Category Archives: education

Internet Cafe Sparks the Fight for Women’s Rights

Take the community conversation of coffeehouse culture, throw in the passion of youth activism, add in the power of social media and the borderless knowledge of the Internet, and package it up in a social enterprise and what do you get? Internet cafes.

Across the world, Internet cafes are the primary form of Internet access for citizens as a shared, public model is more accessible and affordable than individual access in the home. Internet cafes allow for citizen journalism to flourish, for education to diversify and deepen, and for the global community to connect. Thanks to Internet cafes, I’m able to easily communicate with my Afghan translator, Najibullah, to coordinate upcoming trips, discuss projects, and trouble shoot questions that arise once I’m back in the U.S. Najib, would be unable to afford Internet in his home, and has no office, so instead he visits a cafe every couple of days to check in with clients like me and thus has a flourishing business that has expanded to coordinating between several translators and drivers that now work under him to serve his many international clients. Thanks to Internet access, Najib has built a business that can support his extended family.

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Simple Solutions to Save Women’s Lives

You would think there would be more of an uproar in a country with the highest maternal death rates.  No other country in the world loses more women in childbirth than Afghanistan.  None.   Rarely has being first at something meant so much loss.

It’s not just the women either, lest you callously chalk it up to the inevitable argument over women’s oppression in a country like Afghanistan where women set themselves on fire to escape arranged marriages, rapist go free, victims go to jail, and women die in childbirth when a male doctor lives just 10 minutes down the road, because he is unable to view her naked or worse yet, touch her.

The children too are dying at alarming rates.  Skirting at the top of the heap, currently in the second position when I last checked, of the highest infant death rates in the world.  Babies die from suffocation when they a nasal suction would clear out their mouth and nose post delivery.  Babies die of dehydration when they are given dirty water instead of breast milk.  Babies die common colds due to harsh winters with little to keep them warm.

All three causes are easily rectified.  As are many of the major causes of the mother’s deaths.  Dirty knives that cut the umbilical cord and cause infection.  Inability to deliver the placenta causes the woman to bleed out.

Lack of a few simple medicines, lack of pre or post natal care, lack of female doctors equal death on a large-scale in a country already suffering from something akin to country-wide post traumatic stress disorder due to nearly four decades of war and incredible loss of life that has affected every family.   In short, many of these deaths are preventable, and families crave midwives even areas that they won’t yet education girls.

Midwife training schools exist in nearly every province to address this situation and the Afghan Minister of Public Health touts its success.  Successful for cities and larger communities, yes.  But this 2 year program rarely spreads far.

Lack of education makes a trickle down effect nearly impossible.  A unique village-to-village approach is needed to save lives in rural communities.   The reason?   Girls must have a 9th grade education to attend midwife training.  Those that have the education, must then have the permission from their father or husband to leave their community for 2 years to attend training.  In the rare case that education, permission and scholarship is available, and the girl attends school, she will return to her community to live.  A wonderful solution for THAT village and she will do much for her community’s welfare, but what about the communities that do have educated girls to send?

It is extremely rare that a girl would return from school to a village other than her own.  So the villages that don’t have girls educated to 9th grade, a rarity in many regions, have no hope to train girls from within their own village.

So, the solution?  Train women and girls with low levels of education, to be skilled birth attendants.  Teach them the simple solutions that save lives that you or I could learn in 4 short weeks.  Teach them basic sanitation and have them educate their village.  Teach them how to administer basic medicines and vaccinations.  Pay them a small stipend to work in their village.   As the village thrives, and the women earn money for their family, the value of women increases and deaths decrease.

A great example of this cultural shift occurred in a remote mountain village in the Panjshir.  We had ongoing discussions about building a girls primary school, and the elders were reticent.  When we shared our other program, rural midwife training, their eyes lit up and questions and stories flew around the room as I struggled to keep up with their pace.  Upon realizing that we couldn’t train illiterate women, and the knowledge that there wasn’t one single literate woman or girl in the village, we ended the discussion.  The next morning, fifteen men met me with green tea and said they would like to pursue the original discussion of a girls school.

Often it’s illustrating the way girls and women can contribute to the general welfare of the community that makes the rational argument for their health, worth, and their education.

Our first training begins with women from two Taliban-controlled provinces.  Where women have long suffered under oppression, but where even there, the lives of women and their offspring have value enough to save, but no one to save them.

Until now.

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Land for the Deaf in Kabul

Two years after Mountain 2 Mountain first dedicated itself to working with the deaf populations in Afghanistan, a breakthrough.  Land, glorious land.  Not as easy to come by or inexpensive as you may think in a war torn region like Afghanistan.  In fact its quite expensive, hard to find and even harder to get firm commitments even if you have the cold hard cash to purchase it outright.  Harder still when you are looking for a land donation on which to build a school.   Land is notoriously changing hands, it becomes a game of he who builds first, wins.  There are many stories of land being donated in a village for school, yet in the time it takes to run things past a Board of Directors and in our case, raise the money, someone else may show up with cash in hand and the land is given to them instead.

Its not surprising given the history of broken promises that the Afghans have endured during thirty-five plus years of occupation and conflict.  Reconstruction and education is key to the future of this country, and while M2M is not a building-centric organization, in some cases construction is needed.  In the case of the deaf population a sustainable and permanent structure that could house not only a school but a teacher training program for the future meant that the search must first start for land.

Several avenues were pursued, until finally, last month a second visit with President Karzai yield a solid confirmation of a large parcel of land we visited last fall.   Originally we were told we could have it for the reduced price of $60,000.  Too steep for a small organization such as ourselves.  We held fast, and this March had another meeting and secured the land for the bargain basement price of $0.

Two weeks ago an opening ceremony was held on the parcel of land to celebrate and to officially transfer over the deeds to ANAD – the Afghan National Association of the Deaf.  Government officials attended and cut the ribbon, and engineers marked out the land boundaries and marked with chalk.

Last week a small trench was dug over the chalk to ensure the boundaries didn’t get washed away from rain and wind so that we can make preparations for our next steps.   The immediate step is to raise $10,000 to build a perimeter wall on the boundaries.  This is integral for any institution in Afghanistan for safety and to protect the land demarcation.  The wall and requisite security door ensures safety for the upcoming construction of the school and more importantly for the future safety of the teachers and students.

While the wall is being constructed this summer we’ll be moving forward with design plans and raising the big chunk needed for the school construction.   An estimated $200,000 is needed to build the school and now that we have the land, we are hoping to raise that in a few short months so that construction can start before winter hardens the ground.  No easy task.

Our excitement and commitment  is with ANAD and the deaf children the future school will support!

To read more about the realities facing the deaf in Afghanistan check out our previous blogs:  Silence in Afghanistan and Hearing Literacy.

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Education for Kabul’s Streetchildren

No group of children are more at risk in Afghanistan than the streetchildren.  These kids work the streets selling gum, maps, and a smokey good luck in a swinging incense burner.  Some wash cars, clean shoes, and run errands for pennies for owners of market stalls.  The enterprising ones, like the bold as brass kids that run Chicken Street in Kabul, stride up and offer their services in a variety of languages.  Don’t want gum or a map?  They’ll shine your shoes.  Looking to buy a scarf?  They’ll escort you there and stand guard outside.  Checking your  Going into the kebab shop?  They watch your motorcycle and keep the other kids from messing with it.

They’re sweet, spunky, and frankly sometimes overbearing and annoying when they swarm your car, incessantly knocking and begging.

These kids are the ones at the greatest risk in any city.  In Afghanistan, the risk is heartbreaking.   Mountain 2 Mountain is working with two centers for streetchildren run by an Afghan organization that we already work with in the women’s prisons.

One of the centers is hidden behind a non descript doorway in between two repair shops.  A dark, mud hallway emerges a dirt courtyard and a ancient small building that houses 2 classrooms and two offices.  The center  runs classes for children aged 7-18 from grades 1-5.   We provide a doctor on site two days a week that can provide free basic healthcare, not just for the children, but for their families as well.  In theory, it sounds like any primary school in Kabul.

Until you hear the stories.

These kids not only work the streets, but often live on them, hiding at night with others to keep warm, safe, and share food together. Those that have families are often malnourished as well, their only meal comes from the simple one served at school.  They are often abused, victims of violence, and often carry small weapons themselves for defense.  Some walk up to an hour through the dangerous Kabul streets to and from school each day.   One young girl talks to us about avoiding kidnappers more than once.  Another is in a wheelchair, her spine broken when the ceiling in her kitchen collapsed during an earthquake.  Her brother pushes her to school and back each day.  Amazingly her spine was broke, but not her spirit.  She smiled widely, and even broke into song for us when a classmate started playing the tablas (small drums).

The Afghan organization we partner with works with the families to ensure they understand why they should encourage their children to go to school, and conducts the school in shifts to accommodate the necessity of these children working the street for their survival.  In the office upstairs is a board that has all the confiscated weapons hung as testament to the change they are making in these 265 children’s lives.

This visit we visited one of the streetchildren centers on their graduation day, balloons were hung, children were singing, and it was hard to believe these are the same children that don’t have enough to eat or a place to sleep at night.  Each year, the grade five children have the opportunity to take a test that confirms their education level is the same as fifth graders in the standard government run schools.   35 children graduated this year and the center gives them a new pair of shoes, a school uniform, and some food at the ceremony.  We have agreed to sponsor their stationary and uniforms through their government schooling to ensure that they don’t drop out due to the lack of supplies which is often the case.

A pretty sad reason to drop out of school.  And a fixable one.

The children who graduated were all smiles and it was obvious they took great pride in their accomplishment.  I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to hand out some of the diplomas, squeezing their small hands with encouragement.

Our desire is to not just support these two centers but to work with them longterm to extend the program to year seven, re-establish a vocational apprenticeship program with local businesses, and to update to newer facilities in the future.   For now, we just need to support these two centers, keep them running and sustainable so that these kids have a future off the streets.

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Small Footprint Approaches to Solve Large Problems

Afghanistan ranks 191 – currently dead last –  on the Quality of Life Index. To compare: DR Congo and Cambodia are tied at 160.

Maternal deaths are the 2nd highest in the world., where one women dies every 30 minutes.

Newborn deaths are the highest in the world with 1 in 4 children dying before their 5th birthday.

81% of women deliver at home without assistance.   Women and their babies die in childbirth or in the first two days due to lack of medical care and support.

80% of these deaths could be managed by a skilled birth attendant (SBA).

19% of newborn deaths come from asphyxia, and 50% from simple infections.  Both are preventable with simple tools.

That’s the cold hard facts.  Women are not valued the same as men or boys in Afghanistan.  In populated areas, often families are simply unwilling to pay for available health care for women when they are sick.  Their lives are simply not worth a $25 doctor’s visit.  In rural areas, the family may not HAVE $25 for a doctor’s visit.

Mountain 2 Mountain is approaching this problem with a fully unique approach that mirrors their cyclical model for education, training, job creation, and small business start ups.  Smaller footprint, less infrastructure, more education and training, microfinance, and sustainable development to reduce dependence.

The traditional model employed by larger NGO’s build and staff midwifery training clinics in large communities so that they can bring graduates to a centralized location.  Afghanistan is a decentralized country even at the government level, and when coupled with the gender and cultural issues that often prevent young women to travel outside of their communities alone for schooling, it is often ineffective.  Conversely, it is difficult to encourage graduates of these schools to travel to rural areas to live and work as health care workers.  Freedom of movement and relocation for Afghan women is not the same as it is in other regions of the world.  This model is cumbersome and doesn’t address the immediate issue at hand. High rates of women and babies will continue to die in rural communities.

Our approach not only takes these important points into account by bringing the education to the rural communities and training local girls, often only a 4th grade level.  These candidates can learn enough during an intensive four week training in their community to effectively manage and potentially prevent nearly 70% of maternal and newborn deaths.

Each year another 4 week training will take place to continue their education and allow it time to be put into practice.  The full program would take 5 years to complete.  This may seem like a long process, but the effect is immediate after the initial 4 week training.

Skilled birth attendants can make an impact by decreasing birthing deaths, teaching basic sanitation and prenatal care to their community, and creation of jobs for women in rural communities that often have no opportunities for female employment.

The long term effect is a thriving, healthy community, and a shift in the role of women within the male dominated society.  They prove their worth and earn respect organically by provided a needed service to their community.

That’s not to say that certified midwives and OB/GYN’s are not needed.  They most definitely are, but larger NGO’s can do that work best with bigger budgets and deeper resources.

When strong candidates, with talent, education, and family support, emerge for continued education we would sponsor those candidates for further nursing or midwife training programs and ensure that we can set them up with clinics and support back in their village upon completion of their training.

This model can be replicated throughout rural communities across the country, with Western doctors and nurses that have a knack for teaching and want to donate their time for the 4 week trainings.   Spending the majority of the funding on education, training, equipment, and resources, versus construction and staffing of large scale training clinics.

We plan to move forward with this village to village approach to health care and midwifery with our first communities this year, so that our first round of skilled birth attendants can make an impact in their respective villages.  We look forward to sharing with you their progress in the months and years to come.

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Streets of Afghanistan Launches

On my first visit to Kabul I met up with the Afghan photographers of AINA Photo Agency.  It was my hope that we could create a collaborative photography exhibit featuring top Western conflict photographers alongside emerging Afghan photojournalists.   We met with all the photographers and looked at their top ten best.  There were a handful of talented photographers with unique viewpoints into their own country.

I was determined to find a way to showcase Afghanistan from a variety of perspectives in order to break stereotypes, tell stories, and connect cultures.   Finding Afghan photographers working to create a living out of their craft in a country that has few outlets for photography, made me acutely aware of the importance of creating an outlet that would give them a voice.   I knew that I wanted to use powerful and stirring images to provoke discussion and use that as a launching off point to share the vision and mission of Mountain 2 Mountain in Afghanistan.  We are working in a country that does not allow for much face to face cultural exchange.

Upon my return, I realized that the hard part was raising sponsorship money for the exhibit.   And how to connect the gallery exhibit to our fundraisers in a format that would involve the participants.

I focused on projects and programs in Afghanistan, fundraising, and the overall organization of our non profit.  Then, a little over a year later, a generous angel sponsor from Colorado Springs feel into our laps, interested in giving breath to the exhibition so that we could take photography beyond galleries and tie it closer to our ethos of connecting communities of cultures.

Streets of Afghanistan is a collaborative multimedia exhibition, combing large format photography, video projection, music, and humans themselves, to create a wholly unique and innovative photography experience.  Unlike anything done before in the non profit realm, Mountain 2 Mountain will launch this exhibition with a sneak peek in Denver on April 22 at Suite 200 in downtown Denver, Colorado.

Seven foot high banners will re-create Kabul’s city streets and Afghan rural roads to create walkways that visitors can ‘walk through’.  Interspersed throughout are both still and video portraits that introduce female teachers, members of parliament, doctors, streetchildren, prisoners, and students as living, breathing individuals, each with a unique story of life in Afghanistan for women. Additional 10 foot by 6 foot images preside as larger than life photography.

Audio speakers play recorded sounds down the ‘streets’ and women dressed in burqas wander aimlessly throughout the crowds.  Hundreds of Afghan kites creates canopies of color and symbolize the hope of the Afghan people.

All of this creates the experience for an educational, interactive, and immersion style fundraising event that connects our supporters, donors, and community members closer than ever possible to our projects and communities in Afghanistan.

Our unique collection of Western and Afghan photographers includes; Seamus Murphy, a VII photographer, is arguably one of the top photographers of Afghanistan in the world.  Travis Beard is a conflict photographer having lived and worked in Afghanistan since 2001.  Beth Wald shoots for National Geographic and has spent extensive time in remote regions of Afghanistan with nomadic tribes.  Tony Di Zinno is an international sports photographer and adjunct professor at the prestigious Art Center College of Design.   Five Afghan photographers represent their country burgeoning talent behind the lens, Wakil Kohsar, Mariam Alimi, Gulbulddin, Najibullah Mustafer, and Farzana Wahidy.

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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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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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Changing Seasons in Afghanistan

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As leaves start to turn a pale shade of yellow, children across our nation return to school, and thoughts turn towards crisp autumn days, we find ourselves preparing for another trip to Afghanistan at a time where they are experiencing a different change of season.  The election season has come and gone, but votes are still be counted, accusations of corruption fly from all sides, and a nation struggles to retain the hope that the season ahead is brighter than that left behind.

Today Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah are in a dead heat, pardon the phrase.  A run-off appears likely.  I spoke today on WDAY radio in North Dakota and the host, Christopher Gabriel asked me the question, “What will the election result mean for Mountain to Mountain?”  In the best case, very little will change and small changes will continue to move things forward in terms of education, development, and opportunity.  In the worst, the public loses hope and confidence in its government and those that would exploit that apathy step in to fill the gap with violence and oppression.

Mountain to Mountain believes that regardless of the electoral outcome – our way ahead is firmly set in place.  As we revisit Afghanistan this autumn it is only fitting that we implement our first independent projects at the same change of season that first brought us to this country.   This trip sees us setting up a computer lab at a girls secondary school.   We plan to interview the teachers and students and revisit them yearly to watch their progress and track the relevance of computer training for their education and career paths.

This trip is also focused on taking the next step with several larger projects we are fundraising for.   The first is with the deaf school in Kabul.   Securing land, discussing the teacher training program, and school requirements.  The second is to visit several communities in the mountains to discuss potential sites for schools in the region.  We look forward to meeting with community elders and discovering how we can best work together to bring education to the children in these villages.

At the same time – our own organization is changing as we say goodbye to the first half of the year’s efforts to get balls rolling, set structure, and discover how to work together effectively as a Board.  As autumn comes, we find ourselves starting to see some of the fruits of our labor ready to harvest.  Our 2nd Annual Race for the Mountain trail running event raised over $3,000 towards a computer lab.  Team M2M launched in July and its handful of initial members have raised over $3,000 in just two short months.   The Dreams of Kabul photography exhibit launches its opening night fundraising in September as its first stop on a traveling tour of galleries.  Communities across the nation are developing their own fundraising initiatives and events to help us build schools, educate girls, and empower young women to find their way in the world.

As we move forward into the next season we hope that we can continue to build upon the events we’ve set in motion in the season’s past to create opportunity in the seasons yet to come!

photo by Di Zinno

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