What You Need to Know about LEARN & Play

right to play logoChildren learn best through play. That’s the major principle behind Right to Play, a global organization that uses sports and games as tools to help teach kids the essential life skills they need to overcome challenges like poverty, conflict, and disease, and to create better futures for themselves and their communities.

Recently, in its capacity as secretariat to the Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group (SDP IWG, an initiative of the United Nations), Right to Play published a report showcasing a number of different SDP IWG initiatives and looking at the transformative effect these programs had on local children and their communities.

Among these programs was LEARN & play, a program launched in Kabul and Parwan province and spearheaded by the German development organization AfghanistanHilfe Paderborn. Read on to learn more.

What were the objectives of LEARN & play?

With more than half of Afghanistan’s entire population currently under the age of 18, initiatives that target children’s welfare and development are an absolutely vital part of the country’s rebuilding process. Street children are a special focus of many initiatives, as estimates indicate that in Kabul alone, as many as 20,000 children are living on the street with no permanent home or adult care.

The objectives of LEARN & play were to provide disadvantaged children in Kabul with the opportunity to attend school regularly and to participate in sports and games, to provide street children in particular with a safe environment for learning and skills development, and to teach them skills essential to future success like reading and writing and computer skills. The program also sought to teach participants about cooperation and conflict resolution skills through football.

How was the LEARN & play program designed?

The target demographic for LEARN & play was children aged 8 to 12 who were either living on the street, had been orphaned, or were from struggling single-parent homes. In Afghanistan, many children who fit this description have to help provide financial support for themselves and their families, and are therefore able to attend school. Furthermore, life on the streets carries many risks, including the greater likelihood that children will become involved in crime and drugs.

The LEARN & play initiative used football to attract children to the program; the idea being that the program’s participants would come for the football and stay for the academic training. As part of the program, children received one meal; three hours of academic lessons in fundamental subjects like reading, writing, computers, and English; and two hours of football practice.

All classes were taught by instructors approved by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education and were held in the safe environment of buildings belonging to AfghanistanHilfe Paderborn, the program’s lead organization. Two centers for the program were established—one in Kabul and one in the eastern province of Parwan—and classes were held in shifts so that more children could attend. For maximum effectiveness, eligibility for the LEARN & play program required a five-year commitment from the participants.

What organizations were involved in the delivery of LEARN & play?

While AfghanistanHilfe Paderborn was responsible for overall administration and project coordination, a number of other groups provided additional support for LEARN & play. These included the Afghanistan Football Association, which organized football teams and tournaments; Handicap International, which provided training clinics for team coaches; Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, which oversaw the teachers employed in LEARN & play’s non-formalized schools; and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which provided financial support for the curriculum design of the program, as well as much-needed moral support for project staff.

What impact did LEARN & play have?

LEARN & play reached approximately 600 of Afghanistan’s most disadvantaged children: 400 in Kabul and 200 in Parwan province. At the start of the project, only about 10% of participating children were enrolled in a formal school; by the end of the project, that figure had grown to 60%.

Based on reports from project staff members, LEARN & play participants developed greater self-confidence and became more energetic and more cooperative as a result of their football training. Because of the teamwork involved in playing football, children also had plenty of opportunities to practice problem solving and positive conflict resolution, and to boost their communication and interpersonal skills by interacting with a diverse range of people, both peers and adults, with whom they would not likely have had contact before the program.

The children also enjoyed greater recognition from their neighbors and peers as a result of LEARN & play’s respected community status; street children and orphans are often marginalized in Afghan society. Finally, LEARN & play provided important health benefits for participants, both through the provision of a daily meal and through the regular physical activity at football sessions, which helped improve their strength, stamina, and coordination.

What You Need to Know about Traditional Islamic Gardens

For well over a thousand years, gardens have occupied a special place in Islamic culture. Viewed as an earthly symbol of paradise, Islamic gardens can trace their origins as far back as the 7th century, when Persian gardens were established. Today, beautiful examples of historic Islamic gardens can be found throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, including the gardens of the Taj Mahal in India and the Alhambra palace in southern Spain.

In Afghanistan, the most famous example of a traditional Islamic garden is Bagh-e Babur, or “Babur’s Gardens”. The beautifully restored gardens in the heart of Kabul were originally designed and created by the Mughal emperor Babur approximately 500 years ago. Following a long period of neglect and disrepair, a comprehensive restoration of the gardens was launched in 2002 with the support of the Aga Khan Development Network. Today, Babur offers locals and tourists alike a glimpse of a peaceful and beautiful part of the Islamic cultural heritage.

Like most other traditional Islamic gardens, Bagh-e Babur carefully follows the key principles upon which all such gardens are based, incorporating the vital design elements common to Islamic gardens of all sizes. Read on to learn more about how these gardens were designed.

Basic Principles

Islamic gardens are much more than pleasant green spaces. They are sophisticated, living cultural artifacts that reflect key elements of Islamic tradition and culture. Following are seven important principles on which all Islamic gardens are based.

gardenDiversity—Islamic gardens are unique in that they bring together disparate elements while at the same time celebrating their distinctiveness. In particular, gardens explore and reflect the connection between urban and natural, tangible and symbolic, and physical and metaphysical.

Beauty—In the Islamic culture, beauty is a goal rather than a luxury. Aesthetic considerations are therefore of prime importance in garden design, encompassing everything from the types of plants that are chosen to how the garden structures are decorated.

Conservation—This is an important tenet of Islam. In garden design, it manifests itself in the careful consideration of how water in a garden is used and controlled.

Context—Islamic gardens should not be viewed in isolation. Rather, the gardens’ design should be created in response to the surrounding architecture and planning elements, ensuring that they will fit in harmoniously with their environment.

Individualism—While they are common spaces, Islamic gardens are designed to encourage visitors to have their own individual experiences with and their own responses to the design.

Multi-functionality—The ideal Islamic garden serves many purposes. It should provide food and water for visitors, as well as for the animals and birds that live in it. Its trees and shrubs should not only produce fruit and herbs, but also shade and scent. A range of both active and passive activities should be possible in the garden.

Moderation—Islamic gardens demonstrate restraint and moderation in that they are all about finding a balance between humans and nature.

Design Elements

A number of key design elements are common to all Islamic gardens, regardless of their size and location. They include:

Water—Water is at the heart—both literally and metaphorically—of Islamic gardens. Given that the gardens developed in arid countries and were typically designed by desert dwellers, water assumes an almost sacred importance. Indeed, water is actually a more important part of an Islamic garden than the plants. Many Islamic gardens feature a fountain at the center with four water courses radiating outwards. The water courses are often lined with green or blue tiles that enhance the interplay between water and light.

The number four—Four is an important number in the Islamic culture, representing the four directions and four elements that form the order of the universe. As such, traditional Islamic gardens are laid out in a quadripartite design. That is, they are shaped like a rectangle divided into four parts (the divisions are usually created by the water courses described above). The layout is traditionally referred to as “chahar-bagh,” a term derived from Persian and meaning “four gardens.”

Greenery and shade—The geometric lines of the traditional Islamic garden are softened by greenery, which is planted first and foremost to create shade. Fruit trees are some of the most common plants featured in Islamic gardens, as they not only provide crucial shade, but also nourishment and a pleasant aroma.

Walls and gates—An Islamic garden, much like paradise in the Islamic tradition, is an enclosed space protected by walls and accessible by gates. In physical terms, enclosing a garden serves three main purposes: it helps to keep out the encroaching desert and allows the area within it to be organized and maintained more effectively, it concentrates visitors’ attention on the garden rather than its surroundings, and it designates the garden as a special area separate from its environment.

Spotlight on the Amazing Phototheca Afghanica

Decades of turmoil and conflict have destroyed many elements of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, including the vast majority of historical photographs of the country. Today, a visual record of the time before Afghanistan’s troubles is all but non-existent, leaving the country with very little visual heritage to look back on with pride or to pass on to future generations as a record of the past.

However, not all photographs were lost, and one unique project is working to ensure that those photographs that were saved from destruction are safely preserved and made publicly accessible. Read on to learn more about the Phototheca Afghanica and its work to preserve and restore Afghanistan’s visual heritage.

What is the Phototheca Afghanica?

old photosThe Phototheca Afghanica is a project initiated and maintained by the Swiss Afghanistan Institute (SAI), a politically and religiously neutral institution that has been systematically researching and documenting the history and culture of Afghanistan for more than 35 years.

The image archives of the SAI have served as the primary source of material for the Phototheca Afghanica; these archives contain approximately 50,000 photographs derived mainly from collections that were lodged with the SAI or entrusted to other safe individuals and institutions for protection during Afghanistan’s conflict years. It was a common practice during this time for important cultural artifacts to be hidden or sent out of the country for safekeeping, as objects that remained in the country were at great risk of destruction.

At present, the aim of the Phototheca Afghanica is to make roughly 5,000 historical photographs available for research and accessible to the general public through exhibitions, publications, or online.

Why were so many of Afghanistan’s photographs destroyed?

Afghanistan’s photographs—again, like so many other cultural artifacts—suffered from two waves of destruction. In 1978, pre-revolutionary photographs were destroyed by communist activists attempting to erase what they viewed as the country’s bourgeois past. Then, from the mid-1990s onwards, images depicting living creatures were destroyed as the regime believed them to be blasphemous.

What has the Phototheca Afghanica been doing to preserve photos?

The practical work being carried out by the Phototheca Afghanica is all about ensuring that the photographs are preserved in as good condition as possible, and that it is easy to access and search through the collection of photos. Practical steps to this end include: preparing a comprehensive inventory of existing photographs, including albums, prints, negatives, and glass plates; scanning and digitizing all available material; physically safeguarding the photographs by mounting them in special acid-free paper folders and then storing them in acid-free boxes; compiling individual descriptions of each photograph, including the identification (as far as possible) of the people and places featured and the date of the photo; and assembling searchable databases so that photos can be found based on selected criteria such as photographer, location, etc.

What kinds of photos can be found in the Phototheca Afghanica?

The Phototheca Afghanica has already made a select number of images available online from the following collections:

The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880)—Photos from this collection are some of the earliest photos of Afghanistan in existence, as photographic technology was unknown in the country prior to the late 1870s, when it was brought over from Europe. These particular photographs were taken by the British Royal Engineers during the Second Anglo-Afghan War; the aim was to photograph military action on Afghan territory to supplement conventional military documentation of the time.

Souvenirs d’Afghanistan—This intriguing series of photographs was initiated by the Afghan ambassador in Paris in 1924. At this time, the recently independent Afghanistan was a relatively unknown player on the world stage. The ambassador’s intention was to introduce people to his country through a series of photographs depicting Afghanistan as a modern, up-and-coming nation. The collection primarily featured buildings, cars, and bridges, with very few people appearing—and then only members of the royal household dressed in Western apparel.

Why is preserving these photos important?

Photographs provide a vital record unlike any other of a country and its culture. Particularly in a country like Afghanistan, which has seen so much change over the years, photographs stand as an important reminder of a past that has been all but lost. For example, many historic buildings that feature in some of the photographs have since been demolished or destroyed, and the photograph is therefore the only reminder of their existence.

In addition, while preserved photographs have a cultural importance all their own, they can also serve a very practical purpose in helping with the rebuilding of Afghanistan. According to the Phototheca Afghanica, photos from its collections have already been used in the reconstruction of Bagh-e Babur, the famous gardens in the heart of Kabul, as well as the buildings of the Afghan National Museum, the Afghan National Gallery, and some of the oldest parts of the Presidential Palace.