Zohra Aziz and her family escaped the fighting in their village, Farza, when she was 10. In 1993 they came to Alameda, California, as refugees. After graduating with a BS in Business Administration in 2006, she returned to Afghanistan with her father to visit Farza. She was quickly surrounded by young girls who were surprised to learn that she could read, had graduated from college, and was working as a professional. The enthusiasm of these girls, and the encouragement of her father, inspired Zohra to build a girls’ school in Farza. The boys already had a school. (The school will be dedicated to Zohra’s father, who passed away following their trip to Afghanistan.)
Zohra bought land for the school ($7,200), and saved a considerable sum from her earnings to contribute to the project. Then in fall of 2009 she requested help from Trust in Education. Zohra is, as she describes herself in her resume, a “self-motivated and hard-working” individual. So, for starters we have an accomplished, dedicated, passionate, young Afghan woman, from the village, who brings much more to the project than a good idea. She also personifies the role model that young Afghan girls and boys need to experience.
The village is close enough to Kabul that our program directors could oversee construction. This is another partnership project. TIE supplied the materials, and the villagers donated their labor. The budget: $95,000 for ten classrooms, playground equipment and a separate bathroom.
Moreover, the Ministry of Education approved the project. Therefore, the school will be accredited and the operating costs of the school paid by the Afghan government. This is a significant advantage over other school projects.
Lunch with the Governor
In April 2010, we met with the Farza’s governor, the leader of the shura (village council), and their entourage, including a young man carrying an AK-47. The takeout rice, lamb kabob, and nan we served for lunch didn’t meet their standards. They haven’t stopped talking about our “lack of respect.” What you serve for lunch, we learned, is extremely important to some Afghans, though we’re more concerned about using funds to educate their children than meeting their gastronomical needs.
During the meeting, the governor explained the process that should be followed to obtain the requisite approvals to build the school in Farza. We needed to consult with the governor, malik, villagers, shura, and Ministry of Education. We’ve had enough experience with approval processes to know how long, complicated and costly they can become. We don’t bribe officials. Therefore, the processing time can be longer for us than others.
We explained to them that we will certainly be involved in the process, when needed, but everyone should understand that this is their project not Trust in Education’s. We’re not in Farza to build a school for girls. Trust in Education is providing financial support for the construction of a school that they want to build. The partnership approach to providing aid has worked well for us over the years. They appreciate being in control and it shifts most of the responsibility onto them.
During the meeting, we also learned that the district has 14 schools for boys and 5 for girls. The imbalance between boys’ and girls’ schools is not just a problem in the allocation of resources. It is a reflection of the culture. Even where there is no threat from the Taliban, boys attending school far outnumber the girls.
Why the imbalance? In part, because there is a considerable segment of Afghan society, men and women, who question the need for a woman to be educated. For them, a woman should marry, have children, and stay home. Many Afghan families who are now allowing their daughters to attend school will “marry them off,” often against their will, before they complete their education. The struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan is serious. It directly impacts the choices that young Afghan girls and women will have during their lifetimes.
The Minister Intervenes
When we visited Kabul in October 2010, our program director Basir handed us a contract drafted by the Ministry of Education governing the construction of the school. This project had been bouncing around in the construction department for several weeks. The terms of the agreement were completely unacceptable. We knew immediately that we needed to meet with someone higher on the organization chart. The day was a downer, triggering a double Snickers bar sugar-high night that transitioned into a splitting headache.
While Budd was enjoying a chocolate fix with a Tylenol chaser, Nabi was having dinner with a friend. He came back beaming. By chance, he ended up sitting near someone who knew the Minister of Education. Upon learning of our plight, he offered to arrange an appointment with the Minister.
Sixteen hours later, the man at the top of the chart, after learning what had transpired below, immediately signed the memorandum of understanding that Budd had prepared. He saw the project exactly as we did. He said, “Afghanistan needs help and we shouldn’t put onerous conditions on gifts.”
Groundbreaking or spirit-crushing?
A week later, the villagers held a groundbreaking ceremony. The plan was to visit the school site in Farza, celebrate the fact the villagers had been given the go ahead to build, shake some hands, say a few words, cut a ribbon and visit the girls who would be attending the school the following year.
On Monday, we suggested we have a ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday or Friday morning, letting them know that we were leaving Friday afternoon. Tuesday morning we were informed that a number of officials could not attend either morning. They suggested we change our travel plans so they could have a groundbreaking ceremony the following Monday. Changing our return flight was not going to happen. It’s very stressful working in Afghanistan. As soon as we can complete what we need to achieve, we want to return home.
What was to be a fly-by ribbon cutting event, was turning into a scheduling nightmare. How could we tell them it didn’t matter to us who came, without offending the local authorities? There was only one thing to do. Write “Dear Abby.”
We are in Afghanistan, there’s a war going on, and scheduling a ribbon cutting ceremony has somehow become important. Can I tell them it’s not? Should we cancel? Should we go ahead with our original plans? Please advise immediately! I want to be “culturally sensitive.”
Perplexed in Kabul.
The world is too crazy right now for me to give advice to infidels who are foolish enough to be in Afghanistan. You’re on your own. Please don’t tell anyone you wrote me.
Tuesday night we were told that the only time a groundbreaking ceremony could take place would be the next day. We advised the organizer, Ehsan, that we would be there at 2 pm, in time to visit with the girls who would still be in school. We purposely chose 2 pm to avoid anyone having to prepare lunch. It is understood in Afghanistan that if you are visiting around a meal time, your host is obligated to provide food, and you are expected to stay. To do otherwise is a serious affront. Notwithstanding our 2 pm strategy, Ehsan was told by the local leaders he needed to serve lunch.
We arrived at 2 pm and were led to an outdoor area where twenty or so men were seated on carpets, awaiting our arrival. Ehsan served the best Afghan food Budd had eaten since he began visiting Afghanistan. Ehsan had gone all out.
After lunch they drove to the school site. The Governor, Nabi, and Budd spoke to the small crowd that had assembled. During his speech, the governor complained about the short notice and lack of preparation. He went on to say that there would not be enough volunteers to build the school, as we had been led to believe, and that we should think about paying people to do some of the work. Bottom line, the governor publicly complained about the no-frills ceremony, thanked us for our support and advised us it wouldn’t be enough. Absent from his speech was a call to arms for volunteers. Ehsan must have felt terrible. Fortunately, Nabi was smart enough to not tell Budd what the governor had said until they were in TIE’s van, on their way back to Kabul. Even if Budd hadn’t taken the governor on publicly, he’s an easy read. His body language would have revealed his anger at the governor’s speech.
Other than the governor’s “inspiring” oratory, the villagers were very appreciative. We were assured they could and would provide the labor. They asked us to convey how grateful they were to those who had contributed to the project..
The adjoining landowner chose this occasion to argue over boundary lines, in front of whoever was within earshot. By the end of the discussion, everyone was within earshot. Fortunately, the boundary line was agreed upon without firing a round.
The lunch took so long, the school’s headmaster had to let the girls go home. It was only fair to them. We, therefore, had a groundbreaking celebration fraught with controversy, for the construction of a school for girls, without a single female present. That took 7 hours!
The Digging Begins
Trust, or the lack thereof, is a major problem in Afghanistan. Everyone suspects everyone else of being on the take. It’s hard to believe that people aren’t, when a bribe is routinely extracted by officials providing services for which they already receive a salary. It’s one of those “cultural differences” that we try to ignore. There was concern about how materials would be purchased. How could we prove what was spent? How could we minimize the risk of kickbacks from the suppliers or being overcharged?
We devised the following system for disbursing funds for materials: The project’s engineer provides a list of materials needed for two weeks of work. He and the villagers designate the suppliers they recommend and disclose the prices they were quoted. Basir, our program director, can shop for better prices and recommend other vendors. Once a vendor and prices are agreed upon, the materials are purchased with Basir and Ehsan present. They both walk away with a receipt signed by the vendor, Basir, and Ehsan. When they need another delivery of materials, the engineer provides a list to Basir. Basir visits the job site, verifies the need for additional materials, takes photos of the progress, and sends the list of materials and photos to us. We then fund the purchase of the materials on the list.
The system was the best we could devise. It was broken in December 2010 when Basir was in India with his family obtaining medical care for his daughter. They ran out of materials and Ehsan ordered and had material delivered to the jobsite without our permission. Ehsan knows now that in the future we will not pay for materials anyone orders without permission. There are times when our terms and conditions are tested. When that happens, it’s important to take a hard stance. Otherwise, we run the risk of being ignored again.