During his week in Ishkashim, Bob had the opportunity to visit numerous projects that Central Asia Institute is supporting. This included a school that CAI is helping to rebuild as well as classes in schools that are fully operational. He traveled over rough, winding roads to a community near the Pakistani border where he met with local leaders and toured the schools that are receiving CAI support. Trained as an engineer, Bob brainstormed with the crew about ways to improve construction techniques and how to source more durable materials despite the challenges in getting materials to these hard-to-reach villages. Through his hands-on approach and by helping to build local capacity, Bob felt he was able to win the trust and respect of the local villagers. His engineering expertise also came in handy in allowing him to assess both completed as well as future projects in the field.
One of the highlights of the trip was an invitation from the district governor of Ishkashim to attend a Buzkashi match. Buzkashi is a Central Asian sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to place a goat or calf carcass in a goal. While sitting together watching the matches, the two were able to deepen their relationship through the camaraderie that develops over a shared experience. Bob was struck by the governor’s compassion for the people in his province. Most of them live in harsh conditions and are extremely poor. In addition to better access to schools and healthcare, the governor would like to give his people access to cultural activities that would bring them an afternoon or evening of happiness and comfort in a life fraught with hardship.
Prior to visiting Ishkashim, Bob spent a week in Kabul, meeting with staff from Central Asia Institute’s local partner, Shining Star Educational Organization of Afghanistan (SEEOA). He also met with folks from like-minded NGOs to discuss the country’s biggest needs in terms of education, where and what types of programs are needed most, and how to ensure no overlap in services. He confirmed that community-based education and Early Childhood Development programs are big priorities, and align perfectly with the mission of Central Asia Institute.
Bob tours Kindergarten #5 with Principal Zolfiya Nekpaeva (right) and Mahbuba Qurbonalieva (center), director of Central Asia Institute Tajikistan
Before flying back to the States, Bob crossed the border into Tajikistan to meet with CAI’s local partner, Central Asia Institute Tajikistan (CAIT), visit school construction projects and meet with education leaders to discuss needed repairs and additions to schools in the area. A highlight of his time in Tajikistan was the visit to an Early Childhood Development program supported by CAIT. The team arrived during naptime. Standing in the doorway, they watched the little ones, wide awake in their beds, peeking over their blankets to see the strangers who had come to visit. One little boy stood without saying a word, walked up to a member of CAIT’s staff who was standing next to Bob and took her hand, figuring she’d know exactly what he needed: a visit to the bathroom.
We asked Bob if Afghanistan felt different to him this time around. “Unfortunately, the security situation has only gotten worse since 2014 [when I last worked in country], especially in Kabul. Having to travel around in an armored vehicle was not only a scary reality check of just how dangerous the situation has become, but logistically challenging as well.
“But seeing first-hand and up close the people who Central Asia Institute is supporting – meeting the students and teachers who are so eager for education and are so grateful for the chance at a better life – it was well worth it!” Bob also felt the trip was invaluable in terms of building personal relationships that are so vital to ensuring progress. “The building blocks of trust are in place. They know who I am. And it helps that the communication technology has improved exponentially since I last worked in the region. Now that we’ve made the personal connection, tools like Skype, What’s App, and email make it possible to continue to support our partners on the ground from the other side of the world.”