By Hussein al-Yasiri in al-Samawa (ICR No. 222, 29-May-07)
The village of Ghadhari, in the province of Muthanna, has never had a school. "We hoped [after Saddam's fall] that any new government would listen to our desire for [one]," said Sheikh Dhager al-Hashim from the al-Ziyad tribe, the largest in this long neglected part of southwest Iraq.
A month, a year went by, a few American and other coalition troops passed through, new governors took office in Samawa, the capital of the predominantly Shia province. But nothing happened in Ghadhari.
Until Sheikh Dha ger al-Hashim and his tribesmen did something unusual for Iraq, where there is a tradition of waiting for the government to solve any given problem. Locals - who scrape a living breeding sheep and camels, growing a few crops, making bricks and occasional smuggling - took matters into their own hands and built a school of mud and wood, the al-Hudaibiya primary school.
It has just a handful of classrooms, the windows have no panes and there's little in the way of furniture, but it represents progress in impoverished Ghadhari where most people are illiterate. "I paid for the school, and [villagers] helped with the construction," said a proud al-Hashim.
The whole village contributes to the running of the new school. Local families provide teachers - who are in short supply - with food and sometimes accommodation; and the sheikh pays the taxi fares for staff who commute from Samawa, 35 kilometres away.
Such self-reliance appears to stem from years of being ignored by the central authorities. This is a forgotten land, with no oil reserves, holy site, nor important road that has ever attracted the attentions of the ruling elite.
In Saddam's time, thousands of Kurds and Shia critical of the Sunni dictatorship were held in prison camps in the region.
Like his predecessors, the former dictator had little time for Muthanna. One of the few things that Saddam was praised for by the international community was raising education standards across the country, but he allocated little money to schools here.
What Ghadhari locals can't afford to provide themselves they seek from other sources and vainly hope that officials in Samawa will help them.
School furniture, such as desks and blackboards, are borrowed from other schools. And the school manager, Mohammed Chaffat, says he's asked the education authorities in Samawa to pay for the repair of the ceiling, which recently collapsed because of heavy rains and stormy winds - but has had no response.
Hulayel Jabbar, 16, a fourth grade student, says that despite there being a lot of problems, local kids are keen to go to school.
"Some of the [students] have to stand because there are not enough desks. When the weather is bad, [because the ceiling collapsed] we don't go to school since the teachers don't turn up either. Also the classrooms are very close together, so the teacher of the first grade annoys the teacher of the fourth grade. But even with all the difficulties, the students are enthusiastic," said Hulayel.
Conditions are no better at the several dozen other "mud schools" in the area, which have been built by local communities who, like the Ghadhari villagers, have lost patience with the authorities' seeming reluctance to address their education needs.
"[Some schools] are just tents, covered by woven camel-wool! One hundred and twenty are in need of reconstruction - 16 are close to total collapse," said Abdul Hussein Jawad, planning manager at the Muthanna education office.
The post-Saddam Iraqi government pledged to overhaul the school system in the country, by providing free education for all and building new schools and educational institutes.
But the new authorities have made little progress, with much of the work in the educational development field being done by international organisations.
The situation in rural areas is particularly bad. The ministry of education promised to pay teachers extra for travel costs, but according to Jawad, "These amounts do not cover half of what the teachers pay for transportation and other expenses!"
There's an urgent need for a school building programme in the countryside because ever since Ottoman times, the geographic distribution of schools has been unfair, said Furkan Faisal, a professor at the College of Education at Muthanna University. For instance, he said, there are 63 primary schools in Mosul but only four in Diwaniya province.
But everywhere schools are in bad shape, with most lacking drinking water and toilets - conditions in Samawa being he worst among the country's 18 provinces, according to ministry of education statistics.
Apart from the distribution of schools and their general state of disrepair, another big problem is the unwillingness of parents, especially in rural areas, to send their daughters to school - which has contribiuted to high levels of illiteracy among women.
Mohammed Hasson, 45, a teacher at Dar al-Salam school in Samawa, says narrow-minded and backward attitudes are gaining ground in many areas, which dictate that once a "girl gets married, she has no need of education because she should take care of her husband and her house".
However, there are grounds for some optimism in this forgotten corner of southwest Iraq.
Hasan Fadhlalah Ma'ala, director general of school buildings at the ministry of education in Baghdad, says the ministry has commissioned a plan to replace the region's mud schools with modern buildings - although he says there are still a number of security and financial problems to overcome. He estimated the cost would come to one billion US dollars, and that it would take a year to replace all the local schools.
While the people of Samawa await developments, at least one of their problems is being resolved - the teacher shortage. In the past, kids from rural areas would have to bussed to city schools. But now because of the deteriorating security situation in urban areas, teachers are willing to work in relatively peaceful villages.
Hussein al-Yasiri is an IWPR trainee.