Small World

It’s a small world

Our new colleague, Tony, joined us a few days ago. He was late arriving because he had spent the past few weeks mountain climbing in Borneo (as one does!). As we sat over green tea to introduce ourselves, he told me that he brought greetings from his climbing partner, Chris.

The name didn’t ring a bell. “Who is he?” I wondered.

Apparently Chris had stayed at our house for a week – in 1982! We were living on Kiriwina at the time, one of the Trobriand Islands. These Islands are located in the western Pacific, north of the eastern-most tip of the nation of Papua New Guinea. They are a culturally famous place, studied at length by people such as Bronislaw Malinowski (in the 1930s) and Annette Weiner (in the 1970s). Indeed Malinowski’s work on “The Islands of Love” and “Myth and Magic in the Coral Sea” are classics, as is Weiner’s “Women of value, men of renown”. The Trobriand Islanders were so well studied that a common joke was that the average family had five members – mum, dad, two kids and an anthropologist.

Anyway, Chris was an instructor at a teachers’ college on the mainland, and one of his students was doing a practicum (a practice teaching assignment) at the school of which I was principal. The Islands did not have much in the way of commercial accommodations at the time, and what there was tended to be quite expensive, so our house became a de facto hostel for many visitors who were not part of the international tourist crowd. Often we’d come back from a trip away to find a “thank you” note(and sometimes a bottle of something!) from someone who had stayed in the house – we never did find the key for the door. It wasn’t a luxurious place. Over the two years we were living there we had mains electric power and running water for three (yes, 3) days. The rest of the time we relied on our 500 gallon water tank, filled by the annual rains, and a small generator we kept under the house. But the price was right, and volunteers, development workers and the like often dropped in for a day or two.

Our daughter Nichola spent her first years there, growing up mainly in a local village when Sally and I were both teaching at school. I remember one day going to pick her up and finding her sitting in the dust, holding a full size machete and cracking open a coconut. She wasn’t yet 3 years old. I panicked, and said (well, screamed) to the lady who looked after her, “what are you doing, she’ll cut herself!”

“Why?” “Why would she do that? She’s been opening coconuts for months.”

Chris apparently remembers his time well. It seems that at some point in the week I made him leave the classroom and go to watch a game of Trobriand cricket, a cultural anomaly for which the Islands are famous. So when he was resting on some mountain top in Borneo and learned his climbing partner was coming to Afghanistan to work with a group that included Tim Goddard, he immediately said something along the lines of “not the Tim Goddard who used to work in PNG? Please say hello.” Small world.

On Sunday my colleague Jim and I went out to the Kabul Military Training Centre. We had got ourselves invited as we wanted to see the literacy training program which is taking place there. Canadian soldiers are leading this work, with over half (230 out of 451) of the international advisors coming from the Canadian Forces. On the military side – they are training the Afghan National Army, after all – there are over 8000 new recruits undergoing training at the moment, in addition to the thousands who have been trained in the past few years.

When a new recruit joins the ANA, he is given a basic literacy test. Only 10% pass at the grade 3 or higher level, and the rest are enrolled in a literacy training mission. They take an intensive 64 hour course in either Dari or Pashto, and at the end of that period the test results are showing that 86% are now literate (in reading and writing) at the grade 1 level. Second and third level literacy training takes place later as the recruits make their way through their basic training, and the goal is to have all recruits to grade 3 literacy levels by 2014.

The classes are taught in tents at the moment, 30 to a class, with rudimentary desks and chairs and some introductory student work books. The tents have some rudimentary heaters, and are cool in the winter chill. A few simple posters adorn the wall, and each classroom has a white board. New metal sheds are being constructed, which is time will each take ten classes of 30. I only hope that they divide these barn like structures up with internal walls and ceilings, or else the echo factor will be intolerable.

There was no literacy training taking place so we were not able to talk to students, but we did meet a couple of the language instructors and talk to them about their work. They were a lot more impressed with the tents and the new buildings than we might have expected, but the reason for this became clearer when we saw the classrooms where the military training was taking place.

On the rolling hills outside the camp itself, large groups of men were gathered in groups. Standing on the snow covered ground, the wind whistling over the hills, they were receiving direction from ANA instructors. Canadian and other international soldiers stood alongside, offering guidance and assistance as required. The soldiers have consciously taken a mentoring role, in the belief that the ANA will only build its own leadership and training capacity through practice.

Over lunch we got to speak to some of the Canadian instructors. I was honoured and delighted to discover that they had asked to meet me – they were members of Charlie Company of the PPCLI – the famous Princess Patricia’s, with whom my daughter Nichola had been working in 2006. They had fought their way through many areas together – the Argandab Valley, Spin Boldak, Panjiwai – and they remembered her well, and with respect. They had returned to Canada after 2006, and were now back in Afghanistan, this time in a training role rather than a fighting one.

We talked about this work, and I was impressed by the commitment and professionalism which they brought to their days. One confessed that he had found it much easier in a combat role, where things were black and white, rather than the greys and nuances of teaching and mentoring. However, this was his current assignment, and so that was what he was doing. Others talked about how they felt they were seeing the culmination of their efforts in Kandahar province, and that what they were doing now would not have been possible without what they were doing then.

I feel very humble in the company of such men. As Nichola used to say to me, she and they “do what they do so that I can do what I do”. Small world indeed.

8 February 2012

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