The most striking aspect of the photographs Diana Farmer showed of Afghanistan Thursday night as a culmination to the spring Iola Reads program was the lack of soil in the region.
“It’s high plains desert,” she noted of the mountainous terrain. Ragged peaks jut menacingly from thin valley floors.
And people, millions of people, live here, with only two-lane roads in place to handle the traffic of cars, trucks and animals. The country is the victim of a decade-long war with Russia that hammered what was once a nation that “led the region in the education of women,” Farmer said.
Farmer, science collection manager at Kansas State University library, visited the country twice to help Kabul University enhance its library collection. She said that as a result of the Soviet conflict and subsequent takeover by the Taliban regime, there is not much left of Kabul University or its libraries.
“Many of the books are from the ’50s and ’60s — they’re no good for for teaching,” she said.
“The Soviets shut down the university and hunted down as many educators as they could and killed them,” Farmer sad. “When the Taliban took over, they stripped every bit of metal from the buildings — radiators, boilers, electrical wire.” As a result, the buildings of Kabul University, which stretch over 600 acres in the city’s square, are shells, limiting classes to spring and fall, when the weather is moderate.
The World Bank awarded the school, originally established with U.S. funds in the 1950s, a 10-year three-tier grant to revitalize its engineering and English programs. Farmer taught English on her stints there. In exchange, K-State is serving as a temporary home to some of Kabul’s engineering faculty, who are pursuing master’s degrees through the grants.
The grants have meant a return of female students at Kabul University and also a chance for women to fill teaching roles while Afghani men study in the United States.
“If the Taliban were in control, women would not be allowed in” Farmer noted.
The women hope the experience is a career step, Farmer said.
While women are present at the university, they must remain segregated from their male counterparts in all public settings.
In the library, men have the main floor, while women use a small balcony, Farmer said.
While “men can wear almost anything,” women — even visitors — are required to be covered head to toe.
“Nothing from my chin to my feet could resemble a human body part,” Farmer said.
As the Taliban’s hold on the country loosens, women are beginning to wear slightly more form-fitting garb, she said, but even saris of India are too revealing for the strict religious culture. Women “can show the hair from the top of the head forward, but from there back you must be covered,” Farmer said. The clothing tradition dates to long before the Taliban, Farmer added.
THE 1979-1989 war with Russia devastated Afghanistan, Farmer noted.
Almost every educated person between the ages of 30 and 50 either fled the country or was killed.
“There’s almost two generations of experience and skill missing from this culture. I don’t know how that’s going to affect the future,” she observed.
In addition, Russians planted land mines throughout the rocky terrain.
There are lines of rock in fields and along roads, Farmer said, that denote safe areas to walk.
“If you walk between the rows of rocks painted white, you won’t be blown up. If there are rocks painted red, it’s an area that has not been de-mined yet.”
Because of the mines, about one-fifth of Kabul’s 2 million people have at least parts of limbs missing. Children are especially vulnerable, she said, as they tend to their family’s sheep and goats. The animals, Farmer said, “get blown up quite frequently because of the mines.”
Farmer said the World Bank education grants did not achieve as much change as the organization had wished, mainly due to lack of oversight of how the funds were used. Leaking roofs are still the norm in some of the university’s buildings.
Farmer noted other changes in the country between her first visit, in November of 2008, and her second, in June 2009.
More building is occuring in Kabul, she said, and electricity is available up to 12 hours a day.
“In November, three hours was the norm.”
Slowly, she said, the region is recovering.
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