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On the air in Afghanistan

by Ayesha Haroon

The BBC has joined other major international aid agencies, among them the ICRC, to produce a radio soap opera that shows how the people of a typical village in Afghanistan are rebuilding their lives.

Upper Village, nestled in the rugged terrain somewhere in Afghanistan, is a village inhabited by real characters – people who face frustrations and enjoy triumphs, dream of a better tomorrow and grapple with the problems of daily existence in a war-torn country.

Enjoying their jokes and rivalries, witnessing the fights between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, sharing their sorrows and feeling proud of their successes, one tends to forget that this is in fact an imaginary village, created in the mind of Gordon Adam, then head of the BBC Pashto Service, and developed in early 1994 by John Butt for the BBC Afghan Education Drama Project’s soap opera, “New Home, New Life”.



Humanity meets primetime

Today the characters, from arch-villain Jabbar Khan to humanitarian worker Ali Gul, are as real to Pashto and Persian listeners as their neighbours. The first radio soap opera to be broadcast in this part of the world, “New Home, New Life” is an example of how international aid agencies and broadcasters can effectively pool their resources to improve the quality of life in a country that is all too often focused on the miseries of conflict.

Afghanistan was first invaded by the USSR and is now in the throes of civil war. With the education system a major casualty of the war, the soap is often the only means of information for some one million listeners in Afghanistan, as well as those in refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan. The team of artists and playwrights working on this project, involved with radio and television before the exodus from Kabul, are proud that they are contributing to improving the lives of their compatriots.

The soap’s messages are concerned with health, education, humanitarian values, economic issues, agriculture and other such subjects that foster
a forward-looking foundation for comprehensive development. The dialogue and storylines are developed around educational messages with the help of experts. For instance, an agriculturist would not only give a lecture to the script writers about how to plant and take care of an orchard, he or she would also, if need be, be consulted on the content of the script itself.

Enter Ali Gul

As the soap opera was being developed, the ICRC, one of the project’s funders, was keen that the character of Ali Gul be introduced into the soap, since he was already well known to the Afghan people as a vehicle for humanitarian messages. The editors of the soap opera, however, had reservations about this since Ali Gul had appeared in a special cartoon journal focused on the Afghan war, and the intention was to dedicate the soap to post-conflict resolution. It was hoped that, by the time the soap went on the air, the conflict would have come to an end.

Sadly this was not the case. Worse still, the conflict had spread from the capital to the countryside. As the soap is committed to reflecting present-day realities, the plot therefore unfolded amidst conflict. In the context of communicating humanitarian messages, Ali Gul then became the perfect vehicle. And so in the 27th episode Ali Gul made his appearance.

He arrived on the scene of a battle to assist the wounded. One of those he helped was Zalmay, the son of a widow in Upper Village. Later, Ali Gul’s influence convinced Zalmay that he would do better to support his widowed mother in the village than to persist in fighting on the front. So, while the character of Ali Gul was used to communicate humanitarian messages, he was also associated with the conflict resolution messages incorporated in the person of Zalmay.

Ali Gul is also shown in other situations where he conveys humanitarian messages. In one episode, he reasons with a soldier who doesn’t want his enemies to receive medical care. In others, he donates blood, persuades a soldier to let an ambulance pass and discourages soldiers from mistreating their prisoners of war.


Cartoons that build values

The format of the soap opera lends itself perfectly to conveying relevant, current messages, whether related to education, health, drugs, the economy or humanitarian topics.

A soap opera incorporates these messages in a natural and dramatic manner and is therefore entertaining while simultaneously educating its viewers. It subtly shows how principles and values can be practised in a day-to-day routine, without sounding didactic. Conversely, the soap opera’s very brevity leaves a need for messages to be reinforced that could be filled by other media. “You cannot let the educational load become so heavy that the soap opera grinds to a halt,” says John Butt.

In a bid to reinforce the messages of “New Home, New Life”, the project has been expanded to include a cartoon journal, factual feature programmes, interviews, radio spots, poems and songs.

The cartoon journal, launched with financial assistance from UNESCO, faithfully follows the plot of the soap opera, scene by scene and episode by episode. It also highlights each scene’s prominent educational messages.

Although the cartoon journal can be referred to often, it has the dis-advantage of not reaching every home inside Afghanistan – which radio is in a better position to do.

The two media combine both to spread and reinforce humanitarian messages, which it is hoped will one day cross the air waves in an Afghanistan free from conflict.


Introducing soap

The programme recently expanded to include public health messages. For instance, public health specialists say that 75 per cent of Afghanistan’s health problems could be eliminated by communicating about and distributing soap to those unable to afford it.

The BBC therefore taped the voices of health trainers taking part in Federation-supported Afghan Red Crescent courses and is planning to introduce these into future episodes of the soap opera. Listeners have yet to hear what role Ali Gul will play in these health-related scenarios, if at all.

All this humanitarian work has made Ali Gul, who does not originally belong to Upper Village, quite a well-known character. “Our decision to introduce his character has so far been justified, both by the storylines that have been associated with his person and by the impact these storylines have had,” says Project Manager John Butt. “Our audience research indicates that Ali Gul has been one of the most popular characters in the soap opera.”

The Project’s Audience Evaluation Coordinator, Shireen Sultan, recently visited the camps that have been set up in the east of Afghanistan to provide shelter to refugees fleeing from the fighting in the capital, Kabul. There she was told by an aid worker that, deprived of entertainment, children could sometimes be seen performing roles like that of Ali Gul.

The Movement’s humanitarian principles, presented through the character of Ali Gul, are common to
all religions and philosophies of the world. Islam, the country’s major religion, places special emphasis on them; the First Sermon of the Prophet Mohammed stresses the importance of humanitarian principles. No wonder, then, that the people of Afghanistan can relate to the character of Ali Gul.

Ayesha Haroon
Ayesha Haroon is a special correspondent for The Nation in Lahore.

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