Thoughts for Thanksgiving

By Stan Stalla | Nov 24, 2010

Not long ago, I was driving up Belfast’s Miller Street, toward the pond and Hannaford’s, beyond. A lady in an iridescent yellow vest stepped into a neatly painted crosswalk, palm outstretched authoritatively in my direction. Three school friends, each toting a book bag, chatted nonchalantly as they traversed the dozen or so steps needed to reach the opposite corner.

As I watched this orderly scene, my mind traveled back nine time zones to another small town, where the flood waters of the Kabul River had ripped apart classrooms, clogged irrigation canals and deposited more than two feet of silt on the surrounding fields of ripening sugarcane. There had been a handful of deaths, when the river rose 15 feet during a dark night in late July. Leaving their meager household belongings, parents scooped up small children and fled to higher ground.

The American people, as is our custom, quickly mobilized a massive humanitarian response. We shipped thousands of tons of food to fill hungry bellies, as well as materials to construct makeshift shelters and experts to assess the damage to health clinics, schools, roads and bridges, and an extensive network of maize, wheat and rice fields. Our soldiers ferried supplies by helicopter to dozens of remote villages in the Karakoram Mountains, no longer reachable on washed-out roads. I joined a team of civilian humanitarians, working with local and international organizations to get in relief supplies and start the rebuilding process.

Security in Pakistan is dicey these days, so it took almost a week to organize a one-day trip to the District of Charsadda — one of the areas of Pakistan hit early on when flash floods swept out of the mountains. In fact, a trip to the nearby Swat Valley had been canceled two weeks previously, when cross-border NATO incursions raised the level of threat in an already volatile zone.

But, strictly adhering to the normal procedures of armed police escorts, we set out one day to assess the progress of villagers who had been receiving food aid — a bare-bones diet of wheat, lentils, oil, sugar and salt intended to keep people alive until they began to regain their economic footing.

Entering the village, our first sight was a high school that had been split in half by the flood waters. Part of the concrete roof tilted at a precarious angle. Villagers had shoveled muck out of classrooms, where it was easy to see how high the muddy waters had reached by a dirty straight line on the walls. Signs of flood-induced rot could be seen at the base of nearby sugarcane stalks, and farmers predicted a harvest that would be a small percentage of the normal yield. We walked down a muddy alleyway, both sides bordered by crumbled mud-brick walls.

At once, a local Pakistani aid worker took my elbow and guided me around a corner. “I want to show you something never before seen in this village.” We stopped at a mud-brick building, indistinguishable from any other along the narrow lane. A small, dark rectangular hole, higher than me, allowed the only light to enter a room, shut from the world by a closed heavy wooden door still speckled with the remains of the receding waters. The sound of voices became still as the aid worker leaned against the door, gesturing for me to enter.

As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I made out the shapes of small figures seated cross-legged on a dirt floor. As many as 50 pairs of wide, dark eyes — surrounded by the headscarf typical of the Muslim countries of South Asia — stared at me in silence. My breathing adjusted to the heavy air, several degrees hotter than the alleyway I had left. Turning to my right, I saw a young woman with spectacles, modestly covered by her flowing shawl. In her hand was a wooden pointer, and letters in Urdu were neatly written on a crude chalkboard in the corner.

Though an unexpected guest, I was invited to greet the young girls seated at my feet. Not sure if they could understand English, but encouraged by my Pakistani colleague, I said, “Good morning. How are you?” Silence. Next, I tried, “What are you studying?” More silence. Finally, I asked, “Do you know English?” When one girl shyly smiled at me, I said, “My name is Stan, and what is your name?” When she told me hers, the ice was broken, and more girls offered names and ages, and also some smiles. It seemed that many of these elementary school girls did indeed understand some English.

Mindful of the armed guards and my aid colleagues waiting around the corner, I knew it was time to get on with my work. I thanked the teacher for her hard work, told the girls that “I am from America, and am so happy that you girls are learning to read, just like the girls in my country. Please work hard and respect your teacher…” And that’s when I heard a deep voice behind me whisper, “Stan, we must go … now.”

Another hand, this time belonging to my American security guard, guided my elbow. We left the hot, dark classroom filled with girls in headscarves seated in neat rows on an earthen floor, and re-entered the sunlit world of donkeys clomping along alleyways and men with beards cleaning out flooded irrigation canals. In these circumstances, we foreigners must never stay too long in one spot. Especially those of us representing the United States government. Especially someone naïve enough to mention that he is an American.

Those were the thoughts that flickered through my mind as I watched the three kids in front of me saunter across Miller Street, then saw the lady with the bright yellow vest retreat to her corner. I think, now, of Greg Mortensen and his "Three Cups of Tea." What a world apart our countries are: we, on the peaceful East Coast of the United States, and those who live within 100 miles or so of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border — one of the most volatile places on earth.

Fifty girls clad in head scarves and long, flowing garb, seated on a mud floor. A sweltering, dark, classroom. Likely to return home to a simple meal of rice and lentils, perhaps cooked over an open fire in an open courtyard, surrounded by crumbled mud-brick walls. The first time ever for girls from that village to attend school. Something to ponder, as I look forward to turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy.

Stan Stalla writes from various locations about his experiences around the world. He is currently in the United States, and will be going overseas again soon.

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