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“Help Us Be Good Again”: Literacy in Afghanistan

By Duncan Fitz

The day Osama Bin Laden was killed, I was extolling the benefits of education in western Afghanistan. It was the first week of school for the Dari and Pashto adult literacy program that I managed and, like any good principal, I was making the rounds.  I walked into a classroom packed with students.   

It did not look like a classroom.  Thirty women, ranging in age from fifteen to sixty-five, sat cross-legged on the floor in a cramped room the size of a large rug.  Flies buzzed mercilessly in the 110-degree heat. The women did not look like students, with many staring at their pencils quizzically from behind full burqas, holding a writing utensil for the first time in their lives.  As with most rooms in rural villages, there were no tables or chairs.  

Nonetheless, the excitement—about Bin Laden’s death, but more so about the opportunity for education—was palpable.  Students shouted out the letters of the alphabet along with their teacher.  Every hand shot into the air when a question was asked or a volunteer needed.  When the two hours of class time ended, students begged the teacher to let them continue—and the teacher readily agreed.  None of this was surprising to me, however.  Having risked their lives simply by enrolling in school, students in Afghanistan continually display an appetite and desire for education that disappeared from most American schools a long time ago. 

Although literacy is shockingly low in Afghanistan—current estimates put it at 34%, with female literacy a paltry 10%—literature has always played an important role in the Afghan narrative.  Classic Persian and Pashto poetry, for instance, have found their way into the daily speech patterns of the population.  Traumatized by more than three decades of constant war and devastation, many Afghans point to their literary forbearers with great pride.

“Help us be good again,” a student begged.

Reconstruction in Afghanistan has unquestionably been plagued by wasteful, corrupt, and misguided projects that have depleted the U.S. treasury while doing little to improve the lives of the Afghan people.  A 2010 Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report, for instance, referred to the “outrageous waste of taxpayer money” that is the trademark of many international projects.  Corrupt Afghan government officials have also pocketed billions of American dollars with impunity.

Nonetheless, education has been a remarkable bright spot for the international community and its Afghan partners since 2001. The number of children enrolled in schools built with international funds has jumped from less than one million boys under the Taliban to over six million today—including two million girls.  Hundreds of thousands of parents flock to adult literacy courses in an attempt to break out of the cycle of poverty, violence, and desperation that has decimated their country.  The evidence is clear that the Afghan people want education and that they need our help to obtain it.

In my adult education program, the curriculum ranges from hands-on, pragmatic teachings about basic health, accounting, and agriculture to Islamic teachings on democracy and human rights, gender equality, and the need for peaceful coexistence between religions.  Parents increasingly urge their children to attend school and can even help them with their homework.  Mothers—as well as some rural pharmacists, who often distribute medicine on the basis of pictures or word of mouth—are beginning to read the labels on medicine bottles for the first time, helping to keep families and villages healthy.  Shopkeepers use their newfound mathematics skills to balance budgets and create jobs, while farmers can now read the ubiquitous USAID brochures explaining how to plant and harvest more successfully. 

To Americans, it is difficult to comprehend just how debilitating and humiliating illiteracy can be.  In Kandahar, a student observed that “You Americans are sending people into space and putting computers on tiny chips.  We are still learning how to read and write our own language.”  Nonetheless, it is precisely this dichotomy that allows a few well-spent tax dollars to dramatically transform people’s lives.  To the vast majority of Afghans, literacy is not something to be taken for granted but a goal to be strived for.  As John Steinbeck once wrote, “it is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”  You can never be sure which one will be more relevant.

Above all, however, education brings a range of positive benefits to those who participate, as the promise of a better life spreads throughout communities and across generations.  “Once we let the education genie out of the bottle,” a Ministry of Education official once remarked to me, “the enemy of peace can never put it back in.”

Of course, education is not immune from the myriad problems facing Afghanistan.  Our students, teachers, and staff regularly receive calls from the Taliban threatening violent retribution if they continue.  This depresses attendance and limits the geographic scope of our work.  Most recently, one of our classes in the desert hinterlands between Kandahar and Helmand Provinces was put on hold as the students—farmers and day laborers—defected en masse to return to the poppy fields at the urging of local Taliban commanders.  While this is not entirely surprising—Taliban representatives were paying them $20 a day—it is a testament to the difficulty of trying to develop a country locked in a bitter and brutal war against itself.

Even more prevalent than insecurity is a widespread cultural resistance to the education of women.  While attitudes are changing, it is undoubtedly true that Afghan women have far fewer educational and economic opportunities than their male counterparts.  No society can truly prosper if half its citizens are prevented from reaching their potential.  Education will continue to play a key role in promoting human rights, but Afghanistan still has a long way to go. 

After three decades of constant war, however, the Afghan people are nothing if not survivors—especially the women.  In April, I received a phone call from a female student, Fatima, complaining that her brother-in-law had destroyed her textbooks and prohibited her from attending class in the future.  When I asked why, Fatima informed me that her sister-in-law had heard of the program and requested permission to attend, angering the husband.  In addition to preventing his wife from enrolling, the husband now wanted to make an example out of Fatima.  “I need one set of books for me and another for my sister-in-law,” she told me emphatically.  “We have been waiting for this opportunity our entire lives.  We aren’t scared of death anymore.  No matter what, we will keep coming.”

Overall, though, the trends regarding education in Afghanistan are overwhelmingly positive.  I am continually amazed by the demand for literacy classes—male and female alike—from the ground.  My office constantly receives requests for classes from village shuras, tribal elders, and mullahs virtually begging to be given a chance for an education.  Potential students press their ink-covered thumbs to the paper, hoping to finally exert some semblance of control over their destiny.  Potential teachers offer their homes as classroom space, defiantly ignoring Taliban threats as they seek to serve their people and their country.  Mullahs invite us into their mosques and fight to reclaim their religion from the violent fringe that has perverted it.  “The Taliban burned our books and prevented our children from going to school—what kind of Islam is that?” one told me.  “Now, a foreign guest is educating our people in the village mosque.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a Muslim as long as you are doing God’s work.”  

We are accustomed to seeing Afghans through one of two dueling lenses—either as xenophobic and bloodthirsty savages, immune to if not outwardly hostile toward our values, or as a romanticized ideal of a people hospitable and generous to a fault.  As with all stereotypes, the truth lies somewhere in between.  Education is no different, as a society once known for producing the world’s finest poetry now struggles with one of the world’s lowest literacy rates.

Rhetoric in the United States often revolves around short-term discussions about troop levels, with both sides of the debate commonly resorting to uninformed and misguided platitudes.  The truth is that Afghanistan is an incredibly complex, multifaceted society with no easy answers.  We may never completely understand it.  But by educating and empowering the Afghan people, we are allowing them to increasingly take charge of their own country and lead it in a more peaceful, democratic, and prosperous direction.  Efforts to transform illiteracy back into literature must continue.

William Faulkner once remarked that we humans are unique in that we alone possess “a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”  I experienced these traits among my students to a remarkable degree.  Faulkner went on to note that “the poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things.”  I would add that sometimes we need to enable the poets and the writers before they can write about themselves.  Let us remember Fatima and do our part to help Afghanistan be good again.

Published May 16, 2011   Copyright 2011 Duncan Fitz

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