Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Overcoming Differences in Kabul

Heddy, our evaluator for the Creativity in Action project, reports from Kabul, where she was inspired by the activities she witnessed and the people she met.  

I'm back in Afghanistan, but just for a very short and productive stay! Driving through the roads of Kabul to get to the BST facility was a jarring awakening. Because I arrived in the afternoon, the city was bustling. The traffic was nuts! A snapshot of the million things I saw as we drove to the office/house: random people and random bicycles fearlessly walking between cars, students holding hands and laughing as they walk home from school, young mothers and fathers with their children, an old man coaching a young man as he prepared a meal on the side of the road, a young boy tossing water out of the doorway of a bakery, and the most heartbreaking--these young street children. They tap on the windows and beg for money, some of them carry these smoking cans that are some kind of incense blessing, I think. 

Overcoming ethnic differences
When I got to the BST facility in Kabul, the house was full of young people. There were 30 youth from 2 different provinces, Badakhshan and Wardak. These two provinces are very different ethnically, linguistically, and culturally. One of the main goals of this project is to bring young people together from different parts of the country, especially from different ethnic groups that have traditionally mistrusted one another. The young people kept saying how happy they were to have met the youth from the other province. Saying things like, 'I used to think that Pashtuns were bad people--now I see they are just like me--they are my friends.' It was inspiring to hear such hopeful words in a place that can feel so hopeless at times.

During the workshop, word came that the Taliban was making gains in Badakhshan. All the parents of the youth from there were urging their kids not to come back right away. All of the youth from Badakhshan made arrangements temporarily to stay with relatives in and around Kabul. But there were a couple boys who didn't have any relatives to stay with. One of the boys from Wardak contacted his family in Kabul and arranged for the boys to stay with them. This may not sound like a big deal--but it IS! The boy from Wardak was saying that he wanted to take what he had learned from the workshop - that people from Badakhshan are good people - and share it with his family. He wanted to change the way that Pashtuns and Tajiks thought about each other, and he would start with his family. He said he knew he would be friends with some of the boys he's met from Badakhshan for the rest of his life.

Connecting with the girls 
I stayed on the third floor with the girls, a couple of whom spoke English, which was fabulous for me since my Dari, while improved, is pretty lousy. They were still impressed that I managed to squeak out a few phrases, bless them. They were very enamored with my hair and my eyes, and I was enamored with how easily they drew me into their fold. The first night was a lot like summer camp, I hung out in their room and we giggled and exchanged basic information...first and foremost, was I married and did I have children? And then of course, why not? (not so different than the US really).

One of the girls told another of the girls (who then repeated it to me), "Heddy is such a good woman. Why she is not a Muslim?" This hit me so hard. This is the question right?! All the struggles we have at home and around the world about who believes the right thing. I was so happy to play a part in sparking this question. The girl who told me this said "I don't think it's about religion. I think we have to start first with humanity." I think I actually felt my heart swell.

The program in action
Seeing the workshops with the two groups was awesome. The workshops are all led by Afghan theatre artists, so lots of theatre and improv/role-playing type activities, but the ultimate goal is to come up with a community improvement project that the youth want to implement back in their hometowns. Once they come up with a plan, they have to write an official proposal and create a budget, and they are then given a small stipend to get their project started. The young women from Badakhshan came up with a plan to create a women's gym, because there really aren't any opportunities for women to participate in any physical activities, sports, or exercise. (I gave them a couple Pilates lessons to add to their regimen.) Some other projects have included things like an education program for street children, city clean-up initiatives, and a domestic violence support group.

Things quieted down a lot after the youth left. I then switched gears to the administrative side of my dissertation research, surveys and such, not as interesting. I've been able to see a bit more of the outside world on this trip. I went with the youth on their field trip day - the national museum, the gutted Darul Aman palace, and Babur Gardens (which date back to the 1500s!). Yesterday we visited a shop inside of a guest house that typically houses people visiting with the big NGO's like World Food Program, UNICEF, etc. We had to go through three security doors and when we finally got through it was like a military compound. There were foreigners lying on the grass and playing basketball. And there was a Japanese restaurant (the tempura was not bad)... it was surreal to say the least. One big bonus of shopping there (in addition to the tempura) was that we didn't have to do all the bargaining and haggling, which always stresses me out. I'm sure we paid more for that convenience though.

The man on the left has been the groundskeeper at the Darul Aman palace since it was built in 1920!
It's been a whirlwind and a great trip. The food is still fabulous, ('teka' kebab is my fav) and the Afghan people I've had the opportunity to meet are incredibly warm and kind. And all very tired of living in a country so broken by war.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Inside a Women’s Prison in Afghanistan

Our work in the Herat prison began with a performance called “Backbiters”. Now we’ve begun ongoing workshops. This post from Anna delves into the prison itself and why these women are here in the first place.

The Prison
The women’s prison is in a different compound from last time we were here. Their prior location was adjacent to the men’s prison and was needed for overflow of male prisoners. (The male prison is overcrowded with more than 3,000 inmates! The women total around 140.) It’s a good thing the women moved, as there had reportedly been problems with sexual abuse by the male guards, and now the women have their own separate location with only female guards.  The new compound also looks less like a prison. Instead of being stuck within a concrete enclosure with bars on the windows and heavy metal doors, the women can move freely between the buildings and the surrounding open space of the courtyard. Laundry hangs to dry between a few trees. The women sleep in communal dorm rooms with bunk beds, colorful blankets, and television. The women do not wear uniforms as is common in American prisons; they wear personal clothing as well as jewelry and make-up. This already makes for a more humane experience. Wearing uniforms dehumanizes individuals. From what I understand, the women can spend the day as they wish, and have available various activities supported by different NGO’s – tailoring, rugmaking, hairdressing, literacy classes, and an agricultural program where they learn to plant vegetables.

We met with the director of the women’s prison, an affable but authoritarian woman in her fifties. She told us she does not want the prison to look like a prison but instead like a dormitory with supportive activities for the women. She greatly welcomed our program.

This sounds very promising, and the conditions for the women don't seem so bad. Still, it is a prison and the women do not have their freedom. They are constrained within walls and they do not have control over their own lives. Of course, for some this may not be very different than their prior circumstances: many women in Afghanistan are not allowed to leave the house and all their activities are controlled and restricted by their husband, father, or brothers. Quite often they are beaten and abused. For some, prison must be preferable to what they endured outside it. Even so, to be in prison carries stigma, knowing you have been shamed and shunned by your community and family, stamped as a criminal and punished by society. Before you were controlled by your family, now you are controlled by the state. Your life is not your own. 

The Women
Given these difficult circumstances and with little hope for the future, many of the women have become depressed, self-harming and suicidal. One day we arrived for workshop and a woman came up to us and showed us her wrist, which had two deep burn marks. She had burned herself with a cigarette. I asked, why did you do that? She said, I was so full of angry feelings! She had wanted to see the doctor and the guard wouldn’t let her. She couldn't lash out at the guard so she lashed out at herself. Our fellow workshop leader, one of the young women from Simorgh Theatre, said she felt sick when she saw the burns and she couldn’t understand how this woman could do that to herself. But in the face of such utter lack of control and power over one’s life, this is sometimes the only way a person knows to cope and manage intense feelings and distress. This is why we are doing the workshops, to give these women an outlet in which they can express their feelings – and find more constructive and creative coping mechanisms. 

It is no wonder these women are depressed and frustrated when one learns the reasons they are  in prison. Many if not most are in prison for adultery--that is, they had sex outside marriage. This is a crime in Afghanistan. A girl falls in love with a boy; they have relations; now they are both in prison. Some women run away from home. This is not a crime per se, but it is assumed that they engaged in illicit relations. It is almost impossible for a woman to prove her innocence. Upon arrest, a woman has to submit to a virginity test, an extremely violating procedure that proves nothing. And certainly not if you happen to be a married woman. In many instances, the women have engaged in sex, but whether they were truly willing is questionable. It comes down to this: if a woman wants to leave her home, she needs the help of a man. The price for this is sex.

Why does an Afghan woman feel compelled to leave her home? Usually it's because of forced marriage and abuse. Many of the women spoke of the problem of marrying too young. As I was repeatedly told, a daughter is a toy to her father and a slave to her husband. But it does happen that she runs away for love.  A 17-year old girl in the prison ran off from home with a boy she loved, but since they now agreed to marry, they will both be released. This is one story that has a happy ending, but other girls are not so lucky. The boy no longer wants them, and now they are stuck in prison. After that, where can she go? Often the family will not accept her as she has brought "dishonor" upon them and may even threaten to kill her.

Even in the case of rape, a woman will be sent to prison for adultery. Because no one believes her. It is enough to be accused of infidelity by your husband to get locked up. Many women and girls seemed to be in prison based simply on someone’s accusation. In one case, a woman was raped by her husband’s brother, but the husband accused her of having an affair. The brother fled to Iran. The woman was sent to prison. She was pregnant but the husband said it wasn't his child and divorced her. She was released after eight months. The usual sentence for adultery is 1.5-3 years.

Some of the women are in prison for murder. They killed their husbands. No doubt for many it was a desperate act. They were married off young and abused by the husband and his whole family. But in some cases, the woman loved someone else and together they conspired to kill the husband and run away. The desperation is there but the justification is sometimes questionable.

It was challenging to learn the real reasons why the women were in prison, because, we were told, the women will often make up stories until they feel safe in speaking the truth or if they think it might benefit them in some way. But I also felt it was difficult to get accurate information from those we spoke with in prison management; they seemed too ready to dismiss the women’s circumstances. But after further discussion, they acknowledged the challenge that exists for a woman to be able to prove her innocence and how often she is in a compromised situation. The system is set up to fail these women. No matter the crime or reason, the real problem is that they have very little chance to defend themselves or escape their circumstances.

The prison psychologist shared a few particular cases with us:

·         One woman killed her husband with the help of her 14-year old son, because the father was a drug addict who tried to rape their 9-year old daughter. Now both the mother and her son are in prison. The mother was sentenced to 16 years.

·         A young woman had been beaten by her father so severely in her childhood she didn’t walk until she was six years old. As she got older her father wanted to marry her off, but she refused. She put gasoline on her father and burned him. She is sentenced to 18 years.

·         The psychologist spoke to us also about kidnapping and how entire families are swept up in the crime. A father and a brother may have conspired to kidnap someone for money. The police then raid their house and arrest everyone: the mother, the daughters, the sister-in-law, the grandmother, and everyone goes to prison. There are two young women in prison now for this crime. One was jailed at age 14 and sentenced to five years.

Here are additional stories from the women we worked with:

·         “A” has been in prison two months now. She killed her father because he was forcing the mother to have “temporary marriages” with other men (that is, sex for money). Finally the daughter couldn’t take it any longer. She took her brother’s gun and shot her father. Then she went to the police and said: “I have killed my father and I am happy I did it!” She is ashamed that he was her father, and she is proud she killed him so her mother doesn’t have to be “married” to another man again. "A" has a one month old baby with her in prison. I don’t know how long she has to stay there.

·         B is a feisty and outgoing young woman of 17 years old. She had an affair with a neighborhood boy. A couple of months later she got married, but her husband discovered she was not a virgin. So she said she had been raped. Her husband wanted to kill the other boy. But the neighbor called the national army for help and said the husband had a gun and also that he and B had stolen money. The national army came and beat up the husband so he ended up in the hospital. B had an altercation with the neighbor's daughter and cut her with a knife. Everybody was arrested, including the neighbor's daughter because she knew about the illicit relation and had not reported it, and was therefore accessory to the crime. The husband has now been released as well as the neighbor's daughter, but B and the neighbor boy were just sentenced to six months in prison for adultery. A complicated situation! B has a lot of anxiety and nervous problems. But she is very enthusiastic about the workshops and fully engaged. She’s our star participant. She even stayed up one night until one a.m. teaching the others in her room all the exercises she had learned!

·         C is in her early twenties and also very excited about our workshops and a main participant. She has been in prison for 7 months and has a 10 month old daughter. Her situation is a bit unclear. She had problems with her husband, and apparently he accused her of stealing and got her put in prison. The husband has now divorced her. She is about to be released and says her family supports her. But the first day we met she said to me that she wanted to find a family to take care of her daughter and give her an education, because if the daughter was left with her father he would marry her off early as he did her. She is so inspired by the workshops that she wants to continue doing theater when she gets out.

·         D is 27 years old. She was married at 15, but the husband became addicted to opium. He would abuse her and her child. She says her father and mother-in-law encouraged their son to beat her. They accused her of having sex with other men. She is now in prison for one year. She is worried about her 11-year old daughter who is with the in-laws; they don’t let her go to school and they beat her. The daughter comes to visit the mother every two weeks and says she’d rather stay with her in prison.

·         E is in her late forties and has a young child with disabilities. She has been active in all the programs the prison offers.  E has been in the prison 10 months and is sentenced to 16 years for killing her daughter’s husband. But she says she didn’t do it. I did not get to find out further and verify her story. Perhaps she did do it, or perhaps someone else did and she got the blame. Perhaps her daughter did it and she took the blame instead. There are several situations like this where the man died and the wife gets blamed for his death. There is little a woman can do to defend herself.

·         F is 22 and recently arrived in prison with her newborn son. She got there when her baby was 10 days old. Her husband’s second wife had died suddenly, and now she and her husband were accused of killing her by the wife’s brothers. She is in prison pending investigation and autopsy, and is hoping to be cleared.

·         Then we have G who is 19 and was working as a police officer in Kabul. One day her brother called and said, “Congratulations! Your father has found a husband for you.” But she did not want to get married, she wanted to go to the university and continue her work. The family summoned her back to Herat. She met her prospective fiancĂ©, but did not like him – so she shot him. Just like that. Apparently, her father and brother often visit her in prison so it seems they have a good relationship. Why did she not simply ask them to please not make her marry? She said she doesn’t know, she just got so angry. She didn’t think the family would listen to her. She has now been sentenced to hanging. And yet she always seems to be in a good mood when we see her!

The women are very happy when we come but this does not mean they aren’t suffering. And sometimes they are just too depressed to participate. But we have to keep showing up for them -- the workshops are ongoing so that they will have this support available for a long term.

The Children
As mentioned, the women have their children with them in prison. Children stay with their mothers until the age of 5, when they are placed in a child support center run by a non-profit. We visited and will be doing workshops there as well. It’s a good place and the children genuinely seem well-cared for. This is really encouraging to see. They get to visit their mothers every two weeks or so. The smaller kids who are with the mothers in the prison get sent to a kindergarten every day, where government employees’ children go. This is also a new development and did not exist four years ago when we last visited, as far as I know. It’s really good that the children can be with their mothers, but it is important that they are not stuck inside the prison all the time and can socialize with other kids. There are about 75 children living with their mothers in the prison. One girl was seven years old, but otherwise mostly toddlers and babies. We had several crawling around us as we did our workshop. The women are help each other take care of the babies, so the mothers can participate. 

Stay posted for further updates about the juvenile center and our other performances!

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Afghan Creative Arts Prison Project - First Report

In April Joanna and Anna spent a month in Herat launching the Creative Arts Prison Project. We are working again with members of Simorgh Theatre, with whom we collaborated for the Theatre for Social Development project in 2011. Here is Anna’s first report.

Together again!
Back in Afghanistan after four years. Back to Herat to see the girls of Simorgh again! How wonderful to have the chance to work together again. Four years is a long time, and yet it’s like yesterday. But going from 13 to 17 or 16 to 20 makes a big difference. They’re young women now, all grown up. I hardly recognized some of them! And others look exactly the same. (For me, I just look older, as one of them pointed out. Well, yes, time does that!). We had a happy reunion and then we met the new girls who have joined the group. All in all, we are working with six young women, and then two young men who are helping out -- who really just want to be part of the process, and I’m so glad to see them again too! They are great guys. But this project is specifically for women by women.

Getting ready for action
All of us jumped headlong into our work together with great excitement and energy. For the first nine days we did training to prepare the group for the upcoming program. Workshops practicing various theatrical exercises in the morning, and in the afternoon rehearsals to develop a performance. In between we have lunch together. During the week I think to myself, “We are having such a wonderful and fulfilling time together that if this is all we do with the project I will be happy!”

Enjoying lunch together the Afghan way. 
But we have much more to accomplish. The goal of our project is to bring theater workshops to the women’s prison and the juvenile correction center as a way to offer psychosocial support -- to give the women and girls a safe, creative forum in which to express themselves and process their experiences through play and physical action. Research and experience has shown theater to be an effective tool in helping people heal trauma, build self-confidence and manage daily challenges. Eventually the women will have the opportunity to create their own plays. The aim is for this to be an ongoing program throughout the year.

We are training the members of Simorgh Theatre to lead the program and teach the workshops, as we are only here for a month and after we leave, the project will continue. We are also preparing a play that we will present first thing as an introduction to theater. That is, the Simorgh girls will present it. Joanna and I are directing and they perform. Many in Afghanistan have never seen a live theater performance and have no idea what it is. We want to show them that they can create a play just like this with their own stories.

A Common Problem
The play is called The Backbiters and centers on two gossiping women who make life difficult for a young woman, Nafisa, who wants to go to university. They talk bad about her and spread rumors that worry her family. Nafisa’s friend, a younger girl of thirteen named Fereshta, looks up to her and dreams of herself becoming a doctor one day. But Fereshta’s father has other ideas. He has decided she’s going to get married to an older, rich man who will give the father lots of money. Fereshta is devastated. The mother can do nothing to prevent it, but finds an ally in Nafisa’s mother and together they speak to the mullah (similar to parish priest). This mullah is a wise, learned man who talks to the father about the laws of Islam and that a girl must agree to who she marries and that Fereshta is much too young and should get an education. He points out what happened last year when the neighbor’s wife almost died because they couldn't find a female doctor to treat her. It’s good that girls study to become doctors! The father struggles with the idea but finally decides to forego the marriage and let his daughter study. Meanwhile, the backbiters have had some backlash and decide they must mend their ways.

Our story has a happy ending, but unfortunately this is not the case for many girls in Afghanistan. This is a common scenario – forced early marriage. Even though Islam does say a woman must agree to marriage and should be educated, many villages follow old tribal ways that have become tradition and conflated with Muslim practice. The community listens to the mullahs who often are corrupt or ignorant. And people are very concerned with what the community thinks and says about them because honor is everything. Gossiping old ladies is a common problem and families can be destroyed by bad rumors.

Our talented actors in Simorgh made the play very compelling and also added lots of humor to it. The two women playing the backbiters were funny and forceful, and the woman playing the father (yes, women only-troupe playing all characters) didn’t hold back in her portrayal of a gross, old man. It’s exaggerated but all too real.

Joanna guides a discussion planning for our workshops in the prison. 
Showtime in the Prison
The day arrived for us to present our play at the women’s prison! I wasn’t sure what to expect, or how the women would take to the show or the idea of doing workshops.  How open and accessible will they be, or perhaps closed off, resistant, even hostile? No telling what will happen, we’re breaking new ground. Here we go – "hala hamagi hamabaham bedboard!" ("Now everybody all together, let’s go!")

Well, it went fantastically well. About ninety women in all gathered to see the performance. They laughed and applauded and listened intently, and a few cried. Afterwards we did a talkback where they had a chance to speak about the show and go up on stage and engage with the characters. This is where I wasn't sure how it would work. But it worked very well. The women didn’t hesitate to engage. Some stood up and talked about their own personal circumstances. Others got up on stage to confront characters, especially the father. They argued with the father for not letting his daughter go to school and marrying her off so young. The woman playing the father stood her ground and said “Everyone in my family married before the age of 13, it’s no problem.” The prisoner countered, “And this is why we’re all in here!” Spontaneous applause broke out in acknowledgement. Another woman wanted to speak with the mullah and proceeded to rail against mullahs who are bad and want money and don’t follow proper Islam. She was animated and passionate in her speaking. All the women spoke with great passion. It was clear the play really resonated with them. It reflected and acknowledged their situation and gave them a chance to have a voice and speak out.

Afterwards, several women came up to me and exclaimed over and over again, “I’m so happy, I’m so happy, thank you for being here, thank you for presenting this play to us.” One woman seemed particularly taken and keen to connect. She asked my name and where I was from, I said USA and Sweden, and then she wanted to know which I liked better, Afghanistan or Sweden. I told her they are very different, and that I really like the people of Afghanistan -- they are so friendly and hospitable. She said, “We are friendly because you are. We respond to you. You are so nice and friendly, and we want to be friendly back.” At the end, she took a ring off her finger (a crocheted band with black beads) and put it on mine and told me, “This is a memory from me.”

I wonder what happened to her, what she did that she is here in prison. Did she run away from home? With her lover? From a threatened forced marriage? Or was she forced into marriage? And did she run away from an abusive husband? Was she raped? Did she kill somebody? These are many of the possible scenarios and circumstances that land a woman in prison in Afghanistan. I did not want to ask this woman right away, but Joanna and I have heard many stories since that first day.

More to follow! 

No photos beyond the barbed wire!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Jessy's Experience Teaching Theatre at Kakamega School for the Deaf

Jessy tells us her thoughts about her recent experience leading theatre workshops with deaf students in Kakamega, Kenya.  
Today, I led a one-hour workshop with a group of sixty deaf students at Kakamega School for the Deaf. Ages ranged from 7 to 17.  All of the students participated in the first three activities, and only classes 4 through 8 participated in the second half. This was largely due to the fact that their sign language was more fluent (some deaf Kenyans don't learn sign language until 9 or 10 years of age). 

I had some time to speak with the head teacher of the school.  He told me that some of these children are orphans, some have wandered in off of the streets, and others are abandoned by their families.  Any kind of disability is seen in Kenya as a curse, and families often want to rid themselves of the child in fear that the curse will directly affect them.  

Of course, I had a person sign as I spoke.  This was an interesting experience - and also a real "performance" in itself.  Sign language is such an expressive form of communication.  It includes facial expression, body movements, and even the occasional sound or squeal. 

They liked this activity, but they obviously didn't know that they were supposed to shout "Awooga!" They still jumped, but I realized how helpful the sound itself is in coordinating the jump of the two people. 

Passing Energy in a Circle
The students had some difficulty with this one.  Making eye contact with the person to whom they would like to throw the energy proved difficult.  This may have been due to the fact that the group was large, or maybe they have difficulty focusing their attention on one area of the room just in case something else happens around them that they need to react to.  I'm not entirely sure.  They were also trying to keep their eyes on the interpreter at all times just in case he gave them further direction.  Because of this, we ended up just passing the energy around the circle one at a time instead of throwing it across.  It still worked, and they still seemed to really enjoy it.  

I think it is important to note that deaf students have to keep their eyes set on the interpreter at all times in order to know what is happening.  This would make activities such as Walking Through Space (pg. 26), Trust Walks (34), and Group Start, Stop, and Jump (pg. 38) particularly challenging.

Follow the Leader 
Students, especially those who are ousted from society due to their disability, have a deep desire to please.  Creativity plays no true role in their education system.  This is in part due to Kenyan culture and in part because they are so far behind in their schooling to begin with.  Because of this, they often try to copy what the teacher does.  Therefore, after I demonstrated the activity with my interpreter, they used my movements exclusively and did not add any of their own.  

I have experienced this to some degree in the past, especially in societies that use rote learning styles, and I think that it is something interesting to note - demonstration can sometimes hinder students' ability to think on their own.   

Following these three exercises, I asked each class group (class 4 to class 8) to pick a story of struggle from their lives and present it as a drama/mime for the younger students.  It was interesting that all of the scenes began with characters greeting one another with handshakes.  Handshakes are very important in Kenyan culture, and forgetting to shake someone's hand can be considered very rude. 

I think it could be great to include some kind of disability section in the manual.  It would be great to identify which activities in the manual lend themselves most to deaf individuals, blind individuals, physically challenged individuals, etc.  This would be another way to make the manual truly accessible to all groups.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Story update - Youth from Kunar and Balkh provinces

Good to be back in the US for a minute.  Here's the latest:

We have been conducting workshops for youth in the provinces over the last month focusing on volunteerism and community improvement.  Then we bring youth groups from two disparate provinces to our facility in Kabul for an intensive week of working together.  We will do this with 25 provinces across Afghanistan over the next two years.  

In Kabul, with the two groups, we work on building presentation skills, developing viable Action Plans to address their chosen community issues, and writing proposals so they can get matching funds for the small "seed grants" that we give them. 

This past week, we brought together groups from Kunar and Balkh provinces.  Kunar is a very rural, extremely conservative Pashtun province on the Pakistan border.  Balkh is more a progressive northern province with Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara tribes.  Our point was to bring the youth from these diverse communities together to explore commonalities, discuss differences, and find unity in their goals of imagining and creating the New Afghanistan.  This is where our great theory of peaceful collaboration bumps into reality. 

To accommodate the conservative Kunar group, we conducted separate workshops for the females, which would have been fine, but the Balkh girls, being more urban and sophisticated, wanted to work with the guys as a team.  All the Kunar girls were here with their brothers (otherwise they would not have be able to travel) and were completely under their control.  We had many a long talk with the brothers about why their sisters couldn't do even the most simple, safe exercise with the men, even while staying completely covered.  The answer was that, if word got back to their village that their sisters had been face to face with strange men, it would be seriously dangerous for the entire family.  And who would bring back this information?  The other guys from Kunar, even though they are their friends!  The honor of the entire family rests on the woman's shoulders, and it seems no one outside the family unit can be trusted.  On the bright side, the women themselves were strong, well-spoken and brave.  I was more impressed with their calm and clear presentations than the men's.  It is a tragedy that these brilliant young women cannot make a single decision for themselves.... yet. 

Here is an interesting example:  On the first day, the groups presented their "community profiles".  The Kunar men made a fine presentation about how trees in Kunar are being cut down at an alarming rate which is leading to soil erosion and polluting the rivers.  The Kunar women did a presentation about violence against women with shocking visuals of women with ears cut off, noses cut off, beaten badly... and also spoke about how women are blamed for crimes they haven't committed and often traded to pay off debts.  Later, in speaking directly with the brothers of the Kunar girls, I asked why their project isn't about violence against the women and the women's project about the environment?  Which is more important to you, I asked, cutting a woman or cutting a tree?  Isn't a woman more valuable than a tree?  They actually were taken aback; I don't think they ever thought of it that way.  And now they are working on both issues together!  After that discussion, the Kunar men began presenting about violence against women... and the environment too.  Success!... a small one but mighty! 

Now both groups have returned to their provinces, and we will be monitoring their progress over the next month.  We feature theatre,  photography, mural painting, radio plays, poetry and music in our training as great ways for them to bring their issues to the wider community.  Communication... this is where the arts excel!  However, you can see the limitations of how, where, when and with whom they can present their art.

Our Afghan Training Team
Next we go to Parwan and Kandahar, two other diverse provinces, and then bring these groups together in Kabul for another intensive session.  Over the next two years, we’ll reach all of the provinces… inshallah.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

First Impressions of Afghanistan and the Creativity in Action Program

Heddy Lahmann-Rosen, a Bond Street company member, just returned from her first visit to Afghanistan with Michael and Joanna for our new, two-year Creativity in Action program. Heddy will visit Afghanistan a handful of times during the course of the program, acting as our Outside Evaluator, and eventually using this research in her PhD thesis. 

I'm a little late to the party on getting a blog entry going for my time with the Creativity in Action program in Afghanistan, but I'll do my best to give a flavor of the whole experience. 

I embarked upon the adventure to Kabul with Michael and Joanna in mid-January, and I stayed for 2 weeks. Joanna and Michael are still there working away at building this program and making sure it's got the wings to keep flying when they come back.

My first week primarily consisted of a good amount of administrative work and preparation for this big and ambitious program. This baby is no small feat! The Creativity in Action program is 2-year youth development project that includes 15 young people from each of 25 provinces across Afghanistan (375 youth in all!). The program is providing jobs for local Afghan artists to work with youth– teaching them about expressing themselves and accessing their creativity, and then mentoring them and supporting them as they create and implement improvement projects in their own communities. If you can't tell, I'm pretty excited about it. So excited in fact that I'm centering my (eventual) dissertation around this phenomenal program!

So what's Kabul like? That’s kind of a tough question to answer, because I didn't really see so much of the outside world except through the car window. What did I see out the window? Well, Kabul is less conservative than other parts of the country. Some women wear burqa’s, although there are very few women on the streets anyway. I’d say it’s like 90% men. Unpaved roads for the most part. The air outside smells smoky from the ovens they use to warm homes. It’s winter and pretty cold – ranging from around 35 degrees F to 50. The heating isn't what we’re used to in the US, so lots of layers are necessary. It even snowed a few days while I was there!

The driving in Kabul is really something. It’s positively fearless (except for a Western passenger like me) – I mean, we navigated through the most insane tangle of cars on the way home one night– I thought we might be in serious trouble and stuck there for awhile (because if we were in the US, we would have) – but somehow our driver just wriggled, honked, and near-missed his way through. It was something to behold. 

The food is awesome! Maybe with the exception of breakfast, but that’s just because they don’t really do breakfast like we do. But everything else was AMAZING. Flower street, which had several florists up and down the street, was very pretty! Butcher street is not so pretty, as you might imagine.

The Afghan people I had the opportunity to meet are lovely. Very kind and warm. I met and spent some time with the Afghan artists who are/will be leading the youth workshops and are long time friends and creative partners of BST. They were all so eager to share their thoughts and experiences with such openness and enthusiasm. It was a major highlight!

I also had the opportunity to see some of the youth workshops in action in the Balkh region. I had such a wonderful time  meeting and getting to know the youth participating. They're a very inspirational group. They were incredibly warm and welcoming and had many questions about my doctoral program and my experience of being in their country. They are all very concerned and passionate about the state of their community and country and are eager to talk about the problems they see and ideas for ways to go about addressing them. I was pretty floored by how engaged they were with the whole process from the get-go. After I left, the youths from Balkh and Kunar met in Kabul for a combined workshop. This program provides a unique opportunity for connecting young passionate problem-solvers from across the country and across ethnic divides. It's killing me to have missed the Kabul workshop! But alas, my spring semester classes beckoned me back. I've been living vicariously through email updates from Joanna on the collective workshop with the 2 groups in Kabul- I will let her tell it- from what I read, the experience is something truly special.

I'm already looking forward to my return!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Another Workshop Update from Kenya

During this workshop, for adults from ten different tribes in Kenya, Jessy Hodder facilitated 11 different activities from our Theatre for Social Development Training Manual. Keep reading to learn the participants' favorite activities and Jessy's thoughts on this experience! 

I facilitated a workshop today (3 hours) for 33 Kenyan adults (20 women and 13 men).  The youngest was 24, the oldest was 41, and the average age was 29.  They originated from 10 different tribes.  I originally thought this might create a little friction, but they seemed to work very well together.  They were not at all shy.  Most of them had great self-confidence, and they all wanted to be involved in the activities.  I was pleasantly surprised!  

Passing Energy 
Sports, especially those involving balls, are very popular in Kenya.  While they enjoyed throwing the ball of energy, I found they especially loved kicking the ball of energy around like a soccer ball.  I think this really underlines their love for soccer here.  Soccer is one of the top pastimes in Kenya.

The Wind Blows for . . . 
It took a few tries for them to understand the point of the game, but once they got it, they had a blast.  They told me afterwards that they want to use this activity in their own communities to get to know their people better.  However, I did find it interesting that if a man and a woman had to fight for a seat, the woman would generally allow the man to take it.  This meant that a lot of women ended up in the center of the circle!

The Prop Game 
They were very creative with the items that I put in front of them.  I introduced each item as "magic" - when a person touches the "magic" object, it takes on a new function/ it turns into something else.  A water bottle transformed into everything from a shoe polisher to a cell phone.  They were also very keen to move around and get down on the floor for their mimes.  However, the idea of "magic" in Kenya is an interesting one, particularly because of the history of shamans and witch doctors.  Magic, in many ways, is very real to people here, and they see it as a powerful force.  I think this might be something interesting to consider. 

Group Stop, Start, and Jump
The group listened SO intently, and they were very concentrated on getting it right.  They didn't want to stand out or let the group down.  Again - group mentality.  

Machines with a Theme
It was clear that some of their movements and sounds emulated parts of machines that can be found in town - drilling machines, generators, welding machines, and maize grinders.  

Secret Friends and Enemies 
Since I was shut down last time when I mentioned the idea of "enemy," I asked the adults to decide what we should call the "friend" and the "enemy."  They decided on "angel" and "disease"/ "death."  I thought this was an interesting choice, as death is something very common here.  It is a reality.  It is something much easier for them to talk about and confront than the idea of an "enemy."  

This was a great activity to get them moving after lunch when they seemed a little sluggish.  Because of their skirts, it was a little difficult for some of the women to do a star jump.  They still gave it a good college try!

Making Group Shapes and Scenes 
The way they made a sofa set with their bodies was identical to the way in which the female survivors formed theirs in my last workshop.  I thought this was very interesting and may suggest similar perspectives between the groups.

Trust Walks 
When I asked the participants to pair up with someone, they chose partners of all types: men were with men; women were with women; and men were with women.  I was surprised to see some males pair with females.  I made the space in which they could walk smaller and smaller, until it became very difficult to steer clear of other leader/follower teams.  It made them giggle when they bumped into someone, but it caused the leaders to focus even more on keeping their follower safe.  

As it was a bigger group, and our circle was very large, I asked them to throw their snowballs into the center and scramble to pick up a different one from the pile. We didn't have enough time to write out full stories, so I just had them write words or phrases that they could act out for the group.  The two categories which I felt were most successful were animals and objects.  One by one, as they felt led, participants would enter the circle and act them out.  All of the animals were those which you often see in our village (chickens, cows, goats, dogs, etc.), and the objects were all things that you could find on a village homestead (tree, gas stove, etc.)

Creating Puppets out of Found Objects 
They worked in four groups, each of which produced one or two puppets.  Materials included paper, cardboard, small boxes, toilet paper rolls, plastic grocery bags, trash bags, egg cartons, tape, scissors, and pens.  These are all objects that can easily be found on the streets.  They worked very well together, and they remained engrossed in the activity for at least 30 minutes.  When asked to use their puppets to create a small play, I found it interesting that the representatives from each group (puppeteers) were all male.  The plays all had moral significance and referenced God.

When asked which activities they enjoyed most, they identified the following:
1.  The Wind Blows for . . .
2.  Snowballs
3.  Machines with a Theme
4.  Passing Energy in a Circle
5.  Trust Walks

All in all, I was reminded that people draw upon what they know.  They do not often think outside of their immediate experience.  I think this is a good thing to remember when being creative so that we can find ways of helping participants think outside of the box.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Youth from across Afghanistan collaborate in Kabul

Joanna keep us up-to-date about the goings-on in Kabul. Afghan Project Leaders have completed workshops in Balkh and Kunar, and now youth from both groups are in Kabul together for a week of workshops, training, and idea-sharing.
Joanna Reports:

This morning the participants were all happily doing warm-ups and exercises. Now they are creating their "community mapping" (drawing their region) and then their "ideal communities" (as mixed Kunar-Balkh groups, hopefully sharing their ideas about what makes an "ideal" community).  

The sounds of laughter fill the house as it should be.  

They did their "community profiles" last night.  Very interesting -- each presentation was really really well done!  The issues that rise to the top are environment, medical, and women's rights.  The Balkh girls were all about pre-marriage testing to prevent certain diseases, and the need for vaccinations.  Both the Balkh and Kunar guys were most concerned by the wanton cutting of trees, soil erosion and proliferation of trash.  And the Kunar girls showed some shocking photos of the violence against women, including trading girls for bad debts, and blaming women for the crimes of others.  Unbelievable!  

We worked with the girls all together this morning and the Kunar girls are ready to speak out... but still cover up the second a male or a camera is anywhere close.  Three are daughters of other active women, and the other two need some gentle coaxing... but that's okay.  They will all help each other I hope.  

And then, two days later…

The workshops are continuing well! It is super-busy and also super-fun.  

We have had some great guests speaking about youth activism, how to meet challenges, how to get the government to listen, etc.  And today we went to the Presidential Palace!  It was grand... and an amazing experience for the youth -- like a trip to the White House to meet ... well, okay, not Obama... but maybe Joe Biden.  

We had a two-hour session with one of the top people during which the participants stood up and talked about their issues. Wow.  Can you imagine getting a chance to air all your grievances with some top government person who is actually listening and writing it all down. Even the Kunar girls all covered up stood up and gave their rant.  The guy was very moved, and then he told us that he had also had this idea to set up creative youth projects in different provinces, then bringing the groups together and implementing the projects.  So he was very happy that we were doing just that.  

This Balkh-Kunar collaboration is the first of many in the coming years. Groups from across Afghanistan will come to Kabul and share ideas with group members from a different province, each with their own issues, solutions, history, and culture. Stay posted for more updates from the field! 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Theatre for Social Change Successes and Challenges from Kakamega, Kenya

Our Fall 2014 intern, Jessy Hodder, is spending the semester in Kakamega, Kenya where she is conducting physical theatre workshops with various groups, from sex workers to street boys. She has been testing out our new theatre for Social Development manual. Here, she describes some of the challenges and successes of a recent training session with sex workers.

I had a very positive meeting this morning with Kakamega's sex workers.  

The first thing that I should note is that, like many places around the world, things are far more challenging than you expect them to be.  Things don't start on time, and the people are not used to open, unstructured spaces.  It took the women some time to get comfortable in a space without desks and chairs.  Having a translator also presented some real challenges.  I was never sure if what I was explaining was being fully understood by all participants.  Things can so easily get lost in translation.  I think that it may be helpful to include notes concerning these kinds of logistics (tips or tricks to help facilitators overcome such difficulties) within the manual. 

Below is a list of the activities that I facilitated and some of the observations that I made.

Spy:  Secret Friends & Enemies

At the beginning of this exercise, the women protested profusely.  They hated the idea that they had to select an "enemy" in the group.  I tried to explain that it was just for the sake of the activity, but they wouldn't have it.  So we changed it to person A and person B:  "Keep person A between you and person B."  I thought this was interesting.  It definitely reinforces the sense of community that is so ingrained here, and indeed the sisterhood of those who suffer on the streets.

Also, the fact that Kenyan women are such touchy-feely people posed a problem.  When I said "go," the women ran to the person that they had chosen as their "friend" (person A) and just stood there hugging them and laughing.  They had completely forgotten about the "enemy" (person B).  They were so loving and supportive that they got caught up in cuddles and disregarded the activity itself.  Because of this, we may want to suggest that, in certain cultural contexts, participants can never touch their friend OR enemy, ensuring that some kind of physical activity takes place.

Calling Over the Mountain 

I explained the importance of our names, especially in contexts where we feel treated like objects.  The women had absolutely no difficulty shouting their names.  They were very loud, and they loved it!  

I added a little something extra to this activity which I thought worked well.  I asked them to imagine that they were standing on a stage in front of the world.  I asked what they would want to say if they were given a single sentence.  They were all eager to share.  Some of them declared their strength or beauty, others testified to their faith or beliefs, and others shouted funny exclamations.  The voices of these women are not often heard, and they loved being able to speak loudly and with conviction. 

Making Group Shapes and Scenes . . . with a Time Limit!

Participants worked in groups of five.  I focused on items that they are very familiar with - the jiko (outdoor stove), nyumbani (house), matatu (bus), and a sofa set.  They really enjoyed using their bodies to represent these items, and they worked well in their teams.  However, because of the stigma against trousers here, the women struggled a little bit with moving around in their long skirts.  I know that this is a challenge in many different areas of the world, but it was definitely something that affected their movement.

A Commercial - Selling Something New

This activity was particularly interesting to me.  I will begin by saying that Kenyans are wonderful public speakers - they have little or no fear of addressing a group.  In fact, they love doing it whenever they get the chance. 

I had tried very hard to explain the word "invention" - an object that doesn't yet exist that would make one's life easier or better.  However, either the word got botched in translation, or the culture is such that they don't think in terms of new objects and gadgets.  Technology is not nearly as prominent here as it is in other places.  Their mindsets are also extremely practical, and they are desperate to make any money that they can to support their children, particularly in terms of school fees.  

When they presented their inventions to the group, almost all of the "inventions" were in the form of possible businesses (basket making, embroidery, selling maize, etc.) that they could set up in the community.  While this was not expected, it attests to their deep desire to become self-sufficient.  We spoke for a while about where they might get the capital to start one of these businesses.  This, of course, is one of their greatest challenges, but we are looking for ways of helping them.

Image Theatre or "Photographs" 

In groups of five, the participants were asked to think of a time when they experienced sadness.  Some of the groups became emotional when telling their stories, and it was great to see the groups counselling and loving one another.  Each story was presented either as an image or as a scene.  The audience was then asked to advise the woman on how to fix or change the situation.  I did not feel that they were ready for foruming the scenes this time around, so they just spoke from their seats.

The stories included:
- A woman was thrown out of her house by her husband.
- The living space of one woman had been thrashed by her landlord.
- One of their children took her school fees and blew it on alcohol and other frivolous items in town.

Unfortunately, we had to stop this activity short.  Two men had entered the room on business, and the women were uncomfortable sharing with them in earshot. 

I concluded the workshop with a self-defense lesson and discussion (30 minutes).  At this point, their bodies were warm and more able to move.  We spoke about precautions that they can take when they are walking along the road at night, and how they might defend themselves if attacked from the front, from the side, and from the back.  They seemed to really appreciate this kind of training.

We sang a good African tune and shared lunch together.  It was a successful session!