Monday, 12 November 2007

More school visits and back to Kabul

(Posted by Paula Monday morning - email and text to say Sarah is safe and well in Kabul...)

I am sitting at Taloqan airport …. amazing place! Lost in the dustlands of Takhar, a strip of sun baked earth stretching into the scorched horizon. In the distance clouds of dust mark the progress of turbaned men riding to the bazaar on donkeys. Afghanistan at its most rugged and desolate.

The Paktek flight is landing here just for Jane and me and will fly us down to Kabul…. but sitting here I cannot imagine that this will really happen! Our journey this morning took us through the heart of morning rush hour in Taloqan. A life time away from the commuter lands of England, here the roads are packed with activity, but no pinstripes or vehicles. Hundreds of men rushing to the bazaar in hoards. Some on donkeys, others dragging cattle or goats to sell in the bazaar. Young boys push huge wheelbarrows of fresh cauliflowers to market - I guess they are no older than 10 years old, with strained faces and weary arms pushing their heavy loads. Not for them the carefree moments of childhood.

We spent yesterday visiting schools. Our first stop was Toot Mazar Kabuli –a school twinned to Bradfield College. The Bradfield students had gone to so much trouble to prepare letters and photos of their lives and a stunning wall hanging and Bradfield crested clocks made in DT. All of this so happily received – as well as the bags of fun presents which caused so much spontaneous joy. So good to see the children’s faces breaking out into laughter as bouncy balls went flying into the air, balloons popped and hooters sounded. AC is building 4 new classrooms so that no children have to study outside any more.

After lunch we visited Sari Sang High School. The girls here are amazing and it is so sad to think of all the restrictions they face in their lives. The things they ask for are – a very high wall so that there is the chance that they will be allowed to play sport. This wall is too low and in such a conservative area – and one where we are restricted in photography of the girls - the male family members won’t allow sport. They also beg for computers. Some have taught themselves English and they are so motivated. They say that they will provide money for fuel to run the generator if we can provide more computers. They have one for the whole school now and so want more.

The teachers ask for help also. Many of them come to this village from the city. They are young and motivated and want to work but as females, travelling to the village is very difficult. A village benefactor used to pay for a bus for their travel but no longer does so and they are saying that soon, unless given help with transport costs, they will have to give up. As the evening draws in, I watch these lively, clever, inspirational teachers and students disappear beneath their burkhas into anonymity, their lively spirits squashed back into the prison of conservatism which seems to have no way out.

They give me beautiful gifts, letters and educational posters which they have made about their country and its traditions, to give to the St Catherines girls back at home. I am really humbled by these women and girls.

So much to do and to work towards helping these schools …the needs are great but as one of them said to me –“drop by drop a river is formed”.

Arrival in Kabul

Now safe and well and back in Kabul. The plane did arrive and 2 Top Gun looking pilots appeared – almost surreal, this tiny airplane, gleaming white in the sun, the pilots in immaculate crisp uniform with dark glasses and trim hair- in this bowl of hills and dust! We sat right at the front jammed up against the back of the pilots’ seats, looking at all the instruments and the rough dusty runway ahead. As we took off huge billows of dust filled the air and I saw the drivers waving goodbye to us …watching us leave for the comfort of our lives back home. Must be so hard sometimes.

Great flight and so good to be a step nearer home. Greeted by Gul Noor at the SCA compound who has been there waiting for me at the end of every trip I have done since 2001 and is like a father to me. Always so wonderful to see that friendly face after travelling across the wilds of Afghanistan!

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Nov 10th - Zouhruddin and Wahdat....

(Posting by Paula, blog for November 9th is below this one - email this morning told me all was well...)

Sitting in bed in gloves and coat absolutely freezing and missing home like mad! What I would give to see the kids, have a hot bath and a huge glass of wine …and be WARM!

Luckily the days are so rewarding it makes up for the long bleak cold evenings tucked away in Taloqan.

Left at dawn heading for Worsaj. A 4 hour drive through beautiful valley where we have built a school and have 2 more underway. Stunning scenery in the bright morning sun. Arrived at Zouhruddin girls school twinned to Sholing, Southampton. Wonderful greeting. As before, I walked through narrow allies of village with backdrop of mountains to reach the school. Showered with glitter and confetti and given bunches of flowers in greeting. Breakfast of bread and cream and jam with hot chai and much banter.

Went round the classrooms. The girls had written letters to twin school—and some in English, so moving as they read them out. The had also made beautiful handicrafts. They loved receiving all letters and info on school and presents. Sang to us and asked us lots of questions. They are desperate for computers and for their teachers to be given better training.

The male teachers very keen to help the girls and want us to build a protected area so that they can do sports. Great morning ended with entire school outside clapping and cheering us and giving us gifts of hand embroidered scarves to thank us. So happy to be having a new school.

Went to see the construction and it is nearly finished. All very exciting and in beautiful location. Then taken to a village house with carved balcony where we were given lunch overlooking the mountains. Sitting on cushions on floor, Jane and I with 14 men eating delicious Afghan food.

Visited Wahdat School on the way home – a Boys school funded by the Angus Lawson Memorial Trust. Construction is almost complete –a lovely school by the river. It was wonderful to see construction in full swing.

Puncture in the valley. Followed by another puncture in the dark on the Fakhar road – I was glad to be in convoy of 2 vehicles. Borrowed a tyre and huddled in the dark while they fixed the other one …good to get back!

November 9th - schools rise from the dust

(Posted by Paula on Suunday - welcome email received telling me all was well...)

Was all a bit spooky last night when the generator went out and left me in dark and alone in this large, cold building and feeling a bit too far from home! So once again, pleased to see daylight. If anyone wants to text me a goodnight message….so welcome – at about 5pm your time!!

It is Friday and all schools closed, but the Kunduz RAD centre where there are 40 deaf and 5 cerebral palsied children had stayed open for my visit. So wonderful to see the same children who were so delightful at last visit and was greeted with huge hugs and kisses from them all.

Went round 5 classes and all kids used sign language so we had one translator English to Dari and another Dari to sign. I gave them the wall hanging from the children at Arbour Vale Special School (AV) and all the gifts. The boys had football shirts collected by Bradfield and my kids and were so thrilled - Italy/England/Man U and Arsenal amongst others and so much pleasure! The girls dressed up in all the hair ribbons and jewellery from Antonia and from AV and the boys zoomed round the room clutching matchbox cars. The older boys requested sports kit, so I disappeared to the Kunduz bazaar…which was humming with activity and bargained away for 2 punch bags and 6 pairs boxing gloves plus cricket bats and balls, all made in China and all for $60 . Massive crowd around us by the time I had finished.

Fond farewells as these brave children clambered into the bus to go home. The girls stand little chance of marrying and with all the hardships faced by Afghan kids, for them, even more. So sad to think of their time ahead as they all put faces against the window and blew kisses goodbye.

After lunch—and again hospitality from school and more huge plates of food! – sped off towards Syab. Syab is near Bangi,Taloqan and was hit hard in both Russian war and Taliban front line with Northern Alliance. The journey took us through places emerging from the ashes of war. Everywhere dust …great clouds of it and even the sky was dust filled today. Everything looked sinister and bleak and so desolate. Began to question what on earth I was doing on atrocious roads heading to an unknown destination hours down a track, with darkness not far enough away. It all looked so hostile and for the first time I felt uneasy about travelling.

There were no other vehicles on our 2 hour journey and judging by the stares I got, not many foreigners come this far. But at last we reached Syab and as we left the town a huge construction appeared on the hilltop and it was Syab School. It is being funded by an AC donor and seeing it was just FANTASTIC! So often question what I am doing but when I see a brand new school going up in this isolated, poor, remote place, I see a massive symbol of hope and so rewarding.

The engineer was thrilled to see us, as were his team of builders. We looked all round the site - it should be finished December and was only stared in August. So exciting seeing work in progress, all the plasterers and carpenters in full swing. In the distance were the 5 tents used now as the school—so great to think they will be in proper shelter soon.

A wonderful visit and even the journey back seemed brighter and less hostile and had a few waves and smiles as well as stares!

Friday, 9 November 2007

November 8th - on towards the schools

Three brave health workers

Taking exams

The road from Faizabad

(Posted by Paula - emailed to me by Sarah)

The morning light in these mountains where the air is so clear gives everything a bronze hue and as we climbed higher out of Faizabad we looked back at the city drenched in this early light and curtained in a thin film of mist. We followed the river at first and passed through lots of villages.

Today’s journey was perhaps even more spectacular than yesterday’s and made even more interesting as we passed so much life along the way.

It was bazaar day in Urchi and from all the villages for miles around came men perched on donkeys, bedecked in turbans and dressed in striped Badakshani coats in greens and purples, faded to different shades by varying years of sun exposure. They emerged on the track in swarms, sending up clouds of dust around them, appearing like some ancient tribe lost back in time.

The bazaar was packed and donkeys lined the streets, tethered where room allowed and topped with traditional woven saddlebags in magnificent colours. We passed the cattle market where hundreds of turbaned men bargained and hussled; on past the clothes market, the fruit and vegetables….everything up for sale on one of two bazaar days each week. A wonderful sight ….and one which hadn’t changed for centuries.

As we ascended higher and higher the scenery became ever more rugged and reminded me of those countries you fly over at great height on a jumbo - those miles of bleached, sun-desecrated mountains which seem unable to sustain life. So utterly vast and dramatic.

There was a house, perched like an eagle’s nest overlooking these views. Crowds of brightly dressed villagers lined the terraces and doorways around the adobe walls. It was a wedding party and the guests’ clothes were almost luminescent against the acres of dusty hills. As we turned the next corner we saw a huge column of donkeys, horses and people, led by dancers –the bride and groom arriving.

They crowded round our jeep and danced all around us. The groom wore white and was on horseback. Donkeys carried heavy loads of wedding gifts. Drums beat. The bride – on horseback and dressed in a white burkha with a red veil- followed behind with her entourage of women, all dressed in burkhas and riding donkeys. The party made a spectacular sight as it wound its way up the steep track, a glorious feast of colour in the arena of rocks, mountains and hills.

We visited a clinic built by USAID and run by Merlin. The madness of foreign intervention - yes a really beautiful, well run clinic but built too far away from the village and with no water coming to it ….so the local council arrange for water to be carried in by donkey each day. Was good to see it being run so well and beautifully clean and efficient…and also to see the community building a wall, planting trees and providing shelter and food for the doctors.

Finally reached Keshem at 13.30 - 3 hours later than expected. I said my goodbyes and was greeted by 3 Afghan twin school workers and 2 drivers—we need 2 vehicles for security. Headed off to Holt’s twin school Jari-Shah-Baba. Was so good to see them all again and all the children recognised me from our last visit. They had beautiful gifts ready for me to take back to Holt and some really touching messages pinned to stunning hand made embroideries and miniature Afghan costumes. They had a display cabinet up all about the project. Gave out all the cards and gifts and interviewed some of the girls. Masses of giggling. Had just heard from UK that we have funding to build 6 classrooms and to provide desks and benches for the school and they were so thrilled---their tents were all ripped and some were just poles without canvas and now they will have classrooms.

They had had lunch waiting for me for 4 hours and insisted that I went to a local teacher’s home to eat. It was a feast and so typical of Afghan hospitality. Huge plates of rice and mutton and salads and pumpkin and chips and fruit and the most delicious scented tea. All so generous and perfectly served. The house was immaculate.

Rushed off but were caught out by darkness and travelled through the next 2 hour stretch of mountain roads in the dark. So pleased to reach Taloqan. Amazing welcome from the guards and cook at the guest house. I have known them for years now. A beautiful room laden with blankets …and oh dear …another huge meal just 2 hours after the last …and they looked so happy to watch me eating! All so kind and thoughtful, which helps so much when alone in a strange place in some far corner of Afghanistan! No internet so will post this when can.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

November 7th clinic in Naland

After that freezing night ,during which I heard the eerie call to prayer echo all around the mountains as I shivered in the darkness,it was a total delight to set out for Naland in the morning sunshine.The journey was spectacular and at times it felt as if we were travelling to the very end of the earth.
The entire journey was off road or on bumpy dirt tracks which followed the river through the valleys and up into the mountains. In some areas we travelled miles with no sign of habitation . Then suddenly a mudbricked village would appear on the horizon with autumn coloured poplars gracing the river below.
On we travelled through those arid,dust coloured ,undulating mountains,so hostile ,yet so beautiful. As we turned one hairpin bend,we saw a school perched on the rocks beneath us...a few shelters made of canvas and sticks housing brightly dressed village children.We made our way down to meet them and saw girls sitting ,isolated ,dotted along the hillside. It turned out they were taking an exam.From their school you could see the clear green waters of the icy river stretching far below and through the distant hills.
Naland is four hours from Faizabad along these dirt roads .For four months every year ,it is cut off from the outside world ...the only access being by foot .A massive ravine separates one mountain head from another ....a spectacular drop to the valley floor below .From the nearside mountain you see Naland village clinging to the mountain opposite and looking so tiny and insignificant in the vast landscape.
We went to visit the clinic and this is one of the 19 clinics which will house the vaccine refrigerators we have funded. We met the "vaccinator" who walks miles from here to distant villages to vaccinate the inhabitants. He told us of the problems he faces in covering such distances and in the resistance from some mullahs to let him vaccinate women . So far this year he has vaccinated 3200 men ,women and children.
Some villages are 8 hours from this-their nearest clinic . If a woman in labour needs a caesarian section ,she then faces another 4 hour car journey on those treacherous roads to reach hospital. In the winter she would have to be carried across the ravine.
We met the 3 female health workers from Tajikistan ,who have left nice homes and modern lives to work in this isolated clinic which pays so much better than home. They have no heating ,running water or electricity and sleep in one tiny room . They gave us lunch and so many gifts to take home with us--all very humbling .After my freezing night ,I was moved to leave money for blankets for the staff who get really cold at night!
Tea in an Afghan house on our way home....hospitality here so overwhelming.
Arrived back so shaken up from the journey ...but what an insight into those live and all the hardships faced by these people living in such isolated and hostile environments!we just have no idea......................

November 7th

Heard the news that there was a bomb in Baghlan yesterday . Had planned to drive back to Kabul that way and visit school nearby but will now have to fly down from Kunduz. Jane-from SCA - now stranded Kabul as cannot drive up to meet me and flight up cancelled. Hopefully she will get here later this week.
A FREEZING night ...never been so cold. Ended up at 4a.m with 2 pairs trousers,3 jumpers and a jacket on and still freezing . Never been so pleased to see the light of day! Now off to clinics

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

November 2007 - Stage 1

(posted by Paula - sent to me via email early this morning....)

After a 26 hour journey with a 6 hour delay in London and a missed flight in Dubai I touched down in Kabul and was overjoyed to see Nassir, my driver from the Spring and my luggage. I had managed to get 45kg of gifts and letters from the UK schools to Kabul with no excess charge. So much has changed in Kabul. More tarmac, wider roads, more constructions and far more people. Thick smog of pollution from all the generator diesel and the traffic. Wonderful to be back.

Monday saw all day meetings at Swedish Committee, followed by meeting with Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British Ambassador to Afghanistan at his Kabul residence. A fascinating and really productive meeting. Today, Tuesday, a meeting at 7.30 at the SCA offices with all the twin school consultants from every region of Afghanistan. I gave a presentation on our UK project and they handed over gifts and letters from the Afghan schools for their English schools. They will receive all UK twin school material this week and take back to the schools. Most of these regions are inaccessible to expats due to security and we are so grateful for their help.

The UN flight from Kabul left at 11am. ISAF helicopters all over the airport and flying all around us. It was a tiny jet and such a spectacular flight. Afghanistan is so dry and dusty and arid from the air. Incredible to fly over the mountains and sweep down into Faizabad, landing on a tiny camouflaged metal runway surrounded by mountains and protected by German security troops. I was last here in 2001 when the area was under Taliban regime. So good to be back and such a beautiful place.

Met by Merlin – the NGO now run by Dr Paul Sender who was employed by AC as Paediatrican 2003-5. AC has funded 19 vaccine refrigerators for Merlin's programme here –used to help with 72,000 vaccines for women and children this year. I visited the clinic outside the town in amazing countryside….all the locals trotting past us on donkeys. Saw vaccination programme in action and met midwife and doctor. The Clinic needs a delivery suite and will try to fundraise for this. More clinics tomorrow all around Badakshan. My feet have hardly touched the ground, schedule so packed!