Case Study 3

New Home, New Life, Afghanistan

"New Home, New Life" is a radio soap opera designed and produced for broadcast in Afghanistan. It was first aired in April 1994 and has since been aired weekly. Each episode is broadcast three times from the BBC, once in the morning, once in the evening and once in an omnibus edition during the weekend.

The drama series has both practical and informative purposes. It covers a whole range of subjects from women's issues, the preservation of oral traditions and historical monuments, income-generation activities, methods for conflict resolution, awareness of mines, community participation in development, livestock raising and agriculture to personal and environmental hygiene.

Soap opera was initially chosen as a format because it allows for the repeating of educational messages as needed. Episodes of particular relevance can be rebroadcast according to perceived need or demand. Furthermore, soap opera is on-going and limitless because it is rooted in real-life situations and it sounds real and authentic to rural and urban communities. Characterisation of problems, human conflict and dilemmas, and how to overcome them through dialogue, are all part of the soap opera "genre". It is, therefore, perfectly suited to carrying educational messages, drawing on people's experience, past and present. New themes are progressively incorporated into the soap's scenario as listeners respond to the story or as the project's authors, particularly the evaluation team, integrate new concerns and steer the drama towards further relevant topics. New problems and cases for discussion naturally arise as the drama unfolds. These points, in turn, have to be resolved to serve the story and provide a structure to integrate practical advice.

Given the situation of conflict in Afghanistan, it should be noted that radio is one of the few media that can reach each corner of the country and one of the few technologies that can be found in households. The crisis in Afghanistan, indeed, has encouraged the use of radio. Demand has risen over the last two decades as radio has provided almost the only source of information. According to the latest data collected by the "New Home, New Life" evaluation team, the majority of the population have access to radio. People either own a radio or listen to neighbours' radios. Family group listening is very common, allowing for inter-generational learning. Male listenership, however, is said to be higher than women's. It is quite usual for men to gather in the guest room or outside the house around the radio. Recent surveys on the impact of the "New Home, New Life" programme, in February 1997, revealed that 83 per cent of women and men said they listened to the BBC project. These figures, however, fluctuate as families move from one area to another.

Employing the plot as an entry point for serious social concerns and giving a true representation of society has necessitated the use of a whole range of actors from every walk of life. It is their diverse and contrasting opinions, stances and social standings that breathe life into the story. The programme aims to reach all family members and is based on the stories of two fictional communities - Upper and Lower Villages. It brings people from differing backgrounds and age groups into play. The drama focuses on the villages' problems and the dilemmas facing the inhabitants. The difficulty of the project is translating educational content into dramatic action and, at the same time, entertaining listeners. Although the drama is directed at rural communities, people from urban areas, particularly women, say that they appreciate the drama and find it relevant. They mostly refer to the issues of income generation and education in the drama. Nomadic communities also find a mirror for their concerns in the stories about mine awareness.

Since the balance between drama and practical advice is difficult to keep, and practical counselling is increasingly important, yet less dramatic, programmes have since been divided into drama and "reinforcement" sections. This division has meant that counselling and advice can receive the maximum attention they warrant without interfering in the plot. Initially, 12 to 15 minute feature programmes, the reinforcement sections have turned into short packages, interviews and then, in an innovative move, into songs backing up certain themes and storylines in the drama. These songs are regularly aired on the BBC Persian and Pashto services, and packages and interviews fill slots in the Pashto and Persian service development programmes ("Refugee File" and "Village Voice", besides other programmes on the Pashto service such as "Merman" (women's programme), "Da Zwanano Narhae" (youth programme) and the science and medical programmes).

The "reinforcement" programmes concentrate on one topic from the soap in detail. They stand between the "News and Current Affairs" and "New Home, New Life" drama from the BBC. They are developed in such a way as to be particularly convincing and informative. These particular issues or reinforcements are then incorporated into the drama and give substance to issues of concern; for example, women's employment and girls' education. The reinforcement team regularly visits Afghanistan to interview people and returns with new themes and suggestions for the drama. An expanded evaluation team has since been created purposely to keep in contact with listeners at the grassroots level and maintain the relevance of topics and drama cases. The inital evaluations for the programme were carried out prior to the programmes in refugee camps and in Eastern Afghanistan. Dynamic contact with the listeners has, therefore, been one of the hallmarks of the project since the beginning. It has meant that everyday issues, of concern to people living in harsh conditions, can be incorporated into the programmes and solutions suggested. One episode shows the level of interactivity between the producers of the programme and their audience. In 1994, a story was aired in which a child's death was described after a traditional midwife cut its umbilical cord with a dirty knife and covered it in henna and ash. The descriptions of the topic were particularly vivid and moving and many listeners complained that they had their fair share of suffering without having to listen to more - but the health message which advised against such practices, also got through. The symbiosis between learning source and learner had been achieved.

The project has gone through various stages of development and refinement. With the installation of a BBC Peshawar studio in neighbouring Pakistan and the introduction of a full-time BBC producer to help in the preparation of materials from Peshawar, it was decided that the BBC AED project (BBC Afghan Education Drama Project) would itself prepare the two weekly development programmes - "Village Voice" and "Refugee File". This was to increase the level of topicality and create a body directly in touch with the audience. Over the last year the programmes broadcast from this station have consisted almost entirely of educational features prepared by the BBC AED reinforcement team. In order to make the reinforcement output more topical and enable BBC AED to line up with NGOs working inside Afghanistan, the reinforcement team carry out regular and targeted research trips to the field. Their findings and support to the radio programmes are published in a newsletter and cartoon magazine. These publications, in turn, back up the awareness "campaigns" and are a way of keeping listeners in touch with their service. The documents also provide opportunities for developing literacy and numeracy skills. The reinforcement team inside Afghanistan has a two-pronged approach. It is they who bring back programme material which is more representative of what is actually happening inside Afghanistan but who also forge partnerships with NGOs working in the field to allow them to make full use of the radio training programmes.

Besides the monthly cartoon magazine, special editions of the magazine have also been prepared on humanitarian issues, health issues for children and sports and peace. A separate edition of the cartoon magazine has also been prepared, based on mine-awareness storylines from "New Home, New Life". Recently, BBC AED began producing "educational packages" on particular themes dealt with in "New Home, New Life". These consist of a mix of drama sequences, clips from reinforcement programmes, and songs. Several NGOs have expressed an interest in using these "educational packages" in their training programmes. As the programme develops and the audience for the radio project grows, the reinforcement efforts of BBC AED will be directed towards completing "these educational packages", tackling all the themes covered so far in the series and ensuring that NGOs working in the field inside Afghanistan get to make full use of them. The reinforcement team are currently streamlining the distribution system of the monthly magazine. Improving the system should lead to greater distribution of the magazine to provide feedback on its reach and usefulness. A new option being considered is the rebroadcasting of specific episodes of "New Home, New Life" for schools, in tandem with the use of the cartoon magazine. For this to be successful, local radio stations will receive tapes and schools the accompanying magazines. Targeted distribution of "educational packages" for local rebroadcasters should allow them to become familiar with the aims and audience of the project and, again, allow for the optimum use of the product. The BBC AED with its new multi-faceted approach to reinforcement is now present at most levels in the field and in the topical programmes on the BBC Persian/Pashto service. A recent example of this strong position on the ground and on the air waves was the back-up provided by radio to the immunisation campaign inside Afghanistan.

The radio project is funded by the BBC World Service, UNESCO, UNICEF, UNOPS, UNOCHA, FAO, UNHCR, WHO, ICRC, ODA. As an indication of costs, a year's broadcasting and production costs US $407,369, monitoring and evaluation US$ 58,000, reinforcement sections US$101,733 and the cartoon magazine US$ 77,700. The radio programmes have been positively evaluated with listeners giving favourable responses to the topicality and interest of the project. Listeners tell researchers how they identify with the characters of the programmes and, during evaluations say how they want to avoid situations characters have found themselves in. Furthermore, they wish to find out more about issues (hence the need and necessity of reinforcement sections) and wait to see how problem resolution is weaved into the story. Dramas typically cover drinking water, hygiene and mines which are day-to-day problems. An interactive network has been created around the project, with listeners writing directly to the broadcasters and reading letters coming from other members of the public. These letters are included in a specific listeners' section in the project magazine and cartoon publication. This comes out once a month and shows the extent to which radio has facilitated an open learning community in and around the soap opera.

Given the situation in Afghanistan and the collapse of several infrastructures, radio is having to fill in on many fronts. It has, accordingly, taken on greater responsibility in terms of increasing learning opportunities and information. The BBC AED radio programme has brought many forces into play in Afghanistan and within neighbouring Pakistan. Outside Afghanistan, it has maintained knowledge of Afghan customs, history and current affairs in times of strife. It has kept those cut off by war in touch with their motherland and helped strengthen community ties that could have easily been severed. Inside Afghanistan, the soap opera has provided practical advice, education and entertainment.

The drama is totally Afghan in context and content. It has drawn from the rich history of community action and customs to achieve its high degree of relevance. It has, therefore, played a significant role in reviving old traditions and customs. "Hashar", the old tradition of collective work and local "jirgas" or councils were more or less forgotten or considered less important. The radio drama has revived these to some extent with collective actions being undertaken as a result of listening to the radio. Oral legends and customs are also being written into the drama which is progressively being used as an expression for the safeguard of Afghan traditions.

Short extracts from the story

Episodes 13-24

Jandad has had his foot badly injured by a mine. In the clinic, he is in serious need of blood. Zaynab's blood group does not conform to that of her son Jandad, and no one else is ready to donate blood, citing one excuse after another. Finally, Nek Mohammed's son Karim comes forward and his donation of blood saves Jandad's life. Later, the doctor is forced to amputate Jandad's foot from the ankle.

Taj Bibi carries her son Ahmad home from the clinic on her back. Being pregnant with her ninth child, she develops a pain in her back and wants Gulalai to come and treat her. However, Gulalai's mother will not allow her daughter to visit Jabbar Khan's house.

Soon after Gulalai is appointed as a health-worker in the clinic, there is an outbreak of malaria in Upper Village. Palwasha, the youngest daughter of Akbar and Zarmina, is the first to be affected, having been bitten by a mosquito in Zaynab's house. After that Nek Mohammad is determined to counteract the harmful effects of such mosquitoes by fixing nets to the windows of his house.

Some extracts of letters sent to the radio broadcasters:

"We should again emphasize that people should give blood because those who are hurt like Jamdad need blood."

"I suggest that you incorporate some special messages and pictures for children so that they can improve their reading as well as their health awareness. I appreciate your efforts."

"The messages regarding preservation and maintenance of public properties and natural wealth such as forest, dams, buildings, roads and bridges are very effective."

Contact Information:
BBC Afghan Education Drama Project
P.O. Box 946, University Town
Peshawar, Pakistan
Tel: 92 521 842320
Fax: 92 521 842319


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