The art and practice of learning

I finally went to see Razia jan’s girls school. It was mid-term time and she brought with her prizes for the best three students in classes K through 7th grade, the highest grade she has right now. There are 360 girls in the school, a near doubling since the school opened 4 years ago, when four was the highest grade at the time.

Before starting our rounds we put the finishing touches on the prizes: a plastic case with a toothbrush, travel soaps and toothpaste for the little ones and full size for the older girls; ponytail holders, headbands, elastic bands and what not – the stuff that one finds in the CVS bargain bins.

We began our rounds of the school with class 6 where, after numbers 1,2, and 3 had stepped forward to take their prize, number four promptly broke out in tears. We found out from the teacher that the cause of her sobs was that (a) she had been number 1 last time but now fell outside the prizes and (b) the teacher was getting married which clearly meant a big loss.

In each class, even Kindergarten, we were greeted with ‘Hello, good morning,” and sometimes a “How are you,” by the girls, standing upright and speaking in unison. The youngest ones were irresistible. Kindergarten had one boy in it, just barely 4 years. His father used to be the watchman of the school but he got killed in a family quarrel over land. The boy’s persistent sobbing over the loss of his dad, and with it what he called ‘his dad’s school’ melted everyone’s hearts and he was admitted to a class full of girls. He was a happy camper and Razia jan brought him a Tonka truck even though he wasn’t number 1,2 or 3.

Back home I found the cooking crew hard at work making a feast for tonight’s party – a first of many goodbyes – a last chance in some cases to spend an evening with people who I have grown close to. My cook and housekeeper sacrificed their day off to cook up a storm and produced some of my favorite Afghan dishes.

The ‘recce’ team from Eupol showed up in one of those military vehicles that we always try to stay clear off. They came to check out my house – a requirement before their officers, friends invited for tonight’s party, can come for a visit. Out came a bulky men in khaki fatiques and heavy boots and a young blond women, similarly attired, both with arms, she with a clipboard and he with a camera. I think this means I am now ‘on file.’

They asked about escape routes and safe havens, checked off things on their clipboard, took tons of pictures and interviewed our guard who doesn’t speak English. The whole thing was conducted with great earnestness as if my friends were in great danger coming here. Of course to me, the very presence of these people and their car made our house unsafe.

I am sure they are much more at risk in their barracks but it shows the power of the illusion of ‘safety’ here and that it can be created with the help of guns, armored vehicles, radios and boots on the ground. Interestingly these so-called boots on the grounds were from the same company that we had hired, probably at great expense, for the last four or five years to come and save us if we ever were to press our panic buttons. When we got no response for 24 hours after we tested the panic button we ended our relationship.

This charade showed once more how foreigners engaged with the police and military, or those in embassy compounds, are living in a parallel universe. I learned hours later that my place was classified as a ‘stay with’ which means we would have had to tolerate armed guards being present throughout our dinner. As it turned out by the time this was all reported and documented there weren’t any more drivers or vehicles available to take them to my place. But, for a future time, I am on record as a ‘stay with’ house which makes me not want to invite my friends here. I think we’ll meet in a restaurant instead.

In the afternoon I had scheduled a class at SOLA. We studied the book I co-authored, ‘Managers who lead.’ It’s quite a bit above their heads but since they are now all engaged in the project to teach orphans at a nearby orphanage English it became a practical lesson in how to lead and manage the project. There is a lot to learn.

Their organizational skills need the most attention. Although there is now a concept paper with a budget, quite well done, there is no clear plan about who keeps track of income and expenses, who keeps the money and where (my donation of a hundred dollars was nonchalantly stuffed between the pages of a book), who is teaching which orphans what at which time and what will happen when four of the five girls on the team are likely to head out to schools in the US and UK in the next four weeks. This is going to be one big learning experience to which I happily dedicate my donation even if the orphans don’t learn a whole of English.

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