Tag Archives: education

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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Kabul Youth Movement

Afghanistan is known mostly for its stereotypes:  war, terrorism, burqas, Taliban, oppression, opium, and poverty.

That’s not to say these stereotypes don’t hold water.  All of the above are prevalent and part of the daily life in most Afghans today.  The media shows us these images over and over and reinforce our perception that Afghanistan will never change.  It has only gotten worse in the thirty five years of conflict, and what hope is there to expect anything to change?   The mindset solidifies and the mainstream turns it back on what is perceived as a lost cause.

When we allow our stereotypes and narrowminded opinions to dictate how we perceive a region like Afghanistan, no real changes can ever occur.  Afghanistan is not a country that has always lived in the dark ages.  It was plunged into it by a series of conflicts and war that devastated families, infrastructure, and economy.  Studies show that terrorism blossoms out of extreme poverty and its understandable to see how the cycle takes root.  Terrorism and oppression feed off of poverty.  Lack of education breeds ignorance.  Eventually its hard to remember that things were ever different.

Yet it was.

Afghanistan used to have tourists, and travelers explore its remote corners in the sixties and early seventies. The Hippie Trail went right through it.  Irish traveler, Dervla Murphy rode her bike through Afghanistan in the sixties, completely solo and unsupported. Many journeyed from the West to travel cheaply through Herat, Kabul, Bamiyan, and Mazar i Sharif, home to incredible architecture, culture, and the experienced the best of Muslim hospitality.  Thirty five years later, the Russians, the Taliban, and the ongoing offensive by international forces have made the country off limits to most except for military and aid workers.

It is interesting to note that in many cases, the elders are actually more liberally minded towards women’s rights and development than the youth.  The elders remember what life was like prior to the Russians and the Taliban.  In contrast, many of today’s youth have known nothing but war, poverty, and oppression.  They have grown up in a country where women are inferior, where boys get an education, but girls stay at home.  Where girls were publicly stoned to death for walking alone, for holding hands with a boy, or for any number of so-called honor crimes.

Today, this is a country full of Westerners working outside of the military and larger NGO’s, working, exploring, and having adventures. They have tapped into the youth that want more than their country currently offers.  This is a country where Skateistan launched a skateboarding initiative to introduce the sport to the youth. Where two hundred girls now play soccer, in public, at the Kabul Stadium where just a decade ago they would have been stoned to death in the same location for daring to play. Where a French aid worker, is trying to launch a yak train adventure business to take travelers into the remotest of remote, the Wakkan. Where an Aussie photojournalist and his two friends started the first motorcycle club. Where the most popular television show is Afghan Star, an Afghan “American Idol” style reality show.  Where two Afghan mountaineers made a first ascent on Afghanistan’s highest peak. Where Afghanistan’s first Afghan rock band, Kabul Dreams is breaking away from traditional music.  All of these made possible by the support of individuals and organizations that realize that there is more to aid development that only schools and infrastructure.

This is a real country, with real people, with a real youth movement. Just because there is daily violence and a ongoing war doesn’t mean that real life doesn’t continue, that normalcy should be encouraged, and that we can’t interact with Afghans in ways that don’t involve guns.  In fact, considering the 35 + years of conflict, its all the more reason to galvanize the youth out of their apathy and support those youth movements that are burgeoning.

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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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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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Three Weeks Till Afghan Elections

Despite Karzai’s last minute pull out from the televised debates between the top three candidate – he is still presumed the front runner in the upcoming Afghan presidential elections.   Tolo TV held the debates and Karzai claimed that his last minute refusal to take part was due to the debates exclusion of all the presidential candidates.    Yet with a whopping 41 candidates are taking part, it was hardly sensible.  It would take the entire program just to get the introductions out of the way!  And so Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani debated the failed Afghan policies on either side of an empty podium to highlight Karzai’s absence.  

http://english.aljazeera.net/news/asia/2009/07/200972319351993992.html

Meanwhile, Karzai’s controversial running mate, Mohammed Qasim Fahim’s convoy was attacked in Kunduz province.  Not exactly unexpected with the rise in random roadside violence and scare tactics leading up to the election, but the location of the attack is surprising.  The north has been seeing an upsurge in roadside attacks disrupting its relative peacefulness and safety.   Kunduz especially has seen an upswing as the Taliban work to disrupt foreign supply routes, and attempt to scare voters away from the polls.  

Luckily no one in the convoy was killed, and amazingly only a cameraman travelling in the group was injured.  Ethnically Tajik, Fahim helps to diversify Karzai’s Pashtun ticket by representing the two largest ethnic groups.  While he fought with the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban in 2001, Fahim has been tagged by the Human Rights Watch for his sordid history of murder and corruption throughout the last 30 years of war.   

Aside from the violence upswing, this is an exciting time to be in Afghanistan.  Several friends are heading over (mostly photojournalists) to cover the events and I’m jealous of their front row ticket to the impending changeover.   While Karzai may very well win a second term despite his inability to stem the Taliban resurgence since his election in 2001, Abdullah and Ghani are giving him a run for his money.  Focusing on failed policies and broad charges of corruption, there is a chance of change as long as voters are allowed to cast their ballots.  

Why should we, as Westerners care which direction Afghanistan goes?  Many reasons.  Beyond my personal love of this country and its resilient citizens, is the international communities investment of money and lives in an attempt to provide security for this country to develop as an independent and free country.  Our focus with Mountain to Mountain is education, knowing that an educated society can best make the choices needed for a country to grow and flourish.  Education levels the playing field between ethnicity, class and gender, ensuring that all citizens have a voice.  Education creates a space for dialogue and debate without weapons but instead with ideas.  An educated society can set its own course, in a way that protects and ensures the rights of ALL of its citizens.

I return after the elections to take on the next steps in our own small efforts in this changing region.  We will set up a computer lab at a girls secondary school in Kabul in order to study the benefits of computer education and computer literacy in furthering the education of girls continuing on to high school and college.  We will also make the next steps in tackling our larger projects in building schools and bringing education to women’s prisons.  As the country continues to move forward, so do we.

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Hearing Literacy

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Deaf children around the world deserve the same access to education as their hearing counterparts.  In Afghanistan that is no different.  Yet in a country that struggles to provide adequate access to mainstream education, the deaf are beyond the fringes, despite the hard work of the amazing founder, staff, and volunteers at the Afghanistan National Association of the Deaf (ANAD).  

There are approximately 10,000 deaf children in AFghanistan.   Of these 10,000, approximately 1,000 are being served in Kabul and Jalalabad with rudimentary primary education.  The lack of teachers means that the focus is getting the children literate and competent with Afghan sign language.   The amazing thing is that the Afghan sign language is a work in progress…the language is still developing and its fascinating to be witness to the creation and evolution of a language. 

When we discuss the primary needs for the deaf schools and the deaf community as a whole the picture mirrors that of mainstream education in this country.  Yes, schools are needed.  Yes, materials and sponsorship is needed.  More importantly, for the long term, teacher training and interpreters are needed.  Across the board, those we speak with cite teacher training as the next roadblock to education.  Quality education is lacking and its much more pronounced in the deaf community.

It isn’t enough to provide literacy and sign language if there isn’t also a basic education in math, science, history, and the like.  Literacy on its own doesn’t provide a door for opportunity.  It is simply the first step in the journey.  The first weapon in the arsenal.  If these children are to become self sufficient, and contribute to society, they need to have the same education on offer as their hearing counterparts.  

Now on my return visit, the solution became clearer.  The first step is basic literacy and sign language communication for all of Afghanistan’s 10,000 deaf.  Working in tandem should be the effort to train teachers to provide higher secondary education beyond the fourth or fifth year.   Not only does this improve those students directly affected by further levels of education, it develops a feeder system for a future teacher training pool from the same students first affected.  Creating an opportunity for employment after school in a culture with few opportunities available for the deaf. 

In an effort to tackle the larger question of opportunity beyond teaching, an effort must be made to train interpreters.  This would allow for students to integrate into high school and university should they choose, as well as providing access to opportunities in hearing world unavailable at the present time.    

Despite the broad and challenging picture of the long term needs of Afghanistan’s deaf community, taking the first step is actually very simple.   Literacy, schools, teacher training, all working to grow in tandem to the benefit of all.  In the specific case of the ANAD, and its school of 250 children, its a simple  matter of funding.  They need to build a sustainable school that can house a larger school for more children and space for a teacher training program.   As teachers become trained, model schools can open in the key cities of Afghanistan; Mazar i Sharif, Herat, Bamiyan, and hopefully in the south should security allow.  Each school educating the deaf children, as well as their families and communities.  

Parween, is one of Afghanistan’s biggest advocates for the deaf.  A petite woman, usually wearing a lavender headscarf, with a warm smile, Parween is an amazing woman who works full time with UNESCO and still finds time to play a key role in advocating for and guiding the ANAD and its school forward.  She passionately guided me around on my first ever visit, acting as interpreter, and explaining long term vision of the ANAD and the deaf community as a whole.  This visit she reprised her role as interpreter, taking time away from her family to meet with me after work to brainstorm solutions and where Mountain to Mountain could facilitate ANAD’s desire for a sustainable program for deaf education.   I even received the honor of getting my own sign…a sign that represents my name to speed things along when we are all talking.  

As ANAD, Parween and Mountain to Mountain brainstorm and make plans, it is our hope that the hearing impaired community in our own country will come to embrace Afghanistan’s, and work as a role model for what the deaf community can hope to achieve in the future.

 

photo by Di Zinno

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