For Afghanistan's children, a desire to learn, little help

Years of war, Taliban and poverty wrecked their nation's schools

January 30, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The Taliban regime came to power the year of Nasima Popalzi's birth and collapsed just in time for her to begin her education.

Nasima, 6, sat this week on a maroon carpet at the Zaghona Ana School with her first-grade classmates, who dipped their pens in ink and carefully crafted the swirling letters of Pashtun in their notebooks.

Nasima, looking over her shoulder as classmates wrote, did not join in. Her family is too poor to buy a writing tablet and pen.

Education is free in Afghanistan, and schools have reopened for girls. But the government, which is virtually without money, does not pay for students' supplies.

"All she can do is watch and listen," said her teacher, Afifa Maraf.

Down the hallway, two dozen teen-agers shared the few textbooks and listened as their geography teacher described the Earth's hemispheres and equator, and how the changing angle of the sun determines the seasons.

Eighteen-year-old Sailhila Karami was born in Kabul. Her family fled to Pakistan when the Taliban came to power. She has been more fortunate than most classmates because her brother, who works as a nurse, has tutored her in English and math. But that is the most her family can offer.

"My family can't afford books," she said. "I have only one."

Tens of thousands of Afghan students face a threat to their futures because of the lack of government assistance for schools. The provincial government, which is just getting on its feet, is counting on millions of dollars in aid from foreign governments, including the United States.

"They promised, but there is no action," said Hayatullah Rafigi, deputy director of the Ministry of Education, which is struggling to find classrooms for thousands of children.

Conditions are poor for teaching or learning. Many schools are in disrepair from looting or neglect. Teacher salaries are only $40 per month; the U.S. Army pays laborers $9 a day for filling sandbags at Kandahar Air Base. The distant goal for teacher salaries, Rafigi says, is $200 a month.

Zaghona Ana School is tucked between a car repair shop and a vacant lot on a dusty side street. The campus is marked by a rusty metal gate bearing a sign picturing a Kalashnikov rifle with a red line through it: No guns allowed. There are two volleyball nets, a swing and one-story buildings made of sun-dried brick.

The halls echo with the sounds of girls talking and laughing. Founded as a girls school 48 years ago, Zaghona Ana became a school for boys under the Taliban, who banned education for women. The governor of Kandahar, Gul Argha Sharzai, changed it back to a school for girls a month ago.

The classrooms have blackboards and wooden desks but neither lights nor heat.

The principal, Atta Mohammed Shikhal, a calming presence with a turban and white beard, taught math here for 25 years until the Taliban came to power. Strolling the hallways and visiting classrooms to offer words of encouragement, he offers a list of needs.

"We need a laboratory and books and notebooks and a library," he said. "And uniforms for the children. We need so much."

Dr. Ghulam Rabani Wardak, a health officer with the United Nations Children's Fund, recalled visiting a school with 120 students in one classroom - and no books.

"It's horrible," he said. "We're just starting from scratch."

In March, UNICEF intends to begin providing Afghan students with paper, pens and book bags. Teachers will get maps and blackboards.

The Taliban cared little about secular education, but many of the problems began in the 1980s, during the war against the Soviet Union. The anti-Soviet mujahedeen suspected many teachers of being Communists, and killed instructors and destroyed schools, Wardak said. A well-organized education system is years away.

"It will take time," he said.

At Zaghona Ana School, students seemed to be thinking of the future. The girls, heads covered by white scarves, listened attentively to teachers and raised their hands to answer questions.

"If I finish my schooling, I will be a doctor," Sailhila said.

Young Nasima, in first grade, had career plans of her own.

"I want to be a teacher."

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