BBC to be lone voice in Afghan wilderness

Chris Bunting

Afghanistan

World Service hopes to foster appetite to learn among children neglected by the Taliban. Chris Bunting reports.

The BBC World Service is pioneering a series of Afghan children's programmes to fill the educational void created by the 20-year civil war and the fundamentalist Taliban regime.

The Radio Education for Afghan Children (REACH) programmes aim to stimulate a desire to learn without the help of teachers or books. They will be broadcast six days a week in the national languages of Pashto and Persian.

Funded by the United Nations Children's Fund and British and Canadian governments, the series will include fiction, natural history and geography programmes and special broadcasts for young listeners.

The programmes will use a similar approach to the BBC's hugely popular daily adult soap opera, New Home, New Life, which attracts 93 per cent of Afghan radio listeners. Using the soap format, programmers hope to tackle issues such as land-mine awareness and health education.

Shirazuddin Siddiqui, the World Service's head of education in Afghanistan, tells a story about working under the eye of the Taliban.

A group of his staff, including leading cast members of New Home, New Life, were visiting Afghanistan from their base in Peshawar in Pakistan last year when their car was stopped by armed members of the feared vice and virtue police. "One of them asked the actors if they were the people on the radio. They insisted that they have dinner with them."

Mr Siddiqui also tells tales of tense meetings with Taliban leaders being halted so they could listen to their favourite BBC shows. His stories illustrate the power of radio in a country where there is virtually no television and low rates of literacy.

Most of the country's 6.5 million five to 18-year-olds do not get a formal education. The growing number of unofficial "home schools" being set up to teach them is expected to be an important audience for the project. But the BBC also hopes to reach millions more.

"In any other country, children have access to schools, television, libraries and newspapers. Unfortunately, the Afghans do not have these things. That is the importance of what we are doing," said Mr Siddiqui, a former university drama teacher who lost his son and 21 other family members in the civil war.

"The common picture is of us returning to the Dark Ages. Quite a lot of my countrymen have sought asylum in Western countries. The reason that I am still working there is I have some hope."

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Chris Bunting

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