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Frontline Diary

7 May 2005: Letter from Kabul

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2004
Edward Carwardine with children of Afghanistan.

By Edward Carwardine

Edward Carwardine is UNICEF’s Communication Officer in Afghanistan. He recently visited two very different UNICEF-sponsored schools on a trip through Afghanistan. The following is a Frontline Diary from his trip.

There are times, living here in Afghanistan, when I think this country is not so very different from my old home back in the United Kingdom.

Take plumbers for example. When they do show up, they knock a few holes in the wall and disappear for another week. Taxi drivers tear around the city oblivious to traffic signals or one-way streets. And the television engineers take two seconds to tweak the fitting and then charge a hefty “maintenance” fee. Sound familiar?

I was further reminded of the similarities between Afghanistan and my former home today, albeit for more pleasant reasons, as I drove up into Parwan province, an hour or so from Kabul. The scenery moves from lush green plateau, benefiting from one of the wettest winters on record, to steep mountainsides reminiscent of the Scottish highlands.

I was visiting a UNICEF supported community-based school, part of a new programme designed to help girls in villages get an education.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2005/Carwardine
Girls in the community-based school at Khan Baiee in rural Afghanistan listen attentively to a lesson taught by a young woman from the village. Sixty girls now attend this UNICEF-supported project.

Nestled halfway up a hillside is the village of Khan Baiee, a farming community made up of a few stone houses above a fast-flowing river. There have never been any schools here, until Mohammad Sadiq returned from being a refugee in Iran last year. He had seen the value of education there, and was determined to find a way to help children in his village go to classes.

With the support of the village council – or shura – he approached the local Department of Education, and in March he opened up a room in his own home for 25 girls, mostly aged between 6 and 14 years old. The teacher was one of his daughters, who had finished high school, and the textbooks and stationery were provided by UNICEF.

Within a few weeks, the register had leaped to some 60 names, as children from four other villages in the valley began to turn up. Sadiq’s second daughter volunteered to work as an additional teacher, and now there are three shifts in operation. The two young teachers will get special training from UNICEF in July.

It’s a simple concept, but for the first time in their lives, these girls are learning to read and write, as they wait for the day when perhaps Khan Baiee will have its own formal school building.

Fifteen-year old Adila is one of the oldest girls in the school. All her life she has worked on domestic chores, until her family agreed this year to let her come to classes. She has mastered the alphabet in just one month, and is striving to learn full words. It may seem a challenge, but Adila insists she is finding it easier than she thought. “It’s interesting, not boring like housework. How can something interesting be difficult?” she says.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2005/Carwardine
Former Afghan child soldier Amin demonstrates how to write his name in his native Dari at a UNICEF supported project in Parwan province. Three months ago, Amin could not read or write a single word.

Just 40 kilometres back towards Kabul, another form of learning is underway. In the market town of Charikar, nearly 200 former child soldiers and out of school adolescents are enrolled in a UNICEF project that combines vocational skill training and literacy education.

The training ranges from tailoring to motorcycle maintenance, and for the 94 girls attending the project there is even the chance to train as beauticians, capitalizing on the new opportunities for women.

Seventeen-year old Amin was once a cook with a local military unit, his conscription to the militia denying him any chance to go to school. He started at the project in February, unable to write a word in his native language. Today he proudly spells out his name on the whiteboard.

“Before, I had no chances, no idea what I could do. Without an education, what was I going to do? Now that’s changing,” he says and writes his name for me again. “And an educated man attracts more possible wives.” His classmates break out in raucous laughter.

On the way back to Kabul, the skies opened and the rain appeared. A torrential downpour in early May? This country is more like my homeland than I ever imagined.



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