside of dust surrounded by a sea of grey hills, no green in sight.

All the elders are waiting for me in line and grasp my hand as I walk along their line. The children are there too, with flowers and gifts and all the women of the village are there in their burkas, waiting to speak to me. The school is a series of wooden shelters and torn tents.
The elders sit down and thank me for coming so far to meet them and for supporting their school. There are just two literate adults in this village, the Mullah and a teacher, who was educated elsewhere as a refugee and has now returned. Everyone else is illiterate.

 They sign an agreement to cooperate with the school construction by giving land and labour to build the foundations. They cannot write and so press their thumbs into an ink pad and onto the paper, the illiterate parents signing up for their children to have an education. I ask them why they want their girls and boys to be educated. An old man replies that once he was against education, but now he is near to death after a harsh life and sees it as the one chance for the village children to have a better future. As he speaks, he raises his hand to wipe the tears that are falling down his tired face and we all feel the depth of this emotion and cry together.  
I have visited so many places in Afghanistan, but never have I witnessed such abject poverty. The women take me into their shelter and remove their burkas. They implore me not to forget them. They thank me for coming so far to help their children when they feel forgotten by the outside world. They tell me how their children have to search for water up to 6 hours a day and they sometimes attack each other in their fight to secure water for their families. One woman tells me how she miscarried her baby whilst carrying heavy loads of water back for her children. They fear childbirth because there is no clinic or medical help nearby.
Have you ever wanted to stand on a soapbox and shout a message to the world? How I want to do that now and to shout for help for these people and a chance to turn their lives around and provide even the basics essential for life.
 We bid farewell, determined to raise the funds needed to at least get the children off the dusty ground and build the village a proper school building, and make our way on to visit more schools.

Kxxxx school is under construction and is being funded entirely by Euromoney. The approach is through a dusty riverbed and again, this place seems so isolated and poor. Against the arid hills, I see the outline of the construction, flowering out of the cracked earth like a beacon of hope. Lines of children with bouquets of plastic flowers await us, teachers read us poems, a bizarre sound system creates distorted echoes as voices thank us for our support. The children clamber over the construction site with great excitement and wave at the camera. Beneath us are the wretched torn tents which soon will not have to serve as classrooms.  Again we meet the elders and the women and again the message is that we have brought them hope in their far too challenging lives.

The last three schools include BA and Y -both completed constructions, with Y just needing to be painted. My last visit I had seen thousands of girls studying in fields. These buildings are impressive and exciting and it is uplifting to see how they will change lives for these girls. At Sxx school, we see the construction underway for a new girls’ school. I meet the engineers and the construction workers who truly miraculously manage to build schools in these remote areas of Afghanistan.

It has been an exhausting day and I am covered in dust and the glitter and rose petals which children have tossed over me. I have seen things which I can never forget and feel compelled to support these neglected people in whatever way I can. It can sometimes seem overwhelming visiting these places and seeing the massive needs. I am grateful to my wonderful team at AC and my supportive Trustees, who help me to navigate through this and find the best route to supporting these determined people and to SCA for their expertise and dedication to help us to serve the Afghan people.

19th July 2017 Farewell to the North

We say farewell to our drivers next morning -both of whom have served SCA for longer than Mike has lived! My memory each time of leaving Taloqan, is watching these tiny figures as we fly off, they keep waving at us until we disappear into the clouds and back to the safety of our homes.

20th-23rd July 2017 Tourists in Bamyan
Mike and I decide to have a trip to Bamyan – a place I have always longed to see and to be tourists in Afghanistan! As we board the UN plane, preconceptions are once again challenged as a glamorous young pilot, her blonde hair piled high in a bun, greets us and shares excited words about Bamyan.
As we approach landing, we fly past the most famous rock formation, studded with caves and with the mighty carved out shapes where colourful Buddhas once stood until they were blown up by the Taliban in 2010 and 1600 years of history was irreversibly destroyed in a few moments of barbarity. 
I am looking out over the wheat fields which lie beneath the gaping cliffs where the famous Buddhas once stood towering over the valley of Bamyan. The evening sun casts its light over the fields where brightly clad figures bend to pick the crops and young children throw great loads onto the backs of tired donkeys and climb on top to strap them tight. A boy flies a kite which twists and dances in defiance of the desecrated Buddhas. My last day in Bamyan and the end of my trip with Mike. 
We have visited the caves of Foladi and the empty holes where Buddhas once stood. We have trekked into the Foladi mountains following paths which have served shepherds for centuries. We have visited the ruined City of Screams, where Genghis Khan and his men massacred an entire population, and we have seen the turquoise waters of Band-e Amir’s six lakes. Each lake lies higher than the other and waterfalls cascade between them. Here Afghans come to picnic and life seems joyous and normal and a clue to what could be if only there were a chance for peace in this most stunning country. 

Tomorrow I will hug him goodbye as he continues his adventure and these incredibly special and now treasured days of travel alongside each other in this surprising and beautiful country come to a close. 


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