New home, new life left behind

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Max Grantham gave up teaching to live and work with Afghans. But events on September 11 changed all that. David McNab reports

DRESSED in traditional Afghan costume with a long, flowing beard, Max Grantham could have easily slipped from his base on the Pakistani border into the mountainous country without anyone realising he was actually a primary school teacher from Devon.

As a voluntary worker in the region, his influence on a nation which is now facing the wrath of the West has been considerable.

Max helped set up a radio service which, since June, has broadcast the soap opera New Home, New Life, based on Afghan rural life. It has become the country's equivalent of Coronation Street. An estimated 80 per cent of Afghanistan's residents and those living in the camps in Pakistan are listeners.

Max is now back at home in Devon, frustrated and fearful for the Afghans after being evacuated from Pakistan. He is one of 20 people working for the Voluntary Service Overseas who have been flown home from Pakistan in the build-up to war. Back in South Molton in North Devon, the small market town whose primary school he taught in for 20 years until 1997, Max, 62, has shaved off his beard. But his affection for the Afghans remains as strong as ever.

He gave up teaching four years ago, seeking a new challenge, and signed up with the VSO. After a stint in Belize he was sent to Pakistan where he became an education adviser to the BBC Afghan education project based in Peshawar, just 20 miles from the border.

Working with a team of 30, including 21 Afghan writers and producers, Max helped broadcast five programmes across Afghanistan in the languages of Dari and Pashto.

He said: "This is a very important service because there is no formal education system in Afghanistan, other than a few religious schools."

The service is also popular in the refugee camps near the border where there is schooling. Radio is seen as an important way of reaching Afghanistan's uneducated children and the service has gained a wide audience this year.

In the last year Max has made frequent forays into refugee camps in Pakistan such as Jaluzai. He found squalor after the first major refugee influx, but the camps soon improved.

"They are my friends. I lived with Afghans and worked with them and I even dressed like them. They were very hospitable," he said.

But on the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, things inevitably changed.

"The Afghans were looking at me differently. It was not with hostility. It was more with compassion. They felt sorry for me. I am determined to return as soon as I can."

He admits he is worried about those he left behind, although the radio station will carry on broadcasting for the time being.

"George W Bush says if you are not with us you are against us. That is the language of the playground."

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