A Look at the New Program Helping Boost Literacy in Afghanistan

According to 2018 data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 12 million people in Afghanistan—roughly one-third of the country’s entire population—lack basic literacy skills. This figure has been dropping over the last decade thanks to considerable efforts by government entities and NGOs. However, it’s clear that there is still a great deal of work to be done when it comes to improving literacy rates in Afghanistan.

One new initiative determined to tackle this challenge head-on is the Better Education System for Afghanistan’s Future (BESAF) project. A basic general literacy program geared towards some of Afghanistan’s most marginalized groups and communities, the BESAF project hopes to boost literacy levels for thousands of Afghans. Read on to learn more.

What is the BESAF project?

The Better Education System for Afghanistan’s Future project is a two-year program that will provide some 15,000 youth and adult learners around the country with courses in basic general literacy.

Taking place in 2021 and 2022, these courses have the immediate objective of increasing fundamental literacy skills among some of Afghanistan’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable people, including youth and adults in remote communities.

A broader goal of the BESAF project is to increase demand for and facilitate access to adult education, in order to better support Afghans who were unable to receive formal education during Afghanistan’s conflict years.

What is unique about the BESAF project?

One element that distinguishes the BESAF project from other literacy-building initiatives is that is places as much emphasis on teaching the teachers as it does on teaching the learners. One of the biggest challenges faced by education in general in Afghanistan is a lack of qualified teachers. In far too many learning situations, teachers are barely more educated or experienced than their students. The organizers of the BESAF project therefore made it a priority to ensure that their literacy courses would be taught by qualified, competent trainers.

To this end, the BESAF project began in late 2020 with a 10-day “training of trainers” workshop. A total of 124 master trainers—including program implementation managers, monitors, and district literacy managers —participated in the workshop.

They learned pragmatic tools and strategies for helping train and guide facilitators to effectively deliver literacy classes. The next step will, in turn, involve these master trainers providing further training to the hundreds of literacy facilitators who will be directly teaching and supporting BESAF learners.

Who is involved in the BESAF project?

Partners collaborating on the BESAF project include:

The UNESCO Office in Kabul

Re-opened in 2002, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has been working for nearly two decades to help the government of Afghanistan build and grow its educational, cultural, informational, and scientific capacity. The Office’s broad range of programs are frequently operated in collaboration with a diverse array of local and international partners and stakeholders.

The goal is to enrich the lives of Afghan citizens, create a stronger future for the country, and build peace within and beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The UNESCO Office in Kabul, together with the Afghan Ministry of Education, is responsible for implementing the BESAF project.

The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)

The primary funder of the BESAF project, Sida is the Swedish government’s agency for development cooperation. It works with a wide range of societal partners, including public and private sector agencies, civil society organizations, and research institutions.

Sida supports and carries out sustainable development initiatives in dozens of countries around the world. The agency’s broad goal is to help create conditions that will allow people experiencing poverty and oppression to improve their lives and livelihoods.

Why is the BESAF project important?

As the UNESCO Office in Kabul explains, education is the tool with which people can build the knowledge, skills, and competencies they need to cope with the many complex challenges of contemporary life. Literacy is the cornerstone of education.

In other words, before people can better themselves and their communities, before they can benefit from more specialized education, they must first become literate. Programs like the BESAF project are therefore critically important in that they help create the foundation on which all future learning and personal development can rest.

What other educational initiatives does UNESCO support in Afghanistan?

The BESAF project is just one way in which UNESCO supports education in Afghanistan. In recent years, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has worked closely with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education to develop plans, policies, and tools for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). This program helps provide unemployed or underemployed adults with targeted training.

UNESCO has also played an instrumental role in helping Afghanistan create its third National Education Strategic Plan. The ambitious policy document lays out a comprehensive and cohesive vision for improving the state of education throughout the country.

Spotlight on the Unique Traditional Instruments of Afghanistan

New York City might not be the first place you’d think of in connection with Afghan music, but surprisingly enough, the city’s famous Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to one of the finest collections of traditional Afghan instruments in the world. Comprised of 29 different instruments, the collection was donated to the Met in 2015 by Mark Slobin, a former professor of music and American studies at Wesleyan University.

Slobin gathered the instruments between 1967 and 1972. During this five-year period, he traveled repeatedly to northern Afghanistan in order to conduct extensive research into Afghan music, culture, language, and general society. This fieldwork, along with the instruments themselves, would eventually prove to be more valuable than anyone anticipated.

Just a few short years later, the Soviet invasion of 1979 initiated a decades-long period of civil conflict in Afghanistan. During these challenging years, music became widely banned. Many musicians (and their instruments) either fled the country or were driven underground, and Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage fell into decline.

Slobin’s instrument collection—along with his in-depth research, which includes folk music recordings, films, and hundreds of music-related images—therefore stands as an important and rare glimpse into an aspect of Afghanistan’s culture that has been all but lost. As a result of Slobin’s work, the fascinating traditional Afghan instruments that visitors to the Met can see and learn about include:

The Qobuz

A type of fiddle widely used in northern Afghanistan, the qobuz is an ancient instrument of Turkic origin. The instrument is mentioned in the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages, which was compiled in the 11th century. Shaped like a deep, curved ladle, the qobuz has a belly covered with camel or goat skin and two horsehair strings; a horsehair bow is used for playing, which generates a sound rich in overtones.

Believed to be a sacred instrument traditionally owned by shamans, the qobuz was popular during the 15th and 16th centuries for musical entertainment at Afghanistan’s royal courts. The qobuz featured in the Slobin collection at the Met was custom made for the popular Afghan folk musician Baba Naim.

The Dambura

Another traditional Afghan instrument of Turkic origin is the dambura (sometimes known as the dombra or dombyra). A type of lute typically made from a single block of wood, the dambura features a long, thin neck; a deep, oblong bowl; and two playing strings.

It is played either by plucking or strumming the strings. In some regions, musicians will also bang or strike the instrument while playing in order to produce a strong percussive sound.

The Waj

More formally known as a Kafir harp, the waj is a traditional arched harp, typically with either four or five strings, used by the Kafir people of northeastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Interestingly, although similar harps were historically widespread throughout Central Asia and India, the waj is not found anywhere else in Afghanistan today.

The instrument features two main components: the soundbox, made from a hollow piece of wood covered with a thick, stretched animal skin; and the stringholder, which is a curved branch positioned on top of the soundbox. Traditionally, the waj is played at social gatherings, usually as an accompaniment to epic storytelling or heroic songs.

The Nai

One of the few wind instruments used in Afghan music, the nai (or ney) is an end-blown flute of Persian origin. The instrument is little more than a hollow tube, usually made from a piece of hollow cane or a large reed, with five or six finger holes and one thumb hole (some nai also feature decorative painting or carving). Given the nai’s basic, simple design, it’s hardly surprising to learn that the instrument is one of the oldest still in use. It has been played continually for roughly 5,000 years.

The Ghichak

A very popular instrument in Afghanistan’s central and northern regions, the ghichak is a type of two-stringed fiddle that is played with a kaman (a horsehair bow). Distinct from many other traditional Afghan instruments which are made of wood or natural materials, the body of the ghichak is made from a large metal tin, which gives the instrument its characteristic sound.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Afghan Music.

Happily, although Afghanistan’s musical heritage suffered greatly during the country’s conflict years, traditional music is once again on the rise in Afghanistan. In recent years, a number of local and international organizations have launched programs aimed at reviving Afghanistan’s musical traditions and bringing back the use of traditional instruments.

For example, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Master-Apprentice Music Training Program sees hundreds of students learning to play traditional instruments under the tutelage of master musicians in Kabul and Herat. Likewise, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded in 2010 by musicologist Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, provides children and young teens with training in general academics and music, with a particular focus on traditional Afghan music.

Featured Image courtesy US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

6 Things You Might Not Know about Bamiyan

In a country bursting with historic landmarks and cultural riches, the Bamiyan Valley stands out as one of Afghanistan’s most important and impressive heritage sites. Despite its relatively remote location in Central Afghanistan, the city of Bamiyan and the surrounding area is known today as a vibrant hub of Afghan culture and creativity from both past and present. Read on for a look at some fascinating facts you might not know about this amazing site.

1. Bamiyan is the former home of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Bamiyan Afghanistan
Image courtesy Carlos Ugarte | Flickr

Bamiyan’s original claim to fame is the historic Buddhas of Bamiyan—two monumental Buddha statues that were carved directly into the sandstone cliffs of the valley roughly 1,500 years ago. An awe-inspiring example of Afghanistan’s ancient Buddhist heritage, which had all but disappeared from the country by the 10th century, the giant sculptures were unfortunately destroyed in 2001 as a result of Afghanistan’s internal conflict. However, in response to this cultural tragedy, scholars and experts around the world have been working ever since to preserve the other significant archaeological material in the area, and to one day perhaps rebuild the Buddhas.

2. The world’s first oil paintings can be found at Bamiyan.

If you think that oil painting was first developed during the European Renaissance, it’s time to think again. In addition to the Buddha statues, the Bamiyan Valley boasts an incredible system of more than 1,000 caves that were once used as Buddhist monasteries, chapels, and sanctuaries. Inside these caves, the remains of striking wall paintings created using the world’s first oil paints can be found, along with other decorative features and small carved figures.

3. Bamiyan was an important stopping point on the Silk Road.

Although the location of Bamiyan seems somewhat isolated and remote today, the area was once a globalized and cosmopolitan center along the fabled Silk Road trading route. Linking ancient Rome with China and India, the Silk Road saw not only goods but also philosophies, religions, and ideas passed back and forth between East and West. Afghanistan, particularly Bamiyan, was at the very heart of the route. In addition, Alexander the Great himself is recorded as having passed through Bamiyan, while Mani, the mystic and philosopher who founded the Manicheans, is believed to have lived and studied there.

4. Bamiyan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley constitute one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Afghanistan (the other is the famous Minaret of Jam).

Bamiyan was added to the World Heritage list in 2003 in recognition of its outstanding universal cultural value, particularly as an example of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage, and of Western Buddhism in general. At the same time, the site was also included on the List of World Heritage in Danger, which identifies and monitors important cultural heritage sites whose ongoing existence may be threatened by factors such as environmental damage or security risks. (In recent years, Afghanistan has been working closely with the Japanese government to fulfill the conditions necessary for removing Bamiyan from the Danger list.)

5. Bamiyan is a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

In 2004 UNESCO launched its Creative Cities Network (UCCN), an initiative developed to foster cooperation and support among global cities that prioritize creativity as part of their sustainable urban development efforts. In 2015 Bamiyan became the first urban center from Afghanistan—and all of Central Asia—to join the network.

This membership is not only a reflection of Bamiyan’s rich cultural past but also of the investments the area is making in the present-day areas of crafts and folk art (one of the seven categories of creativity covered by the UCCN). For example, Afghanistan’s Department of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has conducted local carpet weaving projects that employ some of the region’s most vulnerable people.

7. Bamiyan has been suggested as the site of the Garden of Eden.

For centuries, people have speculated about which real-world places might have been the site of the Garden of Eden, and interestingly enough, Bamiyan has been proposed as a possibility. In 1799, Captain Francis Wilford, a somewhat eccentric scholar, suggested in the journal Asiatic Researches that because four rivers flow out of the Bamiyan Valley, the site could be the location of the biblical garden.

Whether or not you believe this claim, there seems to be little question that Bamiyan is beautiful enough to be considered an earthly paradise. Poised just below the spectacular ranges of the Hindu Kush, the Bamiyan Valley is lush and fertile, full of orchards, pastures, and flowers, and its isolated location (by present-day standards) has helped protect it from much of the conflict that has troubled other parts of Afghanistan. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising to learn that Bamiyan can be translated as “land of shining light.”