Friday, August 30, 2013

Afghanistan: New Courage to Get Out the Vote thru Theatre

An update from the field from Olivia :

Hello from sunny - actually, a bit rainy today - Kabul, where we just finished a week of pre-program training workshops for the Voter Education and Fraud Mitigation Project. Every morning this week from 8-12:30, we have been leading workshops for 2 members of the Nangarhar team, 2 members of the Kandahar team, and 8 members of the Kabul team in the tools necessary to implement this project from now until the elections next April.

The project has many parts: 1) a series of educational and mobile performances to spread crucial election information to Afghan citizens and engage them in community dialogue about the issues that matter to them in the presidential elections; 2) Leadership Workshops for youth that engage young people (16-22 ish) in discussion about why voting is important and the value of democracy; and 3) engaging election officials and independent monitors as allies to share information and findings.  Because of all these moving pieces, this week of workshops went by like a flash trying to communicate all the necessary information!

Before I arrived, Michael and Joanna had a series of meetings in Kabul with the Independent Election Commission, Ministers, and others to let them know about this project. They are excited about the project’s potential, and we have partnered with the IEC in the 4 provinces where the teams are performing.  That is good news for the local teams, who have access to more voting information through this partnership.

The workshops focused on the content of the shows, the post-performance activities, the evaluation measures for the project, and the curriculum for the Leadership Workshops. I can hardly believe that the week is over and I am writing about this in the past tense!  We worked quickly this week, but it hardly feels like work to be in a room full of people who are all getting the chance to do what they love for a good cause.

On the first day of the workshop, we had a discussion about why theatre may be a good medium to spread this information. The IEC and other groups have television messages and radio dramas that promote the elections. As our partners said, not everyone has access to TV and radio all the time - and both TV and radio can be switched off. Having a real, live person performing in front of you creates a direct and emotional relationship, one that is more likely to lead to a change in action.

The post-performance dialogues will also help in that regard. The dialogues are inspired by Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, and ask the audience to come up with alternate solutions to the issues presented on stage. In addition to thinking of solutions, audience members are encouraged to take the stage themselves to try their ideas with the actors. This technique allows audiences to make action plans, and to engage in community discussion about issues that may not come up in everyday life.

Every day, we spent some time discussing common voting issues and using those discussions to make pieces of theatre. What struck me was that many of the issues identified in Afghan culture are common issues in American elections as well - folks who do not believe that one vote matters and do not trust the democratic system, and so choose not to vote at all.  That’s common everywhere that elections are held, I think, so we spent lots of time discussion potential solutions. First and foremost, people need to have confidence in the election system to believe that their ballot will make a difference - so the performances that the troupes are creating for this project will all promote that confidence.

Using Image Theater, narration, and improvisation, the participants made and performed short pieces addressing those issues and many more. They took on women’s right to vote and those who believe  women shouldn’t vote, the lack of voting infrastructure that causes long lines and too few ballots, bribery and threats from candidates, access to the polls for folks living with disabilities (which turned into a discussion about the larger responsibility of all Afghans to ensure all can participate in the elections), and the value of one vote.  

Now that they have a lot of content, the troupes are going home to finalize scripts that merge some of the stories and issues. Once the scripts are done and rehearsed, each troupe will perform over 50 shows before April. The Kabul team is travelling to Bamyan and Kunduz to perform, rather than staying in Kabul where the IEC has a strong voter education program.  They will also conduct the Leadership Workshops for youth in those provinces, which includes a mock campaign to illustrate some of the common joys and issues with the elections.

As the troupes begin to perform in August, we will have more information about the impact of these performances and the experiences that our partners are having in the field. Right now, we are proud and tired, and excited for what this project has in store.

This project is my first time in the country, and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. Though our partners tell me I look Afghan, I know I still stick out a bit. All the folks I have met here are warm, welcoming, and thankful, in addition to being the best hosts around.  Even though it is Ramadan and our partners are fasting, they are all focused and dedicated on the work at hand (not to mention talented). I cannot wait to hear the stories of their successes, and to return to work with them again.


Ayesha is studying biology in University, and teaches human rights workshops for women all over Nangarhar province. But it took me almost a week to find out all that information. Ayesha is also the director of the women’s troupe of the Nangarhar Theatre, one of our partners for the Voter Education and Fraud Mitigation Project.  I met her in Kabul, where she came with the director of the men’s troupe for a week of training and program set-up.

When I met Ayesha, she was shy, giggly, and self-conscious. Jalalabad is a more conservative area than Kabul, and she dresses in long black garments over her other clothing all the time. She would not make eye contact with Michael, and she was decidedly uncomfortable in our daily theatre warm-ups. She had never done theatre before - but she had certainly taught workshops.

Ayesha, like all Afghans, is a perfect host. She invited us into her room for melon nearly every night, and it is those conversations that made her begin to open up. We learned about her work with the women and her life in Jalalabad.  Since she was staying in the same hotel that we were, it was easy to have these after-dinner chats, particularly since she was fasting and much happier after her dinner.  It was during the first of these conversations that she told us that this workshop is giving her new courage.

Little by little over the week, Ayesha began to open up and come out of her shell.  We learned that she has quite a silly side and loves to joke around. She also gave me the best nickname I have ever had - ILoveYou, which is what my name sounds like to her.

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