Friday, May 04, 2007

...and many happy returns.

I can count the days left on my fingers as this very long journey begins to wind down. Currently, we are in Afghanistan, working with an organization called Aschiana that runs soup kitchens and day centers for street working children all over Afghanistan, as well as a vocational training facility for older youth.

We are in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city to the north that is famous for a very large and very blue mosque claiming to be the final resting place of Mohamed’s son-in-law Ali. The mosque is painted with ornate decoration while fake plastic palm trees in various florescent colors line the marble courtyard and surrounding park. At night the whole mosque, including plastic palm trees is lit up like the Vegas strip.

The scene is enhanced by the always striking image of women beneath white burqas huddled in the few places of shade. Mazar is famous for the white burqa, while Kabul for the sky blue. I must say, despite myself, that the burqa can be visually stunning against the subdued hues of brown cobbled streets and unpainted houses.

The streets in Mazar are paved in sections of bumpy roads and then smooth concrete. The streets are lined by walls and long passageways that lead to more walls and doors. Colors are sparse, and after being India, they look tastefully simple. We are in a tall building, so we can peak into the courtyards surrounding us. Otherwise, life here is lived behind closed doors for the most part.

We performed a cut down version of the show we were doing for children in INDIA, as our group has gone from nine to three. We are performing in schools, orphanages, the Aschiana centers, and on Saturday the kindergarten! The children seem to really respond here, although you can tell they do not really know how to watch a show. Audience participation like clapping, etc is just not part of their socialization. Neither are some of the most basic things we take for granted like forming a line. The basic education classes attempt to instill these ideas while also focusing on literacy. Because the children work on the street for the most part and do not go to school, they can only spare an hour for education class. The extra enticement of a hot meal everyday gets about 120 children in the classroom for even a limited amount of time, a great accomplishment in my eyes.

Teaching workshops has been particularly noteworthy here because, right away, you can see the value in theatre games for teaching and improving coordination and listening skills. If given the time, space and consistency of a long term program, games with rules like “when I say 1:touch the wall, 2: touch the floor, 3: get in a circle 4: dance with a friend”, can decidedly help the everyday development of these children. In addition, we taught some of the vocational kids the games before hand so they could be the trainers when working with the children. It was so rewarding to see one woman take the class over and teach a game I had forgotten I had shown them.

We hope that they will take this into their lives in some way and more importantly that we can come back here after some time away. What a gift it would be to come back and see our trainings incorporated into their curriculum. Even to come back just to give them a smile would be such a blessing.

Life here feels very every day, a concept that is so hard to convey through emails and blogs. It’s hard for many to believe that a place that we hear about so frequently in the news can be a place of such normalcy. Of course, I am in the north, and look out of my bedroom window in the mornings to a rose garden. This place is of infinite wonder and contradiction to me, a place I would like to return to and a place I will never fully understand. Nor they me.

Ultimately, we hope that our work and our presence here has given people an alternative view to that they see on the news or in their streets. That there are Americans coming with roses in hand, instead of guns. I imagine that is what cultural exchange is all about; connections and questions, uncertainties and optimism, beginnings and hopefully many happy returns.