INSPIRE — 19 September 2012

INSPIRE BOXES are supported by the Fetzer Institute as a means of highlighting exemplary initiatives or people promoting peace and reconciliation

(COURTESY 4TH EDITION EFGA)

While the past decade of international recovery has helped send over seven million Afghan children back to school, what is often forgotten is that this is not good enough. Ordinary Afghans, whether they can read or not (an estimated 70% are illiterate), need books. Not only does Afghanistan have a strong story-telling tradition and thirst for poetry, but people have an intense curiousity to know what is going on around them – and in the world. Part of this desire to be informed is satisfied by radio, television, text messages or the internet, but the real knowledge about their country’s history, heritage and culture needs to come from books. (SEE EDUCATION 4TH EDITION EFGA) And yet, despite the proven importance of credible information as an effective means for promoting peace and community involvement, Afghanistan suffers from an acute shortage of reliable reading material. (INSPIRE BOXES are supported by the Fetzer Institute as a means of highlighting exemplary initiatives or people promoting peace and reconciliation.)

Both primary and secondary school children are forced to share books, if they are available. Visitors are often besieged by pupils clamouring for the most basic of reading material – magazines, newspapers, books, comics, NGO reports, instruction manuals…anything. The same goes for adults who are educated but have nothing to read either because they cannot afford it or because there are no books. One makeshift library in the Hazarajat in the early 2000s had a total of 300 books ranging from Karl Marx flyers and a paperback on cooking for bachelors to UNICEF annual reports. And yet it boasted a steady sign-out with an almost 100% return rate among local villagers, some of whom lived two day’s trek away and were not even literate. They relied on someone in the family or village to know how to read, and thus share the knowledge with everyone around them. Afghan Women and men, students and policy makers urgently need resources to acquire the necessary knowledge to participate in their country’s fledgling democracy. And this means reading.

One organization which has sought to remedy this deplorable situation is the Louis and Nancy Dupree Foundation for the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU). One of its projects, the ACKU Box Library Extension (ABLE) initiative helps make books and documents available to other parts of the country. It currently reaches 28 out of 34 provinces through more than 196 boxed lending libraries, providing some 137,750 books to provincial communities and high schools. ABLE also commissions the production of books for new literates, and has published more than 205 titles to date. The foundation seeks funds, books and other forms of support to make books as widely available as possible throughout Afghanistan. In 2010, the American Library Association awarded ABLE the Presidential Citation for International Innovations for its work.

Both Louis (who died in 1989) and Nancy Dupree have been known widely as among the most dedicated foreigners to have committed their lives and work to Afghanistan. Created by Nancy Hatch Dupree, the ACKU is a steadily growing resource center that houses an impressive collection of historical and current documents. In many ways, its collection fills as important a role to Afghanistan as the Library of Congress’s collection does to the United States.

The comprehensive and singular collection encompasses documents from the 1970s through the time of the Soviet invasion, the rule of the mujahideen, the Taliban era and the present day. The Duprees began formally collecting documents in Peshawar, Pakistan for safekeeping in 1989 with the support of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), and continued amassing documents until July 2006 when the collection was shifted to Afghanistan. Now registered as an independent NGO, ACKU is housed on the campus of Kabul University. The documents are being digitized so that they may be shared with provincial universities and libraries.

The Centre is a national treasure and it has an important role in rebuilding the social, economic, political and cultural fabric of Afghanistan. The collection contains nearly 58,000 documents on Afghanistan, including works in Dari, Pashto and various western languages. In addition, ACKU’s holdings include an archival section of rare mujahed and Taliban press publications and development reports from before the outbreak of war in the summer of 1978. There is also an audio-visual collection with archives on NGO activities among refugee populations and anthropological documentary film from inside Afghanistan, historic events and 2,000 BBC radio programmes on development themes.

Visitors to ACKU may access more than 500 maps and the photo catalogue of historical sites, monuments, archaeological sites and artifacts, landscapes and personalities. In 2011, the international aid agency, CARE, helped construct a new building for ACKU on the Kabul University campus. ACKU administers a reading room with internet and database access, which also enables young Afghans to interact with other students around the world.

 

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