Many Afghan schools still lack the basics

Despite millions in aid, students still lack books, desks and even school buildings

By Maiwand Safi

KABUL, Afghanistan ––  “I go to school over there,” said Khaled, pointing to an empty patch of land surrounded by a few trees.

“Do you see those trees?” asked the fourth grader. “Our school is there under the trees. We sit under them and I use this sack as a mat.”

Khaled’s classroom is typical of those located in Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul. The deputy director of education in the province, Abdul Rasul Safi, confirms that more than one-third of the 212 schools in the province actually have no buildings at all.

“The education ministry must pay serious attention to this problem – using foreign donor funding – and address it to some extent,” he said.

So far, however, no one seems to be paying attention to the students’ plight.

“We have no chairs or textbooks. Our teachers are tired of teaching. They rarely come,” Khaled said. “They complain about their salaries. It would be better if we didn’t go to school at all.”

The expansion of the education system is often cited as a major achievement of the Karzai administration and its international backers. But stories like Khaled’s show just how much still needs to be done to reverse the damage done not just by the Taliban but also by three decades of war.

When a Soviet-backed administration was in power in the 1980s, mujahedin groups often targeted schools they believed were nests of communist ideology. Their capture of Kabul in 1992 produced an internecine conflict in which schools were looted and commandeered.

Then came the Taliban, who allowed schools to reopen, but just for boys, and prescribed only a loose curriculum based largely around Islam.

Since 2001, international donors have injected billions of dollars into the construction of schools for both boys and girls. The education ministry says that half the 14,100 schools in Afghanistan have buildings, laboratories, libraries and textbooks.

Afghans responded by sending their children to schools in droves, although male students still outnumber female by a 3-to-2 ratio.

Today, however, many parents feel let down by the continuing shortage of textbooks, trained and motivated teachers and basic classroom facilities.

Education ministry spokesman Abdul Sabur Ghofrani says the government is doing the best it can.

“The education ministry is using its development budget to build premises for 1,000 schools a year, and will continue to address this problem,” he says.

But he was unable to explain why textbooks have yet to reach Kapisa province despite the tens of millions of dollars that have been spent on printing such materials.

Safi, the education official in the province, admits that a shortage of books was a “big problem in some of the schools” in the province.

“I’m a biology teacher, but I’ve been unable to find textbooks in the library which I could use for teaching the eighth and ninth grades,” said Ataullah, who works at the Abdul Ghias Shahid school in Kapisa’s Tagab district. “So how are the students supposed to find the textbooks?”

Atal, a 12th grade student at Ghazi Osman, another school in the province, said some of his classmates had ordered their own textbooks from Kabul or Jalalabad. Those who cannot afford to buy their own books borrowed them from classmates.

While their students complain about the lack of classrooms or teaching materials, teachers have their own complaints.

“A teacher with 20 years experience gets paid $160 a month, so he’s forced to engage in farming or some other business,” said Ataullah, the biology teacher.

Khaled, meanwhile, says he’d settle for a classroom that provided more shelter from the summer heat than a grove of trees.

“I get a headache from the sun; I hate it on my face and head. And I don’t understand the lessons the teacher gives,” he said.

Maiwand Safi is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for IWPR, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. (Copyright, 2011, The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 48 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8LT, U.K.


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