By Dana Visalli
I’ve been teaching at a private school for girls in Kabul, Afghanistan, for the past month (March 2014) — my fourth trip to this country in the last five years — and one thing I’m learning is that the human condition is more complex than any of us would wish.
The school itself is called SOLA, School of Leadership Afghanistan (www.sola-afghanistan.org). It is a fantastic example of what the creativity of a few people can achieve. The school was initiated in the living room of a house in Kabul four years ago by an American man who was 74 years old at time, Ted Achilles. It is now run by a 26-year-old Afghan woman, Shabana Basij-Rasikh, who graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont two years ago, and plans to, as soon as possible, enlarge enrollment from the current 32 young females to 340 pupils.
The students learn to speak English fluently (typically their third or fourth language), study science, and are prepared to go to college abroad, most often in the United States, so that they can “change Afghanistan” (which is in utterly deplorable condition).
The students at SOLA are a delight to work with, and it is a testament to the human spirit (and to good and courageous parenting), that after 30 years of almost constant warfare such bright spirits still arise. For some context to the environment that they have grown up in, after 13 years of U.S. occupation and $750 billion dollars spent by the U.S. government on the war effort, Afghanistan remains what the European Union called “the worst place in the world to be a woman,” UNICEF called “the worst place in the world to be pregnant,” and Save the Children called “the worst place in the world to be a mother or a child.”
The girls at school — their ages range from 12 – 19 years old — are full of enthusiasm and good cheer, although a recent series of essays that 10 of them wrote express the darker side of the reality they live with.
One wrote, “A girl in my culture marries at 11 or 12 years of age … When a girl is married, she accepts her husband’s orders; she must never tell people if she is being treated badly.” Another student was more blunt: “When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers; when brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.” The 10 essays by SOLA students can be found at tinyurl.com/nr62scq. You will have to sign in as a “friend of SOLA,” but this is painless.
The students are very competent learners, but there are major gaps in their knowledge of the world. For example in one class we were dividing vertebrates in smaller groups — mammals, birds, reptiles etc. — and I asked if I could put humans with the mammals. One of the students responded indignantly, “You can’t put humans with the animals, because humans live in houses, and animals live in the zoo.” None of the students had ever seen any form of wildlife in the natural world, only in cages.
We have done a bit of gardening, and again that is a completely new experience for them. It took two of them to run a shovel, and the discovery of an earthworm sent them into paroxysms of fear and loathing.
How did Afghanistan sink to such a regrettable condition? This is where the human condition gets complicated. The simple answer is that the great powers of the world have manipulated and controlled the borders, politics, economy and social mores of Afghanistan for the past 200 years.
Competition between England and Russia in that area through the past two centuries has become known as “The Great Game,” but it has not been a game for the Afghan people. England has had a particularly negative influence, invading Afghanistan four times in the past 200 years and introducing the cultivation of opium poppies from their adjoining colony of India. England unilaterally drew the boundaries of present-day Afghanistan in 1893, cutting it off from the sea (thus ensuring dependency and poverty) and splitting the largest ethnic group of people.
Not coincidently, all Taliban are drawn from the Pashtuns, who deeply resent the disruption of their 1,000-year-old culture. England overthrew several liberal Afghan governments that were attempting to modernize the country because they did not want the idea of individual human rights and dignity spreading to the people of India, ensuring the fundamentalist repression of women’s rights and human rights extant there today.
The deeper problem for Afghanistan is a universal human issue, which is sometimes called “exceptionalism.” It can fairly be said that in general terms, individuals feel that they themselves and the group that they identify with are somehow superior to other societies, that they are exceptional. This is why England felt justified in colonizing half of the planet in the 1700s and 1800s; they felt that they had special dispensation from their imagined god to spread their self-perceived (and self-deceived) superior culture throughout the known world.
As Americans we experience this isolating sense of exceptionalism when we hear of some of the impacts we have on the world and we feel little or no psychological nor emotional reaction. For example, besides the 7 million tons of bombs we dropped on Vietnam during our war there, we sprayed 20 million gallons of the mutagenic herbicide Agent Orange, which has caused an estimated 500,000 birth defects since.
This is a grim statistic, a true-to-life horror story, but it has little impact on most Americans, because “they” are not “us.” The United Nations estimates that the severe economic sanctions that the United States imposed on Iraq from 1991 to 2003 resulted in the deaths of 750,000 children, largely from starvation. The country itself and the people who inhabit it are now in ruins. We do not tend to react to this kind of information because of this genetic proclivity that people have to feel exceptional: “We are worth more and they are worth less.”
The good news is that our awareness of the world is expanding on all fronts, biologically, ecologically and sociologically. The human species — therefore all humans — originated in Africa and only first left that continent 60,000 years ago at most. All humans are 99.9 percent genetically identical, very nearly brothers and sisters. Thus we are not worth more, and they are not worth less, and we will in the future have to cease our abuse of other people and the planet and work things out together.
Dana Visalli is a naturalist and educator who lives in Twisp.