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!