Twenty-one-year-old Abdul Hozor moves down a row of rice plants, one of the few patches of green sprouting up through northern Afghanistan's dry, crumbling earth. He checks a few of the foot-long stalks to make sure there are no insects or discoloration, cleaning his hands as he goes on a scarf draped over his right shoulder.
"My family only grows wheat," he says after finishing his quick inspection. "I really want to return to my village and teach them how we can grow rice, too."
This patch of rice is just one small part of Abdul's education in the fields and classrooms of Baghlan Agricultural High School. Surrounded by rugged mountain peaks in the provincial capital, Baghlan provides a free education in modern farming practices and agribusiness to more than 300 young men. Mercy Corps rebuilt the school three years ago — and equipped it with modern teaching tools and farming equipment — to increase the odds of success for the next generation of Afghan farmers who dominate the region's economy.
A school burnt and rebuilt
Baghlan has been an educational fixture in northeastern Afghanistan since 1960. Here, 330 teens and young adults take classes in soil management and plant protection, as well as more conventional high-school subjects like history and math.
The school serves a region — and a country — that's crucially dependent on agriculture. More than 80 percent of Afghans farm for a living, growing wheat, almonds, pistachios, pears, apricots and apples, as well as raising flocks of sheep and lambs. The country's been in the midst of a drought the last few years, and high schools like Baghlan are vital in making sure farming families wring the most from their lands as possible by using up-to-date practices and skills.
Until recently, though, classes at Baghlan were held in two large canvas tents. The original school building was destroyed in the 1980s, a casualty of fighting between Afghan forces and the Soviet army.
"The old building was made entirely out of wood," says the school's deputy headmaster. "So when a mortar round accidentally hit it, it immediately caught fire. It only took a few hours to burn to the ground."
These days, classes are held inside a spare but spacious two-story, 28-room building that Mercy Corps helped design and build in 2005. It is one of 14 schools throughout Afghanistan that we've rebuilt in the last five years — projects that include not only the schools' physical environments, but their curricula as well.
"Most of the material that these schools were using were 1970s Soviet-era textbooks," explains Nigel Pont, Mercy Corps' former country director in Afghanistan.
"And there were no business skills being taught, no information technology skills, nothing practical for young Afghans."
Now, thanks to a partnership with Purdue University and a Czech Republic-based nonprofit called People In Need, Baghlan has updated textbooks and a curriculum that includes modern farming techniques and agribusiness practices.
The results of these efforts are visible throughout Baghlan Agricultural High School's sprawling five acres. Parked behind the main building is a shiny red tractor, a donation from Mercy Corps to help inaugurate the school's new machinery classes. Inside the school, the library's floor-to-ceiling shelves are filled with new textbooks and reference materials, all waiting to have their spines cracked for the first time. Below it on the ground floor, the computer lab hums with the sound of a dozen desktop PCs that would seem at home in a wealthier American school.
Most of the work, though, is being done outside the school's walls. The grounds provide ample space for hands-on training. Plots of almond, apricot and peach trees line the front of the building; wheat, rice and maize fields dot the other side. Soon there will be more practical amenities for students in the school's animal-husbandry classes: a chicken coop and pens for sheep and cows are under construction.
'I wanted to be a student there'
Abdul lives right on campus, along with 20 other students in a dormitory at the far end of the grounds. His family's home is in Dushi, 60 miles away by bus. Other students have come further to attend this much sought-after school, the only one of its kind in Baghlan province.
"I heard about the school on television," he remembers. "They were announcing a news story about graduates of the school. After hearing about what the school offered, I decided I wanted to be a student there."
Abdul has been here for two years now. His daily schedule consists of morning prayers (most students are Muslim and observe this daily ritual), classes from 8 a.m. to noon, afternoon prayers and study time, and then more study time in the evening.
His favorite subject is seed propagation - the science of multiplying seeds through natural processes. "I really enjoy learning about how different seeds germinate," Abdul says, "and how to double the yield of crop seeds."
Abdul will graduate next September. At that point, he hopes to apply the skills he's learned here to his family's two-acre farm.
One concern on the mind of Abdul's headmaster is how accepting his father will be of the new techniques the student has learned. "We have been finding challenges with local farmers and families not accepting these modern ideas," Alhaz Ajan says. "We've actually forced some farmers to use things like chemical fertilizers to prove to them that it can have an impact."
Abdul reassures the headmaster though that even his rather conventional father did not have any issues with what his son was bringing home from school. "He said, 'If it is in a book, then it must be right.' Abdul remembers with a smile.
Abdul is grateful for all that he's learned — from plant protection to irrigation to how to plan a year's worth of plantings and harvests. It's information so valuable, Abdul says, that he hopes he won't be the last in his family to graduate from the school.
"I'm going to go back to my village and encourage my cousins to go here, too!"