Czechs in Afghanistan VI: Teach a man to farm and you feed him for a lifetime

11-05-2010

Today Radio Prague returns to Afghanistan, and the Czechs at work rebuilding a country where an estimated 72% of the population is illiterate. In this edition of Czechs in Afghanistan, Christian Falvey reports from the north of the war-stricken country on the educational programmes of the Czech charity foundation People in Need.

When you ask Afghans questions about the mentality, the customs and conditions in which their countrymen live, time and time again the answers you get are qualified with the statement “the people here are very uneducated” or “the people here are well educated”. It is the explanation that people give for why others fight and steal, why they treat their women as they do and why they seek to better themselves and their communities. Rebuilding Afghanistan begins at its very furthest corners, and with education.

“We are now in Margzar, a very remote village of the Zare district.”

And this is the most remote village where you have a field office?

“Yes. And we are just entering this new school which we’ve finished, you can see that there is still some work going on in the garden, but aside from that the building is finished and operational.”

It’s beautiful, the stonework is very detailed and nice.

“Yes, I think it’s the nicest school I’ve seen in Afghanistan.”

In terms of form and function, surely anyone from anywhere would be happy to attend the school in the Hazari area of Margzar, it is lovely and modern, cool and earthquake-proof, built to stand the tests of time. The 12 classrooms here serve 800 students who are taught by 14 teachers.

How long have you been going to school in this building?

“20 days.”

Where were you going to school before that?

“In a tent.”

And what are you studying right now?

“Geography.”

Have you learned where the Czech Republic is?

“Yes.”

How many classes do you have every day?

“They have classes twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. In the morning there are eight classes and in the evening there are ten.”

And what do the children do in the afternoons?

“The students who come in the morning are working in the evening to bring their families food. They are working the land with donkey and cows.”

How old are the students?

“Different ages, maybe this one is six years, this one is eight year...”

How old are you?

“11.”

And how old are you?

“18.”

This is a little boy using a stick and the first five numbers written on the wall of a small mud house to teach another ten village children to count. The situation with education for rural children is desperate in many areas, but it is not the main focus of the Czech humanitarian operation. A huge part of the economy of Afghanistan is based on farming, and thus the better part of the programmes designed and supported by People in Need across the country are intended to teach the teachers. They are learning to teach farming through more innovative methods, appropriate curricula drawn up by leading international institutions, and they are taught the process of grant application so that they can raise funds on their own. Petra Weissová is in charge of People in Need’s educational programmes:

“Apart from theoretical education, there should be very strong focus on this practical component, so we are helping establish experimental farms or plots, we are providing equipment for laboratories, our agriculture expert is supervising and monitoring the establishment of the practical component, which may include planting roses in a greenhouse or building a chicken coup, so that the students can really get hands-on experience, because most of the agriculture curricula in this country was very theoretical until recently.”

And what will the students do when they finish their studies?

“There are plenty of options given that agriculture in Afghanistan still provides livelihoods for over 80% of the population; agriculture accounts for more than 50% of the gross domestic product. So there are huge options, not only could they start working as teachers, simply, at agricultural high schools or institutes, most of them will generate income through their own plots or farms, they could work as extensional workers or for the government, for the local authorities... So there definitely are options.”

Thousands of students have gone through this agricultural secondary school in Mazar-i-Sarif in the last five years. Of that, 95% were later hired by the government, with the other 5% going on to work privately or to teach. They come here from near and far, often lacking any modern training in their fields.

So these computers were provided by People in Need?

“Yes”

And what are the students learning on the computers?

“There is one computer connected to the projector and I teach everyday with one computer and the students can see it on the wall and practice working with computers.”

Do they know how to type?

“I teach them and they practice all the time. It’s very slow, because some of them don’t know how to type, they don’t know a mouse or a keyboard. Some of the students have come from villages and the first time they saw a computer they were surprised and didn’t know what it was, because they had never seen a computer before.”

In the agricultural school in Mazar-i-Sharif there are women learning and women teaching, but in the far-removed areas of rural Afghanistan the education of women must be handled in a different way altogether. Petra Weissová again:

“In Margzar, female high school students are providing education for girls whose parents are not willing to send them to schools, who are not able to attend a school or who are from really remote areas and are too young to spend time away from their families. And People in Need plays a very crucial role because we basically support these home-schools in terms of equipment and supplies and whatever they need in order to provide the girls with at least some basic education.”

Were there women working in these areas – starting up home schooling and improving it – before People in Need came here?

“No; I think the solidarity was always there to some extent, but this is quite a new approach given that more and more girls are entering higher education, which means that there is someone to actually share the wisdom. I think it’s partly influenced by and related to the fact that there are people, even women, coming back from foreign countries like Iran and Pakistan with higher educational degrees, and so they are very aware of the situation that many young girls in these remote areas are in, so they are trying to provide at least basic education.”

As the volunteer teachers do not get salaries, the classes often fall apart eventually. For many women, the best they will be able to expect from their education is literacy. Ms. Weissová is not deterred by that. Education is the key to reconstruction.

“I really believe that education is the way to support the country. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t bring new problems – I mean, this year we got seven million pupils into the first grade of elementary school, that is still only 50%, but the Ministry of Education doesn’t know right now how they will provide support when these seven million want to continue in higher education. So there are definitely many, many challenges, but if you look into the countryside, I think we are trying to provide as much support as possible, especially for young men from remote areas who should be part of the educational process. That’s why we are really supporting and focusing on agricultural high schools, because as I said, agriculture still represents 80% of the livelihood of the population in Afghanistan, so I think it’s crucial.”


Photo: author

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