If one day one were to write a review of the modern technologies that saw the most use and made the greatest of impacts on life in Afghanistan (the real Afghanistan, the rural Afghanistan) three would top my list. These are, hierarchically:
c) Mobile phone
Of the three, Kalashnikov’s legacy is all too widely known, and mobile phones have yet to make their mark in shaping and transforming life in rural Afghanistan (it has already started, and is projected to continue in an unprecedented way.)
Radio, however, has become such an ubiquitous part of rural life over the years that many have forgotten that it is a relic of modern life in these backwaters. In its usefulness, mobility, low cost operation, and the ruggedness of the Japanese panasonic models, the radio might have as well been invented specifically for rural Afghanistan.
For starters, there is no electricity in these parts. Equally significant, two thirds of all adults are illiterate. With a radio, you don’t have to have electric power, lots of money, lots of literacy, or lots of leisure time to sit on a couch (assuming you had one of those -to the horror of your neighbors.) A couple of AAA batteries will last you a good deal of time, and you can carry the radio around on the field as you cut down the autumn’s fields of alfalfa -and be connected with such far off places as London and Dushanbe, and thereby through the BBC anchor’s desk, to Tokyo and Timbuktu. (Tip: chewing on the used batteries for squeezing extra juice out of them is also an option, buying you some air time until you travel to the shops a day’s walk away to fetch new ones.)
Years ago I read a touching short story about radios in Afghanistan. It told the tale of when a radio is first introduced in a village -a real case of shock and awe. A decade or so ago I myself lived in one such place (somehow after all these years the place still lives in me) -where the radio, my fathers travels to Pakistan, and Jack London and Victor Hugo’s translated short stories that he brought back were my connection to the outside world and fueled my fantasies of living in that world as I tended to sheep.
I could have been the writer of one of these letters (and the overly done paintings) to the local radio station. The letters (mostly written by middle school children) are deeply touching in their meticulous penmanship and drawings, and their emotion-filled testimonials and poetry.
In the words of a reader named Sofiya who wrote a comment in response all the way from Moscow, Russia (addressed directly to the young audience,) “The most obvious projection of the letters is normality; normal life in these little villages and towns; or at least a tendency to return to it.”
Be sure to check out the audience’s letters as well as Sofiya’s response by visiting the Afghan Local Radio blog. I was amazed by both.