After being torn apart by war for decades, the Afghan capital has few cultural spaces left to offer its young people. However, an Afghan organisation is trying to change that. They filled up their bus with books and now drive around in the mobile library with the aim of getting more young people in Kabul to read.

There is only one official library for Kabul’s 4.6 million residents, and it has very few books for young readers. However, the Charmarghz association is using their blue and white mobile library to bring books directly to young Afghans.

"We’re bringing books to people’s doorsteps"

Freshta Karim, age 26, is behind this initiative. In 2015, Karim returned to Kabul, the ink still not yet dry on her masters in public policy from Oxford.

Upon her return, she teamed up with three friends to launch Charmaghz, an organisation to inspire young people living in Kabul. In Dari, the dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, “charmaghz” means walnut. The term is often used to talk about intellect – as walnuts kind of resemble brains.

I got the idea three years ago. Some people in my neighbourhood found out that I had some books with me that I had brought back from England. Some of them came knocking at my door to borrow English literature. Others would come to my house just to read a few pages from a novel. I was astounded. Before that, I didn’t realise what a thirst people in Kabul had for knowledge.



The mobile library, on one of its daily rounds. Photo by Frechta Karim.
 

Currently, the organisation is made up of just five volunteers. They are financed by private donations.

We’ve received no funding from the state, but local people saw our project as a way to improve the situation for young people. The results are encouraging. At first, we would stop the bus and get off to go tell children about our project. Now, they wait for us at our mobile library stops. Each day, around 300 children visit our bus. That is our real victory.

 

“Reading is an act of resistance for these kids”

Instead of opening a library and inviting people to come, we’re bringing books to people’s doorsteps. It’s both more efficient and reassuring for a population that is constantly anxious about moving around in the city. And reading is, in some ways, a way for these children to escape and resist the insecurity of their daily lives.

A volunteer reads a fairytale. Video by Frechta Karim

In the past year, insecurity has been on the rise in Afghanistan. According to the UN, since early 2018, the country has become the main target of the Islamic State group. More than 800 civilians were killed between January and May, which is two times as many as in 2017.

 

“Everything from collections of traditional poems to Pashto myths”

The idea is to cultivate critical thinking amongst young Afghans, especially teenagers. Many young people in Kabul don’t have access to books or libraries. The level of poverty is too high. Parents can’t afford to buy anything aside from school books. So our team started by giving kids access to different works of literature so they can learn about the world and different points of view. We have everything from collections of traditional poems to Pashto myths.


The NGO holds a fairytale reading session. Video by Frechta Karim.


Seven out of every ten Afghan adults are illiterate, according to UNESCO. And even though the educational system in the country has been improving slowly but surely since the Taliban era, official statistics show that three million children are still deprived of an education.

Moreover, according to a report by the Afghan Bureau of Statistics, in 2016-17, about 55% of Afghans didn’t even have the equivalent of a dollar per day, the sum necessary to cover the basics: food, clothing and housing.

 

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