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Herat, Afghanistan...fighting for playgrounds here

Keith Reynolds is on his third visit to Afghanistan, representing Playground Builders, a Canadian charity NGO that creates safe play areas for children in war torn areas of Iraq, the Palestinian Territories and Afghanistan.

Keith takes notes in Herat.

Keith sent this dispatch, from Herat...

In a country where the Taliban pays $10 a day, we pay $7 plus lunch. But our workers go home safely at the end of the day and they learn new skills while building a gift for the future -- a playground for their own children.

We're in Herat to organize our first playgrounds in this region. We travel without security. We are always called Americans and often mistaken for soldiers.

Herat is relatively secure, for Afghanistan that is. An attack four days earlier on the UN building left seven attackers dead. The night before we arrived, a roadside bomb killed its target plus other family members. A local friend of ours visited the morgue to pay respects to his newly married 22-year-old friend. 

A volleyball team at Herat's Melika Jalali high school talks about a new court 

Keith continues...

We've been well received.  But one special Afghan Canadian, Kalil, has been a big help. His family is one of the most well-connected families here.

On the first night we were guests at a party. Dining at the table beside us were the governor of Herat, the provincial commander of the Afghanistan army, the provincial commander of the national police, U.N. officials and others who can help fast track our projects. We were dining with high value targets. Security was tight. 

Children in prison

We visited the Herat prison. Men are in one section and women and their children in another. What was designed for 600 inmates now has 2,100 including 120 women and 75 children who stay with their mothers. Prison, especially for women with children, has been forefront in Western media and, due to this, their living areas are much better than the average woman in Afghanistan. Most of these women prisoners would not have broken any Canadian law.

Keith and fellow director Kirby Brown pay their own way. All the money Playground Builders raises goes to playgrounds. They estimate that one percent of Afghan kids use playgrounds their charity has built.

More on Playground Builders

Keith is one of the 50 finalists out of almost 2,000 nominees in CBC-TV's Champions of Change.

The children have a playground that they're not allowed to use.

The general/warden says the 10-foot cement wall topped with three feet of razor wire is a "security issue."

He also tells us that the pump used to water the grounds is broken. Without it, the children are too dirty when they go back to their mothers' cells.

So the gate to the courtyard is locked. I think he's holding the children hostage until we replace the pump.

He was only to happy to show an area where the prison staff and their families live and point out how badly these free children need a playground. These kids leave freely and go to nearby schools.

The children prisoners? At six the boys leave; it's nine for the girls. They go to extended families or to orphanages. The girls have it much better here, and most appear happy to be interacting as one big family. The boys conditions are no so good. We immediately ordered covers for the septic wells that stick up out of the ground where they play. Thirty-four bucks well spent.

Out in the countryside

We were driven to remote villages in the area. Along the road we see red painted rocks, the sign for active land mines; white rocks are cleared areas. Some kids run from us in terror;  adults stare. We keep moving. Some areas have no electricity and water is gathered at communal wells or drawn from streams. One school built of mud and straw is more than 70 years old, one of the oldest in the province. Some of its buildings have collapsed, and some classes are taught in the open.

For the 1,600 boys we will install soccer and volleyball equipment and a playground. One thing we've learned on this trip is to take boys' needs more seriously. Most of the western attention, and a lot of our previous work, has been focused on girls -- so cute and so often left behind.

Aid has been so geared to helping Afghan girls that now the boys are falling behind in many of the school and recreation programs

Now it's boys who've been neglected. Most have nowhere to burn off all that energy. For many of them, it won't be long before they will have to work, and there'll be no time for play.

We plan four new pilot projects around Herat, before we return to Kabul, where most of our playgrounds are. Overall, they average about $9,000 each.

When we get down to business here, the first job is to engage local contractors who will be responsible to source materials, build and install equipment and warranty their work. Four different contractors have bid on our first four projects. Negotiations take hours, and each usually involves at least two rounds. They quickly learn that we're not a big aid agency giving big money away. Prices come down. We select the builder and project manager. Work begins within days. 

Cultural adjustments

We've had to make a few cultural adjustments here. In one of our playgrounds in a very traditional village we had to remove the teeter totters. There was fear that they could rupture a girl's hymen. This would have devastating effects on the girl's future concerning marriage and family honour.

We don't paint the playgrounds with UN blue. Originally, at the locals' request, we used the flag colours. But comments about putting one's rear end on the flag made us change to bright mixed colours.

With millions of girls returning to school since the fall of the Taliban, literacy has risen from 12% to 28%. One of our playgrounds in Kabul is at a school for 14,000 girls rotating through in three different shifts. In a country where 43% of the population is under the age of 14 and life expectancy is just 44 years, a lot of nation-building decisions will be made by this very young population.

I'll return to Herat to see the completed pilot projects. Kalil, our Afghan-Canadian friend has been so taken by the instant improvements in the outlook for the children' s future that he personally volunteered to oversee these new projects. He's giving back to his first country. Together we can help. 

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