Curing the blindness of Afghanistan's illiteracy


June 5, 2003

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    Mercy Corps staff in northern Afghanistan practice reading and writing at a class taught by a Mercy Corps employee. For many, this is the first formal educational instruction that they have had in decades. Photo: Joerg Denker/Mercy Corps Photo:

"He walked into my office last year in April and told me, to my surprise, that he was quitting even though his contract was not about to end," remembers Joerg Denker, Senior Program Manager for Mercy Corps in North Afghanistan.

A year later, Abdul Hafiz explained, "I am a teacher and school had started again so I had to support the children of my country."

When Abdul Hafiz left Mercy Corps, he was a surveyor. He had a good job and a secure salary. He decided to give it all up for an insecure future and an irregular salary as a public school teacher.

"All professions have a value, but there is something special about teaching," says Abdul Hafiz. For him, being a teacher is not only a job. It's a lifelong commitment. He has been a teacher for 22 years.

Afghanistan needs more people like Abdul Hafiz. Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Fifty percent of adult men and 90 percent of adult women cannot read and write. Decades of war prevented an entire generation of Afghan children from attending school. Schools were destroyed by fighting between the Mujahadeen and the Soviets. Teachers and other educated people fled rural areas for the relative security of urban areas or foreign countries. During the Taliban's rule, girls were not allowed to attend school.

In August 2002, Mercy Corps decided to offer literacy and math instruction for its own staff in North Afghanistan. Abdul Hafiz was an obvious choice to serve as teacher.

"The support to the Afghan people starts in our own office," says Denker. "We cannot claim to build capacity within the Afghan society and forget our own employees at the same time."

"I can read now every type of newspaper that I can buy in the bazaar here in Taloqan," says Naqibullah, who works as a guard at the Mercy Corps Taloqan office. He was very happy to get a second chance at getting a basic education at the age of 30. Naqibullah explains, "When I was a young boy, the war started and the Mujaheddin came one day and took me away to become a soldier."

Agha Gul, a guard at Mercy Corps warehouse in Taloqan says, "My family had a hard life when I was a small boy. I had to work and support my family starting from a very young age." His family problems kept him away from school, but the value Agha Gul places on the education he is receiving now are obvious.

Every student that passes the first literacy test receives a novel. Agha Gul not only reads and enjoys his novel and but he assigns himself homework from them. He practices his new literacy skills by copying pages from his novel.

Encouraged by their teacher, Naqibullah and Agha Gul are planning to go to evening school to finish their formal education.

The Mercy Corps literacy and math education program has been tremendously successful. To date, 23 employees have completed the literacy classes. Mercy Corps is planning to continue and expand the program in cooperation with the Taloqan Women's Association. The two will offer combined courses for Mercy Corps staff and women identified by the Association. In addition, English classes will be offered to young women who cannot afford to pay a teacher.

"There are two kinds of blindness," says Abdul Hafiz. "Physical blindness can only be treated by a doctor and cannot be cured. The second blindness is illiteracy and it can be cured."