Thursday, 29 April 2010

27th April

This was sent to me today - I will put chronologically later - I didn't want anyone to miss it! Paula

Awoke in our Afghan home and were served a beautiful breakfast of fresh naan, sweet tea and trout. The day is perfect, with clear blue skies and views to the horizon. Head off after fond farewells, to the lakes in Maidar Valley for a picnic. Today is Muahideen Day and all the schools are closed, so we have a holiday. As we drive up the valley, we pick up various people at each village, until it seems the car ahead can fit no more inside. We have no idea who they all are but everyone is very happy. Pots and oil and rice and tea are loaded onto the vehicles. The journey leads us right up the valley towards the distant Anjoman and the Panjshir Valey beyond.

Teachers join the trip at the last village, armed with fishing nnets to catch our lunch. At last we round the corner and ahead are the famous lakes. For years the local people have been asking me to stay in their villages so that they could show me these lakes, and I see why. We race down the hillside through the brightest red flowers, towards the glacial waters. The backdrop is magnificent, with villages clinging precariously to the mountainside just beneath the snow line and the lake stretching for miles and then dropping over the edge of a massive cravass into a cascading waterfall.

We drive on until we reach a flood plain, where we stop and rugs and cushions are laid out on the grass. All around are the mountains and rivers and streams. Some of the men search for firewood and set up camp, whilst others fish or make tea and the lazier ones swim and play volleyball in the sunshine. The fish soon arrive- some really big rainbow trout caught in the lake and much smaller river trout. They are gutted and laid out on the bonnet of the car and salted in the sunshine. Soon we have a fantastic picnic of fresh fish and rice in this glorious place. We sit planning how we can bring trekkers here who would walk and contribute to the community by funding schools from their trip. There are 3 valleys to be expored and the security is good. Cannot describe what a wonderful day we had .

We came back to the village and walked across the river on stepping stones, followed by a kite tail of childre . We were staying in one of the teacher's houses and arrived just as it was getting dark. Mary and I were ushered straight to the women's quarters, down a narrow alley way and through a courtyard. We sat in a small room and soon there were 21 family in there to see us and we had a really joyful evening. We talked with them all, played with the children and shared gifts, late into the night. We had such language barriers, but managed a really special evening. Wife number one (childless) lives there with wife number 2 - who has between 10 and 18 children... and there are uncles, aunts and cousins living in the house too. The only problem came with supper when they sat and watched us eat ....and some of it was very hard to eat ! Shared the room with wife number one and Medina, one of the daughters of wife number 2. Very little sleep.
This morning we awoke to the cockerel at 5 and the women started working. We sat in the courtyard and watched them set about their daily tasks. The mother tended the animals and milked the cows. She let out the hens and fed all the animals. Guinea fowl scratched around for food. Medina and Rouaida, sat on a platform scrubbing the washing with big blocks of soap.

Water was collected in yellow containers and poured into blackened kettles and all the cooking was done over an open kitchen fire. Bread was made fresh and covered with poppy seeds. We ate it with big bowls of heated fresh milk mixed with crushed walnuts ....and more fish!! It felt really special to have stayed at this home and to have had this brief insight into their lives. The lasting impression is that they have a truly cohesive family and community. no one is lonely in this village.

28th April

Just arrived back in Taloqan after a few days out in the mountain villages of Worsaj.

It has been the most incredible experience. We drove out to Khanaka village 2 days ago. Along the way we passed 2 schools in the valley which had been built by AC. On arrival, we went straight to Bibi Ayisha High School. This is a school for 1100 girls . The building was completed last year thanks to a very generous donor who was born in Afghanistan. It is a thriving school and, though none of the girls here has an educated mother, 35 graduated and went to University last year.

We always receive the most overwhelming welcome at this school and this day was no exception. All the girls had come out to greet us and were lined up waiting for us. As we walked through the corridor of clapping girls, they came forward saying "I love you” and gave me bunches of flowers and gaudy garlands were wrapped around my neck. Hundreds of them! They screamed and laughed and followed us into the school, jamming in, hundreds of them, all crying “Tank You2
The atmosphere was alive, with girls cooking our lunch, chemistry classes to watch, sewing classes, computer classes and volley ball - so much going on. We visited as many girls as we could. Left them with a camera to take photos of their daily lives for us to show in England. Their own project , documenting their own lives.

We were then called to the boys school, which has just been completed thanks to a donor who travelLed out here and wanted to help this area and education. Again, hundreds of children were lined up waiting for us and we received another rapturous welcome and could hardly move under the weight of flowers and garlands. Made me weep! Always have to give a speech at these places... and that made me very emotional too. The Governor had turned out and everyone thanked us for making such an impact on education in this area.

We ate a delicious lunch all laid out on a beautiful cloth at the girls school. Then we were whisked away in our cars up a rough mountain track which hugged the river below. Through tiny villages we went until we reached Quanduz. The school teachers here had heard that we were in Khanaka village. Our reputation for building schools has spread, and they had sent someone down the valley to beg us to come and visit their schools.

Again, hundreds of children lined our route and this time sprayed us with glitter as well as heaping us with flowers and garlands. It is how I imagine it might be to be a pop star, only instead of high heels, I am in my trekking boots, and the red carpet is replaced by a dusty track! The boys greet us first and then we climb up to the girls school for another alley of students and more greetings. We see girls studying out on mats in the dust and are walked to a table . There we sit and are served tea, local almonds and sweets out in the open. The whole school gathers round us. Boys perch on the school roof, girls, some in burkhas, some in head scarves, sit before us and the headmaster stands and gives a speech asking us to help to build a school. There are 700 girls and only 6 classrooms and the boys are 1000 and have a tiny building, with hundreds sitting outside.

It is at times like these that I look around me and pinch myself and wonder how on earth I have reached this point in my life. How all these people think I am the answer for their school, that I will build 2 schools for them and help them with their education. How I have even managed to build any schools I sometimes wonder...and now there is so much expectation. I call myself Lady Dollars as I think they probably believe that I can easily find money! And yet I do not begrudge them asking , rather I love the fact that they heard I was here and managed to get us to visit and want their school so badly. And of course, I want to help and I want to find a way ....and I also really want to concentrate our aid to this valley and build all the schools that are so needed here. As I look at their expectant faces, I promise myself to find a way.

We end our day with a fishing trip. We head to the river and one of the teachers brings a fishing net. He wades into the icy water and casts his net again and again, moving downstream to the snow covered mountains beyond. He pulls out little trout and soon fills a bag with fish. We head back to the village and make our way down the narrow mud walled paths to the house where we will stay. We climb up some wooden steps and into a carpeted and cushioned room. A delicious supper is brought in for us, including the fresh fis . The moon is full and I sit by the river trying to catch a few moments of silence and privacy, but look up to see twenty children racing down the hill to join me. In Afghanistan, it seems, you are never alone. I try to wash and do my teeth and am shadowed closely by the son of the house, who has obviously been told to look after me. He watches every move and I wonder how on earth I can sneak off ! Definitely NO privacy possible. But at last Mary and I are taken to sleep in the women’s quarters, on beautiful cushions in a low ceilinged room.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Tuesday 27th April

Sarah is now traveling to Worsaj and is unlikely to make contact for three days - as soon as she does I will update the blog. Paula

Monday 26th April - afternoon

An afternoon visit to Sari Sang School, twinned to St Catherines. The school lies along a dusty track lined by high mud walls. To reach it you pass through villages unchanged by time. The only anachronism is the swarm of German heavy armoured vehicles which passes us on our way, sending clouds of dust billowing into the air and smothering all who walk nearby.

The school is in a very conservative area and Oliver is not allowed to film. But great progress has been made and following the construction of a higher wall, the girls are now playing volleyball –allowed to do sport for the very first time. We take a class of combined grades 9-11 and having read out cards and letters from St Catherines girls, run a lesson on the Millennium Development Goals. Fascinating to hear their views. Afghan girls are not usually asked for their opinions. Classes are never interactive, but prescriptive and teacher led, with no interaction from pupils.

Today, we asked the girls to come up and write the goals they knew on the board. Mary illustrated them. Then the class was asked to vote for the goal they considered most important. The concept of voting took a while to explain. On first attempt, everyone voted more than once. Finally we managed to get them to choose just one goal. The results were surprising. First came health and security, gender didn’t feature—they said they follow the guidelines of the Qu’aran and are happy to follow these. Education was important but not top of the list. Then we asked each girl to explain why they had voted for their choice of goal. Fascinating to hear them debate, and probably the first time they had ever done so.

The answers were brilliant and well thought through. As the lesson went on they became more confident after such a hesitant start. The last question I asked was what was their one wish. Peace, security, health for the entire country, end to conflict, possibility of further education and then just 2 who allowed a wish for themselves - to travel abroad and to be successful.

A fascinating afternoon. Tomorrow to the villages of Worsaj and so no contact for the next 3 days.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Monday 26th April - Taloquan

A memorable morning at School for Deaf abnd Disabled in Taloqan. 45 children. Mary Hare School had made some wonderful interactive games for them and we had a fantastic time playing with the children. A giant farmyard with stick on animals brought so much pleasure and was used to teach the children .. and us...sign language for each animal. Puppets made by the UK children were used for a puppet show with the girls and I have never heard so much laughter.

We then ran an Olympic Games morning. We did competitions in football and volleyball for the boys and skipping for the girls and presented medals. We used a giant parachute to play games. Because none of them speaks, all the games were silent other than the squeals of laughter. A truly happy morning. We finished with a party with all the drinks I bought en route to the school and a huge bag of sweets brought by Pat.

Sunday 25th April


Early start to Keshem and a beautiful morning drive. There is “drought land” across these hills. Wheat is sown each year and will only grow if the rains come. There is no way to irrigate the land. This year the rains have been good and there is a green and brown patchwork quilting the hills. The green is the wheat and the brown is the intermittent strips of land left fallow for the year. The snow peaks of the Hindu Kush frame these drought lands. Farmers plough the soil with ancient wooden ploughs drawn by oxen and donkeys with brightly woven saddles plod past us, their heads bowed low under impossible loads.

Keshem lies in a valley where there is always the faintest sliver mist shadowing its river and waterside poplars. We branched off to our school and travelled through the villages and more spectacular scenery on the roughest of tracks, tracing the river to the furthest bridge, where we crossed to Jari Shah Baba School.

We have been visiting the school for 4 years. There are nearly 1400 girls there and most used to study outside. AC has completed 2 projects here to build enough classrooms for all the girls. We received a wonderful welcome. In the garden courtyard of the school, girls were out in headscarved teams playing volleyball ...a real joy to see in a country where so few girls are allowed to play. Another group are busy in the kitchen. They received cooking equipment from their twin school last year which we presented to them on our last visit.

Today they were jammed into a tiny room, cooking us a feast of welcome. They had brought fresh vegetables from their gardens and the head teacher had brought in some of her chickens. Delicacies such as the local flat bread stuffed with vegetables were being made amidst very happy laughter.

The whole school was buzzing. The choir had prepared the National song and a song of welcome and sang with great gusto. Everywhere we went we were followed by hundreds of children. We gave out all the twin school cards and projects and did a lesson involving all the children in discussing the Millennium Development Goal of education for all primary aged children. We heard first hand from the girls of all the reasons why children miss out on education ...and all the problems they face...but also all the fruits of education. The sadness is that these girls are so bright and determined and all want to serve their country as doctors and engineers and teachers, but as they said, it is so hard for them to afford university or to be allowed to go so far from their homes to study. None of these girls has an educated mother. It is a new generation and things are changing, but perhaps not fast enough for some of the really bright ones.

After a delicious lunch, we went back to Keshem town through the lively bazaars and on to Mashad School....for 2500 girls. Until this year this was our largest project and it looks fantastic. Beautiful buildings and wonderful grounds. Very exciting to see it finished. The first time I came here the garden was awash with groups of children who had no classrooms. Now they have a finished school.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

2010 - A new visit...

Saturday 24th April


Despite the ash cloud and despite the security threatening to destroy our trip, 4 of us made it out to the Kabul mountains and met up on the Jalalabad Road to start our travels to Northern Afghanistan. Uncertainty had dogged the lead up to the trip and until the day I left, I feared it would be cancelled. This cast its own cloud and it was with apprehension that I set out from London. But, the moment I stepped on to the runway at Kabul and looked up to the Hindu Kush through the familiar light of the city, it felt like coming home. This reassuring feeling is vaguely contradictory, since Kabul remains a fortress city, constantly on alert for terrorist activity, dwarfed by check points and watch towers, a city of vulnerability, swathed in barbed wire and concrete. We were stopped and had our passports checked and in just a year, I see a huge difference to the place and a nervousness accentuated to its limits.

Sitting in the Swedish Committee offices, just yards from the ISAF base on the Jalalabad Road, surrounded by roses and freshly planted turf, sipping tea with my newly met travel companions, one could never have guessed at the tension beyond the walls. I am here with Mary, from The Spectator, Oliver, who is filming the trip and Pat, who is a donor. All much younger than me and I feel like the true veteran of the trip!

Our day began at 3.30am when we left the haven of the SCA compound and headed for the airport. Outside the gates was a different world. Sinister in the darkness, blue lights on speeding police vehicles illuminated the blackened city. Armed soldiers lined the roadside and at intervals, Afghan Army stood in the road, armed with RPGs. Extraordinary to think this was all going on in a seemingly peaceful night. The road to the airport was blocked and as dawn broke and the distant mountains were released into view on a perfect morning, there was a general decent into chaos. Desperate passengers were queuing on the road awaiting the all clear.

Our plane scared the lives right out of us. It looked as if had dropped from the skies at least 30 years ago, with no attempt made to disguise the dilapidation. A relic from Russian times -Brejnev according to one onlooker, the fuselage looked like a patchwork of soot stained scrap metal, the paintwork peeling off the whole exterior. The inside was filthy and the seats flimsy. An old rug hid untold horrors up the aisle, the instructions on the emergency exit were in Russian and the seatbelts didn’t work.

A fantastic journey to Kunduz despite the surroundings, and great to land safe. Surrounded by German military, we came off the plane and headed for the Kunduz School for deaf children—linked with Arbour Vale, Slough.

As always our greeting from the children was overwhelming and they ran into my arms. We had a glorious morning of unadulterated fun - gave all the work to them prepared by the English twin school and had fun going through the projects and photos of London with them.

They also played with a massive parachute donated by Mary Hare School and all the children played magnificent games with the massive cloth.

Then on to Taloqan, where I am sitting in the sun, unable to step outside the compound to the splendid bazaar which we love so much as security won’t allow.