From the leafy lanes of Aldworth to the Hindu Kush.

Sixteen years ago, I left Aldworth for Afghanistan on a beautiful spring morning. I had visited the region previously as a young doctor in the Eighties during the Soviet war there and was invited to return to work in a mother and child clinic in the Panjshir Valley, East Afghanistan.

I found a country devastated by 23 years of war, suffering under the grip of the brutal Taliban regime, its infrastructure and spirit utterly destroyed. Even as an optimist I found little hope. However, I grew to love the Afghan people, their extraordinary hospitality and above all their determination, courage and resilience. The visit changed my life and I have devoted the years since then to supporting the country and its young people through the charity I founded, Afghan Connection.

The charity transforms young lives through education and sport and works in some of the most remote and underserved regions of Afghanistan. We have built 46 schools for 75,000 children and renovated more than 70 other schools serving some 110,000 children. Alongside the meteoric rise of the Afghanistan National Cricket Team, with the M.C.C. as partners, we have built 100 cricket pitches in schools and coached 4,500 children and young people with disabilities.

In July this year, on another beautiful Aldworth morning, I set off for Afghanistan, this time with my son Mike, who speaks the local language fluently. We saw schools we have built, met young children in remote areas enjoying an education for the first time and teachers we have trained. The welcome was overwhelming and we were often submerged in a sea of flowers and garlands and rendered immobile by copious amounts of food. We stayed in village houses up in the Hindu Kush and felt deeply privileged to travel with such ease in Afghanistan’s challenging environment. It was my visit to Bakhmal Basi School which stays with me most. This is our current fundraising project and we aim to build a six classroom school for its children in Spring 2018. This is the extract from my blog about visiting the school:

I leave at first light for Bakhmal Basi school, which is some 3-4 hours drive from Taloqan, where we spend the night. Rustaq is an impoverished and underserved district right up in the North of Afghanistan. It is blighted by drought and only 20% of the population has access to water. Maternal and child mortality rates are high. It is a desolate place where, looking at the endless dust and cracked earth utterly parched and devoid of colour, one cannot comprehend how people live and what their lives must endure.

It makes me angry that people still have to live like this, with no access to safe water after so much money has come in to Afghanistan. It is incomprehensible that people in this century endure such hardship and total lack of basic facilities. No water, no clinic, no jobs. Life is a daily test of survival. As we arrive near to Bakhmal Basi village we stop and look at it perched on a hillside of dust surrounded by a sea of grey hills, no green in sight.

All the elders are waiting for me in line and grasp my hand as I walk along their line. The children are there too, with flowers and gifts and all the women of the village are there in their burkas, waiting to speak to me. The school is a series of wooden shelters and torn tents.

The elders sit down and thank me for coming so far to meet them and for supporting their school. There are just two literate adults in this village, the Mullah and a teacher, who was educated elsewhere as a refugee and has now returned. Everyone else is illiterate. 

They sign an agreement to cooperate with the school construction by giving land and labour to build the foundations. They cannot write and so press their thumbs into an ink pad and onto the paper, the illiterate parents signing up for their children to have an education. I ask them why they want their girls and boys to be educated. An old man replies that once he was against education, but now he is near to death after a harsh life and sees it as the one chance for the village children to have a better future. As he speaks, he raises his hand to wipe the tears that are falling down his tired face and we all feel the depth of this emotion.

I have visited so many places in Afghanistan, but never have I witnessed such abject poverty. The women take me into their shelter and remove their burkas. They implore me not to forget them. They thank me for coming so far to help their children when they feel forgotten by the outside world. They tell me how their children have to search for water up to 6 hours a day and they sometimes attack each other in their fight to secure water for their families. One woman tells me how she miscarried her baby whilst carrying heavy loads of water back for her children. They fear childbirth because there is no clinic or medical help nearby.

Afghan Connection has been fortunate to be included in The Big Give Christmas Appeal 2017. We will run the appeal to raise funds for Bakhmal Basi School construction. Anyone who donates online between November 28th and December 3rd will have their donation doubled. If you would like to help, please save the date and see our website in the run up for more details on how to take part or call 01635578841. To read more of my blog from July