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Despair Heads Curriculum for Afghan Teachers

Education: A recent wait for handouts points to the dire straits of those in the profession. Classrooms have no books, supplies or heat.


KABUL, Afghanistan — The sun hovered low in the east and a deep chill gnawed the bone as more than 2,000 teachers gathered in a schoolyard to fetch their promised treasure: two plastic jugs of vegetable oil.

They hadn't been paid in more than six months. A well-to-do Afghan merchant living in the United Arab Emirates had paid for the cooking oil and arranged for it to be distributed to teachers here in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Some schools called off classes for the day so people could wait in the oil line.

By the time the last of the teachers had received the bounty, the sun had dipped low in the west and good cheer about the handout had turned to disappointment. Each person got only half of what was promised: one 3-liter jug of oil, worth about $2 in the market.

The educators had waited at least four hours--and some as long as nine.

When officials from the United States and other nations gathered in Tokyo this week and pledged $4.5 billion for Afghanistan's reconstruction, they ranked education among the most important tasks. Less than half of Afghanistan's men and only 15% of its women can read and write.

But as the oil handout shows, the people on the front lines of the education system are struggling just to eat. The teachers are among 285,000 Afghan civil servants--from police officers to hospital workers--owed a total of at least $70 million in back pay, according to the United Nations.

Promising billions of dollars is one thing; handing it over is quite another, if recent pledges are any indication. Last November, various countries promised about $100 million to an Afghan emergency fund, but so far, they have come through with only $16.8 million. Still, it allowed Afghanistan to dole out a month's back wages to some government employees beginning Tuesday.

"We thank you for your [future] billions, but we need your millions [now]," Ahmed Fawzi, a spokesman for the U.N. in Afghanistan, said before the Tokyo meeting.

Abdul Kabir, 38, bicycled 70 minutes from his home to the oil distribution site, once a prestigious girls' school with classical columns that now serves as the city's education administration center.

"Teachers are the most unfortunate people in society," he said. "We are candles producing light for others. But now, our lives are so miserable, we are simply burning down and can't even cast a glimmer."

Kabir teaches the literature and grammar of Dari, one of Afghanistan's two national languages, to high school students. He is owed about $300 in back wages; his monthly salary is supposed to be $40.

Noor Ahmad, 56, said he and other teachers owe so much to local shopkeepers who have given them goods on credit that "we don't dare to show our faces."

Still, many have continued to teach, even without pay. "We had to," said Mohammed Hasan, 32, an English teacher. "We had nothing else to do, and it was our homeland."

It's amazing that they even bother because conditions are so deplorable. At nearby Esteqlal High School, teachers huddle with students on cold floors. Built by the French, the school was once a model facility, with a swimming pool and state-of-the-art laboratories. Now, there isn't one desk or chair; all were plundered and sold in Kabul's bazaar by warring clans in the early 1990s, before the Taliban took over.

There are no textbooks or pencils. There is no electricity. The little warmth there is comes when sunlight streams through the huge window frames, most holding giant shards of broken glass that hang like icicles.

"Thank Allah it's sunny," said Tajuddin Seddeqi, the newly appointed chief of Kabul's school system. "If it were snowing, it would kill them."

Seddeqi views education as the only hope for this society long divided by warring factions. "If there was even average literacy, would there have been any fighting?" he asked.

Although most schools traditionally are closed from November to March, many are offering special "winter sessions" this year.

Esteqlal High enrolled girls again and hired back female teachers after the Taliban fled the city last November and a ban on teaching girls was lifted. But the school has sent female students home in recent days because it considers the freezing temperatures too harsh for them.

To support their families, teachers often moonlight. Many push wooden carts at the bazaar, selling items such as oranges, soap and vegetables.

Kabir, the Dari literature teacher, hawks used shoes from his cart, earning about 20 cents for each pair he sells. On a good day, he pockets $2.

Abdul Karim, 45, a janitor in a school, lugs things for people in the bazaar. "Even if I'm carrying boxes," he said, "I should be proud because I'm not stealing or getting money the wrong way."

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