BAZGHIR, Afghanistan — “Open Your Books” says the Afghan Ministry of Education poster outside the seventh-grade classroom at Bazghir High School in northeastern Badakhshan province.
Encouragement is key to keeping these kids in school. They face lots of obstacles.
The first daily obstacle is distance. Some of these students must walk four hours each day just to attend the Central Asia Institute (CAI)-supported school, Headmaster Alam Gul said.
“The school serves four villages and one is a two-hour walk each way,” Gul, 28, said. “It’s a small village. Fifteen students come from there. Mostly they are the younger kids. The older ones go to Zebak School,” he said, referring to another CAI-supported school in a neighboring district. “That’s farther away, but the older students, they can walk further.”
The school is in Ishkashim district of Badakhshan Province, one of the most impoverished places in the world. It sits in a river valley, surrounded by the peaks of the Hindu Kush Mountains.
“Sometimes in summer when water is coming from the mountains, they all have to go to school in Zebak” because they can’t cross the river to get to Bazghir,” he added.
Another issue is the extremists, the local and foreign Taliban forces fighting for control in nearby Warduj district, about a two-hour drive southwest of here.
“We feel the pressure,” Gul said. “Girls still come, but they come to school scared. Sometimes girls are afraid to walk the road to come to school. And we worry Taliban might come here and then they won’t let kids come and study or people come and teach. Especially girls will just get deprived.”
A third obstacle is teachers. One morning, three of the teachers were late, so the kids sat in their classrooms without teachers, some of them diligently studying, others goofing around. Other teachers stepped into the rooms periodically to try to maintain order, but they had their own classrooms to attend to and couldn’t stay for long.
The second-grade classroom had been without a teacher for eight days in a row. Gul said, “This is a problem.” He has discussed the absenteeism with education department officials, but the government refuses to fire or replace the teacher.
Eventually it was revealed that the teacher is an opium addict.
CAI helped the community build a new school in 2010. The old school building is in sorry shape – the walls are crumbling, the roof leaks, and the glass in several windows is broken. But rather than tear the old building down, the community opted to use it for higher classes, and teach the younger students in the new building.
The 407 students, including 151 girls, have 14 teachers. But enrollment has decreased by 93 students in the past two years. “Most drop out due to poverty,” Gul said. “Also, some got married.”
The girls in the higher classes typically sit in the back of the classroom. “We encourage them a lot to come to the front [of the classroom] near the teacher by themselves, but they feel shy,” said Arabic teacher Abdul Ghafoor.
Keeping those girls enrolled until they complete high school is key.
Roqya, 14, is the middle child of five siblings. Her father is uneducated, “he is a farmer,” she said. Her mother is a literacy teacher who is unemployed. She is determined to finish high school, even though her sisters did not.
“My older sister married while in class 11 and quit school,” she said. “My second sister went to class seven and then married. I have brothers in class 10 and three. We all know education makes us bright and open-minded and with education you can get any job you want.”
She’d like to be an eye doctor, she said.
The students and their families understand the importance of education. Just learning how to read and write has put many of the students light-years ahead of their illiterate parents.
“My parents are supportive,” Razia, 14, said. “They say, ‘We didn’t study and now we have nothing and we didn’t make a good life and now you have to study.’ Education is important to learn something.”
The students’ post-high school options may be limited – few can afford higher education. Last year, only one of the 19 graduates was able to attend university. But if they pass the test, they may be able to enroll in one of the teacher-training or vocational-skills colleges closer to home; five graduates were able to do that last year.
But that does not dissuade them from dreaming big. Fida Jan, the No. 2 student in class nine, wants to be a doctor.
“If you don’t have education, you are nothing. If you do have education, you will at least get to be a teacher or doctor or something,” he said.
His classmate, 14-year-old Zahir, said education is also important “because nobody will make fun of us. We will be able to feed ourselves and get money.”
And Dur Mohammad is determined to finish school and become an engineer.
“When you become educated, you will do service,” he said. “You can make roads and bridges for the people and help when there are landslides. My home is in area where there are always floods and landslides and this I want to change.”
Before he loses his audience, Dur Mohammad makes a request. He and his classmates would like a computer lab, he said.
The headmaster smiled. The school has no electricity. Besides, he said, the more urgent need is reliable teachers.
– Karin Ronnow, communications director
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