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
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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
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 is a special correspondent for The Nation
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