I was in Herat, hosted by the Italian forces a couple of months ago. Faced with a dearth of stories sticking with the military, I “unembedded” myself. This is where you sign a bunch of papers saying you’re leaving the care and protection of whatever forces you’re with and heading out on your own. If misfortune should befall you, you or anyone cannot claim damages from the Italians or Americans or whoever you were originally accompanying.
Herat is known as a safe city. This is, of course, a relative term, but in general, the main threat here is kidnappings of wealthy Afghan businesspeople. Military institutions, such as the Provincial Reconstruction Team have been attacked and the Heratis also love a good protest, but it’s largely quiet and surprisingly well-developed and beautiful. A beautiful blue mosque is a popular attraction, as well as the recently repaired Herat citadel.
I met up with a local Afghan female journalist, named Massouma. Like many working Afghan women, she had a number of jobs: journalist for ISAF’s Dari-language radio station; women’s rights activist; blog circle webmaster and “homemaker” (as the Americans would call it). Of Hazara ethnicity, which by and large offers its women more freedoms in terms of working, she and her husband took me for pizza and one of the more upmarket restaurants and then to a school that they’d founded and built, purely from their own salaries.
The school was originally meant to be a profit-making business. But, in choosing the cheapest plot of land, they soon discovered that the reason the price was so good was that the surrounding area was prone to flooding and, therefore, had a large population of Hazara refugees from Iran. These were people, who had escaped the fighting before 2001 and had returned to no jobs, homes or were forced to eke out a living in the city, as there was little to no work in the countryside.
She told me how taking on 100 students from these refugee communities, as a free school, presented its own peculiar problems. Many of the children would bring knives to school, have bad hygiene or malnutrition. They had no social skills and would resort to violence or crying. The parents were not much better. Massouma and her small team of female teachers had to start at the beginning, with social behaviour classes for the children and handicraft classes for the mothers; giving them a chance to raise money in the bazaar with their wares and also keep them from gossiping in the schoolyard.
Registering the school with the Ministry of Education, she was told the students had to have a uniform. The cheapest option, on visiting the market, was to buy the kids imported Chinese sweatshirts of bodybuilders. Unable to afford to take on more than 100 children, she decided to make the school a permanent two grade institute, which would move up as the children grew older. They started at kindergarten and grade one, now the children are at grades two and three.
Thanks to some funding from the US, they hired an English teacher and now the majority of the children are beyond the level usually accorded to their age. However, the second floor of the building is yet to be completed and there’s no heating for the winter months.
Massouma tells me her ambition is to keep renewing the curriculum, year on year until the kids graduate and then found the first free university. However, with funding pulling out already, even prior to the complete 2014 withdrawal of foreign forces, it’ll be a tough job for Massouma and her husband to continue their pet project.
Anyhow, the footage I took from my coincidental meeting with Massouma made it into a wider piece by my colleague, @jaketupman, on female entrepreneurs.