By: Somaya Mandgar
His name is Mohammad Mohsen Erfani. People affectionally call him “Master Mohsen.” He’s the young teacher who single-handedly revived an abandoned school in the farthest corner of Behsud district in Maidan Wardak province.
It’s been a gruelling first year for the school nestled in the heart of Baba mountain’s foothills, Mr Erfan says. Both he and his students have been completely exposed to the elements in the open air school. But yet still, they showed up.
Gholakdeh Valley is a very remote part of Behsud in the Sang Biron area. It is a mountain spot with difficult roads that has around 12 small and big villages in its heart. Until Mr Erfani’s efforts, there had been no easily-accessible school for the children in this area for a decade. Armed with merely an old tent, Master Mohsen rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
Jafaria Elementary School taught 51 male and female students this year.
“In 2012, 2013, this area had an elementary school registered by the Ministry of Education, but due to conflicts over oil, biscuits, teachers, and the lack of professional and educated teachers, it was closed,” Mr Erfani says.
Re-starting the school was a huge task for the 30-year-old. He had to contend with the resistance and conflict against the school from many locals, as well as revive local belief in the power of an education. Furthermore, he had to navigate and satisfy government bureaucracy.
When Master Mohsen started this work, he went to the people from the very beginning because he knew that it needed the support of the people of Gholakdeh Valley.
“After I decided to revive the school in this area, I came and addressed the things people felt were controversial about it, and convinced the people that school and studying are for everyone’s benefit,” he says. “It does not harm any religion, nation, or a specific group or tribe.”
Mr Erfani says that he has gone door to door to get people’s attention on their children’s education. Although now most people are on board with his work, there are still some who oppose it.
While 51 students completed the school year, at the beginning of the year there were 81 students enrolled.
The valley’s residents are generally from low income earning families and are mainly working in agriculture. From Mr Erfani’s point of view, the root of the chronic poverty has a bigger reason.
“The majority of the lands of these people have come under the ownership of the nomads and they’ve had to rent the lands at an exorbitant price,” he says. “Their surplus harvests are eaten by the nomads.”
What inspired Master Mosen to build a school?
Mr Erfani was born in this valley himself, and grew up committed to getting an education. He went to school five kilometres away from his home and ultimately completed a bachelor degree in sociology from Kabul University in 2018.
“I was a poor child in people’s homes and a broken down school, I finished my studies there with a thousand problems,” he says.
Before Mr Erfani returned to his hometown and started Jafaria elementary school, he taught in private schools in Kabul. The sociologist saw that the difference between the access of children in Kabul and the children of his hometown was not even comparable.
“I come from a half-farmer, half-livestock owner and poor family. I have had nothing but two bookshelves,” he says. “I believe that the only way to get rid of poverty and the sufferings caused by it, as well as the continuous cycle of oppression of these people, is in the culture building and expansion of the awareness of these people.”
He has paid a high price for his commitment to education with inadequate resources.
“I have experienced the pain and suffering of being away from home, travelling, and poverty with all its bitterness. My eyesight has been damaged from studying under inappropriate light, and my feet have suffered from rheumatism by the time I’ve spent in damp rented rooms.”
“I want others to suffer less to learn and be able to go to school near their home,” he adds.
After teaching in Kabul, Mr Erfani took a job as a mobile employee of the National Statistics and Information Authority in Behsud district under the Ghani government. It was then that he saw the absolute deprivation of his people.
“The people of this area are extremely poor, illiterate, and involved in constant internal conflicts, and this stubbornness and infighting have provided the opportunity for Pashtun nomads to use it against them,” he says.
Once he had enough support from the people, Mr Erfani tackled the government institutions in order to have it officially recognised and activate more administration and facilities. But the education directorate office of the district told him that the school had already collapsed years earlier and can’t be reactivated.
Mr Erfani did not give up. He went to a higher authority; the Education Directorate of Maidan Wardak province.
“They wanted to decide whether to approve or reject it based on the district authorities’ decision, in which I was the loser. But I insisted on getting the approval to establish a school. Finally, after a few months, with the intervention of a provincial council member and a member of the lower house, the approval of this matter was postponed to the members of the supervision Behsud district,” he says.
After much lobbying and pleading, the district governor of Behsud finally agreed to send a delegation to the school to investigate the needs of the people. Once they had done that, the board confirmed the necessity of a school. And the finally piece to the puzzle, the Ministry of Education gave its official approval for a school to begun, with one teacher and one assistant.
“The difficulty of my work was that we didn’t have anything in terms of textbooks and stationery,” he says. “We only had a torn tent and a few volumes of worn books. Then the Taliban government had just taken over the country and even less attention was paid to education,” he adds.
But Mr Erfani was not going to give up. He is a child of the mountains and he felt the pain of its people in his bones. “I was carrying books and stationery on my back,” he says. “I took the blackboard and other supplies with a wheelbarrow. I prepared the classrooms. I worked day and night for the school.”
Mr Erfani says that he has taken on many roles, including being both the teacher and the administrative manager of the school, all while pushing back against the critics. He still managed to start four classes for girls and boys.
“Here, due to a patriarchal environment, all the movements of women and girls are under the microscopic control of men,” he says. “At first, people were not ready to send their daughters to school. I went door to door and talked to the parents of female students and answered their concerns.”
Laiya, 30, has three children attending Jafaria Elementary School – one son and two daughters. In a telephone interview with Rukhshana Media, she says she cannot hide her happiness that her children could attend a local school.
“Thank God, there is someone who tried to activate the school,” she says. “Only this year, our children studied and did very well. They can now read letters.”
She calls Mr Erfran by the same title he has at the school, Master Mohsen. But she worries how he can continue his work without any facilities.
“Most children are studying while sitting in dirt. They don’t have anything. There is no shop here and it is far from the market,” she says.
Mr Erfan agrees that the lack of resources is a huge problem.
“My students cry for me to buy books and pens for them,” he says. “But we can’t afford it. They don’t have anything other than what the school gave them.”
Other parents are also deeply grateful. Ziagul, 20, is a married mother of one child and is so happy that now her child can attend school. As someone who calls herself illiterate, she is relieved her child will not have the same fate.
“When he (Mr Erfani) calls our phone, I can’t read his name. An illiterate person is blind,” she says.
According to Ziagul, Mr Erfani worked extremely hard to reactivate the school.
“Even when the roads were blocked here last winter, Master Mohsen went to the district center with great difficulty and worked to have the school reopened,” she says.
Despite the poverty and deprivation of the people, the harsh nature of the climate, and the difficult roads of the Gholakdeh Valley, Mr Erfani is hopeful for what can be done as more people believe in his work. He sees more education as a key to better progress and improvement of their quality of life.
“I plan to build a library,” he says. “And I am encouraging all residents of the villages of this region to be literate and read.”