Introduction: This is the second in a four-part series of Film Annex interviews with Nancy Hatch Dupree, the American expatriate, adventurer, author, historian and founder of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU). (Part 1 of the interview here)
Nancy Dupree has been a real-life legend in Afghanistan for 50 years. She lives in Kabul, and since 1962 has dedicated herself to documenting and preserving Afghanistan's cultural heritage.
Mrs. Dupree is a prolific author. She has published dozens of books and chapters in many other books, and hundreds of essays and magazine articles on Afghanistan. At the age of 86 she still works harder than most people half her age. She has led and continues to lead many internationally recognized initiatives to preserve Afghanistan’s history and culture for future generations.
Film Annex: Mrs. Dupree, it’s great to continue our discussion. As the Afghan Proverb says, “Az gap, gap mey-khezad.” .از گپ، گپ میخیزد (Good conversations lead to more good conversations).
Nancy Hatch Dupree: That’s true. But as you well know, in a different context the same Proverb can also mean “The more you talk about something, the more likely it is there will be a dispute.”
FA: Very true. But we know you’d win in that case!
NHD: Also true (laughs). Let’s go with the first interpretation.
FA: As you highlighted in your most recent interview with Film Annex, ACKU’s primary purpose is to share information with universities, libraries and communities throughout Afghanistan, and with scholars at home and abroad. One of your most effective ways do do that is through the ABLE program. What is ABLE, and how did it start?
NHD: We created ABLE (the ACKU Boxed Library Extension) in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1996 as an element of ACBAR, which we talked about in the last interview. The original purpose of ABLE was to provide reading materials for the very large Afghan refugee population in Pakistan at that time who had fled the Soviets and the Taliban regime. Most were living in crowded refugee camps around Peshawar.
The primary purpose was to encourage the reading habit, which is not well developed in Afghanistan because not many books are found in homes, especially in the rural areas. Even high schools in the rural areas often have no libraries, so students have no chance to acquire supplementary knowledge beyond the classroom.
Men and women visiting a community library in Khair Khana, Kabul
Also, by improving reading abilities they were able to access knowledge that would lead them to a brighter future with more options. Learning new skills enables individuals to take advantage of economic opportunities for the betterment of entire families, family livelihoods, and the community at large. That was how ABLE began, and once begun it soon became very popular and effective. We brought the ABLE program with us when we moved from Peshawar to Kabul in 2005.
FA: What does ABLE look like today?
NHD: Most Afghans live in rural areas. The three components of the ABLE program, therefore, focus on the rural areas: rural community libraries; libraries in provincial high schools and high schools in less affluent settings on the peripheries of cities; and provincial council offices.
The ABLE books for community libraries are delivered in galvanized iron boxes 60 cm. high x 48 cm. deep. There is one shelf in each box, so no additional shelving is needed. The boxes are equipped with wheels for better flexibility in moving them to new locations if desired.
Originally an ABLE community library contains about 250 books, but because they are periodically updated with new books they soon become static libraries requiring shelving. Then, the small boxes are used to extend the library's reach to surrounding villages. Some of the earliest libraries now have over a thousand books. The high school libraries originally contain 450 books and are delivered in stout plastic sacks.
An ABLE box library
An ABLE box at a community library in Ghazni province
The ABLE libraries belong to the communities and high schools. The village decides where the libraries should be located and appoints the custodians. Often they are placed in clinics, schools, Afghan NGO partner offices, or mosques. Even shopkeepers are happy to have them, because these are lending libraries and those coming to select new titles often make a purchase.
Mullahs are also enthusiastic supporters of ABLE, and often announce the arrival of new books over mosque loudspeakers. The ABLE program continued to function smoothly all through the period of the Taliban regime.
ABLE has supplied more than 243,400 books to more than 215 schools and communities. Also, ABLE has published some 137 books in Dari and Pashto to date.
Mullah examining new ABLE books in a mosque in Nimroz province
FA: So ABLE is also a publishing house?
NHD: Yes, that’s right . To keep abreast of the reading interests in the rural areas, ABLE encourages village communities and high schools to suggest new titles. The ABLE editorial board then finds an expert on any given subject to write a book. Since these books are intended for new literates, these authors are required to sign a contract agreeing to write in simple Dari or Pashto without compromising the subject, in no more than 120 pages.
The ABLE editorial board is responsible for the production of these titles, and ensures that books contain 100 – 120 pages and that the language is appropriate to new literates. To date, ABLE has published 137 titles (1,000 of each title in Dari, and 1,000 of each title in Pashto) on a variety of subjects. They include, among others, books on history, health, mother–child care, home management, the environment, livestock and animal husbandry, beekeeping, agriculture, trade, narcotics, radio technology and democracy. Books such as dictionaries and technical works about computers and the sciences, for instance, are also purchased locally from the bazaars when available.
FA: What a wonderful and important program. Just one more question until our next interview: as foreign forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan and the post-2014 era begins, how does ABLE’s work help Afghans become more self-sufficient?
NHD: A very important reason for sending reading materials into the provinces and rural areas is to provide access to simple messages for the improvement of livelihoods. ACKU is convinced if such access is available, the people themselves can – and will – realize many basic improvements in their livelihoods without having to depend on outsiders. Dependency on too much money and too many interventions by outsiders has seriously undermined the traditional Afghan sense of self-sufficiency, which is very worrisome.
I have said many times that I think there can be no meaningful development in Afghanistan unless the rural population is better educated and given the skills to fulfill market demands. This is a major problem considering the state of the formal education system.
Much time, effort and huge sums of money have been spent on adult literacy programs. Most is a waste of time and money – because few programs leave books to sustain their newly learned skills. So after a short while, they forget how to read and lose the tool of literacy because of the short-sightedness of program planners. No sustainability. This is what inspired me to start ABLE.
ABLE library at a girls' high school in Jalalabad, Nangarhar province
Left to right: Edward Zellem, Marefat High School's Aziz Royesh, Nancy Hatch Dupree, and ACKU staff with an ABLE box. The first and second editions of "Zarbul Masalha" ("Proverbs" in Dari) were fielded in every box.
But I must emphasize that ACKU does not presume to remodel overnight a society which has lived in a certain manner for centuries. Nor do we wish to undermine values that have sustained the Afghan society for so long. But ACKU does believe that the Afghan people have a right to knowledge that will strengthen these values and enrich individual lives.
This is the second in a four-part series of exclusive interviews with Nancy Hatch Dupree on Women's Annex.
Part 1: An Afghan Legend Digitizes Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage
Part 3: New ACKU Building Combines Traditional Afghan Architecture with 21st Century Education
Part 4: Rebuilding Afghanistan, One Book at a Time
More of Edward Zellem's interviews with Afghan celebrities and thought leaders are coming soon on Women's Annex.