What We Learn Cannot Be Burnt - 'An Afghan Neo-Literate Woman

As we work in education, it often tends to get too 'sanitized' - as if it is not about real people in real situations, where education has a meaning that's almost impossible to comprehend. Here's a story from Afghanistan, from a programme called Learning for Life that sought to provide initial literacy and health awareness to enable women to become CHWs (community health workers, sorely needed in the country). This story was documented in June 2005, by Judie Schiffbauer, and shared by Katy Anis.

Each morning, six days a week, 40 year old Zeba Gul wraps a light gray shawl around her head and shoulders and leaves her family’s mud-walled compound in the Afghan village of BegToot.  She follows a path that winds through dusty alleyways and then along green fields to arrive at a two-story building constructed of unbaked brick made from mud and straw.  Inside, a set of narrow stairs leads to the Learning for Life classroom, where other women are already gathered.  Removing her shoes at the doorway, she enters and lowers herself to the mat-covered floor, tucking her long legs beneath her.  

In December 2004, when the LfL health-based literacy program began in BegToot, wind whipped snow against the classroom windows, but on this fine summer day, the windows are open to admit a pleasant breeze.  The room looks out over groves of mulberry trees, for which the village is named.  Tall, creviced mountains rise high in the distance, still bearing traces of winter snow.

But the 26 women in the class are not admiring the view.  Instead, each attends to Qotsia, their 21-year-old teacher, who stands beside a small blackboard at the front of the room.  One of millions of Afghans who fled the war-torn country, Qotsia grew up as a refugee in Iran, where she received 12 years of formal education.  Now she has returned to BegToot, and the women are grateful.

 Dressed and coifed in black, Qotsia begins to write with a piece of chalk.  Carefully demonstrating each stroke, she writes a word in Dari composed of several letters from the alphabet displayed on a poster on the wall.  The dark black letters on the poster are easy to see, but six months ago, no woman in the class could have named or written a single one.  Today, hands shoot up when Qotsea asks someone to spell out and then read what she has written.  One woman rises and comes forward:  k a r u m (worm).  “Very good, Pashtoon Jan!” says Qotsia.  Pashtoon Jan smiles as her fellow learners sound out the word, repeat it in unison, and write it in their notebooks:   k a r u m.  Worms are the topic of today’s lesson.  

To the left of the blackboard, a series of drawings depicts women busy with women’s chores:  one is cleaning vegetables; one is boiling water to be stored in an earthenware jar; another is feeding a sick baby; and one is washing a child’s dirty hands.  Now the women in this Level One literacy class are going to learn how worms and a child’s dirty hands are related. 

As one of six Community Health Workers enrolled in the class, Zeba Gul already knows a lot about worms.  Their life cycle and method of transmission were explained to her when BRAC, a REACH NGO-grantee, trained her as a CHW.  But until now, Zeba Gul has never known how to spell, read or write the names of the parasites-- roundworm, tapeworm, and pinworm—that sicken so many children and adults in the village. 

As Qotsia begins the lesson, Zeba Gul leans forward and points to a young woman sitting nearby: “That’s my daughter,” she whispers. “Because of this class, she is learning to read and write before her hair turns gray.”

Later, the class at an end and women lingering to talk, Zeba Gul told her story.  She was born in Paghman, but she has not always lived there.  When she was sixteen, she married and moved to Kabul with her husband to live with his family. Her daughter and several other children were born in the city.

“It was good,” says Zeba Gul.  “My husband had a small shop.  He worked hard.  In the morning, he opened the shop.  In the afternoon, he had a second job in a government building.”

Even during the dark days of war, the family chose not to leave Afghanistan for sanctuary in Pakistan or Iran.  “We stayed,” she says, remembering their struggles with a hint of pride in her voice.  “We were hard workers, and we stayed.” 

For a time after the Russians left, Zeba Gul thought the worst was behind them.  But peace did not last long.  “After that,” she said, “I wasn’t sure what the fighting was about; I know only that it did not stop.  So much fighting.”

When Zeba Gul explains that both the family’s shop and home were near Damazang in Karte Seh, the room grows very quiet.  Everyone knows that Karte Seh was virtually destroyed during the civil war.  “Ay, Khoda!” the women whisper, as Zeba Gul continues her story:

“One night, our shop was ablaze. How it burned!  And our house burned too.  Everything we had was swallowed in fire.  Oh, God.  What could we do?  We had nothing left!  So we returned to Paghman.  It was more than ten years ago.  Here, my husband is a farmer.  Thanks to Allah, he is alive.” 

Many of her listeners have been less fortunate, and the widows nod in agreement as Zeba Gul utters her prayer of gratitude.  The women in the room have known great sorrows, but it is resilience that binds them. 

“Now,” continues Zeba Gul, “I am a CHW.  And I am learning to read and write in this class.  See there: my daughter is also here! Faz l’Khoda--Give thanks to God.  What we learn cannot be burned.”