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.