Sarah Fane's Afghan Blog: Education

20 October 2011

by Dr Sarah Fane

Dr Sarah Fane of Afghan Connection describes her recent visit to Afghanistan

Afghan Connection targets specific projects which will improve the health and education of the people of Afghanistan.

The charity is led by Dr Sarah Fane and advised by trustees and patrons who are professionals in medicine, education and overseas development


Monday, 24 October 2011

Photo Gallery

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Khadeja (taken by Leslie)                             Men in the village (taken by Leslie)

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Studying outside


16th October - Ashrafia, AC resource centre and our last night in the villages

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After our visit, the teachers lead us into an orchard where they have spread out carpets and cushions and prepared fresh tea and apples and pears form their trees.

Afghanistan is a never-ending eating experience at times… and we are whisked off from here to Ashrafia Boys School… where lunch is waiting!

Ashrafia Boys School is next to Tarusht Girls School.  Afghan Connection is funding a Resource Centre with Science Lab, computer suite, library and meeting hall for the two schools to share.  We saw the building nearly completed.  We are also funding a new girls school and refurbishment of the old girls’ classrooms at Tarusht.

The boys and teachers were ready to greet us and we shared an incredibly lively and happy lunch with about 30 male teachers.  We sat on red carpets and cushions, which the boys had brought in from home, and were served plates of local delicacies…including the baby sparrows, complete with heads on, which they had hunted in giant nets up the rocky ravines that morning.  So much food.  Luckily enough men there to hide the fact that we didn't eat so much! 

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A massive character with wild eyes and a tilted turban, came to greet us.  I had met him last time.  He wanted us to go and ride on his Buzkashi horse with him!  The headmaster took my photos of my family and asked to keep them for his wall so he wouldn’t forget us!

On to Tarusht Girls School.  We walked through a hole in the wall and into the courtyard and were swamped by hundreds of girls, singing and throwing flowers at us and giving us scarves.  The choir sang, and then there were speeches and then we were completely crushed by girls crowding around our table as we were given tea.  Couldn’t see beyond the hundreds of intense faces…wondered if we would actually cause a stampede.

Fabulous to see the huge new buildings going up and the new school taking shape.  Very exciting.  As I looked over the wall, I saw the girls going home, their burkhas billowing in the evening breeze , beside the river in this beautiful corner of the world, so very far from my home.

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From Tarusht, our drivers took us even further up in to the hills, on roads made of rock and dust, with steep drops in to the valleys below.  We stopped right up in the heights near the Anjoman Pass and walked up on to the peaks , from where we could look out for miles beyond.  It was dusk and the cool evening was drawing in and a strong bitter wind was gusting through the mountains.

We came across a shepherd’s hut and a mother with four young children - two beautiful girls with the greenest eyes and two cheeky little boys who were playing rough and tumble in the dust.  The girls were shivering in the cold.  We emptied out all the warm clothes we had and gave them to the family and then watched the boys putting on layer upon layer of socks and giggling in the dust.

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As we left, one of the girls came up to the car and I thought she was going to ask us for something … but she just asked us to stay the night with them and share their supper.  Drove off, watching this beautiful girl standing in that bleak place.  No chance of an education… her mother was married off age 10 and never went to school and the same fate probably awaits her.  It is such an impossibly tough world out here.

Our last night in the villages is spent in a poor community.  We are joined by the entire village - everyone has come to pay their respects and we feel so sorry for the family, who end up feeding more than 70 people.  2 goats (whose heads lie on the ground and make us feel deep guilt!) and several guinea fowl are slaughtered.  We make sure we leave a present to help.

We are so tired and the evening goes on for hours as the women are in no hurry to leave us.  It is hilarious as we discuss their lives and loves and a widow tells us of all the young men she lusts after and all the old men she doesn’t want!  Nothing held back here and we hear all the village gossip.

As we all sit there, one of the girls suddenly throws herself to the floor and has an epileptic fit.  It is a reminder of how tough the lives are here.  I am sure she doesn’t receive the correct treatment and isn’t monitored as she would be back home.

Finally we are left alone and have a hilarious time clambering over walls in the moonlight looking for a non existent latrine!  Not much sleep.


16th October - Visiting Community Based School, Ashrafia Boys School and Tarusht School

Bad night.  Had a crying baby in the room and all sorts of people coming in and out throughout the night.  Love the mornings in these places.  The moon still up over the mountains.  Mother carrying huge piles of sticks and casting them into a hole in the ground where she is making her morning fire to heat the water.  The father is letting the cows out, the daughters help with the breakfast and the sons fetch the water.  Then the mother asks me to take a photograph of her with her husband.  This simple act of affection is a first for me to see in Afghanistan.  The two of them stand side by side, smiling and laughing and the light catches their faces.  I have the most beautiful photographs of them.  I shall keep them and not show them to anyone but them, but they will always be a moment of hope and happiness in a place where in the last 27 years of travelling, I have not one photograph of a man and woman like this.  I almost envy them their happiness.

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Daughter and her father below

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Breakfast was a feast and it made me laugh when the mother told me that she gets her recipes from the television.  Though we seem to be in the furthest, most primitive, corner of the world, the outside world is definitely creeping in.  The walnut milk is laced with sugar, the giant rounds of flat brown bread are fresh and warm, straight from the bread oven and there is local honey and bowls of walnuts to have on the bread and fresh trout plucked from the river that morning.  Acts of generosity and care and it is hard to leave these very special people.  Feel a very strong bond with them and find it very sad to say goodbye.

We are visiting another Community Based School which Afghan Connection is funding and like all these schools, it is remote.  There is a small doorway in an adobe wall, which we clamber through.  We are greeted by teachers with presents of scarves and flowers and garlands.  This school is thriving and already has classes up to grade 6 and will soon be recognized by the Ministry of Education as an official Primary School.  They need a building.  There are 300 children attending and only 2 classrooms.   These are dark and small and, when you step outside of them, you enter a courtyard full of children studying under the autumnal trees in the soft morning sunshine.   Above the courtyard are two more levels, and on each level there are more open air classrooms.  Everywhere the chant of children.  Alphabets, poems and the Qu’ran. We visit every classroom.  The teachers then present us with a letter, signed with signatures and thumbprints, asking for official recognition and a proper building.

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This will be a priority for 2013.


15th October - Seeing fundraising in action

Woke to another beautiful day, more walnut milk and trout!  Said fond farewells and walked into the village square to await the drivers.  Spent a wonderful half hour talking to the villagers, watching life go by and looking at the incredible scenery.  The village mosque is very old and has beautiful carved wooden balconies.  Opposite is a tiny shop, also of wood, the typical Afghan double doored, lock up space, with no room to stand, and all jammed high with wares.  Outside the shop an old man hugs his grandchildren, 5 turbaned men stand by their truck loaded high with potatoes and a farmer walks by with his goat.  I could have stayed there happily, but with the arrival of the drivers, all the men of the village came up to us and shook our hands and wished us goodbye and we sped off down the valley.

We drove to Annoy School, which is our priority build for 2012.  Over 700 children are studying outside or in ruined classrooms.  I am determined to raise the funds to build this school.  Then on to Khadeja Kubretal, the girls school I visited with our donor last year.  A huge building project is now underway thanks to some wonderful funding we received and so exciting to see a new school going up.  1100 girls will have a school by the spring time. I went and met the girls who are all thrilled.

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Annoy School                                                Khadeja Kubretal School

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Studying outside


The others went ahead to interview the girl for the film.   Mukhtar and I drove another beautiful route to a Community Based School we are running. So remote and set up so that children from this area could go to school.  All the main schools are too far away for them to walk to.  We left the cars and walked down a steep hill through a quiet mud brick village and down into a flat area shaded by blazing golden sycamores.  There, on the wooden balcony of the village mosque, was the Community Based School we are funding.  The village provides either rooms in the mosque or in a local home to act as the base for the community school.  Afghan Connection then funds the teacher salary and the books and admin and provides teacher training and, for a cost to us of just £35 a year for each child, these children can go to school. And there they sat, chanting the alphabet in one class and drawing in another.

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Community based school on the wooden balcony of the mosque


We went on afterwards to another CBS, far away from this one beside the river, over a very worrying wooden bridge.  Climbed through a wooden doorway and came to Viruf CBS and more classes of children.  It is so rewarding to see the project in action.

On again to another Afghan Connection school in Worsaj, where we went to watch a teacher training programme we are funding, which is run by SCA.  27 primary school teachers, including teachers from the CBSs, had come along for training.  They were all busy making teaching aids for their schools.  The room was buzzing with activity and the walls were cluttered with drawings, teaching aids and posters on the Millennium Development Goals.  Again, really good to see the project in action and to meet some of the teachers benefiting from the funding.

We were given lunch in the school, made by all the teachers—more rice and huge chunks of meat and so generous but oh, how I longed for vegetables!

The girls finished the filming in the afternoon.  They had their story and had managed to film without ever showing the face of our girl.  Night was closing in and it was getting really cold. Began to feel rather bleak, but we were in for a fantastic evening.  Drove off to stay in a village with the security chief of the area.  The family were so lovely and the house immaculate and cosy.  They were the most beautiful looking family with 9 children.  The mother had such a serene face and, when we talked to her, she told us how she had been so lucky in her life.  She had had a love marriage, not an arranged one, and had married at 16, when her husband was 18.  She said she still loved him and he was a wonderful husband to her.  I cannot tell you how good it was to hear this after all the tragic stories we had listened to!  We were looked after so well and had the most delicious supper of fresh pumpkin cooked in sugar and yoghurt, huge bowls brimming with hot noodles and beans, chutneys, rice and for pudding, pistachio milk pudding, fresh watermelon and pears.  All so spoiling.  Wonderful talks in the light of the hurricaine lamp and felt so close to them all.


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14th October - Fatimah's Story

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Clear blue skies and relief that the night was over.  Walnut milk tea for breakfast- a strange flavour of milk,walnuts and salt, which may sound delicious, but is a tough one to drink every morning, as sometimes the milk is a little rancid and there is a strong salty taste!

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Autumn in the Hindu Kush with all its colours and the wintry light on the mountains.  Up to interview the three other girls who had written in to tell their stories.  We found our girl.  She was so feisty and fun and energetic and defiant and so wanted to tell us her story.  For safety’s sake we have to change her name.  She asked to be called Fatimah.  She is 20 and beautiful.  Fatimah went to school up to grade 3.  Then her parents pulled her out of school because they felt it was not secure enough for her to have an education and that she was getting too old to be seen going to school.  She was heartbroken as she so loved her school.  She had to watch other members of her family going off to school and see her friends carrying on with their education.

At the age of 14, her cousin's family offered 250,000 afghanis in dowry for her marriage to her cousin. That is roughly 5,000 US dollars.  Her brother spent the money on a car.  She was married to someone who was cruel and violent and she described making tea with blood running over her forehead.  She really hated him.  She soon became pregnant and then her husband went off to Iran and he has only returned once since then and cares nothing for her or his son.  She finds it hard to love her child.  She has come to live back with her parents.  They eventually allowed her to go back to school.  She had to persuade the school authorities to let her go back even though she had missed more than six years.  She doesn’t care that she is much older than most of the pupils.  She says her education offers her a wonderful escape from her life.  She loves history and Dari literature and wants to teach.  Her dream is to escape to university and study alongside someone she loves.  She cannot divorce her husband and longs for him to divorce her, but may never be free to marry again.  She is afraid of what will happen to her when her parents die and she has no one to look after her.

Her friends each wanted to tell their stories and there we sat, listening to tales of early marriage, being pulled out of school, becoming mothers so very young.  One girl had to get married at 14, when her father died leaving no male relative to look after her, her mother and her sister.  She was never able to go back to school.  She had her first child at 16 and has had 3 more since and now she says, because of the children, her husband is beginning to show her some love.  Her mother was with us in the house and I tried to imagine what a dreadful decision it must be to make your daughter marry so young.  No choice in it. She had to do it to save the family.

What came across so much was their absolute desire to have an education.  Some of the girls, when banned from school, had escaped their homes and gone anyway without their parents even knowing.  The value of education here is so high, I never realised before quite how much it means to these girls to go to school.

Afternoon off and a delightful picnic in the hills beside the lake.  It is a paradise here and totally untouched by tourism.  We had the whole place to ourselves.  Bleached soft sandy shores and a deep green lake surrounded by mountains.  The men laid out carpets, collected firewood and boiled up vast cauldrons of rice and green tea.  I lay back and slept in the sunshine .

We spent the night in another village, arriving after dark.  Small children ran to greet us and took my hand and helped me through the dark streets.  It was a totally different evening to the one before.  The people were so gentle and kind and polite and the children so well behaved.  We had so many in there with us and the children sat looking at our photos and playing noughts and crosses with us.  More meat and rice and huge plates of food for us.  All so generous ...but hard to eat such volumes!

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Tuesday, 18 October 2011

13th October - N...'s story

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N…'s house was at the very top of the village, high up overlooking the mountain ranges beyond and the valleys far below.  Rain began to fall as we arrived at her home. A chill cutting wind blew a reminder of the winter ahead.  We received a wonderful welcome as we climbed through the wooden door and into the courtyard.  We were taken into a room where we sat with the women.  N… and her sister so beautiful and immaculate, dressed in clothes decorated with embroidery, done by hand.

N… had been at school as a child and had loved being able to study.  It all came to an end when a girl at her school ran off with a boy from her village.  The incident caused outrage and many parents withdrew their daughters from school.  N… was one of those and she was forbidden from returning to school.  At 14 her parents married her off to her cousin despite knowing that he was an opium addict.  She led an awful life and had children very young.  Her husband took drugs in front of her and her children and he often beat her.  Eventually he joined the military and she begged her parents to take her back home and to let her go to school again.  They relented and she was allowed to attend school once more.  She is much older than all the girls in her class, but she doesn’t care.  She loves being back and is planning to be a teacher, to have her own salary and to be more independent.  The good result from her harsh life story, in her own words, is that her beautiful younger sister will be given some say in whom she marries and will never have to suffer as she has.  She would have been wonderful for the film, but we received a call the next day to say her family would never allow her to be filmed.

Listening to these stories, it makes me so ashamed that I haven’t learned the language yet.  There are so many stories behind the lives of these men and women and I feel I have barely scratched the surface.

That night we stayed in a village house.  They prepared great plates of rice and meat, chutneys, naan, a sweet pistachio pudding and fragrant fresh pears from the orchards.  Far too much and, as ever, so generous.

We went to the women's quarters, usually a really good experience, but this seemed different.  The women were quite aggressive and wanted gifts and it all felt very unpleasant and not good for Amy’s first night.  There was a bad atmosphere and the room felt very bleak and we all felt rather ill at ease and far from home and insecure as we spread out our sleeping bags on the floor and tried to sleep.

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Sarah Katherine Fane MBChB  

Inspired by a gap year working in rural India, Sarah Fane decided to switch from her degree course in French and Latin to study medicine at Bristol University.  Her elective was spent in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, where she met with the Guildford Surgical Team.  She returned with them the following year to Pakistan, and worked from a Mujahideen border camp, seeing female patients from the surrounding refugee camps.  Ten years later, having married, had four children, and done various hospital jobs in between children, she was asked to go to the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, to assess a mother and child clinic.  The visit and the people she met inspired her to set up this charity.

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