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Afghanistan Dispatch: Permanent Recess

Despite billions in aid, why is the north’s education system still in tatters?

Oqa, Afghanistan—After many day-long camel treks to petition the provincial government in Mazar-e-Sharif, the hardscrabble men of Oqa at last secured a promise: The government would send a teacher to their desert hamlet of penniless carpet weavers, barefoot firewood gatherers, and two score clay homes. Elated, the men pitched in to buy a blackboard and some chalk and dragged them into the only space that could pass as a classroom: the doorless anteroom of Oqa’s sole mosque, an oblique and teetering shape the villagers themselves had hand-molded of tumbleweed and mud.

That was four years ago. The teacher never showed up.

(This is the fourth in a series of dispatches from Anna Badkhen in Afghanistan. Read her earlier pieces here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

Last week, posing before TV cameras in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai struck a ceremonial gong to mark the beginning of the new school year. The education minister, Ghulam Farooq Wardak, announced that some eight million children were due to start school—seven million more than a decade ago and half a million more than in 2010, though still short of Afghanistan’s estimated 12 million school-age children. Oqa has no electricity, so the villagers could not see the broadcast. But they did not need to watch television to know that their children will be among the millions who will not attend school again this year.

International donors have contributed billions of dollars to Afghanistan’s education system since the 2001 fall of the Taliban government, which opposed all formal education for girls and women and restricted education for boys and men. Now, Afghan officials blame surging violence and the lack of female teachers in the more conservative districts for preventing all of Afghanistan’s children from attending classes.

But this gross simplification paints only half the picture. The other half is a sobering Bactrian mosaic of petty corruption, shiftless officialdom, and pandemic indifference that dooms settlements like Oqa to nescience because they are tiny, impoverished, and far-flung.

Officially, Oqa’s children have not one but four teachers. The public school principal of Khairabad, a sizeable village about eight miles to the south of Oqa—an hour by donkey, or an hour and a half on foot—assured me that his school has been dispatching these teachers to Oqa daily for the last four years. All this time, the principal said, each teacher has been collecting a monthly paycheck of about $140 for his work.

I met one of these teachers in the principal’s living room. His name was Hajji Mohammad Rasul. He was a slight man with a thin smile shaded by a wispy beard. I told him the villagers of Oqa have been waiting for him to teach their children for years. “Oqa?” Hajji Mohammad Rasul asked, and his tall forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. “Where’s that?”

How many villages like Oqa—so tiny that no map mentions them, so financially and politically inconsequential that no road links them to the outside world—are still waiting for the gift of literacy, I asked the deputy head of the provincial education department in
Mazar-e-Sharif (seven hours by camel from Oqa, though I drove). “Oqa?” The official offered a blank stare. “What is Oqa?” Four men in her vast office looked at each other and shrugged. One of them muttered, “Never heard of such a place.” Another said, “It doesn’t exist.” Beneath their city shoes lay a large carpet whose burgundies and rich liver reds seemed to me familiar. It may have been woven in Oqa, by some of the illiterate women who live there. Or maybe it was woven in some other village just like Oqa: unmapped, invisible, forgotten, unschooled.

Oqa’s residents have asked me how many days of travel by donkey it would take to reach America. They have asked me to explain the concept of an ocean. They have told me that the world is flat and rectangular, with Pakistan in one corner and Turkmenistan in the corner opposite. Illiteracy, to them, is more than the inability to read a prescription or write down their names. It is the crippling lack of a basic grasp on the world that extends beyond their immediate reach. It robs them of a chance to break the cycle of indigence that has them trapped amid these sandy dunes, endlessly reenacting the millennia-old toil of their ancestors.

The villagers dream of a better life for their children. “If they learn to read and write at least they would be able to tell a doctor’s office from a barbershop,” a man named Amanullah told me over one afternoon meal of tea and tough, flat bread. “They would have opportunities. Their lives would be very different.”

About a year ago, tired of waiting for the government to honor its promise, Oqa’s residents hired a mullah to lead them in prayer and teach basic literacy to the handful of village kids between the ages of six and ten. (Older children did not attend class because they could not afford to break away from gathering tumbleweed for firewood and hiking
for miles across the desert to larger villages to sell it.) Three months ago, however, the mullah quit, no longer satisfied with the $220 a year the villagers had scraped together to pay him.

Now, the villages pray in the private crepuscule of their single-room homes, even on Friday. With no school to attend, Oqa’s children dash about the village like tidings of magpies. You can tell where they are at any given moment by the ringing of the coins and bells their mothers sew onto their clothes, to ward off evil spirits. Mostly, they are looking for entertainment. Anything will do: The bizarre, bellicose erotica of an American B52 bomber refueling in the glass-blue sky above them. The frayed rope swing strung from a crooked wooden pole in the middle of the village. The baby camel hitched to the rusty barrel of a Soviet anti-aircraft gun, a relic of another war.

The other day, the kids shrieked and jingled through a gale that blew pulverized sand into their eyes and mouths until they reached the abandoned mosque. A lone sand dune encroaching upon the mosque’s western wall seemed to fetter the building to the ground, as though otherwise the sandstorm might blow it clear off the edge of the world.

The children pulled the blackboard from the corner of the anteroom and propped it against a wall. With the heels of their dirty palms, they erased the chalk doodles that looked like skeins of wool their mothers hang beside their horizontal looms. Sucking his lower lip in deep concentration, a boy of about ten wrote his name in Dari: in block letters and backward, left to right. A younger boy did the same. The rest did not know how to write. For a few quiet moments, they considered their peers’ clumsy calligraphy with awed reverence. Then, the spell suddenly broken, the whole crowd scuttled out of the mosque, into airborne dust, leaving the lonely blackboard to lean back against the wall.

Anna Badkhen is the author of Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories and Waiting for the Taliban. She is working on a book about timelessness. Her reporting from Afghanistan is made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.