Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Village by village

I know I haven't posted anything in a long time. Maintaining a blog is tough! Trying to get back on track, and taking you back to Afghanistan...

Above, a seventh-grade class in the girls' high school in Farghamanch, Jurm district, Badakhshan province.

This photograph was part of a story about the moderately successful National Solidarity Program in the impoverished but peaceful province. I had the pleasure of working with Sabrina Tavernise and our Afghan colleague Sangar Rahimi on this one.

(Please read Sabrina's New York Times story here. She did a great job. Also a slideshow by me.)

Through this program, villagers can apply directly for small development grants for whatever it is they feel their community needs most. Over the past five years, the people of Jurm have implemented a large drinking water project, come together during a flood disaster and built schools for girls, like the one above.

The keys to these small successes stem from the community-based approach and patience--change happened incrementally over a period of years. Local staff from the Aga Khan Development Network worked carefully with the villagers in Jurm set up councils, or shuras, who then acted as a group to apply for and implement the grants. This took the power out of the hands of the local commander and spread it out among the people.

It took a long time for the people of Jurm to accept help from the outside. Years of war and isolation made them initially hostile to the program, but the local development NGO worked patiently to build trust and credibility.

This story started as a report on the effects of illiteracy and evolved, as stories often do, into something much bigger. Illiteracy is a huge factor, because it's so much easier for a powerful commander or corrupt government officials to take advantage of people who can't read. However, one of the beautiful things we learned is that within this structure, even illiterate community leaders were able to come together and take charge.

We spent three bone-jolting days traveling the dirt roads of Jurm, visiting villages and projects.

Our journey into Jurm started with these guys: local shura leaders from all over the district. Jurm now has 68 shuras (or in the lingo of Aga Khan, community development councils, CDC's).

Notice the guy on the far right. His name is Shamsullah and he is the mullah, or religious leader, from Farghamanch, the village with the new school. Very powerful guy.

Sabrina wrote about him for At War, New York Times' blog about Post-9/11 conflict zones. To see just one example of what the Aga Khan Development Network was up against, read her post here. It's disturbing.

When I say isolated and remote, I mean this: Badakhshan has one paved road less than a mile long in Faizabad, the provincial capital. In Badakhshan's rugged mountainous terrain, winter storms routinely cut off entire districts from the outside world. Very few people own their own cars, traveling instead for miles by foot or donkey on paths cut into the sides of cliffs. It is under-development incarnate.

Traditional farming techniques in practice. Going into rural Afghanistan can feel like going back in time.

Actually, places with lots of arable land for agriculture, like the area above, are considered relatively affluent in Badakhshan. The people are more able to provide for themselves and less likely to depend on the commander with the most guns for their livelihood. Thus, areas with lots arable land were more open to Aga Khan, the shura idea and the National Solidarity Program. More impoverished communities, i.e., villages without arable land, like Farghamanch, were less open.

An interesting side-note: just a couple years before, the entire area was covered with poppy fields. A combination of falling poppy prices and an Afghan government crackdown led the farmers to plant wheat instead. And maybe a little nudging from Aga Khan helped too.

I managed not to get run over by the oxen.

Yes, that is a 9-year-old (who looks 5), preparing his family's fields for wheat planting, in the light of sunrise. BUT, he attends school in the afternoon. His name is Aziz, and he will hopefully grow up to be a literate farmer.

A market in nearby Baharak. Cell phone towers and the phones that come with them arrived in Baharak and Jurm just two years ago. They've revolutionized life in a place where nonexistent infrastructure, poverty and winter weather make travel extremely difficult. Cell phones have allowed shura members to talk to one another in emergencies and when they are unable to meet in person.

Like most places outside of Kabul, Jurm district is still very conservative, especially with regard to women and family. Above, women depart a teacher training course.

I chased goat herder Abdullah, 18, and his posse up the side of a mountain. It was a hike! I realized you can't run after goats if you want to get closer to them, you have to sneak up on them. (Sigh. The things one learns in the field.)

Girls stopped collecting dung (used for fuel in these parts) to confront my camera. The girl wearing the red scarf was so confident she made me smile. In my haste I actually forgot to ask if they attend school. I hope they do.

Elected shura members listen intently during a leadership training workshop, Jurm district Aga Khan headquarters.

The workshop instructor talked about the qualities of a leader.

What is a workshop without a team-building activity? Actually, since most of the people in the workshop couldn't read or write, hands-on activities took on new importance--they were more likely to learn through doing.

The shura members were split into two groups and had to work as a team to hang a handful of nails from one big nail stuck into a wooden block. Different styles of leadership emerged as the group worked through the problem. It was something out of the NGO community development handbook, plopped down into the middle of rural Afghanistan. Not something I expected to see, but...

...they were really engaged in the task. They didn't find it silly or pointless. It was fun to watch them try to figure it out.


In Dashtak village, communal water taps are spaced every ten houses to ensure that everyone can get enough drinking water. Seven village councils banded together to facilitate drinking water for the residents. Such teamwork was unheard of before 2004.

Masura's eyes well up with tears while she talks about her husband who died of illness just days before in Farghamanch village. Many remote areas in Afghanistan, especially in poorer provinces like Badakhshan, still lack water, electricity, schools and health clinics.

In addition to seeing successful projects in villages where people were more receptive to change, we wanted to see a place where the Aga Khan and National Solidarity Program faced a real challenge.

This was Farghamanch.

One of the poorer villages, it was essentially ruled by the young radical mullah pictured near the beginning of this blog post. Shamsullah was one of the most resistant community leaders, according to local Aga Khan staffers. But, over time, the staff gained his trust and surprisingly, the community's top priority was a new school--for girls.

Actually pretty amazing.

Our first visit to the village was on a Friday afternoon, the day off, so we decided to just talk to some of the people living there.

As Shamsullah was away in another village, we met some very warm and receptive people. Sabrina conducted interviews while one of the women brought me into her home. Nagmi, right, a wife and mother in Farghamanch, looked through a practice notebook next to 14-year-old Madida, who attends the village's new girls' school. Nagmi attends a women's literacy class once a week, also held at the new school, another little victory in this outpost in the middle of nowhere.

Literacy in Afghanistan hovers around 28 percent, and is even lower for women.

Nagmi writes her name.

The following day started bright and early as we watched girls and boys walk to a school located between two villages in Baharak district, just west of Jurm. The school has 300 students and 13 teachers, some of whom walk two hours each way to school every day. Ninth-grade girls occupy two of the school's classrooms, a high grade for girls in this province. Ninth grade is marrying age.

It so happens that Shamsullah, the powerful mullah from Farghamanch, was a teacher at this school. So, let's see: he was the religious leader and shura leader of his own village, teacher at a school outside his district, and we found out that morning he was somehow involved in voter registration during the recent elections. And the other teachers at this Baharak school were afraid of him.

We decided it was finally time to visit the new girls school in Farghamanch, the one that the community had built with National Solidarity Program money.

Photographically, it was essential to shoot girls inside or outside of the school--a task much harder than it looks. This village was a place seen by few outsiders, and the school administrators and teachers were actually somewhat hostile toward us. Judging by the prevailing attitude of the mullah ("We not only hate Americans, we hate all foreigners."), let's just say we were not welcomed with open arms at the school.

One of the administrators took me into a ninth-grade classroom and the girls recoiled at the suggestion of being photographed. (I don't know why he started with the oldest girls. Some of them are already young women.) I went outside and in my desperation made some photos of the exterior.

I saw a pupil looking out the window of her classroom. She didn't seem horrified at my presence, so I went back inside and made a few photographs inside the seventh-grade classroom, including the one at the top of this post.

Ameenah, 13.

When I asked her what she wanted to be when she got older, she said in a wavering voice that she wanted to become a doctor. The other girls laughed when she said this and her face crumpled. I ignored the laughter and tried to encourage her, telling her she can achieve whatever she wants, if she works hard.

And I can only hope this is true.