Tag Archives: culture

Eid Mubarak: Taking Time to Celebrate in Afghanistan

The road back to Kabul is a dark, bumpy haze; you can feel the dust enter your lungs as you breathe in. We jostle along, the constant jolt of stopping and going when you’re driving in lanes that aren’t really lanes and the only real rule of traffic is the fend for yourself. In the dark of the early evening cyclists and pedestrians come out of almost nowhere, lurching into the street at a moment’s notice. Our driver maneuvers around them as if it were second nature.

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Mountain Biking to Break Barriers?








On October 3rd this year, my birthday coincidentally, I became the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan.   The irony of accomplishing something like this was that it started out so simply….each trip I’ve spent in Afghanistan I’ve longed for my bike.  The goat trails, the dirt roads, and the incredible mountains scream out to me to get pedalling!

The non profit I founded, Mountain to Mountain, is focused on women and children’s education and empowerment in remote mountain communities, in particularly in Afghanistan.  Yet a large part of our ethos is connecting communities and cultures.  I have come to realize that being the founder of a non profit and a mountain biker is not necessarily mutually exclusive.

So this trip, I made the decision to lug my trusted steed on the arduous journey from Colorado to Kabul.  Mountain to Mountain becoming quite literal as my Niner biked its way through Singlespeed World Championships in Durango, Colorado on a Saturday, only to be packed up, still dirty, to join me on a series of flights to Afghanistan the following week.

It wasn’t intended to be any sort of record creating, being the first at something, kind of excursion.  It’s simply a way for me to do what I do, in a country that I love, and perhaps change a few perceptions about what women can and can’t do in the process.  After some googling and researching, we discovered that no other woman had done this.   Not really surprising as this is Afghanistan we’re talking about.  Women don’t ride bikes here.  Foreign women try to stay relatively low key.  For good reason.  Between the land mines, suicide bombers, the Taliban, and the usual crap against women that exists in many Islamic countries, mountain biking isn’t high on anyone’s (male or female) priority list.

I decided to ride my bike in two provinces of Afghanistan, which happen to be two of the provinces that Mountain to Mountain is working in…connecting our mission with our ethos.  Education and cultural exchange.  Couple that with my desire to break barriers and crack open the long held stereotypes that pigeon hole women in many regions of the world, it was a no brainer.  The long term vision being that this trip I challenge perceptions and stereotypes on both sides of the coin.

Westerners assume Afghan men won’t accept women on bikes, because no women do it.   Truth, many won’t and don’t.  But the majority we encountered not only tolerated it, but chatted with us, joked and supported it.

Afghans expect that Westerners are too scared and too closed off to come out of their NGO and military compounds to interact with them and their country.  Westerners (including many that live and work in Afghanistan) assume you’ll be shot dead or kidnapped the moment you leave the confines of your secure car or compound.  I try to do my errands on my own whenever possible via walking or motorbike. I walk in the markets, stay in residential neighborhoods, and often conduct my daily errands alone so that I can take the time to connect with shopkeepers and security guards.  I buy my naan bread from a local baker round the block, have learned where to buy fresh yogurt measured out into a plastic bag and sold by the weight.

Mountain biking is just another extension of that desire to interact with Afghans more fully by doing what comes naturally.

Now this is not to say, it is without danger, or that all men would tolerate this.  There are men, especially in other, more conservative provinces, that wouldn’t.  I am fully aware of security concerns and am not ignorant of the risks I take by exposing myself on a bike.  I chose and discussed my location choices carefully.  Baby steps were taken on remote mountain paths and dirt roads before riding my bike through a village.  There are still areas of this country where I couldn’t step out of my car without a burqa on.   Areas where foreigners of either sex, are at risk, simply by trying to do their work.   Assassinations and kidnappings still occur and foreigners are not trusted.  But there are areas where genuine human interaction and cultural exchange are not only possible but desired.

Yet as I’ve said many times before, if no one ever does it, it will never change.  Its my own version of:  “Just because that’s the way things are, doesn’t mean its the way they should be.”

photo by Travis Beard

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An Afghan Education

pashto-lessonsThe visit to Kabul had many purposes. The longterm goal was to discover how to support the growth of Afghan education and school building in a region that has dealt with losing many schools to the Taliban as recently as a couple months ago. How best could we find sustainable and progressive projects that we could work to garner support for here at home. Could these be built safely and securely in outer provinces or should they remain in Kabul one of the few areas still considered relatively safe in comparison. If they needed to be focused on Kabul, is there a need, or are there already enough schools and enough support. How do we safely get them built, get the money to the project and oversee the project from afar?

Who do we trust to liaison?

I got these questions answered, and much much more during my short two weeks in Kabul thanks in part to my amazing translator, Najibullah. Naji knew that I was coming over so that I could meet with several girls schools and was open to seeing others. He took this and ran with it….tugging at my already strung out heart strings. He opened my eyes to the many opportunities we could get involved with, from deaf schools, to girls schools, to schools for streetchildren, to vocational schools preserving Afghan culture while creating work opportunities.

The first school we visited was with Aschiana, an organization focused on providing education and vocation training for streetchildren. The school is one of many that Aschiana runs. They work around the needs of these streetchildren to make money for the family by being flexible with the schooldays and working with the families to understand the value of education. The surprise of the visit was that besides basics like literacy and languages (all schoolchildren in Afghanistan learn Dari, Pashto, and English – better language skills than most educated Americans), they also learn painting, calligraphy, and music. We sat in on several classes and the hands-down highlight was music class. Two adult teachers were playing the  sitar, while two young students were playing tabla (drums) and a strange musical hybrid keyboard/accordion. The rest of the class sat around, boys on one side, girls on the other and sang traditional Afghan songs. It was enthralling, and we stayed for a long time enjoying the impromptu concert.

The second school was all Najibullah. It is Afghanistan’s only deaf school. Unplanned on the original wish list, Najibullah made it clear we needed to go here. I have never seen such unadulterated joy as I saw on these young faces when they saw us pass by. Excitement pulsated through the halls and within every classroom we visit (10 or 12 in a rapid fire visit). We learned immediately how to say “Salaam” by placing one hand at our brow, much like a military salute. Followed by a thumb’s up. We made this greeting to every classroom to huge smiles all around. We learned several other signs as we moved from classroom to classroom, so that by the time we left we had learned around a dozen signs.

The founder of this school is also deaf, and speak four languages in sign. He is a passionate advocate for building more schools and working with the families to learn sign to communicate with their children. Over 10,000 deaf live in Afghanistan, most of them growing up in complete isolation, being unable to communicate with their own family and lacking any social group or friends. Until the completion of Kabul’s deaf school, there was no opportunity anywhere for this demographic to receive an education. The goal is for more schools to be built throughout the country and to develop more regional ‘outposts’ where families can go to learn sign and better understand their own children.

A unique approach to cultural preservation was discovered at Turquoise Mountain’s headquarters and center for higher education which is focused on this preservation of culture through education. A complete compound with various buildings housing different artisan workshops and classrooms. Pottery, calligraphy, woodworking, and jewelry making were all run by masters found from across Afghanistan. The apprentices learn under their tutelage and after 2-3 years will complete their cultural education in their particular vocation. These students will ensure that the traditional Afghan arts are not lost with the eldest generation’s passing. Reinvigorating the Afghan culture and with it, the market for its artisan’s work.

The same afternoon was spent touring the Murad Khane restoration project that falls under the leadership of Turquoise Mountain. Located in the heart of old Kabul, an area with no sewage or running water, and buildings that collapse weekly. Turquoise Mountain has undertook a large restoration of the old bazaar, encompassing several buildings. Inside the beautifully restored Peacock House are a couple of classrooms for the local children that live in this squalor filled area of Kabul to attend school. We sat in on a small classroom of young boys who immediately offered to sing songs. One at a time, boys would stand up and sing us a little song, some shyly and some with great enthusiasm.

Having interrupted their English lesson we didn’t stay too long before going upstairs to another classroom focused on vocational training for embroidery. Women of all ages sat around the edges of the room working on different designs. Here was example of vocation training and preservation of culture on a very small, intimate level akin to a widow’s tailoring project we had visited earlier in the trip.

We visited girls’ schools and co-ed schools, and other small vocational projects. All with similar focuses on combining education, preserving Afghan culture, and developing useable vocational skills. Each one inspiring me further to find ways to develop multiple projects under Mountain to Mountain’s banner. There are several ways to fund our own projects there to build deaf schools, schools for streetchildren, and girls schools…all desperately needed, all sustainable, and all easily completed.

In my journey to discover how to support the education of Afghans, that my education began.


photo by Di Zinno

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