It’s early morning in London, and I’m wide awake as my body isn’t sure what time zone it’s in. Neither is my technology – the clock on the radio says it’s 0700 (UK time), I haven’t changed my watch so that says it’s 1030 (Kabul time), my iPhone hasn’t caught up with me yet so it says it’s 0900 (Istanbul time), and my computer says it’s 0300 (PEI time)!!

The flight out from Kabul was fine, but tedious. The driver came for us at just after 0900, and took some back way routes which were very bumpy but also quite quick – we were at the airport within half an hour. Check-in went OK, but the actual getting through security took nearly an hour, not because it was terribly thorough (although it was) but because we had to line up for 25 minutes while they sorted out the passport issues of a family in front of us in the queue. I discovered that there is no airport lounge in Kabul, so sat and did some reading until we boarded. There were the ever-present air traffic delays (I think that the combination of a busy military base and equally busy civilian airport don’t go together too well!) and we eventually got ‘wheels up’ just before noon.

Imagine how lucky I felt – nearly three weeks in Kabul and not one major incident. On the one hand that seems quite remarkable, given what we tend to hear and read about that city in our media. On the other hand, based on my own observations, it may be that these events, although individually huge and traumatic, are actually the exception rather than the norm. But the day to day banality of life in a busy city doesn’t warrant a major news story, I guess.

Once on the plane I must confess to having a beer, my first for 3 weeks, and then I read and dozed and ate and eventually we landed in Istanbul. There was lots of security there – we had to take a bus from the plane, and were screened twice as we entered the terminal. There wasn’t much time in Istanbul so I just popped in to that amazing lounge for a bottle of water and to find an English language newspaper. I got both, and then had to go through another security screening where they took my water from me (sigh) before I could get on the plane to London.

And here I am.

I am looking forward to spending a day wandering around the city. It will be good not to be always on the alert for strange things, for cars or people who seem out of place. It will be good to be able to take photographs without worrying if there is a security checkpoint in the background, to walk around and not have to worry (too much!) about personal security, to be able to go into any shop I want to have a look at something, to be able to go to a café or a restaurant that is not on an approved list.

All the things we take for granted.

As I reflect on the past three weeks I am struck by the consistency of the message I heard concerning education in Afghanistan. I met and talked with an inordinate number of people. There were those from the Teacher Education Directorate; from the Ministry of Education and other ministries in Kabul; provincial directors of education; directors and students at three different teacher training centres; Canadian officials from CIDA and from the Embassy; people from all over the world who are working with other non-government organizations; Canadian military officers; car drivers and restaurant waiters; Afghans and internationals. All said pretty much the same thing.

The future of Afghanistan rests upon the education of its people. After 30 years of war and violence, after the destruction of schools and post-secondary institutions, after the tyranny of oppressive regimes and the imposition of draconian policies, the education system is in disarray. It is not, however, completely extinguished.

Over the past few years there have been huge strides in developing the system. From a state of near paralysis in 2002, a decade later we now see nearly 7 million children attending 12,000 schools and being taught by 170,000 teachers.

The demographics of these students are interesting. Of the 7 million, the gender imbalance is obvious – 64% are boys and only 36% are girls. The age disparity is another imbalance – over half (4.3 million) are in Grades 1-4. As more schools are established and more children continue through and complete high school, as more young girls are encouraged to attend school, so the numbers will continue to increase.

The future, then, will require an increased number of teachers. To have children in school is not enough. They must also be taught, and taught well. This teaching must include not only the subject matter content of academic subjects but also the basics of civility, of social engagement for communal health, of social justice and equity, and of life within a democratic state in the twenty-first century.

During the past three weeks I have observed steps being taken to achieve these goals. Within the Ministry of Education there is a move towards evidence based decision making. There has been the development of a monitoring and evaluation infrastructure which will support the ongoing improvement of educational programming. There is a commitment to change, and a belief in the future wellbeing of the country.

Over the next five years the project with which I am involved will be just one of many projects seeking to assist the people of Afghanistan as they rebuild their society. Our particular focus will be on the continued development of teacher education, both in terms of policy and of practice.

Our team of colleagues from the World University Service of Canada, from the University of Prince Edward Island, and from other organizations across our country and around the world, will make many visits to Afghanistan. We shall work with a wide variety of people at the Ministry of Education and in the provinces. At the end of the day, the changes which evolve have to be designed and implemented by Afghan educators. Our job is to help and guide them in their journey. It is a challenge which we all look forward to with optimism and enthusiasm

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