MarySmith’sPlace – School visit and my first foreign language joke – Afghanistan adventures#43

Lal-sar-Jangal November 1989

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Pics are a bit random this week as I need to scan more. Yes, that is a telephone wire running across the countryside!

The headmaster had asked Qurban to bring me to see the village school. Although our organisation did not provide financial support directly to schools, we acted as couriers for donor organisations in Germany, delivering funds and sending back reports and funding requests. In this way we had quite strong links with several schools. The school in Lal had been open for several years and, although it was only for boys plans were in place to open classes for girls the following year, when new school premises had been built.

Ibrahim was to accompany us, for which I was glad. He, more than any of the other staff, had the ability to understand what I was trying to say, even when it was coming out all wrong.  When I had difficulties understanding something, it was Ibrahim who could usually find a different way to phrase things until the meaning was clear.  When we were ready to leave Qurban said, ‘You go on ahead. I’ll catch you up when I finish some work here.’

I followed Ibrahim out of the compound to where our horses awaited and Rahimy joined us, just before we reached the school, riding up sporting a magnificent turban.

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The headmaster, standing at the doorway of the school was clearly upset by Qurban’s non-appearance – having two lowly field assistants as guests, instead of the big “doctor” was an insult.  On behalf of Qurban, Rahimy apologised, delivering the message about him having ‘too much work’.  Ibrahim spoke to him in a placatory way. Finally, he shrugged and led us into the two-roomed school.

The boys could study only up to Class Five. When the new building was ready the students would be able to continue their studies further. At that time – 1989 – only Jaghoray had the means of allowing students to study right up to Class Twelve – the final year before higher education.


The rough mud walls were hung with work done by the children; a large colourful map of Afghanistan which showed all the mountain ranges and rivers, posters of birds and flowers, and the alphabet – both English and Dari. In the first room three groups of junior boys sat cross legged in a circle on the floor. I spotted Bashir and Khadeem giggling amongst their friends. The class had been rehearsing something to recite to their guest. Exactly what that something was, I could only guess – it was delivered in such a garbled rush. It may have been multiplication tables.

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Through a low archway, in the second room, the higher group were sitting, expectantly facing a blackboard. The headmaster chalked up a few maths problems and chose one or two boys to come and solve them. Ibrahim nodded approvingly by my side so I assumed they must have got the sums right and smiled encouragingly as the boys returned to their places.  I made a little speech, previously rehearsed with Ibrahim’s help, on the importance of education. It was greeted with a round of applause before I was asked to write the English alphabet on the board. I’ve never been very good at writing on a chalk board and I’m sure my efforts were a bit disappointing.

The headmaster borrowed “my” horse to warn the cook we were about to arrive for lunch.  We walked the few hundred yards to the teachers’ room, making a detour to inspect the progress of the new school building. It was going to be a fine building when completed and everyone was very proud of it. The teachers’ house was one large room in which they all ate, slept, prepared lessons and marked school work. It was already packed with mujahideen, including the two leading Commanders who, of course, must be invited to any special occasion. Books were piled around the room and each teacher had a locked tin trunk in which to store personal belongings.

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Pictures – the inevitable Swiss mountain scene and the little boy with the Kalashnikov I’d seen everywhere – and maps adorned the walls. Studying a map of the world I was incensed to discover Scotland had been depicted as part of England.  Ibrahim laughed when I muttered crossly about this to him – he’d already heard me explain to various people Scotland was not the same as England.

After lunch one of the Commanders asked about the point I had made regarding Scotland and England. ‘Do you mean the Scottish people are under the control of the English?’

Realising I was unable to fully explain the British political system, I agreed this was true. He asked, ‘Do the Scottish people not want freedom?’

By now, everyone was listening intently to the conversation.  ‘Many Scottish people want freedom from the English government. They want to have their own government in Scotland.’

‘Oh, I see – like the Irish?  Bobby Sands?  But I never heard of any fighting in Scotland?’

‘No, the Scottish people are trying to win their freedom through politics, through talks and agreements. They are not fighting with bombs and bullets. We don’t have Kalashnikovs.’

‘Why don’t your people fight? Can you not buy Kalashnikovs in your country?’

Laughingly, I replied, ‘I think nearly all the Kalashnikovs in the world are with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Maybe you have some to spare, now that the Russians have gone?’

Everyone shouted with laughter. I felt inordinately proud my first attempted joke in Dari, delivered in public, had gone down so well. I was not quite so sure when, as we were putting our boots on by the door, the Commander drew me aside to ask quietly how many Kalashnikovs I thought would be necessary – and would Stingers be useful?

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Schools for girls have opened since I was there

45 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – School visit and my first foreign language joke – Afghanistan adventures#43

  1. Wow, different cultures with different perspectives to say the least. Good for you for making a successful joke. It shows your understanding of both the language and the culture. I hope you never were contacted by the government for delivery of said items.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You missed out on the chance to become a famous arms dealer and freedom fighter. But I can’t imagine you manning a barricade in Dumfries with a rocket launcher on your shoulder, somehow.
    I feel sorry for those poor donkeys every time I see what they are forced to carry!
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, Pete, if hordes of tourists from down south start bringing Covid-19 back to Scotland, I might be tempted to man a barricade at the border! As for the donkeys – sometimes they had to carry me! I found a photo the other day – must get some more scanned, even if they are not from my first tour of duty.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It was a case of be careful what you wish for!! It was a good joke. So often jokes do not translate well in another language. Visiting schools would have been a good experience, one I would have liked.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stunned! I’ve been so impressed from earlier excerpts that you were actually living in Afghanistan for so long. The conditions around you have also been an eye-opener. But to have been in the company of mujahideen and made jokes? Wow! Kudos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you are finding these posts enjoyable. In 1989, the Soviets had just left Afghanistan so there were mujahideen everywhere. I was working for a tiny organisation in a very remote area so ‘my’ mujahideen Commanders were not the powerful ones Western journalists got to interview. It was a fascinating time and I feel really privileged to have been able to spend so much time there.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: MarySmith’sPlace – School visit and my first foreign language joke – Afghanistan adventures#43 | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  6. What a wonderful joke, Mary. 😉 One can see the difference in thinking in the Western world, and there. Living for decades in war it seems one can not understand solving conflicts without the power of weapon. Education is the only way, as its possible in a peaceful environment. A wonderful episode, showing me how fearfull i would have been in your place there. I am no pacifist, but surrounded by Kalashnikovs – without have one for my own – had mad me very anxious. Michael

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Michael, glad you enjoyed the joke. We tried to make it a rule no staff member could carry arms at work. I remember Hussain arguing with me because he said maybe thieves would come to steal the clinic’s medicines and he needed to have a Kalashnikov to defend against them. I said it was better to hand over the medicines than for him to be shot dead trying to protect them – and still the thieves would take the medicines. Better he was still alive and could continue to work. It was never an argument I was going to win but I had to try 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I chuckled at the joke, and was laughing at his serious request as to how many rifles and missiles Scotland would need to fight off the English scourge. 🙂

    The post was great, but the replies to this post were fun to read, too.


  8. YOu definitely have to be careful what you wish for and say, Mary. Often, I talk to local people whose first language is one of our 9 official African languages and I think they understand me perfectly. They smile and agree, but over the years I’ve learned that this is polite so they smile and agree even if they haven’t a clue what I’ve just said.

    Liked by 1 person

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