Ginny Barahona (Afghanistan)

Ginny Barahona (Afghan Women’s Network): Ginny worked with the North Philadelphia Public School System where she organized tutoring programs for four middle schools. This experience gave Ginny an interest in building communities through institutions and in the relationship between access to services and progress. At the time of her fellowship, Ginny was pursuing a Master’s degree at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

Education and Its Discontents

17 Oct

After negotiating a time and procedure to get out to the schools in Wardak province, Sadiqa had decided to go with me after all. We set out from the AWN office in Qalai-e-Fatulah, Kabul to Wardak at 6am since the school day runs from 8am to 11am only. For a city like Kabul with thousands of children, the school day runs in three 3.5 hour shifts to make up for the lack of school space and teachers. In the provinces, there aren’t as many students but there are also few teachers and so the school day is still only 3 hours long.

In order to get there, we had to find a driver from Koti Sangi located on the edge of Kabul. Considered a bus depot to Wardak, there are a number of vans with whom you must negotiate distance and price. After settling on something between 3,000 and 5,000 AFG or $62.50 to $104.66, we headed off.

The road to Wardak is paved and so getting to the province takes only about 1.5 hours. However, getting into the interior is a different kind of challenge altogether. The road is unpaved and winds through mountains and small hamlets. While the ride itself is beautiful, between sandstone mountains and lush green valleys, what could potentially take another 1.5 hours takes 3.5 hours. At times it can be terrifying. We drove on a 45 degree incline on mountain roads with about an inch between us and its steep edge. By 8:30am, we reach the first girls’ school in the Noor Hel district.

Located on the dry edge of town, the school is about 10 minutes away from its former location marked by rows of rectangular “classrooms” outlined only by stones. There is no building or even any trees that provided shade. The new school location is found on a stony slope under 7 UNICEF tents. Three of the tents are large fitting approximately 100 students or more. Four of the tents are the small types that Americans would use for camping. These tents house a classroom with 10 –15 girls snugly underneath. The smallest one is used as the administration office or principal’s office.

We were led to there to meet Principal Mohammed Zahir – a man in his late forties it would seem but as an Afghan, it’s more likely he’s only in his late thirties. Mr. Zahir has warm eyes and greeted us to his tent. His first question was whether we were from a government agency or an NGO. Sadiqa stated that we were neither, just individuals hoping to offer some kind of assistance and he was satisfied. He offered us tea and cookies while we talked about the history of the school and its present state.

This school was actually started 10 years ago in 1994. Mr. Zahir worked for the Ministry of Education at that time and registered the girls’ school easily. In 1996, the Taliban regime came to power and he was forced to dismantle it. However, he continued to educate girls covertly in two rooms of his house.

Students would go to his house under the guise of visiting one of the many women (wives, sister-in-laws, aunts, etc.) living there. When asked why he even started a girls’ school, he replied that his motivation is his religion. “God’s purpose for us is to serve and there were already a boys’ schools here.” So Mr. Zahir started the first and only girls’ school in Noor Hel. Interestingly, he has 5 sons and no daughters.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the school was reregistered and moved outside to the previous site. A Swedish NGO stepped in to support his efforts. In 2002, there were 200 girls ready and willing to attend the school between the ages of 6-10 years old. Currently there are 335 girls between the ages of 6-13 years old.

The Noor Hel school is the closest to the Godah district schools that are funded an anonymous grant administered by AP – about 1.5 hours away by car. Students travel between 1-4km on foot to attend class each day. The girls are shy but curious and very excited to go to school and be around friends.

However, as they reach the marrying age, between 10-14 years old, attendance diminishes. This is the primary obstacle to retaining students past that age. Once they are married, the girls must wear a burka or cover their faces completely with a chadar. They cannot show their faces to men and yet there are no female teachers. Currently there are six male teachers divided among 5 grades.

The lower grades are huge with over 100 students and located in the bigger tents. Other administrative workers are all men as well including the principal, Mr. Zahir and 2 male guards – one for the day and another for the night to prevent anyone from damaging the school (i.e., burning the tents) or harming the girls or faculty.

Sadiqa believes that importing returning teachers from refugee camps in Afghanistan will alleviate the lack of female teachers and therefore decrease the attrition rates. It is a unique solution that may work provided that the communities offer land to their families. But there are also the challenges of balancing wifely duties with education. If the future husband is supportive of his wife’s education, then there could be no problem. It is clear that in this formerly isolated country, girls’ education entails educating boys as well.

Last month, Mr. Zahir finally received tents from UNICEF enabling them to move out from under the burning sun. Each class is held in its own tent (except for grade 2 which is combined with 107 students). Inside, girls sit on plastic mats over the dirt floor. They write on their laps and their textbooks are soft covered notebooks that are already falling apart. There is no electricity but since the larger tents are white, sunlight is abundant. The smaller tents have open sides. There is one small damaged blackboard in each tent and no other academic accoutrements. The mats and blackboards are stored each night in the teacher’s house.

In each tent, there is a class representative who stood and greeted us. One class sang a song about the fight to learn and realizing the Minister of Education’s dream for them. In the 5th grade class, I met the bravest 13 year old named Zainab who is the longest attending student.

Zainab began studying covertly during the Taliban years – first at Mr. Zahir’s house using the excuse to visit a female relative. Although extremely shy, Zainab continues to attend classes even now during her marriageable age. In other classes, when asked what they would most like to see happen to their school, many girls reply a building and some supplies, particularly bookbags for the long hike to school each day.

The girls have UNICEF packets containing 4 notebooks, some pencils and three textbooks for the 3 standard courses – reading & writing, math, and Islamic Study. By September, these girls will have run out of these supplies. The teachers are paid the standard 2,600 AFG ($54.16) per month from the government. Just 5 days ago, the Ministry of Education, Rural Education Part, sent out a team to visit this school. They approved the creation of 18 new classes as long as the community is willing to donate the land. But Mr. Zahir barely has enough funds for the school supplies in September so he will need to find donors.

We took some pictures and said our goodbyes. The girls followed us to the cliff’s edge of their school to see us off with hungry but hopeful eyes. As I watched them, I thought about the disinterest of many American students with far more resources than these girls could ever imagine – including myself at times. By 9:30 we headed off to Godah district. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the girls had already gone home. So, Sadiqa and I decided to spend the night in Wardak. Besides, I could use a break from the smog and dust that permeate the Kabul air.

Posted By Ginny Barahona (Afghanistan)

Posted Oct 17th, 2006

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