“We welcome you to our school – and thank you for coming here to do your research,” the headmistress of a primary/secondary girls’ school in Bamyan City told me. She was a tiny woman, who wore thick eyeglasses tucked under her tightly-worn headscarf. Her voice was gentle and encouraging, and I thanked her in return.
“What is she here for?” a gruff-looking admin officer piped in. He was old, wrinkled, bearded, and angry.
Hamid, a Shuhada staff member that speaks English and thus accompanies me everywhere, passed him one of my surveys — which the Shuhada Kabul staff kindly translated into Dari for me. The first two questions asked people to identify which community development projects they found effective, and which they found ineffective.
“Those fools!” he yelled, flapping his arms wildly. “They spent so much money painting calligraphy on the side of this school. The paint, the varnish, the costs of labor. They could have built four classrooms with that money! And now our girls are sitting out in tents!” He railed on for another five minutes, and then intently set to work on filling out the rest of the survey. I passed out copies to other teachers and staff in the room, and said that I’d be back in a bit to conduct some interviews.
We then walked across the dusty playground to the classroom for the 12th graders. The intricate calligraphy on the school’s exterior was indeed beautiful, and there were indeed UNHCR tents messily propped up in the playground — serving as makeshift classrooms. While the admin officer’s sense of budgeting was certainly off – the juxtaposition was worth noting.
The girls in the playground all giggled and pointed at me – the conspicuous, odd-looking foreigner with a massive backpack and rumpled clothing. I waved, said salaam — and walked into the school.
“This is Afreen Akhter, she is from America, she is doing research on women’s issues in Bamyan,” Hamid introduced me to a crowd of thirty or so 12th graders. They all wore white headscarves and black uniforms, and looked at me with friendly, smiling faces. Hamid went on to explain more of my questions: what do they believe their biggest challenges are? What do they need – in terms of programs and assistance – that they’re not currently getting? What role – if any – should the international community play? What do they think of the international community’s presence in Afghanistan?
We passed out the surveys, and they began writing.
“What is your marital status?” a girl in the back – with a thick accent – interjected.
“My mental status?” I asked nervously.
“Marital status,” another girl in the front repeated.
“Oh! I’m not married.”
“How old are you?” another asked.
“26,” I replied.
A round of gasps went off across the room.
“In America – everyone gets married really, really late. Like 35… 40…45…” I lied.
The girls looked at me with mild suspicion, and then returned to filling out their surveys. After 20 minutes, Hamid and I collected the surveys, and I thanked them. I then walked back across the playground to interview the headmistress – the transcript of which will be posted next.
We visited another school later that day – in a poorer village (Karte-e-Sulh) – with mixed classrooms. Both the boys and the girls in the 11th grade seemed keen to respond to the questions in the survey, as did the headmaster and staff. There’s an overwhelming amount of translation that needs to be done – which the Shuhada staff have graciously (as always) offered to help me with tomorrow.
Boys filling out survey at Kart-e-Sulh School in Bamyan City