Saturday, October 13, 2012

The SECOND ANNUAL Kabul Invitational

We hosted The Second Annual Kabul Invitational last Thursday, and it was wonderful. It was the first tournament of our program this year, the second internationally sanctioned tournament held in Afghanistan, the first tournament that some schools have ever participated in. It featured topics such as 'The Internet promotes democracy;' 'Suicide is never justified;' and 'Men should help cook and take care of their children.' Students tried out their ideas, won rounds, lost rounds, treated each other with respect (for the most part!), listened to the ideas of others, and above all, learned something new.

If you want details on what a tournament in Afghanistan is like, take a look at my post from last year- The Most Amazing Tournament Ever. This year was pretty similar, and I think we could debate which tournament now deserves the title "Most Amazing Tournament Ever." I just went back and compared the two, and I was struck by a few things:

At the very end of last year's post, I wrote, “This was such an experimental program, but judging by the success, I think it’s safe to say that the Kabul Invitational may just become an annual event. There is nothing I would like better than to come back next year and help host it again.” When I wrote that, I had no idea that I would actually get to come back, that we actually would have a 2ND ANNUAL Kabul Invitational. It was pretty incredible to look around the tournament and see a few debaters who were there for the second time. Last year, we didn't even know if we'd be able to offer a second tournament. This time, we told the students not to be discouraged if they didn't win, because they'll have another chance in just six weeks.

Last year, none of our debaters and few of our judges had experience in IPDA debate. This time, we still had a lot of first-timers, but we also had a few students who competed last year. The tournament itself was smaller than last year, and there was a part of me that struggled to not get discouraged every time yet another team dropped out twenty-four or twelve or one and a half hours before the tournament began. We have to keep reminding ourselves that our goal is not necessarily to teach debate to every Afghan university student, have them all debate once, and then quit. Our goal is to provide for the sustainability of the program by developing a core group of trained, experienced debaters. This tournament was the next step toward that goal, and it was exciting to see the students' excitement and hear them planning for their future in debate. More than once, I heard students say, “At the next tournament...”

This tournament also featured judges and tournament staff who were former debaters, and I have to say, that made me more proud that just about anything else. Many of our students from last year have stayed involved, especially the group from Kabul University. They got a grant last fall to train more debaters and host three more tournaments, and now their students are also involved. Graduated debaters from multiple universities helped us this time as judges, as tab room and tournament staff, and as trainers.

Their commitment proves that we are on the right track. In the long term, Josh and I aren't very important. We are leaving in nine months. We won't be here to keep training students or hosting tournaments or persuading student after student that debate teaches useful skills. These graduates are the ones who will take over those roles, and they will do it much more effectively than us. They have the passion; we are just here to give them the tools.

The final thing that hits me afresh every time I work with these students is their attitudes. There was some jealousy and some frustration and some unhappy grumblings, which is only to be expected. For the most part, though, most of the students I spoke to after the tournament were positive. Both of the final teams came from one of the schools I trained, the Kabul Educational University. (Not my favorite result, but it happens sometimes.) They were brimming over with enthusiasm, even those who didn't win. One student, Nargis, was the top speaker and won the final round with her partner. Pretty good for a girl who wears a chadar that covers her mouth and who originally told me that she was too afraid to debate.

One student didn't win a single round, but he came up to me with a grin on his face and told me that he loved debating. He had learned so much, he said, and he can't wait until November 29 so he can win. Another student sent me an email after the tournament: “hi dear Rachill. Thanks from your the best debate programs, it was a new experience for us. I am very happy participating in this program. I enjoyed and like such a good debate like this. Thanks again!!” That student only had a few days of training and had serious stage fright, but she and her partner managed to win one of their rounds and came very close to winning another. Another student told me that she was disappointed that she didn't win, because she had dreams of being a champion debater. Not for the glory, but because she wants to work for APT, because she believes in what we are doing. I told her that being a champion isn't the most important attribute for a job at APT, and she grinned. I know, she said, but I'm going to win in November anyway!

Yet again, it was an amazing tournament. There is so much talk in the news right now about Afghanistan's future, predictions about civil war or another Taliban government or even more instability. I don't know what will happen over the next few years, but I do know that there are a lot of incredible young people in this country, and they are committed to building their country. Based on what I saw this weekend, I wouldn't underestimate their ability to do just that.

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