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The word is out on school

Afghanistan. Television ads, billboards and word of mouth are the government's weapons in its campaign to get children back to school, reports Gordon Weiss

Fourteen comic actors are crowded into a small room with cracked floorboards adjoining Herat's trashed and looted municipal library, which the Taliban had turned into a karate and weight-lifting hall. It smells of old books long gone.

"Good evening, Abdullah," says Wahid, the father of six children.

"Good nothing," says Abdullah. "I'm poor, hungry and surrounded by screaming brats and sorting sheep's hair for a living. How was your day?"

"Wonderful, I registered my children for school," says Wahid.

"Ah, the idle rich, you make me sick. If only I was a carpet-weaver like you and could afford to waste my children's time," says Abdullah. "I can't afford the books."

"But the government is printing seven million textbooks, supplying notebooks, bags and pens. Send your children to school, then you can work in peace and they will have a better future," says Wahid.

This is the headquarters of Herat's only theatre company, founded in 1922 by a teacher but disbanded by the Taliban seven years ago. The group is just finishing shooting two television spots for the "Back to School" campaign on the city's only TV station.

The ads are being used to galvanise parents in the towns to send their children back to school before the start of lessons tomorrow.

But in rural areas - where hardly anyone can read or write and where radios broke down long ago, like everything else after two decades of war - the campaign must rely on more basic means.

"It's a very basic campaign," says Ershad Karim, of UNICEF. "We want to inspire that most potent Afghan form of communication - word of mouth. "We use cari-catures, humour, and the clear authority of the Koran to support the schooling of girls."

This is, he says, a devout society, "and we want to reach the villages, where resistance to girls' education is greatest".

In the first days of March, silhouettes of a boy and girl running to school with bags on their backs began to appear in Herat - on public buildings, bazaar shops, roadside stalls, bus stations and schools. House owners have been asked if their walls can be used to carry the message of a new school year in which education is available for all Afghan girls and boys. The simple message in Dari above the silhouette reads: "Let's Go and Learn."

More than 100,000 small poster-fliers have been printed, along with thousands of hand-painted banners and durable metal billboards. The materials carry lively caricatures drawn by a local artist to alert the illiterate to the nature of the written messages.

The text explains the registration dates and the education materials available for children. On the fliers and billboards the headlines read:

"Why did the Prophet say 'Go to China'?" (a reference to a Koranic verse in which the people are told to seek education where they can, even if they have to travel to China); "Why did the Prophet urge the education of all girls and boys?" (another Koranic reference); and "Why did God say 'Read!'?" (The first verse in the Koran exhorts the faithful to go forth and read).

The UNICEF garden and warehouse have been transformed into a production house, with tinsmiths hammering out stencils, local artists painting banners, and teams of workers setting out to paint walls, distribute fliers, and erect small billboards.

In a logistical operation mirrored throughout the country, the materials have been sent to local education authorities in the western region for distribution. Two-man teams of imam, or prayer leaders, are travelling to each district carrying the UNICEF-produced materials, and urging people to register their girls and boys for the new school year.

A UNICEF network of 2,000 volunteers has been trained to spread the education message, and they are carrying 50,000 poster-fliers to the villages.

In the village of Hendowan, eight-year-old Perigolm has registered for school for the first time. She cannot read the slogan but she understands the symbolism of the boy and the girl running hand-in-hand that has just been painted on a wall next to the main road to her village. "It's a happy cartoon. It's a brother and sister. They're going to school," she says.

Rasul, 70, who has three sons, all engineers, and two daughters who are doctors, is building a petrol station outside Herat. When asked if a UNICEF team can paint an education mural on his property, he points to a 100-metre wall facing the main road, and volunteers to have it painted white within a week so a much larger mural can be painted.

"If you foreigners are helping us like this, we must do all we can," he says.

No one is pretending education can be rebuilt overnight. It is going to be a long haul. Tens of thousands of teachers must be trained, and thousands of schools rehabilitated. But yesterday the school doors opened for a day of celebration and tomorrow all over the country classes will begin.

JOIN IN

To help get children back to school in Afghanistan, UNICEF desperately needs money to repair schools, train teachers and supply books and materials.

To get your pupils involved, visit www.tes.co.ukafghanistan for fund-raising and teaching ideas or read Ted Wragg in Friday magazine, 31

* Send us your ideas and tell us how your school is helping the appeal on afghanappeal@tes.co.uk

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