Monthly Archives: October 2009

Mountain Biking to Break Barriers?

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On October 3rd this year, my birthday coincidentally, I became the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan.   The irony of accomplishing something like this was that it started out so simply….each trip I’ve spent in Afghanistan I’ve longed for my bike.  The goat trails, the dirt roads, and the incredible mountains scream out to me to get pedalling!

The non profit I founded, Mountain to Mountain, is focused on women and children’s education and empowerment in remote mountain communities, in particularly in Afghanistan.  Yet a large part of our ethos is connecting communities and cultures.  I have come to realize that being the founder of a non profit and a mountain biker is not necessarily mutually exclusive.

So this trip, I made the decision to lug my trusted steed on the arduous journey from Colorado to Kabul.  Mountain to Mountain becoming quite literal as my Niner biked its way through Singlespeed World Championships in Durango, Colorado on a Saturday, only to be packed up, still dirty, to join me on a series of flights to Afghanistan the following week.

It wasn’t intended to be any sort of record creating, being the first at something, kind of excursion.  It’s simply a way for me to do what I do, in a country that I love, and perhaps change a few perceptions about what women can and can’t do in the process.  After some googling and researching, we discovered that no other woman had done this.   Not really surprising as this is Afghanistan we’re talking about.  Women don’t ride bikes here.  Foreign women try to stay relatively low key.  For good reason.  Between the land mines, suicide bombers, the Taliban, and the usual crap against women that exists in many Islamic countries, mountain biking isn’t high on anyone’s (male or female) priority list.

I decided to ride my bike in two provinces of Afghanistan, which happen to be two of the provinces that Mountain to Mountain is working in…connecting our mission with our ethos.  Education and cultural exchange.  Couple that with my desire to break barriers and crack open the long held stereotypes that pigeon hole women in many regions of the world, it was a no brainer.  The long term vision being that this trip I challenge perceptions and stereotypes on both sides of the coin.

Westerners assume Afghan men won’t accept women on bikes, because no women do it.   Truth, many won’t and don’t.  But the majority we encountered not only tolerated it, but chatted with us, joked and supported it.

Afghans expect that Westerners are too scared and too closed off to come out of their NGO and military compounds to interact with them and their country.  Westerners (including many that live and work in Afghanistan) assume you’ll be shot dead or kidnapped the moment you leave the confines of your secure car or compound.  I try to do my errands on my own whenever possible via walking or motorbike. I walk in the markets, stay in residential neighborhoods, and often conduct my daily errands alone so that I can take the time to connect with shopkeepers and security guards.  I buy my naan bread from a local baker round the block, have learned where to buy fresh yogurt measured out into a plastic bag and sold by the weight.

Mountain biking is just another extension of that desire to interact with Afghans more fully by doing what comes naturally.

Now this is not to say, it is without danger, or that all men would tolerate this.  There are men, especially in other, more conservative provinces, that wouldn’t.  I am fully aware of security concerns and am not ignorant of the risks I take by exposing myself on a bike.  I chose and discussed my location choices carefully.  Baby steps were taken on remote mountain paths and dirt roads before riding my bike through a village.  There are still areas of this country where I couldn’t step out of my car without a burqa on.   Areas where foreigners of either sex, are at risk, simply by trying to do their work.   Assassinations and kidnappings still occur and foreigners are not trusted.  But there are areas where genuine human interaction and cultural exchange are not only possible but desired.

Yet as I’ve said many times before, if no one ever does it, it will never change.  Its my own version of:  “Just because that’s the way things are, doesn’t mean its the way they should be.”

photo by Travis Beard

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Silence in Afghanistan

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Third visit with the Afghanistan National Deaf Association (ANAD) and the school they are running in Kabul.  Not much has changed.  This project may be the most difficult to accomplish – but potentially the most rewarding.

We have been working to acquire land, twice having it fall through or be deemed unacceptable.  The deaf have very few advocates in Afghanistan.  10,000 deaf are estimated, and there are three small schools operating that service close to 1,000.  All three working privately, with donors and partnering with NGO’s to keep running without any governmental support.

This lack of support is frustrating for all concerned, but depressingly highlighted during a visit with representatives of ANAD with current Afghan President, Hamid Karzai a month ago.  The representatives of ANAD are deaf, and as such attended the meeting with a signing translator and a Dari interpreter.  The purpose was to get permission on a parcel of government owned land in Kabul on which to build a school for the deaf.  At an early stage in the meeting, Karzai asked his aide, what are those people doing with their hands?   When it was explained that they were deaf, and that this is how they communicate, he started crying (he is quite emotionally at times like these) and expressing his surprise and shame that he didn’t know there were deaf in Afghanistan.  Shocking and yet, not surprising.

So a parcel of land was offered at a greatly reduced cost for the deaf school.  Paperwork was drawn up, but until money exchanges hands, or the land is built upon, there is the worry that this could be given away to someone else at the drop of a hat.

When I went back to visit ANAD and discuss next steps, the blueprints and paperwork was proudly shown and we piled into a minivan to make the long, bumpy, and dusty ride out to an area of Kabul I’d never seen.  The area is vast and empty, a proverbial desert in the middle of a bustling city.  The land is a large parcel, and would allow for the school, teacher training building, and a small guesthouse.  The main road is on the city’s master plan to be fully paved which would shorten the commute greatly.   We walked the land and discussed possibilities, but the main issue being the land cost.  We are fundraising here to raise money for the school and staff, but the land cost is a hefty curveball.

Despite the continued hard work to secure land, this is a project that is desperately needed.  As Karzai, himself, illustrated, Afghanistan is unaware of its own deaf community.  In fact, I’d venture to say, that there isn’t a deaf community.  Not really.  Not like we see in other countries.  The deaf here are living in silence, with its own government unaware of its very existence.  There is little advocacy for this population, and virtually none outside Kabul and Jalalabad.  The steps forward are more difficult that building schools for girls, women at risk, or teacher training programs.  More difficult even than working in the women’s prisons.  This group cannot communicate without the aid of translators, and there are a handful in the country.  More schools can’t be built until more teachers are found and trained.  The three small schools that are taking students, are working towards communication, not a complete education.  There are gaping holes that need to be filled, and it will take an enormous amount of support, funding, and partnering with the deaf communities outside of Afghanistan to mentor them into developing a viable and thriving community within its borders.   A focus on communication, literacy, and vocation skills are needed immediately while a more comprehensive curriculum can be developed over time and with qualified teachers.

Until then, these children will continue to live in silence.

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Example of Local Women Making a Difference in Afghanistan

This story is taken from another blogsite - Dry Mouth – Kabul Life. http://drymouth.tumblr.com/

It is an inspiring example of brave Afghan women taking on leadership roles, carving out a life for themselves and their families, and how occasionally they are lucky enough to be doing so with the support of their husbands.  Unusual?  Yes.  But definitely the story we should be striving to spread as we work to gain more support to create opportunity and education for amazing women like Lisa Nooristani.  If this doesn’t warm your heart and make you pull out your wallet to support more women like this, I don’t know what will.  Help Mountain to Mountain make a difference with women like this in remote areas of Afghanistan, so that women can continue to take on these roles of business and leadership and change the perception of women as smart, economically important, and deserving of respect.  It starts with education and microfinance – all of which is simpler than one would think.  To learn more about how to get involved – visit www.mountain2mountain.org

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During the week in which we had arranged an interview, Lisa Nooristani, CEO of Mutaharek Construction Company, received a death threat letter from the Taliban. It warned her not to continue in her successful construction building and absolutely not to appear on any media. Nonetheless I am publishing a photograph of her face and will shortly be producing a short video piece on her as part of a series on Afghan Businesswomen. Why? Because she insisted. I asked her several times if she would like to call off the interview and told her that any film I took would be broadcast not only all over the web and potentially picked up by major broadcasters like CNN and Sky, but also likely be picked up by Afghan media.

I met her at the gates of the US military run Provincial Reconstruction Team base in Nurestan. She had wanted to drive through the gates in her car, but as their scanner was down, the gate guards wouldn’t let her so she stomped up the steep hill to meet me smiling as she huffed and puffed. I later learned she had recently had a C-section to deliver her sixth child.

We had a pre-interview chat with a local interpreter providing the bridge that her sparse English and my even sparser Dari lacked. Open-faced with features that at once were younger and older than her 28 years, her voice was quiet and her eyes fixed on mine with a firm kindness.

“I have visited countries like Iran and Pakistan. I even went to America. I saw how these countries are, how they’re developed, how women are developed. And I was happy because I saw how we are all human. But then I was sad because I didn’t know why my country couldn’t be like that. Why is my country destroyed?”

“Those threat letters I received, they obviously upset me because these people are my people, they’re not Iranian or Pakistanian, they’re Afghan. They’re my brothers and I still respect them. But I’m not afraid of their threatening letters.”

She added, “If they kill me, then at least my children will be proud of me”.

She was married at 14 and told me how she didn’t stop crying all day. A couple of days later, sitting in her home, surrounded by her children, I looked at photos of her wedding day. Her young face caked in make-up, she was the only one not smiling.

Yet, her marriage has been successful. Her husband supports her completely and tells her he regards her as his ‘brother’. As un-romantic as this may sound to western ears, to an Afghan woman, this is a high compliment. Lisa laughs as she tells me how people talk about her husband, saying ‘he isn’t a man. He allows his wife to talk with foreigners. Look! She talks with them, she sits with them’. She smiles as she says, ‘he doesn’t listen to this kind of talk. He knows his wife is working for her homeland’.

I can’t emphasise enough how inspiring this sweet, kind and determined woman is. And how brave she is for talking to me. ‘I want to improve the condition of Nurestani women’, she says several times during the interview. She tells me how bad conditions are for these women: how they’re not allowed to even wash without asking their husband for a piece of soap; how they’re expected to keep on working even while they’re giving birth; how they deliver babies in the middle of the forest while gathering wood, cutting the umbilical cord with a blunt chopping knife.

“I just want support. Not only for me but for all women and especially Nurestani women.”

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The Journey to Find the Village

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Our driver, Shah Mohammed is thrilled to to see me again…big smile. Unfortuantely, its soon very apparently that he should not be driving outside the city, in fact, probably shouldn’t be driving as a profession AT ALL. Hamid, my flatmate and translator, sits next to him in the front and it was soon apparent that Shah Mohammed couldn’t see the numerous speed bumps. The ancient Toyota Corolla is not meant to take on these things at high speed, yet Shah Mohommad couldn’t see them till it was too late. It came to a head, so to speak, just around the corner from Massoud’s Tomb in the Panjshir – rounded a bend, the car was suddenly careening towards the cliff and the cement/rock barriers that border the road. Luckily these barriers are solid, we broke a huge chunk away and thus slowed the car down enough to stop before following the rocks tumbling down the cliff side. In typical Afghan style, Shah Mohommad quickly reverses to drive off. We shout for him to stop and check the car, the barrier, and collect ourselves. It was truly inches from death and it was interesting to have that near death experience and realize that your life doesn’t flash before your eyes…you just internally think, “well, damn”.

The ironic part is that Toyota Corollas are resilient as hell. Proof in point, take out a concrete barrier, get a crowbar out to pull the fender and the wheel panel back into place and we’re off. No harm no foul. Other than the kid that came running down the street to tell us we needed to pay for the barrier.

Clouds were rolling in hard and we headed to ‘our village’.  We continue a couple more hours down a pretty rough mountain road.  Each time Shah Mohammad turns sharply to the left, the wheel grinding in the crushed wheel, every time he braked, the wheels squealing. It was around this time that our near-sighted driver starts bitching. He wasn’t happy he had to drive so far, on such bad roads, etc. etc. Hamid took the brunt of it. About 15 minutes from the village, Shah Mohammad actually tells Hamid he wouldn’t go any further. It turned into a bit of kerfuffle and I said I wasn’t paying if he turned around. We said we had hired him for the day to go to Panjshir, if he had a problem with how far, or the roads, etc. he should have said and we would have hired another driver.  He continues to complain but keeps driving.

Travis and Hamid found this village a while back while journeying through this area.  They had randomly stopped to ask if they knew of somewhere they could stay and Idi Mohammad immediately offered his home.  Turns out he is the principal of the village school and Travis told him about me and the work I was looking to do with Mountain to Mountain.  They returned a second time a few weeks later  and again stayed with Idi Mohammad’s family.

As we pull up, the village looks the same as any of the other villages we’ve driven through. The only distinguishing feature is its remoteness and the new building of mud being built on the left side of the road. A two story building with two men on the roof. One is Idi Mohammad, in a Panshiri hat (the type favored by Massoud). Turns out that this is to be a guesthouse, and his family’s home is directly behind. He was all smiles when he saw Travis and Hamid.  He comes down from the roof while we walk around back, gathering a crowd of children and men behind us.  I am introduced and find myself, once again, mesmerized by the handsome features of Panjshiri men. Idi Mohammad is genuinely happy to see the guys and asks how their motorbike trip went, he was worried about them.

Hamid explains that we wanted to stop by so that they could introduce me, but that we have to go back tonight, especially as our driver is being such a pain in the ass.  Idi Mohammad looks concerned and unhappy that we cannot stay the night. He offers a second time, and we explain that our driver is the main issue, but that we will be back next week and will stay longer.   We take a seat on a stone wall overlooking the road and the valley.  It turns out that he was originally a teacher, and spent many years as a Pakastani refugee. When he returned to his village he started up a school with a couple other teachers to teach the children. It expanded and they now have a school that services all the way through high school. He is the principal and while they have a school, and teachers, they are lacking in supplies. This is something I can help with this trip. We discussed the need for stationary (paper and pens) is the biggest need. Ironically it’s the reason many children do not attend school. Their families are simply too poor to afford the 20 cents for a notebook. The school houses 600 students on average. Amazingly, the other need is computers. I was surprised, and asked why they felt computers would be a necessary component of their school.  Idi Mohammad explained that it connects them to the rest of the world and allows their remote village to provide better education for their children. They already have a teacher qualified in computer sciences so its simply a matter of machines.

I also ask Idi Mohammad about neighboring villages that don’t have schools. Would he be able to direct me to others that are lacking schools entirely. He agrees to come up with a list before my next visit.  He also mentions that up on the mountain behind the village is a small community of fifty families. Their children make the long walk to attend the school at ‘our village’, but that the young ones (grade 1-5) are unable to attend school during the winter due to the snow. They are simply too young to make that walk. We discussed building a primary school there so that they can attend their classes year round and stay with the same coursework as the larger school and when they are old enough they will graduate into ‘our village’ school to finish through high school. It would be a simple project , a few classrooms only. We talk briefly about construction and logistics and Idi Mohammad looks at me with all seriousness and says that if necessary he will oversee the construction himself. We have ourselves a school, a computer lab, and a project manager. As well as a solid contact for reaching out and making first steps in other villages.

During the last few minutes of the talk, a loud repetitive banging is heard, I look behind us to the street to see Shah Mohammed banging away at the front fender with a crowbar. Passive aggressive behavior or does he really think it will fix the wheel?

Dark was coming on, our driver had a crowbar he was starting to use more agressively, and our tummies were rumbling.  Perhaps it was time to make the four hour drive back home.   We said our goodbyes with the promise we’d return to stay for several days next week to discuss further.

Great leaps forward.  Good stuff.

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Computer Labs Bring the World a Little Closer

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Yesterday I enjoyed the pleasure of delivering six laptops for a girls school in Kabul.  I also paid for a new generator and the salary for a computer teacher for one year.   Just under $3,000 set up a computer lab and funded it for one year.  In a country like Afghanistan where schools and teachers themselves are sorely lacking, should it be a priority to delve into computer labs and training?

The agreement to set up a computer lab at a girls secondary school was born out of the desire to help, and out of curiosity.  Would the computers, especially ones not hooked up to the internet, be of genuine use? $3,000 could pay yearly salaries for two teachers at the school.  There were questions to be answered debating the use of funds for computers over teachers or more traditional curriculumn.

Then I met the girls.

6 laptops were brought over from the States.   The box arrived safely in Kabul airport only to be delayed by the security guards checking our baggage via x-ray as we left the baggage claim.  Mind you, its already been screened at least four or five times since leaving Denver, have paid two tariffs for extra baggage and weight charges and they have the cheek to try to get me to pay a bribe for bringing in the laptops for the girls school.  A dialogue over the fact that these were intended to be DONATED not sold to a girls school, etc. etc. went back and forth for a while.   Luckily, I had duct taped that box up so good that when they keep shouting at me to open and I shouted back… “WITH WHAT?” as I clearly couldn’t open without a knife or scissors.  They finally shooed me out of there.

Next up was arranging for delivery.  My good friend, photographer, and Afghan advisor in this country, Travis Beard, took on the additional role of chauffeur and tied the box onto the back of his motorbike, so that the computers, both of us, and his video equipment all squeezed onto the Japanese dirt bike for the 30 minute drive to the school.

We arrived safely and gathered the seventh year girls in the room designated to be used as the computer lab.  We asked them how many had used computers before, twelve raised their hands, and we discovered that they had all shared one computer a couple of years back.  We asked what many of them wanted to do after school.  The answers ranged from: artists, teachers, journalists, tailors, doctors, and even one policewoman.  Amazing girls with lofty dreams.

How would the computers help them reach their goal?  The girls all reiterated that the main benefits of computers were how they made the world a smaller place.  Knowledge was more accessible, word and excel programming made their work more efficient, and internet broadened the world beyond Afghanistan.

All but the artists raised their hands when we asked if they felt computers would be necessary for their future work.

Then we turned it around, the girls got ask me questions.  One girl asked the all important question, “why us?”  “Why did you decide to help the girls of Afghanistan?”   Its a tougher answer than you’d think.  How do you put to words the deep seated anger and frustration one feels over the inequity and struggle women and girls suffer every day in Afghanistan?   How do you explain that you can’t NOT help if at all possible to make their worth come to light?  In the end, I simply said, “I have a daughter.  Devon is five years old and you deserve to have the same education and opportunities that she does.” That said it all.

The girls continued to ask questions shyly and eventually  we unpacked the laptops so the girls be part of the set up of the lab.  We said our goodbyes and one of the girls raised her hand to speak, “Thank you for the computers and for saying that we are as important as your daughter.”   These girls are amazing and I felt humbled by their gratitude.  They  are getting nothing less than what they deserve, the right to an education and the tools to make their lofty careers goals a reality.

Ironically it is the same case in a much different school.  A co-ed school in the remote mountains of Panjshir.  A village several hours down the valley that has a school from 1st-12th year.   Very unusual in a village this remote.  I spoke at length with the principal and one of the founding teachers of the school about what the school needs and he discussed the need for stationary (paper and pens) at their school is the biggest need.  Surprisingly, it’s the reason many children do not attend school.  Their families are simply too poor to afford the 20 cents for a notebook.   The school houses 600 students on average.

Amazingly, the other need is computers.  I was surprised, and asked why they felt computers would be a necessary component of their school.  IM explained that it connects them to the rest of the world and allows their remote village to provide better education for their children.  They already have a teacher qualified in computer sciences so its simply a matter of machines.

As a great friend and mentor has told me numerous times, “Go over there and listen.  Have cups of tea and listen.”  Well, I’m listening and I am getting the message.

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