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Bettering Education in Bamyan

Bamyan, a mere 30-minute flight from Kabul, seems worlds apart from the car-choked streets of Afghanistan’s capital city. The Hindu Kush mountains quickly dominate the view from my tiny airplane window, while the dusty valley of Kabul shrinks away into the horizon. 

My mind wanders back to a teacher-training workshop I conducted in Bangladesh last year. A famous journalist who has crisscrossed most of the globe happened to be our dinner guest. When my trainees pressed him to name the prettiest place in the world, he paused for a few seconds and then said, much to our surprise, “Afghanistan is easily one of the most amazing places on Earth.”

Now, seeing its sandstone cliffs, its snow-capped peaks, and its lush green valleys sprawling thousands of feet beneath me, I instantly agree.

Unfortunately, the state of education in this extremely isolated sanctuary–is anything but pretty.

With widespread poverty, inadequate and unhygienic facilities for schools, isolated villages, and a brutal winter season, Bamyan is in stark contrast to resource-rich Kabul. 

Abdollah, from Save the Children Japan, greets me on the dirt road that serves as tarmac for the tiny U.N. planes that occasionally land here. We make our way to the simple guesthouse and feast on what will be our daily staples–Afghan naan (flat bread) and a humble assortment of packaged cream cheese and jelly. Luckily, fresh grapes (which seem to grow in abundance everywhere in Afghanistan) and piping-hot green tea round off the meal.

I am told that we can shower every third day and that the lights go out at nine each night. I settle into the routine and come to appreciate the most restful sleep I have had in years. I quickly realize it is much colder here at night than in Kabul, and I relish taking my first Bamyan shower with water heated by an old-fashioned wood-burning bukhari (furnace) right in the room. I gladly risk carbon monoxide poisoning for the luxury of feeling clean and warm. 

The next day, Abdollah takes me four hours north along a treacherous road that requires four-wheel drive and a strong stomach. We arrive in Saighan District, an area where village life seems untouched by the passage of time.

After being assured that I am a good, honorable guy, a young teacher allows us to enter the home-based girls’ literacy class. I am welcomed by 12 shy smiles from girls who range in age from 8 to 14. They eagerly answer dictation questions and demonstrate the skills they have learned by writing sentences and solving math problems on the makeshift chalkboard.

I ask the girls if they have noticed any difference in their literacy and numeracy abilities. They respond in unison that they are thrilled to be able to read and share their newly learned skills with family members. Most of the girls hope to enter school next year and join their peers in the third grade, which is exactly what this accelerated literacy program is designed to do. The two oldest girls in the group want to improve their skills so they can help their family pursue business opportunities.

With nationwide female literacy at a meager 13 percent (according to UNICEF) and a severe shortage of qualified female teachers, there is an alarming need for quality intervention programs like this one, to address the impediments to girls’ education. 

We also visit the community school adjacent to the literacy class. I meet several excited children who have benefited from Save the Children materials and activities. Although the school is basically a combination of tents, it is clear that the students who attend are proud to be there and are enthusiastic about learning. 

In the coming months, Save the Children plans to comanage more formal and informal education programs in Bamyan and continue to support isolated communities by increasing children’s access to quality education.

During my visit, Inger and Lailoma from Save the Children Sweden/Norway invite me to the opening ceremony of a teacher resource center funded by our organization. The provincial education director and the elders of the community attend to express their support for the center. Children from all over the region have come to witness this important occasion. They sing traditional songs and wear their best clothes. 

As I wave goodbye and prepare to return to my home in Kabul, I feel inspired that we are making a real, lasting difference in the lies of Afghan children.

Micah Risher works for Save the Children as the Rewrite the Future education coordinator for Afghanistan. 

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