Introduction: At first, I wasn’t even sure the Baroness was real.
It was the summer of 2011, and I was spending a lot of time at Marefat High School in the Hazara suburbs of west Kabul. I was working with students and teachers there to create and illustrate a bilingual book for Afghans. It was a fun project of my own that began with a personal hobby of collecting and translating Afghan Proverbs.
The students at Marefat sometimes would refer in passing to a mysterious British woman they called “Amah Frances” (Auntie Frances). عمه فرانسیس Other times they called her “Alee Janab” (Her Excellency). جناب عالی
I first dismissed “Auntie Frances" and "Alee Janab” as a simple childhood fantasy, perhaps based on some foreign visitor who had once toured the school. But I could not have been more wrong.
When I finally asked Marefat High School founder and Afghan educator Aziz Royesh who “Auntie Frances” was, he told me the amazing story of Frances Gertrude Claire D’Souza.
I learned from my friend and colleague Aziz that shortly after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the Baroness appeared without warning in the back alleys of Kabul's impoverished Dashti Barchi district. At that time Marefat High School was little more than an idea. But the Lady D’Souza immediately recognized the potential of a local dream.
Aziz Royesh and his mostly-Hazara neighborhood wanted to build an advanced, progressive, community-led high school that would include both boys and girls. So as a private and personal initiative, the Baroness D’Souza became the key international patron in the founding and growth of Marefat High School.
Since that time, Marefat High School has evolved from a few huts, 30 students and the good idea of an Afghan community to a national role model for the future of Afghan education. Today it has over 3000 students, 167 teachers, three large buildings, and a progressive curriculum. Marefat High School also has created a robust adult literacy program with more than 300 students enrolled.
The Baroness D’Souza is many things. She is a Life Peer in the House of Lords. She is a trained anthropologist and professor who has done extensive scientific field work under primitive conditions in the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Southeast Asia. She has a special interest in human rights, women’s empowerment, and development issues. She studied anthropology at University College London, earned her Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Oxford, and taught anthropology for seven years at the London School of Economics and Oxford Brookes University.
The Baroness has a reputation for tackling everything she does with great energy and charm. She has served as Director of the REDRESS Trust, an organization that assists torture victims around the world and holds their torturers accountable. For almost a decade she was Executive Director of the organization Article 19, and led the charge to protect global freedom of information and expression. She worked for several years as a researcher at the Nuffield Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition, and has worked as an independent research consultant for the United Nations.
In addition, Baroness D’Souza has served as a Trustee for a variety of other human rights and development organizations. She is a recipient of the The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG), an order of chivalry awarded by the Queen to men and women who render extraordinary or important non-military service in a foreign country.
Baroness D’Souza has a long-standing interest and personal history in Afghanistan. In 1983, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, she visited a variety of Afghan provinces to conduct a survey of food shortages and to determine where food aid might be needed most. To this day she continues her strong support of Marefat High School and its groundbreaking educational initiatives in Afghanistan.
Film Annex: Your Ladyship, thank you for the privilege of speaking with you about your support of Marefat High School and education in Afghanistan. Marefat truly has become a role model for the future of Afghan education.
Baroness Frances D’Souza: Thank you, Edward. But the privilege is mine to be able to tell people about the heroic work of Afghan schools such as Marefat. The hardest part is building and operating schools in Afghanistan, and that is being done largely by Afghans. It’s great to see such commitment to a brighter future for Afghanistan through education and literacy. Afghan educators generally just need a small hand up from the international community to get started. I try to do what I can to help.
FA: The story of how you helped found Marefat High School in 2002 has become legend in Kabul’s Dashti Barchi neighborhood and far beyond it. How did you discover Marefat? What inspired you to become its leading patron?
Baroness D’Souza: In the immediate post-Taliban world, I travelled to Kabul as a Governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in order to see if there was anything useful the Foundation might do. During this visit, I was introduced to Afghan educator Aziz Royesh by BBC journalist William Reeve.
Aziz was amazingly impressive in his energy and vision, and in his absolute determination to build a school. He wanted to build a school in which not only could girls be educated to the highest standard, but also a school that was safe enough to allow parents to even send their daughters! This was one of the major obstacles in the months following the routing of the Taliban in October 2001.
Since that time, Marefat High School has grown dramatically to over 3000 students, 200 faculty and staff, and three large buildings. And its capabilities for teaching and learning are an example for everyone, both inside and outside Afghanistan.
FA: Marefat receives strong support from the local community, and as you say it is considered by many to be a top role model for Afghan education. What makes Marefat so special?
Baroness D’Souza: Having worked in development of one sort or another for many years, I had come to the conclusion that aid is most effective when it supports and strengthens what is already present in a community. Aziz and his Marefat vision was a prime example of this. In 2002 he already was running a tiny but growing school under the most severe conditions.
On receiving the first tranche of money I sent him, Aziz did a brilliant thing. He used the money to repair a building and put heating in. This drew almost the entire community in on the long and cold Kabul winter evenings. He used this ‘captive’ audience, who just recently had been deeply traumatized under Taliban rule, to reassure parents and involve them in the idea of education for all the children. He also started adult literacy classes.
The school is more than a physical structure. It is an idea, an educational model and a resource for the community. It is owned by the community, and was largely built by the community. This also allows very small amounts of money to go a long way.
FA: You and your daughter, journalist and British Vogue contributing editor Christa D’Souza, have sponsored several large charity events in London to support Marefat and Afghan education. The support you received reminds us of a famous Afghan Proverb: Nekee-kun ba daryaa beeandaaz. (Do good, and throw your goodness in the river.) نیکی کن به دریا بینداز
This Zarbul Masal (Afghan Proverb) ضرب المثل means that people should help others without expecting material reward, and that is what you and your supporters do. How can more people become involved in supporting Afghan education? Why is it important?
Baroness D’Souza: We need to inform as wide a public as we can what education can do for Afghanistan in general, and what Marefat has achieved in particular – it is a truly amazing success story. Most people really do want to contribute to making the world a better place, even if only in a small way. But sometimes they don’t know where to start. The key is helping them identify effective targets for their support, like Marefat and Afghan education, and then showing them how they can help.
FA: In 2004 you were appointed as a life peer for your work in human rights and international development, and you joined the UK Parliament’s House of Lords. But your new role in government did not slow down your personal charitable efforts. What other personal causes do you support?
Baroness D’Souza: Since I was elected as the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords in July 2011 I have to adopt a politically neutral approach so that I can serve all the political groupings in Parliament. Accordingly, I stepped down from many trusts and boards at that time.
However, I can and do act personally to further the aims of human rights and development. I use my international ‘ambassadorial’ role to speak to Commonwealth and other countries, especially transitional democracies, about the vital importance of education for women and girls.
FA: You are known for many adventures around the world in your anthropological and charity work. One writer called you “The Happy Baroness,” and even said you had once “outrun a hippopotamus.”
Cheerful titles aside, hippos are faster than they look. They have land speeds of up to 40 kph (25 mph). What is your favorite personal adventure story? What makes you happy about Afghanistan? And is the story about the hippo true?
Baroness D’Souza: (laughs) I have no idea where the hippo story comes from – it certainly isn’t true! However, I did spend some time living in trees with a catwalk strung between them in Malaysia when doing anthropological research there in the 1970s. When there was a massive thunderstorm with lightning (and there were many) I had to descend a rope ladder, crouch on the forest floor, and hope the resident tiger was not doing his rounds that day!
What makes me happy about Afghanistan? Perhaps one of the most engaging aspects of Afghanistan is that it is a country of proud people who have never been colonized. They meet whoever comes to their country as an equal, and they share a wonderful sense of humour. The country itself is breathtakingly beautiful: as one of many examples, the road journey to Bamiyan passes through patches of paradise.
FA: What impresses you most about the Afghan students you have met at Marefat High School?
Baroness D’Souza: Without a doubt, what impresses me most is their will and determination to learn and succeed and to be leaders in their country. There is absolutely no question of ‘dropping out’ of school. Each and every child at Marefat seizes the opportunity to learn and to contribute. It is quite humbling to see such passion for learning and self-improvement.
The adult literacy program at Marefat also is a very successful additional project. It has over 300 students between the ages of 15-49, and about 85% of them are female. I view literacy in Afghanistan, especially women’s literacy, as one of the most vital efforts for Afghanistan there can be. Education and literacy is the key to a brighter future for all Afghans.
Marefat also has a host of extracurricular activities for the students: a radio station called Radio Marefat, a monthly student journal called Ayena-e-Marefat, a wonderful art program and gallery, a music department, a filmmaking education program, and of course a library. It’s a wonderful and inspiring place.
Can Internet access and social media education contribute to women’s empowerment in Afghanistan and other developing countries?
Baroness D’Souza: Of course, and it already is doing so. Personal connections between people in developed and developing countries is of enormous benefit. Social media is unstoppable, and it will soon enable children even in the remoter areas of the world to have access to education. They can easily travel the entire world and learn about it from right there in their own classrooms and homes.
People-to-people connections are so important. These connections bring understanding at the human level between different nations and cultures. The Internet and social media can help do that worldwide. Most people in the world have far more in common with each other than they realize.
FA: What is your personal message to the Afghan people, especially Afghan youth?
Baroness D’Souza: Your country is beautiful, your people are resourceful, and you have many riches. Make sure you look after them and bring Afghanistan into the international community of democracies.
More of Edward Zellem's interviews with Afghan celebrities and thought leaders are coming soon.