Iain Guest

Iain founded AP in 2001 after many years of writing about and working with civil society in countries in conflict. He was a Geneva-based correspondent for the London-based Guardian and International Herald Tribune (1976-1987); authored a book on the disappearances in Argentina; fronted several BBC documentaries; served as spokesperson for the UNHCR operation in Cambodia (1992) and the UN humanitarian operation in Haiti (2004); served as a Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace (1996-7); and conducted missions to Rwanda and Bosnia for the UN, USAID and UNHCR. Iain recently stepped down as an adjunct professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where he taught human rights.

Cooking Pans and Sunburnt Camels

14 Oct

Kabul October 13, 2005. I have been assigned to deliver some important letters on this visit to Afghanistan. These are the product of an idea that arose earlier in the year when we talked to Sadiqa about connecting some of her Afghan students with an American school.

Stacy Kosko, the outreach coordinator for our project, contacted a former teacher, Fred Goldberg, who now teaches at the Squannacook Elementary School, in Townsend, Massachusetts. Fred asked whether his pupils would like to penpal with some Afghan penpals and they responded with gusto.

Over the last few weeks they have been diligently working away on letters, photos, and poems about Afghanistan, Omid and peace. Quite a lot of them are about food. For Julia, peace “tastes like my grandma’s gingerbread men that are fresh out of the oven with raisin eyes and spicy, sweet candy buttons.” Her classmate Blake feels that peace “tastes like a sweet candy that everyone wants to eat.”

Looking to connect: Fred Goldberg, in Massachusetts, and his students are reaching out to the Omid schools in Afghanistan.

But many are keenly aware of current world problems. 9 year-old Sloane writes that peace “is a giant wave covering the world. Not a Tsunami, just love. Peace is a roaring fire, with lots of fat poured in. Growing, Growing Spreading throughout the world. But it is a nice fire, giving hope, love and friendship.”

9 year old Tyler manages to convey the elusive nature of peace, which he describes as “a hot camel with sunburn that’s stumbling across the desert.”


As well as poems, the students at Squannacook have all written illustrated letters to their Afghan penpals. We had to think quite hard about which school to work with. In the end after talking to Sadiqa we decided to approach the Noor Khel headmaster. He seems the most progressive of the four headmasters. We also bought 25 disposable cameras for the Noor Khel students.

My assignment is to get the letters translated into Pashtu, hand-deliver them and the cameras to the headmaster at Noor Khel, identify 25 pupils, give them a quick tutorial in how to use the cameras, and then pick up their letters and cameras before I leave.

This seemed like a great idea back in Washington. Here in Afghanistan it seems totally impractical given the roads, the arsonists, the security, the language, and everything else that makes this country such a challenge. Then there is the fact that boys and girls are educated separately in Afghanistan and we’re only working with girls in the Omid program. But we have letters from girls and boys in Fred’s class – and they all want a penpal.

Then again, the Omid girls are living in villages are not even allowed to go outside without wearing a veil. Will they be allowed to walk around, snapping photos which will be viewed thousands of miles away by people they will never meet? And of course, if I can’t stay overnight up in Wardak it will be doubly difficult.


As I think about all of this back in my hostel, my resolve ebbs away. I then re-read some of the letters and poems from the Squannacook students, and feel a whole lot better. I particularly like this one, from Sloane:

“One day in Afghanistan
A man traveled the land

He traveled it very far
All the way to China

Everybody knew this man
They even identified his cooking pan!

So one day he stopped
A crowd came upon him

He knew they all wanted to see him
All day long before it grew dim

“Oh I know I am so great,
But I must go

“Later you can see me,” he said
“Or you can do nothing instead”

But all they were trying to get to
Was his cooking pan!”

With Sloane and her classmates perched on my shoulder I’d better not drop the ball – or the cooking pan. But that’s for later in the week. Tomorrow we leave for Jalalabad.

Filed under: Afghanistan | Tagged: Afghanistan, education, girls’ school, human rights, penpals | Leave a comment »

Posted By Iain Guest

Posted Oct 14th, 2005

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