Monday, May 30, 2011

Afghanistan- starting a new adventure!

Well, it’s been over a year since I posted to this blog, but since I’m off in a foreign country again and have lots of wonderful friends and family trying to stay in contact, I figured it was time to resurrect it. I probably won’t be able to write to everyone individually, but I’ll post things on here and try to add personal comments, and feel free to write back to me via comments here, emails, or Facebook. It makes my day when I hear from home!

I’m currently living in Kabul, Afghanistan. I arrived four days ago, but it feels like so much longer! I’m here for a month, interning for a nonprofit called the Banyan Tree Network (BTN) and teaching debate to university students here. (I just learned- “Afghanis” refers to the currency. The people are “Afghans.” I’ve been saying it wrong for ten years now!) I came with a group of five college students (Clayton, Nick, Josh, and Rachal) from various schools across the US, and it’s been so much fun so far. We spend a lot of time together, between work, meals, transit, and “chill time,” but we get along really well, and I’m really enjoying it.

The work is amazing. We have a grant from the US Embassy to give exhibition debates at five universities, teach debate workshops at each university, and host the 1st Annual Kabul Invitational debate tournament, the first such tournament ever hosted in Afghanistan. At this tournament on June 16, the students we select from the five schools will debate each other using the skills they will learn in the workshops we are teaching. It’s really interesting- we have to teach basic debate and public speaking and persuade them that debate is important and useful, all while working with students who speak English as a second language.

We really encountered language barriers yesterday when we did our first exhibition debate at Kardan Institute of Higher Education (only public universities are allowed to call themselves universities). We practiced in front of the BTN staff first, and when we asked for feedback, they told us our example of Iran could be seen as offensive, that they didn’t know what a Japanese internment camp was, and that we TALKED TOO FAST!! So… we started again at square one, and when we did the second debate, it was much better. We had to talk S-O S-L-O-W-L-Y to be understood, but it was good practice.

The culture here is so different, but it really isn’t as scary or weird as some of you probably imagine. Some things live up to stereotypes: we go through military cement blocks to get to our compound (house), women have to cover their heads with scarves (chadaran) in public, and the patriarchal society definitely exists. But contrary to popular belief, not all Afghans hate Americans, want us to leave, or want to hurt us. In fact, everyone I’ve met so far supports the US being here, is glad that we came, and believes that Afghanistan needs us here. They are so curious about our culture- we’ve had amazing talks about everything from education systems to the status of women (which is changing here! So cool! They even said they might be able to find a group that will let me play soccer with them, which women never get to do!) to corruption to the Barcelona-Manchester game. So academic, I know.

Listening to them, I’ve been struck by the fact that our societies are so different, but we have such similar ideologies. These youth want change as much as we do. We live in totally opposite cultures, but we all want to see our countries, our world, improve, and we all have dramatic ideas about how we can help. Maybe my generation is young and stupid, but we aren’t willing to live with the status quo and I love seeing how passionate they are about change. All of the students I’ve talked to so far recognize that Afghans aren’t taught how to debate, how to argue with reason instead of with fists, how to think critically or use logic. It isn’t a part of this culture. It is so exciting to be introducing it to them and I really believe it’s going to make a difference. I talked to a girl yesterday who blushed as she told me that her dream was to become the first female president of Afghanistan. If that’s not progress, what is?

It’s time for bed, but I have to share one last thing. I’m absolutely loving the chance to learn another language. You probably know about my passion for languages and that I’ve been studying both Spanish and Italian for the past year. The languages of Afghanistan, Pashtu and Dari, are nothing like those Romance Languages, but they are really cool nonetheless. I’ve been trying to learn Dari as much as I can, and I’m picking it up quickly. I’ve learned the basic grammatical structure- adjective, noun, verb- and the verb conjugations, which weren’t too hard. Now I’m learning random words: Salam alaykum! Sobh ba khayr! Chetor asten? Khub astom. Mekhayed chai sobh? Bale! Man goresna astom! (Hello! Good morning! How are you? I’m good. Do you want breakfast? Yes! I’m hungry!) I’ve also learned a bunch of random words- monozara-debate. maris-sick. E chandi ast?- how much does it cost? loftan- please. tashakor- thank you. Wow, that list was longer than I thought and there are still more, so I’ll stop boring you. Suffice it to say, I’m having fun learning new words every day. Even cooler? According to the Afghans I’ve talked to in Dari, I don’t have an accent at all! Ah, I love languages.

Hope all of you are well, and please do write to me! I’d love to hear from you!

Salam! Peace!

PS- I tried to post photos but it didn't work. Sorry! Look on Facebook to see my lovely headscarf :)


  1. Rachel, thank you so much for sharing your adventure with us. Keep writing, because I (and I'm sure plenty of others) love reading. Be safe and have fun.


  2. What an amazing opprotunity to be a part of all the change in that country!! And totally jealous of you picking up another language^^ Keep posting 'cause I'll keep reading!!