Old medium helps paint new picture for Afghanistan

July 14, 2011

“Pictura literatura pauperum” — painting is the literature of the poor. So said those who had the good fortune to be literate in the Middle Ages. Stained glass in churches, illustrated Bibles and hand-painted scrolls were then common tools to convey basic messages to the illiterate about religion.

The digital divide has isolated whole regions of the world from the newest forms of visual communication, such as major motion pictures or Web-based interactive graphics. Today, illustrations on house walls in China describe safe tips for indoor cooking, and posters on pharmacy walls in Cameroon provide drug instructions to patients. Straightforward pictorials are being rediscovered and used in areas where literacy is low and communicating basic information is a major challenge.

A prime example is Afghanistan — a country once renowned for its hospitality, its modern universities and its flourishing agriculture. Compare that with the Afghanistan of today — a country with highest number of landmine victims from 1999 to 2008, the second-highest infant mortality rate and a 28 percent literacy rate — one of the lowest in the world.

That is why, to communicate the importance of schooling, voting or the consequences of illegal poppy production, a variety of visual tools are the preferred medium. For example, in Kabul, the Afghan government erects large, roadside billboards advocating the virtues of democracy, while the Ministry of Health prefers to distribute posters to clinics, schools and community centres.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has turned to comic books, relying on their ability to simultaneously teach and entertain. Plain Ink, the non-governmental organization I founded after working for six months in Afghanistan, makes and distributes free educational comics on communicable disease prevention, food security, clean water access and natural disaster mitigation. The comics are produced locally in an effort to contribute to the local creative economy. Meanwhile, UNICEF developed a series to address children’s rights and is distributing the books across the country. An Afghan-run media company, Sayara, produces most of these materials in cooperation with international artists and organizations such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit and Caritas.

Comic books are now an acceptable way to educate, even though it is not a pure Afghan art form. The circulation of these books has an added significance, because the Taliban regime had forbidden many forms of art, including that which depicted the human body. The comic books also address socially sensitive subjects such as gender equality and the importance of education for both girls and boys. The books are easy to produce, cheap to distribute and readily passed around or traded.

President Obama’s latest withdrawal announcement makes the distribution of appealing pro-democracy literature and economic primers critical. Citizens younger than 25 constitute 68 percent of the population. The creation of a new Afghanistan depends heavily on what they choose to do in the wake of a years-long conflict. Today, they face abuses, forced marriages and neglect. They are likely to be — and remain — unemployed, or trapped in low-wage jobs. All of this increases the likelihood that they will join terrorist groups. The nation’s present and future stability depends on their being convinced to choose the power of the pen over that of the rifle.

Selene Biffi is founder and executive director of Plain Ink . She has also founded Youth Action for Change , Forgotten Diaries and Young Innovations Europe , among a number of other organizations. Named a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum, Biffi is a graduate of the Universita’ Bocconi in Italy, Harvard University and INSEAD in France.

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