Nowhere is this more true than in Afghanistan, where a full generation was basically without educational options, particularly if you were a girl. Since the fall of the Taliban, the focus on education has been intense, and the needs overwhelming. As security takes hold, and development begins to happen the ravenous appetite for knowledge has exploded, and families make huge sacrifices to offer their children what they hope will be a path to a better life.
Overall, education is one of the unsung victories here, and massive progress has been made. Afghanistan is not only full of new classrooms, desks, and other school supplies, but has trained a huge cadre of teachers and been developing an administration to manage the huge task of educating something like half of its population which (if I remember the statistic correctly) is under the age of 15.
Accordingly, it was a genuine pleasure to visit a girls school that the ROK PRT had selected as a project. Currently, the school is comprised of ten connex's (shipping containers), a handful of tarps, twenty teachers, and a collection of battered benches and desks. The 1200 students come in two shifts, walking up to four kilometers to school, and quentching their thirst by scooping muddy water from an irrigation canal behind the facility.
Crossing Guards - Afghanistan style
We met with the principal and local officials and elders who were eager to begin construction, but who were unfailingly polite and gracious hosts. They explained one of the challenges facing them, which is that as security improves more children stay in school longer, generating intense demand. Although they had concerns, they proudly reported that they had the first graduation in the history of the school with 90 students completing their studies, and expected that number to rise rapidly in coming years.
The community had pooled their resources to purchase land for the school, and was pleased to give us a tour. As I hope the pictures show - it is stark but a beautiful site, with the mountains to one side and dusty farms on the other. If all goes according to plan a school that will provide for 2000 students could be ready by the end of 2012.
As you would expect, our MRAPs and soldiers drew a crowd of curious children (and adults) who we tried with varying success to engage in small conversation, torn between the desire to try to "show the flag" and gain some understanding of local perceptions and dynamics, and the urge to be a tourist and take pictures of the adorable kids, quaint donkey-drawn carts etc. etc. Mostly, I tried to stick by an interpreter, and use the zoom to grab some shots when there was a lull in conversation or we moved from place to place.
Soon enough we piled back into our extra thick tin cans, and started the long and uncomfortable ride back to base, where we had a quick huddle, gave a cheer I understood not a word of, and took a group photo Korean style - which is to do the first photo with a simple smile and the second with upraised fist. (I haven't found the photographer yet, but I'm certain this blog will be well stocked with shots featuring the "fighting" pose).