Lesley University Professor Louise Pascale recently returned from Afghanistan, where she spent two months working in classrooms and orphanages as part of the Afghan Children’s Songbook Project, a program she launched in 2006 to preserve the country's traditional children’s songs. Pascale offers some useful insights into conditions on the ground in Afghanistan at a time when Americans are divided over President Obama's war strategy there.
Photo courtesy of Louise Pascale
Q. What motivated you to start the songbook project, and how does it work?
A. In the late '60s, I served in the Peace Corps in Kabul where I worked with Afghan musicians and poets to create a small songbook, capturing a number of traditional songs. Six years ago, I came across my old songbook. I was aware that the Taliban had banned all music, and I feared that these traditional children’s songs would be lost from the culture forever. I made a decision to return the songs. We’ve reprinted the songbook, and packaged it with a CD of Afghan children singing all the songs. There are 14,000 songbooks now distributed across Afghanistan in pre-schools, kindergartens, orphanages, and elementary schools. Since the schools have virtually no educational resources, the songbook is used not only as a connection to Afghan culture but also as a basic literacy tool. We’re currently printing 5,000 more copies and working on a second songbook which should be produced by late next spring.
Q. What is one of your favorite Afghan children's songs?
A. I’ve always loved "Ali Baba" -- a song about a fellow named Ali Baba with a garden full of animals. It’s very similar to our "Old MacDonald." (Click here for a music sample.) I remember when I went to schools when I was in the Peace Corps. This was always the children’s favorite song. On this trip, I asked the children I came in contact with what their favorite song was – it’s still "Ali Baba." There must be some universal joy in singing a song about animals and making all those wonderful animal sounds!
Q. What are the main challenges facing families, and children in particular, in Afghanistan now?
A. It’s difficult to make a list of "main" challenges. At the simplest level, Afghan families have all been mired in war for over 30 years – and that brings with it a multitude of challenges, but they all stem from whole generations growing up in and around military conflict. It makes adequate health care impossible; it’s created gaps in access to education, and poverty is systemic. For many families, there is no father – casualties of war – and women left in charge of extended families have little power, little to no education and face daily challenges we can only imagine. Educating children, especially girls, is essential and must happen if Afghanistan is going to move forward.
Q. To what extent during your Afghan stay was the presence of a resurgent Taliban visible?
A. The presence of the Taliban is more subtle than obvious. There is a sense of high alert that clouds the capital city, Kabul, with armed soldiers, their AK-47s slung over their shoulders, halting cars on the road for inspection, guarding public buildings -- always with a watchful eye of what might happen. Reports of suicide bombers and kidnappings do occur often enough to keep the city fearful.
The presence became quite visible and much more obvious one evening when traveling into Kabul by taxi. I suddenly found myself in the midst of a rocket attack and only about 100 yards from the explosion and consequent gunfire. Traffic was held up for hours. It was enough of a reminder to keep the fear alive.
Q. In the small villages and remote provinces, how were Americans and America viewed?
A. Perhaps this question is best answered with a story. When I arrived in Kunduz [in northern Afghanistan], I was greeted by a group of children who had flowers for me and a big welcome sign. The Kunduz airport is humble at best, just a dirt field, no real terminal. The baggage is pushed in a cart to the end of the dirt road. When I left Kunduz, there was a soldier standing near the runway, opening suitcases and checking baggage. He had been there when we arrived. We stepped up and he asked us to put our luggage on the cement pillar so he could inspect it. Then he pointed at me and remarked, “She is doing good things for our children and our country. I don’t need to inspect her luggage.”
The Afghans are very, very grateful for hands-on, tangible projects that make a difference to their lives and to the lives of their children. I was thanked over and over for coming to Afghanistan and helping Afghan children.
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