Thursday, October 29, 2009

School Visit in Konduz

Rauf (one of SOLA’s 19 year old male students) and I headed to Konduz by plane on Oct. 27th. Rauf’s mother is the Principal of a public kindergarten, serving 120 children. It was Rauf’s idea that we go to his home town and bring songbooks to his mother’s school. I am greatly appreciative of this generous offer.

Konduz is about 160 miles north of Kabul. Driving is slow and dangerous so we opted for the quick 45 min. flight. Konduz has been the target of a lot of Taliban insurgency in recent months so the only way I could safely make this trip was to have Rauf and his family “watch over me” while I was there. It is not safe, as an American woman to travel alone and/or to take taxis (kidnapping is real problem) but Rauf arranged for his family to drive us everywhere we needed to go. I felt very well taken care of.

We landed in Konduz and my first big surprise was to be met at the airport by a group of six children, holding a “WEL COM” sign and showering me with bouquets of flowers. The children were all beautifully attired in their regional dress. Rauf’s mother and one of the teachers from her school stood quietly by in their burqas but as soon as we got into the car, they pulled them off their faces, laughing with me about how they couldn’t see. They rode through town with them off. Burqa’s are worn by all women in Konduz due to the presence of the Taliban. Although dressed in burqa, they were both on their cell phones while we rode in the car!

Our first stop was a meeting with the Konduz Director of Labor and Social Affairs. He and three other men met with me and Rauf. Rauf graciously translated for me as I explained the project and told them how pleased I was to be bringing 120 songbooks to the Konduz Central Kindegarten. He was very appreciative and truly understood the value of having these traditional songs back in the culture. He also appreciated my offer to share ideas with the the teachers about how the books could also be used as a basic literacy tool. Everyone is very aware of the lack of teacher training in Afghanistan. Most teachers have a 5th grade level of education.

At the conclusion of that meeting we headed for the school. As we opened the gates to enter I was shocked to see (and hear) 120 young children, lined up on either side of the walkway, singing a welcoming song to me, in full voice. The girls handed me flowers, the boys gave me a salute while other girls tossed rose petals at my feet! I continue to be overwhelmed by their graciousness. The Afghan have truly invented the real meaning of hospitality.

We were escorted to red velvet couches in front of the stage. For the next 2 hours we were entertained by the children singing many of the songs from the songbook. Rauf had sent up 5 songbooks a week ahead of our arrival, and the teachers had taught the children most of the songs! It was a delight to hear them. There were a group of children in Pashto dress, singing the Pashto song, in Hazaragi dress for the Hazaragi song, etc.. They also performed the national dance, the Atan.

I was asked to speak to the group (again Rauf translating. My Dari is coming back but not well enough to address a group!) and at the end of the program we handed out songbooks to every child. The songbook is the ONLY book they have and they did tell me they plan to use it not only to teach the traditional songs but as a basic reading text. Many of the teachers told me how much they appreciate the inclusion of songs from many ethnic tribes. I give total credit to my wonderful musician collaborator, Vaheed Kaacemy, for insisting we include a wider variety of tribal songs than was in the original songbook .

I was able to talk further with Rauf’s mother who did emphasize the need for more educational resources like this. She also, like others, emphasized the need for a 2nd songbook with even more songs in Pashto (Dari and Pashto are the 2 national languages.) I agree with her assessment and of course, it all comes down to my finding the funding!

To keep this blog to a minimum I will skip some “interesting” stories of staying in the guest house – well-guarded, but I might add I was the only guest and the only woman. I will end with a brief anecdote that I feel sums up this trip. We arrived back at the small Konduz airport the next day, delivered by Rauf’s brother. We walked up the dirt road to a solider, armed with his AK47, standing outside inspecting luggage. (There really isn’t a terminal building.) He asked Rauf to put his luggage up on a cement pillar so he could check it. Rauf’s luggage was full of songbooks upon our arrival but on departure was filled with all the flowers and signs the children had given me! He then spoke to Rauf and looking at me said, “She is doing good things for our country. She is helping the children of Afghanistan. I don’t need to inspect her luggage!” With that we put our luggage into a cart which was pushed by 2 people out to the plane. He had been at the airport the day before, witnessed my arrival and knew all about the project.

The response of this one soldier, I have come to learn, is typical of most Afghans. We hear a lot of news about anti-American sentiment. The Afghan people truly appreciate Americans and other foreigners who are actually doing something, something that is tangible. They need so much and this one kindergarten was only one small example. Imagine running a school for 120 children, ages 4-6, with virtually no educational materials. It is these small projects, one by one, that make a difference. Unfortunately, U.S. dollars are often spent on enormously expensive projects that do not make a difference, that do not really connect or are meaningful to Afghans. Many of those projects are implemented with absolutely no input from Afghans and many do not create jobs and do not make a difference to the ordinary Afghan trying to provide for his family and give an education to his children. (Last week I was part of a very interesting and hopeful meeting with Ambassador Mussomeli at the U.S. Embassy. Seven NGO’s, headed by Americans or Afghan Americans who have been working in Afghanistan for at least 5-7 years, came together with Embassy personnel to offer their services and expertise given their long-term commitment and experience in the field, meeting Afghans, going to villages, speaking the language, hearing what is going on. The U.S. Embassy personnel spends between 6-12 months here at best and due to security constraints rarely leave the Embassy grounds. They admit there is a disconnect. More about all of that in another blog! I will say it was a hopeful meeting.)

I come away from this experience moved, once again, by the tenacity and determination of the ordinary Afghan, trying to move this county forward. We arrived back in Kabul the day of the attacks on the UN Guest House. The Taliban are trying hard to sabotage the elections thus proving Afghanistan is no place for democracy. We drove home the long way, avoiding downtown where many roads were blocked. I noticed many soldiers out and about but life seemed to be going on as usual. The Afghans have put up with war and unrest so long they find no other option but to just keep going. As Vaheed said to me once, “We just need to get on with our lives.”

Based on several conversations with people helping me with this project, I see my job is cut out for me. I need to find funding to print another 5000 songbooks (we are down to 100 at the moment) and to begin the process of creating a second songbook. Vaheed has already researched more traditional songs, many in Pashto. Unlike the first book, we can now do the recording and printing in Kabul.

Despite what you are reading and hearing, all is well here and I continue to greatly appreciate this opportunity to connect once again with these wonderful people here and with you.

A large green banner hung over the stage at the school and a reminder to all of us: The Children are the Future of Afghanistan.

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