November 25, 2008

Slideshow: Lewis & Clark professor creates first master’s degree program in war-torn Afghanistan

Every year, Lewis & Clark Professor of Education Zaher Wahab leaves Portland to devote four months of service to the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education.
  • Zaher Wahab (second row on the left), poses with the first cohort of the master’s degree for teacher education faculty at Kabul Education University. One of nineteen public institutions of higher learning in Afghanistan, this university—established as a result of Zaher’s advice—instructs approximately 5,000 students annually to become elementary, middle, and high school teachers.
  • It is a rare opportunity for school children in Kabul to attend school. Due to lack of facilities and because many Afghan parents are afraid to send their children to school, only half of the school-age children in Afghanistan—approximately 5 million—attend school. Boys and girls attend mostly separate classes.
  • A pile of broken desks sits in the back of this Kabul Education University classroom—symbolic of the country’s immobilized systems for organization, management, or planning.
  • A school in Wardak province, about 40 miles from Kabul. Students sit on dirt floors in these tents. Surrounding buildings are mostly destroyed.
  • In temperatures that reach 122 degrees, about half the public schools are often held out in the open, under trees and in tents. The government spends approximately $40 per pupil for the school year. There are insufficient books and stationery; there are no toilets, laboratories, libraries, or water. Several tertiary institutions have no campuses either. The country spends about $250 per year per university student.
  • Although it is taboo for Afghan men and women to work in groups together, professor Zaher Wahab purposely created mixed-gender groups when teaching the master’s degree candidates. He made a point of asking that they take turns speaking for only one minute at a time throughout their academic activities. While, at first, this led to heated discussions and resistance, the exercise resulted in exemplary collaborative academic discourse. The four-semester program includes content, pedagogic courses
  • For college students, campus life at Kabul Education University includes library study (upper left), trips to the only water faucet (upper right), and general study time on the lawn.
  • Zaher Wahab (center), poses in the office of the master’s degree program at Kabul Education University with the former Kabul Education University rector (left) and the current chair of the master’s program (right).
  • Water is available for a few hours in Kabul, every other day, from pumps throughout the city. Small children are sent to fetch water for their families. An open sewer system runs alongside city streets.
  • After 30 years of warfare, most buildings crumble throughout the city and military waste litters the land. A lone stem of wheat grows in front of an unexploded bomb.
  • The fifth poorest country in the world, Afghanistan’s residents create businesses to make money where they can. A cobbler (left) repairs shoes from a cart. A barber (right) gives haircuts under a makeshift tent. Per capita income is a dollar a day.
  • With the world’s largest refugee and displaced population, Afghanistan’s internally displaced people have been living for years in tents (foreground) or illegally built mud houses all over the city. Mud is often shin-deep in bad weather and untold numbers do not live through the snowy, harsh Hindukush winters. The extreme disparity of wealth can be seen by the mansions (background), often built with illicit money, which sometimes rent for upwards of $5000 per month. Nearly one-half of Afghan
  • A hillside home is missing part of its roof. Zaher said: Because most people have nothing, the country is gripped by violence, insecurity, lawlessness, crime, corruption and filth. It is a society on life-support.
  • Because insecurity is a major problem, bodyguards and armed vehicles are a common presence. Each ministry and all expatriates have a dozen body guards and escort cars. Three ministers, several state governors and judges, dozens of aid workers, hundreds of teachers, students, and intellectuals have been killed over the past several years. This year, bombings have killed a total of 5,500 Afghans—1,500 were civilians.
  • Zaher Wahab, relaxing at home in Kabul with his nephew’s son. Here, Wahab is encouraging the boy to take his schoolwork more seriously.

Every year, Lewis & Clark Professor of Education Zaher Wahab leaves Portland to devote four months of service to the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education.

Early this year, he worked with Kabul Education University to create Afghanistan’s first master’s degree program for teacher education faculty. The first cohort is made up of eleven men and eleven women, all of whom left teaching positions in teacher-training colleges from around the country to earn this unique master’s degree.

“Four in five Afghan school teachers and half of university instructors are under-qualified—many are illiterate,” Wahab said. “This program was developed to introduce them to new ways and theories of teaching and learning.”

Like the rest of Afghanistan’s capital city, Wahab said, the university has no regular running water. The city, with a population of 3.5 million people, has no electricity, no garbage collection, and no sewer system. The streets are lined with damaged buildings and garbage. Concrete blast barriers surround every important building such as the Kabul airport, museums, NGO offices, hotels, and government buildings. Military waste, such as exploded trucks and planes, covers the country. It is unsafe to travel with out bodyguards and armed vehicles, Wahab said.

“This is the first master’s degree program in decades in this country,” he said. “Education may save this savaged country; it is hoping against hope—but you have to believe it will make a difference.”

This photo slideshow features images Wahab captured during a recent stay in Afghanistan. He plans to return to Afghanistan in February 2009 to continue teaching in the master’s degree program and continue his work with the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education.

In December, Wahab will share stories about the war in Afghanistan as part of a brown-bag lunch speakers series at Lewis & Clark. His session takes place on Wednesday, December 16 on the graduate school campus.