From shepherd to librarian

How Ashraf exchanged flocks for books

Ajmal Sherzai
Asraf in his library
UNICEF Afghanistan/2021/Ajmal Sherzai
23 February 2021

Bamyan, Afghanistan, 15 February 2021 – “I suffered a lot in my childhood; I don’t want other children to suffer,” says Ashraf, 17, from Zekriya village, Bamyan province, central Afghanistan.

Ashraf was just seven years old when his parents asked him to care for the family’s flock of 15 goats and sheep.  It wasn’t so much a question as an expectation.

So, every day at 6:30 in the morning, Ashraf would walk as much as one hour each way on winding, dusty tracks, high in the mountains, to reach the grazing fields.  For up to six hours each day, he watched over his flock as they grazed on grass, twigs, bushes, and leaves. 

“The most frustrating moment of my life back then was when I had to take care of the herd on my own. I was always exhausted, and I had no time to play with my friends.”

Adding to his frustration, was a growing sense of despair. Where he really wanted to be was in school. But his family lived in deep poverty so they could not afford to let him study.

Yet, he never lost hope.

“The more I chatted with my peers who went to school, the more excited I became and the more I wanted to join them. They really changed my life,” recalls Ashraf. “They would tell me how happy they were at school, what they learned from teachers, and how they played football during recess.”

After one year of herding, Ashraf sought his mom’s permission to enroll him in school.

She refused.

“Who will take the herd to the fields if you go to school?” Ashraf’s mom, Soghra, asked angrily.

An impassioned conversation ensued in which Ashraf begged his mom for the chance to study.

“I was so determined to go to school,” says Ashraf. “I finally made a deal with my mom. I convinced her that I would take care of the herd in the afternoon if I could go to school in the morning.”

Ashraf’s mom had no option but to agree. Ashraf was finally free to pursue his dreams of attending school. It was a milestone moment in his life

Ashraf photo in his library
UNICEF Afghanistan/2021/Ajmal Sherzai

At school, Ashraf quickly learned to read and found his passion in books. He loved fiction and science the most. His mathematics’ teacher – Khudai Dad – nurtured his interest in science.  And his love for novels grew as he realized that short stories transported him to a different world –away from his dire reality.  But with no money with which to buy books, once again, Ashraf faced hurdles.

As he mulled over the problem at the tender age of 15, he realized that he wasn’t the only impoverished child in his village to love reading but to have no access to books.

“I didn’t know exactly how…but I was determined to find a way to make books available for all the children in my village,” says Ashraf. 

Soon after, the UNICEF Afghanistan Representative, Dr. Aboubacar Kampo, visited Bamyan and Ashraf found an opportunity to ask him for help. Then, with the support of the Directorate of Education and UNICEF, he was able to establish a library at Zekriya Girls’ High School in his own village.

The library opened at the end of 2020, and for the past months, 10-15 girls and boys on average visit the library every day – and they’re so grateful for the new resource so closeby.

“Now, I can easily access books for free which makes me so happy because my family cannot afford to buy them,” says Sediqa Rezayee, 17.  A Grade 11 student at Zekriya Girls’ High School, Sediqa dreams of becoming a pilot in the future so that she can travel the world.

“I’m delighted that our library has over 500 books now,” says Ashraf.  “It’s a great addition to our studies in school, and promotes good reading habits among children in the village.”

After school, Ashraf volunteers at the library for two hours each day, from 11 a.m. till 1 p.m. During this time, he manages the books’ registry, collection and distribution.

“I’m so proud to see the difference I’m making for children in my village,” says Ashraf.  “I strongly believe that through reading and education, we can build a better and peaceful Afghanistan.”