The children on the streets of Kabul hoarded the candy we handed out in the same way the librarian at the girls’ school hoarded the books we brought. Living under the heavy hammer of war for thirty years had born some strange habits from the locals. When resources came, whether they were in the form of food, clothing, water bottles, books, candy, pencils, or electricity, the natural instinct of the Afghans seemed to be either to store it away for safe keeping, dole it out carefully, if ever, or never let anyone know what you have, if you can help it.
We would often bring school supplies to the teachers (pads of paper, boxes of pencils, markers, erasers, chalk, notebooks) when we would conduct our weekly visits to Zarghona, and as quickly as we would hand them out, they were tucked away in the their purses, locked in desk drawers (if the locks worked) or kept in a locked supply closet until who knows when. In the beginning, we would try to explain to them that the supplies were for them to use, like, right now—not later. Or better yet, they could disseminate the supplies to the students in their classes, many who did not have an abundance of paper or pencils at their disposal. In a very American way, we had an expectation for how our gifts would be used, and when they weren’t immediately put to work, we assumed there was a communication barrier that we needed to teach around. We were wrong. The women were not confused about our intentions; they just had other plans. Actually, they learned not to make plans.
Although I was often anxious before a trip to the school, this time my excitement outweighed my nerves. A few weeks earlier I ordered several children’s books from Amazon, and they had finally arrived. Careful to choose books without any religious overtones (or subtle undertones), without pork or any mention of pigs (I don’t even know if they had a word for pig in the Pashto or Dari languages), and with no pictures of females without full and appropriate clothing (sorry, Barbie, not this time), we set off on our trip across town. On this visit, it was only me and one of my great friends, Sergeant B, an Army Sergeant by day, mother of four and badass derby chick by night, to meet with the teachers.
On a previous visit we had finally convinced them to let us see their library. We couldn’t believe they had such a place, and the “librarian,” a relation of either the principal or vice principal—but without any formal training, was the only person with a key, which she wasn’t handing over to anyone. She was not one of our students, which meant she spoke no English at all. Through one of the other teachers, we were able to convince her we were not going to steal her books, or even remove any from the shelf. We just wanted to see this mythical place. In a school were indoor plumbing was not a priority, the idea of a library was miraculous.
We were not disappointed. The library was actually a spacious room with large tables and sturdy wooden chairs lined up in the center and flanked by suitably stocked shelves of books. There were books of all languages and topics: encyclopedias, world atlases, dictionaries, math books, the Qur’an and some children’s picture books. Most of the shelves were filled with resource material, but they were there. Beautiful bound books. We were in disbelief that this resource had been here for months and we were just now visiting the library. It was akin to finding out the desert had a huge, clearwater lake in the middle of it, but people were dying of thirst. Why would they not use this space for teaching? When did the students check out books? How often did the teachers check out the books? And they had English language tapes? And tape recorders? Why weren’t they using them? We peppered our students with these questions for translation to the librarian. She started to panic and become visibly agitated. Her hands started flailing and her voice, demure and shy before, grew louder and more barking with each word out of her mouth. I didn’t know what she was saying, but I knew exasperation, no matter by what language it showed itself.
Finally, Nazaneen turned to us to explain. “What happen if someone steals a book? Or a tape recorder? Librarian would be punished. They are under her keep.” We were in shock and unable to hide it on our faces. Nazaneen continued, “When we would get more books? Never. Americans leave here soon. Soldiers leave here soon. No. It is better to keep them safe. No. We keep them safe.”
Sergeant B and I looked at each other with tears welling in our eyes. There was so much knowledge just sitting here, uneaten, while the students were starving for it. I swallowed hard and realized we had so much more work to do than simply teach these students English.