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At the head of the class when pay is a pittance Add to ...

Even as a small boy, Abdul Baqi dreamed of being a teacher.

"I love this job," he said. "I do this for my happiness."

Yet he gave up his dream job and went on strike this month, joining thousands of other teachers in Kandahar who boycotted classes for three days because their salaries were unpaid.

His income is so tiny that he cannot afford to buy meat or milk for his family.

"We're only eating bread and water and yogurt," the 43-year-old teacher said.

"I've talked to many teachers and nobody can afford meat. Some teachers have not tasted milk for many months."

His salary is equal to just $50 (Canadian) a month, an amount so humble that he is forced to rely on a share of his father's income in order to feed his wife and four children. Even this small salary is usually delayed or not paid at all. Last month he received a delayed salary for March, and he is waiting for his April wages, also overdue.

Most teachers in Kandahar have not been paid in two or three months. Many are ready to quit their jobs because of the low salaries and delayed payments, a move that would send Afghanistan spiralling into further decline.

"If the teachers leave their jobs, the children will take up guns," Mr. Baqi said.

"The country will be just like before. Everyone will take up guns again," Mr. Baqi said.

On a trip to Kandahar this month, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay boasted that its schools are a major achievement in Canada's policy of helping Afghanistan with soldiers and money. Yet a closer look reveals a different picture.

During the past five years, Canada has spent almost $110-million to subsidize the operating costs of the Afghanistan government, including teachers' salaries. This is just part of a $650-million Canadian aid package for Afghanistan. But the money has never reached the impoverished teachers of Kandahar.

Mr. Baqi believes the foreign aid is siphoned off into the pockets of senior bureaucrats and politicians.

"Canada is helping, but it's only giving money to the thieves," he said. "Maybe they give something to the government, but they give nothing to the teachers."

Until two years ago, Mr. Baqi was a refugee in Pakistan. After the fall of the Taliban regime, he decided to return to his homeland.

"Everyone said there was peace in Afghanistan," he said. "I was very happy. I thought it would be good here. But now I see it's very different."

Mr. Baqi agonized over the decision to go on strike. In the end, he felt he had no choice.

"For three days we closed the school," he said. "We were all here, but we didn't teach. We feel very bad about it. But if they don't pay us, we'll do it again."

His students agreed with his decision to go on strike.

"We support the teachers," said Ehsanullah, a 16-year-old student in Mr. Baqi's English class. "They should have justice."

The Afghan government recently promised to help teachers by raising salaries by an extra $10 a month, in addition to allocating small plots of land for them. But in Kandahar, the land never arrived, and the salary increase has not materialized.

"They are always making promises, but they do nothing," Mr. Baqi said.

Many teachers are forced to take second jobs to survive.

Jamillah, 37, who teaches chemistry and biology at a teacher-training college, has not received her salary since March. Her headmaster is collecting donations from the staff to help the poorest teachers.

"If we didn't support these teachers, they would have no food on their tables," she said.

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