All posts by vero

The impact of preschool on hygiene in the family

Every year, the death of thousands of children  in Afghanistan could be prevented by using toilets and washing hands. This is why several NGOs are spending millions of dollars to provide latrines throughout the country.

Some villages in the areas where we run our education projects have been equipped with brand new toilets, but these have shockingly been left  unused. People are accustomed to going to the toilet in the open air, although they are likely to fall ill from hygiene-related diseases and are at risk of being attacked by animals, especially at night. Toilet culture has not yet reached the stage of becoming a habit, but this is changing.

Thanks to our preschool program and our very young ambassadors, these toilets are now being used! Marzya, mother of Maria, 5 years old, says “My daughter, since she has been attending pre-school, insists on using the toilet and makes comments about her parents, about how indecent it can be to go outside to go to the toilet next to the house. She has put us all under moral pressure, including our neighbours… so we cannot imagine our life without a latrine“. Aqella, another mother, comments: “Fatima, 6 years old, is one of my 6 children. She uses the latrine and considers that going to the toilet is part of her dignity. She also puts pressure on the whole family! Now the toilet is part of our habits and we are even embarrassed to see how much we have relieved ourselves just by sitting outside our house.”

Nai Qala’s preschool program teaches basic hygiene rules such as hand washing, tooth brushing and the use of sanitary facilities. Thanks to these simple habits, dignity is restored as the whole family can use the toilet and no longer has to squat outside.

Learning to play with toys

Playing with toys is a new experience for preschool teachers from remote communities.

Nai Qala’s preschool program is designed to provide young children with a range of experiences that help them develop skills and attitudes that will enable them to make good use of lifelong learning opportunities, which is why play is an important component of the curriculum. However, playing with toys is not part of the culture and is not always understood in isolated communities.

Teachers felt uncomfortable playing with toys.

Women teachers from the Yakawlang district who have been teaching a preschool class for a year participated in a three-day refresher course organized by Nai Qala association; it was an opportunity to exchange experiences and deepen their knowledge about early childhood and education. For the Nai Qala team, such a workshop is also an opportunity to gather feedback from teachers on the past school year and to get ideas to improve the training of future teachers. 

A big lesson learned from the three days is that play and toys can represent abstract concepts that are sometimes difficult to grasp. We took it for granted that playing with construction toys develops the imagination and allows children to inspire each other, but this was not the case for teachers who never had the opportunity to play with “western” toys in their own childhood. Indeed, construction toys bewildered many teachers who felt lost and confused, so in some kindergarten classes, Lego bricks and wooden blocks were left out.

Experimenting to understand the role of toys

A few days later, Nai Qala trained 33 young women in preschool education. After learning about the theory of the role of play in children’s development, the future teachers were given the opportunity to experiment with some construction toys and to play by themselves. It was very touching to see these young women playing with bricks and blocks. At first puzzled and wondering about the meaning and use of the different shapes, they used their imagination, became enthusiastic and let their creativity express itself to such an extent that the trainers lost a bit of control of the class. 

Very proud of their own achievements, the trainees understood the importance of using these toys for children. Fun, excitement, joy, concentration, initiative, coordination, curiosity, creativity, inspiration, collaboration, perseverance are all words inspired by their play time. 

School closure in times of pandemic

Most children have received no schooling for at least 9 months.

On their last day of school before the winter holidays in November 2019, no Afghan child could have imagined that schools would not resume the following spring. That’s why, in March, when the country’s health and education ministries announced the closure of all schools, children understood that the current winter holiday would be extended indefinitely to contain the outbreak of coronavirus.

The Ministry of Education quickly put in place an emergency response plan for the Covid-19 pandemic to continue the delivery of education services to students in their homes. This plan focused on distance education using television, radio or the web, and on small group teaching for students.

COVID-19 severely affected an already fragile culture of education in Afghanistan, especially in rural areas

Schools in Afghanistan were in crisis before the pandemic, but the situation has worsened, even more so in rural areas. With 55% of the population living below the poverty line, many families simply cannot afford to have access to the internet. Only 14% of Afghans use the internet and there is a wide disparity between urban and rural areas.  In addition, the availability of electricity has a significant impact on the population’s access to television and radio. In the remote rural areas where Nai Qala operates, a very small part of the population has a television powered by solar batteries. During the closure of schools, it was not unusual to see teenagers walking for several hours once a week to an urban center with good internet access to follow the government’s education program. Some highly motivated children, supported by their parents, moved to relatives in the cities to continue their education. Unfortunately, this was only the case for a minority. Most of the children had no opportunities for education during the closure of the school.

In rural areas, where only 13% of women and 45% of men are literate, many parents simply cannot help their children to study. For many parents, the closure of schools was seen as an economic boon. Parents who do not fully understand the role of education were rather satisfied to have their children at home and make more use of their children’s free time to help boost the family’s income, by making carpets or doing embroidery. During this period, the schoolchildren supported their parents more in household chores, in the fields or in animal husbandry.

The reopening of schools is encouraging

At the end of August, the government authorized the reopening of classes for 11th and 12th grade students. This was a relief and a great joy for the older teenagers, especially for the girls from Anda, who for the first time were able to take advantage of the facilities of the new school that Nai Qala built for them in 2019. In an already fragile environment where access to education was already a challenge, the pandemic could make the situation even worse, but having a decent educational environment with well-equipped school buildings is certainly an incentive to bring more children to school and retain them there.

Since the beginning of October, children of all ages have started going back to school. The schools built by Nai Qala have returned to full capacity and, as  a former preschooler with Nai Qala who has just started school in Sokhtagi says: “I am happy to be at school“.

Thoughts for Women’s Day

Some thoughts about the International Women’s Day by Taiba Rahim, president of the Nai Qala Association

On the 8th of March, millions of people across the world celebrated International Women’s Day. While this was also the case in previous decades, celebrations used to be limited to a few big cities in Afghanistan but now, it is a country-wide phenomenon, including rural areas.

On this day a beautiful memory about my mother also comes to my mind. She was just as courageous as my father.  45 years ago, she was honored by the local municipality and received a prize for having ensured that her 5 sons and 4 daughters went to school; this was very rare in Afghanistan at the time. 

I never forget her humility when receiving a flower bouquet and a silver brooch. This made me proud and inspired me as a young girl. Years later I founded the Nai Qala Association with a focus on the education of young girls. We are contributing to this change of culture and awareness. 

Although many challenges remain, more girls now go to school in Afghanistan, more women are pursuing careers and more men are aware of the important role of women in society. They stand more strongly beside their sisters, mothers and wives. 

I am very proud to be witnessing such a change and let us hope that this day will bring more awareness and contribute to a deeper understanding of the role of women in our society. It has always been an honor and privilege to observe and be part of such a change! 

Opening up to the idea of pre-school education

Even those who are the most recalcitrant eventually end up supporting pre-school

Nai Qala Association started its pre-school program in the Nai Qala valley in 2017. The objective was to provide pre-school for all the children from the villages in the catchment area of the 3 schools that Nai Qala built there between 2007 and 2010.

Nai Qala’s employees were able to convince 9 villages to take part in the program, but there was one village that was not interested in pre-school. The villagers did not want to meet the Nai Qala team. They were not ready and did not understand the need for the program. When the local community refused to meet the team in 2017, of course it was extremely difficult to leave the village while knowing that many children were being left behind and missing out on such a program. This was a very sad moment… 

The Nai Qala pre-school program has been a success

Nai Qala Association successfully started its program in the other 9 villages and the parents and communities soon realized that this program was even better than they had imagined. Their children came home with many positive changes. They noticed how their children had improved social skills and had more of an awareness of their environment and their family; from greetings and politeness, to being able to identify basic reading and writing at a very young age. In addition, the children started to have more self-confidence and develop a sense of identity and pride that was hard to imagine before. Most importantly the community realized how the parents are involved in the education of their own children through parent-teacher meetings as an integral part of our pre-school program.

The community changed its mindset

It was not long before the recalcitrant village heard good things about the program and developed an understanding for what it was about. In particular they were convinced by the fact that parents were able to contribute by taking part in the parent-teacher meetings. The village started to regret their initial reluctance to open up to the idea of pre-school and felt left out. They observed and followed closely how the program was implemented elsewhere and then they held several meetings and organized classes themselves until eventually in the spring of 2019 they invited Nai Qala’s team members to the village and announced that they were now ready to set up a pre-school class. 

As part of our pre-school program, we hire a teacher directly from the community to teach the children, but in the case of this village it was difficult to find someone locally who was suitably qualified to be a teacher. We finally found a young lady who had only graduated from 8th grade but we decided to hire and train her, so she was capable of leading a class. 

Now in this village the parents are present at each parents’ evening and realize the importance of education. This story shows that the community itself once it was convinced by the program it welcomed it. This is the key to change! Any society will only develop when it  is itself convinced and ready. Then it will participate fully in the program which will be successfully sustained. Our pre-school program is community-based, and the active participation of the local community is crucial.

We are very proud to be part of such long-lasting change in those remote rural regions. It is thanks to the Nai Qala Association that that village and others like it opened up to the idea of education and its importance for their children’s future. 

A new school for better opportunities

Nai Qala Association’s 11th school will improve learning conditions for 300 children.

On November 23rd, 2019 the keys of the school of Anda were officially handed over to the school principal. The objective of Nai Qala’s project has been fully achieved namely, to hand over to the community a new and properly equipped school that promotes access to quality education and improves learning opportunities for over 300 school-age girls and boys. 

The new school in the village of Anda will provide teachers and students with adequate facilities and equipment that create a working and recreational environment conducive to study and personal development of each child. 

A direct impact on the curriculum

In the mountainous regions of central Afghanistan, open-air schools are obliged to close early and for long periods due to heavy snow or rainfall, thus compromising the completion of the annual school program. In Afghanistan, school usually starts in April and ends in November but for many schools that do not have proper buildings the program can only starts  in May or sometimes even in June. The same happens at the end of the year, if winter comes earlier than usual, these schools may shut as early as October, making it very hard for teachers and students to complete the yearly curriculum. The new school in Anda is ready to be used by children who have been studying in the rain, snow, hot sun or in the wind, sitting on often damp ground. The new Anda building, with its 6 classrooms, will ensure that the annual education plan can be respected regardless of the weather.

A new pole of attraction

A school building represents a gateway to new opportunities for the community in Anda. With a proper construction, the community can more confidently ask the government and NGOs for educational support. A building acts as proof that material can be carefully kept and maintained. NGOs and the government are thus encouraged to bring more books, stationery, science materials or equipment. Our experience from other schools has also taught us that a new school is not only motivating for the children but also for the teachers, who in the absence of a proper school have high absenteeism and a tendency to leave their jobs. A well-established school is thus a motivation for governmental and non-governmental organizations to include it in their development programs and ensure teacher training and support.

Unexpected side effects of the construction

The school in Anda brought together a very traditional and divided community that has never been able to benefit from a concrete development project. For a year, Nai Qala actively engaged with them, empowered and encouraged them. For the first time, the community of Anda worked together on a common goal where everyone could benefit before, during and after the construction work. At the time of the inauguration, the keys of the building were handed over to the school principal in the presence of the community who created a steering committee for the protection and maintenance of the building. 

The sustainability of the school depends on the involvement of all the stakeholders, the regional authorities, the community, parents, teachers and students. Anda school is now an integral part of the national education plan and will benefit, in the future, from management within the framework of the standards defined by the Ministry of Education. 

Promoting Children’s rights – Bamyan School Quiz Project

Nai Qala had the great honor to partner with UNICEF in Bamyan to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Nai Qala firmly believes that every child has fundamental rights. Over the past decade, we have been supporting children specifically through our educational projects – building of schools, setting up of preschool centers, preparing students for university, and running tutoring and teacher training programs. Nai Qala acknowledges that children will be the future actors for change and in this spirit, it is of utmost importance that their rights are recognized.

Bringing children’s rights to the forefront in Bamyan Province

It is with great pride that Nai Qala has worked together with UNICEF on a project to bring the Rights of the Child to the forefront in the Province of Bamyan and to help raise awareness.

A team of Nai Qala project officers was in charge of explaining children’s right to schoolchildren from grades 7 to 9, of distributing brochures and organizing quizzes in schools. The program was successfully implemented in 8 districts, covering 25 public schools and 6 accelerated learning centers for children between the ages of 13 to 15. An information booklet explaining children’s rights was distributed to 2’500 children who were the direct beneficiaries. Furthermore, each of the 2’500 booklets were taken home by students to their families, increasing the circle of indirect beneficiaries.

During morning assembly of each school, pupils from grades 7 to 9 were asked to read from the booklet aloud in front of all schoolmates, from primary to high school grade. This ensured that the message of the Convention on the Rights of the Child reached the largest audience possible. For 25 schools, an estimated total of 12,500 students learned about the convention. Overall, more than 25’000 people were made aware directly or indirectly of children’s rights.

A quiz specially developed on this subject was then held in each school for children aged 13-15 years. The winner of the local school competition had the chance to take the next step and participate in a competition at the district level, for entry into the grand final in Bamyan city. Nai Qala’s team was very touched to see the great enthusiasm of all the children who worked so hard to be the winners.

Difficult conditions but strong motivation

Nai Qala’s project team travelled in the most isolated areas of the Province, facing rain and snow. Sometimes project officers had to go by foot as the roads were muddy or icy and it was simply impossible to travel by car however the team persevered and remained determined. There could have been dozens of excuses for not implementing this project in difficult areas… 

The purpose of the project was certainly the best reason for such great commitment from the team. Field officers accepted and overcame these difficulties and rose to the challenge because they were convinced of the benefits of raising young people’s awareness of children’s rights.

Building on Nai Qala’s know how to advance the Rights of children

Over all these years, Nai Qala Association has created a strong network in the communities with a good reputation and managed to gain their trust. Our success with this project is all the more admirable as we must stress that we presented it to traditional communities that were generally less receptive to new ideas. It took the diplomacy and patience of our team to guide them.

Project team members took the time to discuss respectfully with local communities and were successful at encouraging children to take part in the competition. Incidentally, children from these remote communities were among the winners of the district competition and their proud parents accompanied them to Bamyan.

The grand final

Nai Qala is very proud to have successfully implemented this project with UNICEF and was especially pleased to honor this program on World Children’s day, in Bamyan, where the finals of the children’s rights quiz were held and have chosen 6 finalists, 3 girls and 3 boys. The ceremony was a high-profile event involving many respected officials from UNICEF and local authorities, but most importantly, over 400 children, parents, teachers and school headmasters from all the regions of the Province. It has been an honor to welcome them all to such a beautiful event and it is especially commendable for those who have travelled from the most remote regions, in spite of rain and snow on roads that were already difficult to pass due to lack of proper infrastructure. Many of them of them travelled such distances and left their villages for the first time ever.

We were particularly touched to see parents encourage their children and the teachers encourage their students not only during the finals but during the whole duration of the project. We are extremely grateful and privileged to be given such a unique chance and opportunity to contribute to improving awareness of children’s rights. We wish to thank UNICEF for partnering with Nai Qala Association and for the trust placed in us.

An experience of itinerant teachers

Behnam, Imani and Adeeb discuss their three-year field experience as itinerant teachers in Nai Qala schools

“We are three teachers who all worked with the Nai Qala Association (NQA) for 3 years. We travelled and helped hundreds of girls during these three years. We went to 6 different schools and students came from over 50 villages to attend our classes. 

The goal of our program was to help girls to get into university or any higher education. Even today in Afghanistan, the quality of education is still low and is a challenge. This is even more challenging in the rural regions as well as for students in such areas. Furthermore, for girls it is even more challenging. We are very proud to help those girls and give them hope.

We were tasked by NQA, but once we went to those remote regions without any phone connection, we did not need to be supervised by someone from NQA. We did our job with commitment. For us, the motivation was created by NQA leadership. We worked under very tough circumstances in those very remote regions. 

We were not only teaching the students, but we worked also socially with the parents and elders. We talked about the value of education and why it is important. We took our time because these regions are veryundeveloped and had never had such things explained to them. The communities also took these messagesvery seriously as our contribution was very concrete and visible. We talked positively about their abilities and how they should believe in themselves.

In some cases, when we identified some girls who had greater difficulties with their lessons or even did not attend our classes,  we took our time to walk for hours to meet their parents to discuss and explain why their daughter had such difficulties or encourage them to allow their daughters to come to school. It was much appreciated that someone would even “bother” to think about their children. But for us, this was a normal duty for our country to do it and make our own minimum contribution.

We created such a positive atmosphere that students started to be rarely absent or not at all. The children became very motivated to attend school.

Another very important point was that we contributed to the local economy of those remote regions. The communities used to send their children to towns for extra tutoring in  their school subjects. This program was not only important for the students but particularly for their parents as they could save money by not sending them to town. Our program was of the same quality as those in the towns. Furthermore, the students got higher marks in class. 

These 3 years helped us to learn how to be disciplined and take responsibility. This mission was the biggest learning of life. We learn more  when we are challenged. Our mission was extremely challenging, and this was important. Sometimes we had to wash our faces early in the morning, at temperatures of below 30 degrees. We had to break the ice in order to get to the water. These were the moments when we thought we could not carry on. Then we would see the girls arriving after an hour’s walk in such cold weather,  with their frozen scarves around their necks. That was the moment that convinced us to remain and help those girls… this is the reason for our motivation! 

Finally, another important point was that we discovered another province, that was even more isolated than our own. We also realized how another province can be beautiful with its culture and tradition, how they live with dignity and pride in spite of extreme poverty.

We shall remain loyal always to NQA and its vision for Afghanistan and its strong belief in change and hope for those girls in those isolated areas… “

With respect,

Behnam, Emani and Adeeb

Editor’s note:After three years of serving the Nai Qala Association, Behnam, Emani and Adeeb have chosen to return to a more sedentary life. They have obtained state teaching positions in their home region.

Nai Qala pre-primary project is expanding

The success of pre-primary education

The early childhood education not only gives the children a head-start at school, but also creates the foundations for their long-term success. The rewards the children reap stay with them throughout their education. These children also act as role models within the school system and motivate and help the others. The program directly contributes to a decrease in school drop-out rates.

Collaboration between pre-primary and primary school

NQA creates a link with the  local government run primary schools and helps to improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the primary schools.

NQA understands the importance of this bridging the gap and not only prepares the young children for school through their learning and development but also runs collaborative workshops for the teachers of the pre-primary schools together with those who teach first grade at the primary schools. In this way NQA contributes to preparing the school environment for the children. This strong collaboration between the teachers, parents, pupils and the community is one of the key factors in NQA’s programs.

We have also noticed that the introduction of pre-primary instruction has an impact on the family, as a whole as the children share their knowledge and skills at home for mothers and fathers to apply with their children, infants and toddlers. The whole family benefits and are included in the program.

Sustainable development goals

NQA is proud to contribute to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goalsin particular those dealing with education and gender equality.

A secondary aim of this program is to create greater women’s empowerment, with young women playing a key role in project implementation as teachers and supervisors.

Early childhood education is fundamental for children’s development, for the education system and for society as a whole.

Following the success of Nai Qala’s early education program that began in 2017, over the next years the program will be expanded. This year sees the first stage with the setting up of a further 14 pre-primary classes. Through this program, Nai Qala is helping children with the important transition from the home environment to that of formal school.

An organization supported by a network of volunteers

Despite an efficient team in Afghanistan, the Nai Qala association would not be able to operate without its network of motivated volunteers.

Since 2007, the Nai Qala Association (NQA) has built schools and a health center to serve needy communities in the remote mountainous regions of Afghanistan. Nai Qala has changed the lives of thousands of people, from girls and boys finally accessing formal education to families improving their health standards and economic status.

For the same period of time, NQA has also significantly increased its operational capacity in Afghanistan, by setting up and strengthening an efficient team in Kabul, both quantitively and qualitatively. However, nothing can be taken for granted; none of NQA’s achievement would been possible without the dedication and hard work of NQA board members and volunteers in Switzerland and in Afghanistan.

Volunteers in Switzerland and Afghanistan

In Switzerland, the organization is governed by a board of volunteers with expertise in a variety of areas such as humanitarian, health or education. NQA is also supported there by a large network of volunteers who bring their contributions in different formats. Some have networks in local communities and help organize fundraising events, some help with writing and communication, some with translations, others with legal matters, or with managing NQA’s website and social media presence.

At the very beginning of NQA’s activity, the President’s accommodation and transportation in Afghanistan was entirely provided by local volunteers. Nai Qala can still count on several volunteers in Kabul today, whether for translations, travel or, as seen recently, for welcoming guests during the opening of the photo exhibition at Kabul University. Such local commitment also shows the Afghans own strong engagement and determination to participate in creating their own future.

All volunteers and board members believe strongly in profound change in the rural regions of Afghanistan. They give their time during or after their work, in the evenings, weekends or during holidays. They are committed to help with fundraising and do not hesitate when they have to chop onions or tomatoes to prepare a meal to raise money for Nai Qala. The way they help is an inspiring example of the volunteer philosophy. Some of them are almost “professional volunteers” and each of them is a symbol of solidarity between communities in Switzerland and those in Afghanistan. 

Volunteering is used as a motivation message to NQA’s staff in Afghanistan – as well as to the communities that NQA helps, the construction companies NQA works with, and NQA’s government partners: “We Afghans must not take anything for granted. We must show accountability for all support that comes to us from the efforts of hard-working and good-hearted volunteers who do so much for us”reminds regularly Mrs. Rahim, NQA’s president.

The Nai Qala Association and all its beneficiaries are very thankful to all these people who dedicate their time, skills and passion to make remote rural Afghanistan a better place.