If the future of a country is in the education of its people, Afghanistan has a lot of catching up to do. The country's schools reopen next month, and will have to fight to compensate for the time and opportunities lost during the Taliban regime and the wars that preceded it. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier visited the Afghan Education Ministry and reports on the preparations under way for the coming school year.
Kabul, 4 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- One could sum up the situation in Afghanistan today by simply saying it is a country badly in need of repair. Ask at any of the ministries here in Kabul how long it may take to restore or even entirely rebuild what has been destroyed during the country's 23 years of war and people will say many months or perhaps years.
But time is a luxury officials at the Ministry of Education do not have. The interim government has named 22 March the first day of the new school year and frantic preparations are under way to meet the deadline.
UN representative to Afghanistan Ahmad Fawzi stressed the role of education in Afghanistan during a visit there on 24 January: "Education is an important priority for the people of Afghanistan. When you talk to them about what they want most, they will say education for their children before they say food."
But during the decades of warfare in Afghanistan, education was an unreliable commodity. Schools were often occupied by various combatants and suffered heavy damage in the fighting. As a result, many of the country's children have never seen the inside of a schoolroom. Today, it is commonplace to see young boys not studying, but working with their fathers as blacksmiths, mechanics, or woodchoppers. Other children, even less fortunate, make up armies of beggars crowding the streets of Kabul. None of them has ever been to school.
Mohammad Muyin Marastyad is the deputy education minister in charge of administration and personnel. A seemingly permanent line of people waits outside his office, looking for work or information. He gives a grim assessment of the situation facing the country's school buildings.
"Fifty percent of schools have been destroyed. They do not exist. Another 20 to 25 percent of schools are damaged and the remaining 20, 25, or 30 percent are in need of repair. This is a big problem for us."
Where to house the schools is only one of many problems facing the Education Ministry. Another is the question of the country's young girls, who were forbidden from education during the Taliban regime and are at even more of a disadvantage than their male peers. Marastyad says the older girls face particular difficulties.
"These girls were in sixth or seventh grade at the time [the Taliban first prohibited girls from attending school] and were 11 or 12 years old. Now they are 18 or 19. They are grown up and according to their age they should be in the 11th or 12th grade, but according to their level of education they are still at the 4th- to 6th-grade level. This is also a problem."
Marastyad said special winter courses are already under way to allow both boys and girls to quickly catch up on their studies. Few 16-year-olds will be willing to sit in class with students seven years younger than them, so such catch-up courses will give many such students the chance to resume studies at a higher grade.
Even those children who have received fairly consistent education may have some gaps in their knowledge. Some have attended school outside of Afghanistan, in refugee camps with classes run by charitable organizations. Others, isolated from Afghanistan's larger towns and cities, have received instruction in their local language and not in either of the country's two official languages, Dari and Pashtu.
Marastyad says the Education Ministry is adopting the curriculum guidelines set in the 1960s and 1970s, before the country collapsed into war. These guidelines, he says, favor the official languages but make some concessions for the country's minority languages as well.
"Based on previous regulations, right now we think that it is necessary to have education in Afghanistan in these two languages [Dari and Pashtu], and for other regional languages there will be programs in the future. But according to the official languages in Afghanistan we decided to keep education only in these two languages, since work in all of Afghanistan -- in offices and official documents -- is done in these two languages."
Marastyad said new training materials have been revised based on the recommendations of local and foreign advisers. The ministry official says new texts are careful to exclude certain material and references.
"From the different course works we collected and selected some, and we refreshed them and removed those things [that] we thought were unacceptable for Afghanistan's future. For example, some earlier texts would say: 'Five guns and three guns would be how many guns?' And the answer was, 'Eight guns.'"
Another problem facing the Education Ministry -- as the 22 March deadline looms -- is a severe shortage of qualified teachers. Some instructors were killed during the wars; others fled and have yet to return. Many courses, especially in rural areas, will be taught if not by professional educators, then by what Marastyad calls "educated people."
A key challenge is tempting many children who have never been to school to begin their studies. In this, the UN World Food Program (WFP) is hoping to lend a hand by providing special incentives. WFP Executive Director Catherine Bertini outlined the plan last week.
"And one of the very important programs we will undertake is feeding children in school. Studies all over the world, in poor countries and rich countries, have shown that if a child has food at school it's an incentive to get to school, to get to school on time, not to be late, not to be absent. But also it helps the children grow, so it helps them learn, it helps them to pay more attention in class, it helps them to do better on tests. So we will be emphasizing in a large way feeding children at school."
Marastyad said the Education Ministry is grateful for the help of international aid organizations like the WFP. If the long lines stretching from his office door are any indication, there is plenty of interest in the future of Afghanistan's schools.