In war-ravaged Afghanistan, children have little access to literature, even in big cities. So for children living in remote areas that are hard to reach in 4x4s, books are an extremely rare commodity. But one man is trying to change that by riding his bicycle loaded with boxes of kids' books to isolated villages.
Our Observer Saber Hosseini is a school teacher in the city of Bamiyan. His book distribution project, called “Kids Foundation”, has earned him the love of hundreds of kids – and the wrath of the Taliban.
“The Taliban used bicycles in their bomb attacks – so I wanted to replace violence with culture”
I came up with the idea for this project six months ago. I talked about it to friends in literary circles, who donated money and got some of their friends abroad to donate as well. I started alone with 200 storybooks for kids, and started riding to remote villages throughout Bamiyan province. Soon I recruited more volunteers – now there are 20 of us, and we have a collection of about 6,000 books.
We ride bikes for several reasons: first, we don’t have enough money for cars. Second, some villages are only reachable by bike. And lastly, it’s a bit symbolic – the Taliban have at times used bicycles in their bomb attacks, so the message I want to convey is that we can replace this violence with culture.
We work as a sort of library – every week, we bring kids new books and take back the old ones to distribute to children in other villages. Some of the adults have even taken to borrowing our more advanced books. At first, I chose very simple books, but now most of the older kids are able to read more serious books – for example, we’ve got simplified versions of books by Victor Hugo, Jack London, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Samad Behrangi [an Iranian writer], and Ferdowsi [an Iranian poet].
Most of our books are imported from Iran, since the publication of books in Afghanistan is very limited. To buy them, we travel to the border with Iran.
“The kids turned over their plastic toy guns with one condition: they wanted to get the first pick of books”
Every time I bring books to children, I try to talk to them about a topic. I mostly talk about the importance of peace, the dangers of drugs, and the need for tolerance between people with different beliefs or cultures.
One time, I talked to children in a village about guns, using the slogan “say no to guns and yes to books”. The next time I went to their village, the kids had gathered up all of their plastic toy guns and handed them over to me – but they had one condition: they wanted their village to be the first in the next round of book deliveries so that they could get first pick. It was the most joyful moment of my life!
I wish we had more money to buy more books for some of the very young kids – each time they see us, they always ask us for books about Batman or sirens, which they know from their cartoons. But our budget is limited.
“We get death threats from the Taliban”
There are some dark sides to this work, too. I sometimes get threats on the phone. The men on the end of the line tell me that I must hand out only Islamic books, or I will face consequences. My wife, who also helps me with this project, was – until recently - a teacher in a remote part of the region . She got a lot of threats, and one day one of her students warned her that some of his relatives who were in the Taliban had hatched a plan to kill her. She had to leave her post.
Despite these difficulties, we want to keep going. These kids live such stressful lives – they live in a society that is full of death and violence, and they often face violence from their parents at home, too. Schools are rarely havens for them – many teachers are uneducated, and dish out physical punishments every day. So we want to keep delivering a bit of joy and calm in their lives through books.