Kandahar beyond the military lens
For years now, the media has focused on the military and security in Kandahar, but a low level of education could be a bigger threat to stability
Author: Mujib Mashal
In the shadow of Kandahar’s most cherished shrine, the Prophet’s Cloak, a couple dozen children giggle, splash, and wrestle in a shallow pool. And when the shrine keeper shoos them away at closing time, they successfully bargain for a few more minutes in the water.
This calm Friday afternoon scene greeted me on my first trip to the southern city in May – a scene that defies the perception of Kandahar as a ghostly place, constantly marred by violence. Life, despite years of tremendous suffering, seemed as normal as in any other Afghan city. In my weeklong stay there, what I realized was that the uneven focus on the military and security in the media has taken our attention away from the real danger facing the province at this crucial time of transition, as foreign forces prepare to withdraw by 2014. Kandahar, and to an extent the larger south, is facing a dire lack of civilian capacity.
Outside the provincial capital, there is not a single female doctor in the whole of Kandahar, the country's second-largest province, health director Abdul Qayyum Pukhla told me. There are female nurses, about 37 of them, but no doctors. Four districts have never had a clinic. When the government finally managed to build a clinic in Ghorak in 2007, it was destroyed soon after.
“Security is one of the issues,” Pukhla said. At least eleven health workers have been killed in recent years, and several clinics burned down.“But low salaries also push them away.Would you take a $200 government salary as a doctor, risk your life, or go work as an interpreter with foreigners for thousands of dollars?”
Most of the health workers are non-locals, coming from other provinces to work in Kandahar. Local enrollment at Kandahar’s institutions of higher education attests to the fact that local capacity can’t match the need: out of 189 students at the medical institute, only 20 are from “Loy Kandahar” (the four southern provinces). The rest come from other provinces. At Kandahar University, local students from the four southern provinces made up less than 10% of the enrollment in 2007. Today, that number has increased to 42%, according to chancellor Hazrat Mir Totakhil; an improvement that needs to be sustained.
While several decades of violence have left their mark, Kandahar has historically lagged behind in formal education. Ata Mohamed, the principal of a secondary school in Dand district, believes the root causes are two fold: first, farmers have not sought ways of living beyond tilling their land; and second, society needed to get over the belief that education corruptsthe youth, leading them away from Islam.
“We once went to a family to seek their daughter’s hand for my brother,” Ata Mohamed said with a smile, but as soon as the girl’s father found out the groom-to-be was a teacher, he asked them to leave his house.“I will not let my daughter marry someone whose bottom has touched a government chair,” the girl’s father had firmly declared.
But Sher Agha Safi, the new provincial education chief, believes there is a reinvigorated desire for learning in Kandahar.“Our people’s turn to education is like their turn to Islam,” Safi said. “They converted to Islam very late. But once they did, they were willing to give their lives for it. Now, I have people coming to me every day, asking me to build schools and they will protect it with their lives.”
Safi managed to reopen 13 of the closed schools in the past two months, increasing provincial enrollment to 137,000 registered students, 37,000 of them girls. But Kandahar has a long way to go before it can produce enough graduates to meet its local needs. According to the ministry of education, Afghanistan's 34 provinces produced more than 150,000 high school graduates in 2011. Kandahar had only 1,823 graduates, just 1.2% of the national figure.
A crippling lack of capacity among the teaching staff does not help. Out of the 4,100 teachers in the province, 1,400 of them are part-time high school students as young as 15 years old and it is particularly difficult to send teachers to distant areas that are more volatile, Safi says. One of the ways he tried to encourage teachers was by offering financial incentives through a government initiative called Super Skill salaries. High school or university graduates take a qualification exam and if they pass, they get hired with a salary about $200 more than the average teacher for serving in volatile areas. Last year, Kandahar sent 59 individuals to Kabul to take the exam. Only 19 of them passed.
Hoping to encourage more participation, Safi convinced the ministry to give the qualification test in Kandahar, sparing candidates the travel. In blistering noon heat, about 230 males and 45 females lined up for the test on the soccer field of the province’s mechanical institute, the ground where Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, had gathered hundreds of religious leaders for his swearing in ceremony in 1996.
Undoubtedly, steps have been taken to address the root causes of the lack of civilian capacity. The revived desire for learning drives the important work of strengthening the education system, and producing a better-educated work force. But, if the words of Mr. Safi are any indicator, a lot more needs to be done. As local journalists gathered to cover the qualification test, Safi smiled at the cameras, brimming with joy in taking another step towards advancing education in the province. But, off camera, he complained that for such a large province and for all the publicity work they had done, the turn out was disappointing.