Seeing a Change in Kabul From a Beach in California

JAALA A. THIBAULT
Sunday, 03-June-2012
The author, center, with one of her students and his mother at their home in Kabul, Afghanistan, in January 2011.

 

Living on the beach in Southern California is a bit surreal. I wake to the crashing of waves, the chirping of birds. Each day I open my eyes, I cannot quite believe that I get to live in a place where the beauty seems unchangeable. But just the other day as I was running by a usually calm point, I noticed that the waves were breaking in a new place; with the turning of the seasons, a new sandbar had formed, providing fresh fun for the crop of surfers playing in the water. The hollering, happy people made the water prettier than I remembered it.
Though the small shifts in the ocean landscape here are almost imperceptible, each year I notice that this stretch of coast is changing. For better or worse, the water rises and the sands reform, no matter if people will them to or not. One day I am running by a placid patch of ocean; the next day the once-calm place is a thriving and wavy surf spot. Change takes time, but at some point it is right there lapping at your feet, and you can’t help but notice.
Afghanistan is much like the shifting sands and changing tides here on the beaches of Southern California. Though it is absent of all that is beach life, changes are happening slowly but consistently; though life seems as if it stays the same day to day, it is growing ever so slightly every second. I know this because I have seen small changes happen over the past couple of years. The changes I have witnessed are on a small scale, but that scale is an indication of what is happening in society. I return time after time to Kabul, because like the breathtaking changes I see in nature in Southern California, so too do I see amazing changes in Afghanistan. I can’t quite believe that I get to be a part of both.
The first time I went to Afghanistan was in 2010; I was on a 10-month teaching fellowship with the State Department. A stranger in a strange land, I fumbled through life trying to learn and absorb the culture just so I could gain enough footing to do my job and wear my head scarf correctly. I taught a few classes of English at the Education University and struggled to learn the students’ names during the first semester.
During the second semester I gained a few acquaintances and began working with some of my students who had graduated. All the students I worked with wanted to become teachers so they could “make the education system better.” One student said: “There is nothing else we can do but teach; if we can teach people in a different way, though, we have the answer. Teaching people to think differently will change everything in our society.” By the spring, two of those students had obtained scholarships to study teaching methods in India for a month. It was their first step in becoming professional teachers.
When I returned to Kabul in the winter of 2011-12, I was a friendly face in a familiar city. That time around, I spent a month training English teachers at the Education University. During the workshop I was conducting, it was announced that a master’s degree program in teaching English (taught in English) would be starting at the university. It would be the first of its kind in Afghanistan. Now the teachers I was training would have the opportunity to be students again. Those who already had their master’s degrees would become the teachers, and those who did not have advanced degrees would no longer have to look abroad to further their studies. Access to higher education had arrived.
When I return to Afghanistan this time, I will be training the same group of teachers I have been working with for the past two years at the Education University. I will be conducting a workshop on teaching writing. This time, though, the teachers will have to balance their time; they will be juggling their graduate studies and, for some, their teaching responsibilities.
Two of my students will be going through interviews, having made the final round of vetting for the Fulbright scholarship. Another of my students will be well on his way to India; he has been admitted to a two-year graduate program to study for his master’s degree in educational counseling.
Change happens slowly, but in my small world in Kabul, it has become hard to ignore that it has arrived. A friend of mine who is a student in the master’s program said: “Just a couple years ago, when you first arrived, we hoped that you could bring some supplies: dictionaries and books. We had a big dream that maybe you could build a computer lab. But what you brought was better: access to education. The gift of knowledge is greater than any material thing because now we can take what we have learned and teach more people. It doesn’t cost anything and can’t be taken away from us.”
Just as I admire the changing shores of Southern California and marvel at my good fortune in settling here, I will continue to be amazed at the changes that are taking place in the lives of my Afghan friends. Just two years ago they dreamed that I would bring them a new computer lab. Now we are friends and colleagues; we exchange stories and live through each other’s ups and downs. We will continue to grow and change, together.
Jaala A. Thibault taught English and trained teachers at Kabul Education University in 2010 and 2011 as part of the English Language Fellows Program under the State Department. She returns intermittently to Afghanistan to conduct teacher-training workshops. In the United States, she teaches English as a Second Language at Santa Barbara City College.

 



    

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