Free to Learn

Stephanie Yao

After the speeches were given, Koran verses read, proud parents given ample photo opportunities and diplomas handed out, there was only one thing left to do—dance.

The male graduates went first. A few at a time, they whirled, bopped and clapped to a wall-rattling band whose playlist ranged from synthesized Iranian pop music to the frenetic Pashtun national dance, the attan. Some wearing flashy color-coordinated Western suits, others in the traditional white shalwar kameez tunic-and-pants combo, the young men moved unself-consciously, their clean-shaven faces shining with perspiration.

If they had grown unaccustomed to dancing and music during the Taliban government’s five-year ban on both, it didn’t show.

The female graduates, lithe and elegant in neat headscarves and tailored dresses, feigned disinterest as they sat and chatted among themselves. Their turn would come later in the afternoon. Several kept their diplomas in front of them, occasionally glancing down and fingering the blue-and-gold certificates from Kabul Education University. They are among Afghanistan’s first female university graduates in more than a decade.

This celebration was historic for so many reasons: the women, the music, the dancing, the newly constructed hotel, the recently expanded teachers’ college. These graduates are the lucky ones in a country where only 2.5 percent of the college-age population, and disproportionately few women, attend institutions of higher education. Relentlessly modern, these students—cell phones grafted to their ears; clothes and hairstyles copied from the latest Bollywood movies—represent the new Afghanistan at its most exuberant and hopeful.

Students are the reason Zaher Wahab returned to his birthplace after three decades away. As the senior adviser to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Education, Wahab, PhD ’72, has been instrumental in the rebirth of Kabul Education University. A professor of education at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., Wahab, 60, has spent most of the past 2 1⁄2 years on sabbatical, working in Kabul. His mission: to ensure that the country’s future teachers, engineers, doctors and political leaders have the education they’ll need to lift Afghanistan from the ruins of a quarter-century of war.

The country’s promise is fragile. Even as the October 2004 national elections signaled a new era, Taliban suicide bombers killed six in Kabul and militants kidnapped three United Nations election workers. Militia commanders and warlords continue to battle for control of the provinces. Opium poppy for the heroin trade, once eliminated by the Taliban, now comprises more than half of the nation’s gross domestic product. Efforts on behalf of a higher education system sometimes ring hollow when fewer than 10 percent of Afghans have clean drinking water and electricity, Wahab says. “But the only hope in the long run is good-quality education for the whole country.”

In early 2002, Afghan Minister of Higher Education Sharif Fayez called Wahab, seeking to enlist the Oregon professor in Afghanistan’s interim government. “I felt a moral and intellectual obligation,” Wahab says. His decision also presented a chance to fulfill a promise Wahab made 30 years ago to mentors in the Stanford International Development Education Center (SIDEC) at Stanford—to return to his homeland and use his training in international development and education (see sidebar).

After he completed his PhD in 1972, Wahab accepted a teaching job at Lewis & Clark. He recalls that his decision angered his SIDEC mentor, professor of education Martin Carnoy. One of the program’s fundamental principles was that foreign students would be the best agents of change when they returned to developing countries. Carnoy teaches in Stanford’s international comparative education program (SIDEC’s successor) and admits he’s a “moralistic kind of guy” when it comes to people like Wahab. “I see this talent, and I realize what they have to contribute,” Carnoy says. “Zaher has always been one of my favorite people. I pushed him pretty hard. I didn’t want to see his talent wasted on just teaching American kids.”

Wahab had intended to stay in Oregon only a few years. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, captured and killed Wahab’s younger brother and imprisoned his father. Wahab vowed that when war subsided in his birthplace, he would return to Afghanistan. Finally, the United States-led overthrow of the Taliban, in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, presented an opportunity.

Living in Afghanistan for the first time in nearly four decades, Wahab couldn’t help mourning the Kabul he had known. Tree-lined boulevards and gardens have faded into a crumbling wasteland of rubble and dirt. His old boarding high school is a sagging pile of blistered concrete. Most of his childhood friends are exiled or dead.

Wahab laments most the toll war has taken on the Afghan psyche. Neighbors no longer trust each other. People have resorted to kidnapping children for money. Mostly, everyone looks out for themselves without regard for others. “It has truly been a war of all against all,” he says. “Nothing is the same. People are not the same. Family is not the same. The country is not the same.”

modern higher education in Afghanistan began in 1932 with the establishment of the first college of medicine in Kabul. From the system’s beginnings, all qualified Afghan citizens were constitutionally guaranteed a free college education, room and board included if the student lived a certain distance from the school. The system grew steadily, reaching a peak in the 1970s. Across the country, universities provided programs in engineering, agriculture, law, theology and fine arts. Campuses like Kabul Polytechnic Institute and several teachers’ colleges provided specialized education. The centralized admissions system was based on a national entrance exam.

When communists seized control of the government in 1978, they began to shift the curriculum toward Marxist ideology. When the Soviets invaded in 1979, they purged Afghan intellectuals who appeared to oppose the communist government. Countless professors, administrators and students were imprisoned or killed. “Faculty were shot right in front of their students,” Wahab says.

As the Soviets withdrew in 1989, widespread civil war filled the vacuum. Most university buildings and infrastructure were destroyed. Kabul University became an active war zone as mujahideen fighters used its buildings as barracks.

Under the mujahideen, the admissions system became rife with corruption and the curriculum infused with religious indoctrination. The Taliban took over in 1996 and banned female faculty and students. Its curriculum focused solely on Shari’a, or Islamic law.

Nationwide higher-education enrollment plummeted from about 21,000 in the early 1990s to 7,000 by the time the post-Taliban interim government was installed. By then, “people had bribed and coerced their way into schools,” Wahab says. “We had to locate and expel people who, for example, had gotten into medical school without even finishing high school.”

Since 2002, the interim Ministry of Higher Education has reopened and rebuilt campuses all over the country, doubling the number of higher education institutions to 17. The student population has grown more than fivefold, to 40,000. The ministry’s goal is to increase enrollment to 130,000 by 2006.

Wahab has contributed to several milestones in Afghan higher education. He more than doubled the size of the Kabul Pedagogical Institute—now Kabul Education University—to 2,700, developed the first affirmative-action program for female college students, and computerized the college entrance exams. A community college, a standardized testing center and a credit system for universities—all Wahab’s initiatives—are also under way.

Days in kabul begin before dawn, when the ululating male voice of the call to prayer cuts through the gray haze. Often, the local muezzin’s intonation is punctuated by a donkey’s asthmatic bray, the roar of an F-16 or the whir of a military helicopter—or all three.

Arriving for work in his government-provided driver’s Volga sedan, Wahab passes several guards—their AK-47s casually slung over shoulders or leaned up against the door frame—before getting to his large but austere office.

His list of people to contact reveals the country’s dependence on foreign aid: officials from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, UNESCO and the Coordinating Council for International Universities, the last formed to launch American institutions abroad, including an American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. Wahab is helping arrange a trip to Washington for Fayez, the higher education minister, to lobby Congress about funding for the American University.

Wahab spends time studying a Lewis & Clark College course catalog, which he is using to develop a credit system for Afghanistan’s universities. A change as simple as offering bachelor’s degrees based on credits, not years in school, could make college more affordable. The higher education system could increase its capacity by one-quarter, because many students could graduate in fewer than the four years currently mandated.

But the project that has dominated his time and thoughts is his initiative to establish a testing center, modeled after the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT and other American entrance exams.

When Wahab first arrived at the ministry, he led the push to computerize Afghanistan’s college entrance exams, to combat the corruption and nepotism that plagued university admissions. He helped write the new test and established a system to send answer sheets to Iran to be graded by computer.

The new entrance exam debuted in January 2004. To ensure security, ministry officials kept a 24-hour vigil in the warehouse where exams were being printed on a crude press. Wahab took a shift, spending a night in the cavernous, freezing building.

Later, it was discovered that an elaborate 11-man ring had arranged to have a print shop employee leave a copy of the test in the ashes of a wood-burning heater, Wahab says. The conspirators managed to get the test out of the building and sell answer sheets for thousands of U.S. dollars. About 6,000 students had to retake the test.

Next to Wahab’s office, a conference room is filled with thousands of answer sheets. They await review by two ministry workers who are investigating individual students’ challenges to test results. The two haggard men painstakingly check the answers by hand, constantly refreshing their mugs from a shared pot of black tea.

Wahab would like to secure about $4 million in foreign aid to build the testing center, which he believes would make the exam process more efficient and fair.

Days at the ministry often get consumed with the dysfunction of today’s Afghanistan. Most of the ministry’s typists don’t know English, so Wahab must send each letter or document back several times for corrections. Kabul’s intermittent power outages used to bring work to a standstill until Wahab helped obtain a generator for the ministry. Security is a constant worry. One of Wahab’s tasks is to sort through death threats to his boss, Fayez, and decide which ones need to be reported to authorities.

Wahab visits kabul Education University regularly, in part to remind himself of what has been accomplished in the face of so many frustrations and risks. He finds rare moments of satisfaction when he sees the university’s library and computer center, projects he started. “Of course, it’s far from ideal, but it’s progress. That would be the reason it was worth coming here.”

Classrooms like Aziza Shirzi’s provide the ultimate illustration of that purpose. Birds flutter through the open windows of the converted cafeteria. The lone textbook—photocopied a page at a time for the students—is hopelessly outdated. But standing in front of her second-year English class of 75 young men and women, Shirzi doesn’t take a minute for granted.

A tall, commanding woman in tailored clothes and a black-and-white tiger-striped headscarf, Shirzi, who is about 30, guides her students through a taped listening exercise on customs in other countries. The students pitched in to buy the classroom’s portable tape recorder.

Shirzi quizzes her students: “You can drive as fast as you like on certain roads in . . .”

“Germany,” the students say in unison.

“Beautiful,” she says. “Chewing gum is illegal in . . .”

In 1996, Shirzi had just started teaching at what was then the Kabul Pedagogical Institute when the Taliban took control of the city and banned women and girls from schools. Her own schooling was sporadic during the period of civil war. “I spent five years at home. I read my books and dictionaries as much as I could,” Shirzi recalls.

Just four years ago, she was teaching English underground, fearing the Taliban government might discover her. “All I wished I could do was stand in class one day and teach my students. I prayed for it.”

Kabul Education University is the only one in the nation where female students outnumber male students, if only by a slim margin. Nationwide, 17 percent of university students and fewer than 15 percent of faculty members are women. Bringing women back to the university system has proved very challenging; there are campuses outside Kabul that have no female students at all. One huge obstacle is providing dormitories for women—a $10 million USAID reconstruction project to house 2,500 female students at Kabul University was inaugurated recently.

Most of Shirzi’s students want to be English teachers, she says. Afghanistan needs them. “There are still many rural women who are illiterate,” Shirzi says, “and even more who are what I call ‘internationally illiterate,’ because they can’t speak other languages.”

Shirzi knows she’s an important role model to her female students, who crowd to the front rows in her classes. She makes a point to call on them often. “I hope when my female students see me, they know what is possible for them,” she says. “My best wish, my desire has always been to teach.”

Fayez, the higher education minister, said in a May 2004 interview that he felt the higher education system had reached a critical plateau. “Physical capacities”—repairing buildings that had no roofs, electricity or running water—had to be addressed before any educational progress could be made.

Yet the challenge of recruiting and training an educated faculty will likely prove the harder problem. War and turmoil have eroded the country’s brain trust. Only about 30 percent of the current higher education faculty have master’s degrees or higher. “In terms of human capacities, it is very difficult,” Fayez said. “We are waiting for the new generation of academics, in about three or four years. We would like to draw more Afghan expatriates to come teach.”

Low wages make recruitment difficult. Teacher pay is about $70 a month, far below a subsistence wage. Most teachers work second jobs, Wahab says, and he notes that the abysmal pay within the nation’s civil service makes employees vulnerable to bribery.

The country is working with an annual budget of $80 million for the entire educational system. (Wahab can contrast that with Lewis & Clark College’s annual budget: $92 million for 3,000 students.) The Afghan ministry spends, on average, less than $250 per student per year, Wahab says. Most of that money—65 percent—goes to housing and feeding students who, because they live more than 40 kilometers from campus, qualify for free room and board. Wahab hopes to introduce a sliding-scale tuition system to help cover some of those costs. The free higher-education-for-all system is noble, but simply can’t sustain itself, he says. Such a change will be “very unpopular,” he admits. “But it will happen.”

In Wahab’s months in Kabul, Afghanistan’s broken society has taken its toll on his optimism and determination. The risks increase as his prominence grows and unrest continues.

“It’s a serious challenge. It’s trying,” he says. “But also there is the hope and the desire to make a difference. Otherwise, what is the point of being alive? I want to live a life worth living. It’s something I have to do and want to do.”


ANGIE CHUANG, ’95, MA '95, is a reporter for the Oregonian in Portland.