MAKING AFGHAN CHILDREN SMILE

Warakai is the daughter of Kharakai, the talking rabbit on the BBC radio who, during the brutal war of the 1990s, stole the hearts of Afghans. If I can say so, I knew her very well. And in case you haven’t heard, Warakai and I will co-present the new BBC Pashto children’s bedtime stories TV programme, Lallo Lallo (Lullaby).

In the early 1990s, when civil war was raging in Afghanistan, I wrote and presented a children’s radio programme which the BBC broadcast from London. Knowing how little content was available for Afghan children, I was trying to give them some moments of sparkle and happiness so they could forget, even if temporarily, the bombs, the hunger, the fear, and perhaps lose themselves in a place where good prevailed over evil, where darkness always gave way to sunshine. This place was the children’s story slot on Wednesdays on BBC Pashto radio, transmitted on medium and short waves in Afghanistan as well as in the “Pashtun belt” in Pakistan’s northwest.

Most of the time, my daughter was my first listener. She would give me the most direct and honest feedback you can wish for as a writer. If she liked the story, I would see it in her eyes. I would be telling her about the ant beating the drum, and she would be give me a wide smile and do a drumming gesture. If my narrative confused or disappointed her, her face would immediately show it, she would frown and ask, “Why?” or “Is that it?” That’s when I would know that there was a need for a rewrite.

Watching my daughter’s response, I also could see how children’s imagination works as they picture characters in their heads. One evening I was telling her the story of a village where love had disappeared and people were angry with each other. No one was giving treats to the fairies in the trees, no one was visiting them, so the fairies decided to pack up and leave the loveless village. My daughter’s immediate reaction was: “Do the fairies have suitcases? What are their dresses made of?” As they tuned in to hear that tale, the audience were informed that the fairies’ dresses were made out of rose petals, their sandals – of green shiny leaves, and that they packed their garments in walnut shells.

To help me tell those tales, I soon summoned Kharakai, my grey rabbit co-presenter. Like me, Kharakai was safe from destruction yet tightly held onto the love for her mountainous native land. Kharakai was fun. She helped me explain some particularly tough and tricky parts of the story, asking questions exactly as a child would do. She often took over the narrative with her own interpretation.

Afghans fell in love with my co-presenter. The amount of letters, gifts, and toys we were receiving for her was unprecedented. And they were not all from children. During a duty trip to Afghanistan, at the end of a serious interview, an important interlocutor of my colleague, Kamal Behzadi, suddenly started to smile and asked who was behind the voice of the rabbit on the BBC radio show (to this day, the answer to this question hasn’t been revealed).

When, in 2017, I started writing and presenting the BBC News Pashto TV children’s bedtime programme, Lallo Lallo, I missed my old radio co-presenter’s questions, her funny interruptions. That’s how Kharakai’s daughter – Warakai, the Little One – joined us for the new series of Lallo Lallo.

Children can now watch our stories rather than just listen to them. But the Afghan child is still surrounded by war. Just like in the 1990s, many are familiar with the sound of attacking guns; they have seen, first hand, explosions in a market place or a school. For many, childhood ends at the age of four when they start to work. No matter how widely Afghanistan is reported around the world, it’s often hard to realise the extent of pain and suffering children there are facing.

I remember how the camerawoman at the BBC studio read aloud the titles of the stories we were about to record: “Landmine, the amputee, losing mother…” – she raised her eyebrows and asked: “Najiba, are you sure you brought the right script for bedtime stories?” Sadly, those were the stories for that day: “The landmine story is about the mice looking for a new playground – but the big field is full of mines,” I explained. “Will the mice see the signs? The second one is about a little fairy that lost her leg and yet is walking on crutches to look after the garden. The last one is about a little fox that lost her mother. She was extremely sad, but seeing her mother in her dream changes her mood, helping her to feel better.” The camerawoman’s eyes teared up. She cleared her throat and said quietly: “I am sorry, Afghan children have seen a lot in their young life… I’m really proud to be part of these stories.”

In the last 18 months, we have produced 78 bedtime stories – touching on health, safety, education and morality. I know Warakai will add a few fun moments of magic and colours, something every child deserves. Let’s see if her TV fan group can match that of her radio celebrity mother.
Najiba Laima Kasraee @najibalaima is the writer and presenter of the BBC News Pashto children’s weekly TV programme, Lallo Lallo, available via the service’s digital platforms as well as Shamshad TV in Afghanistan.

 

By Najiba Laima Kasraee

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