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Comical Afghanistan

The storytelling senorita

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INDIA CONNECTION: The Biffis have set up a school and hospital on the outskirts of Varanasi

An Italian social entrepreneur uses comic books to bring about social change in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

At the plush Shahjehan Hall in Delhi's Taj Palace hotel, Selene Biffi quietly tells chilling stories of hardship and survival from war-ravaged Afghanistan. The soft light from a crystal chandelier gives a gilded glow to her long black hair even as her dark eyes remain disturbingly expressionless as she talks about her life as an aid worker in Kabul. Perhaps living and working in a conflict zone has taught her to conceal her emotions.

Feelings that Biffi, who was awarded this year's Rolex Young Laureate Award for Enterprise, along with four other under-30 social entrepreneurs, seems to have channeled into Plain Ink, a non-profit publishing house that harnesses the power of storytelling through comics to bring about change. Recently launched in Afghanistan, these simple illustrated manuscripts attempt to educate women and children about subjects such as hygiene, health and sanitation. In sum, the comics use visuals and very basic text in local languages as well as English to talk about important issues in a country which, at 28 per cent, has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. "Illiteracy is high in Afghanistan, but it has a strong culture of oral history, " says Biffi.

For instance, one of the comics, illustrated only with images, uses the background of an Afghan wedding to explain the importance of following proper hygiene while cooking, disposal of waste and family planning. The two families are meeting each other to finalise the wedding. Men folk are sitting and chatting in a room while women are in the kitchen preparing a feast to celebrate the matrimonial alliance. In the kitchen, the bride-to-be, with her head covered, teaches her to-be sister-inlaw how to prepare food hygienically. The bride's father, while hosting the family of his soon-to-be son-in-law, talks about sending his daughter to school - a right which was suspended under Taliban rule.

The young Italian social innovator first came to Kabul in 2009 as part of a UN mission to write a textbook for rural schoolchildren. She recalls one particular visit to a village up in the mountains. "When I reached in the afternoon, young girls from the village gathered in a building they called school. They were sitting and chatting, discussing, sharing ideas because they didn't have any teacher to instruct them, " she says. "The boys studied in the morning and were taught by the local mullah, but there was no female teacher for the girls. Yet, everyday they went to school. " When she asked the spunky girls what they wanted to do when they grew up, they surprised her by saying that they wanted to be professionals who could turn the fortunes of their village around. "One of them said she wanted to go out and study to be an engineer and then come back to her village and break the circle of poverty, " recalls Biffi.

"In this remote village even after so many years of war, they were thirsty for knowledge. I decided then that I wanted to do much more here than just bring out a textbook, " says Biffi, who has a background in social work. Her parents, who live in a small village near Milan, established a primary school and hospital in Jaleelpur slum on the outskirts of Varanasi, where Plain Ink comics and books enjoy a huge fan following. The institutions are run by local volunteer teachers and doctors but the Biffis keep visiting.

In 2009, Biffi, who is now 30, had a narrow escape from death when the Taliban struck a guesthouse which was hosting UN election observers. Her close colleagues were killed in the attack and she was evacuated from the country. Battle-scarred but determined to continue her work she returned to Kabul, finished her UN assignment and then went on to establish Plain Ink. Despite the shadow of suicide bombings and landmines, she has grown to love Kabul and admire the resilience of the local populace.

Now, the young social worker from Milan plans to use the prize money from the Rolex Award (50, 000 Swiss francs) to set up a storytelling school in Kabul. Her school will offer six-month courses in English language, story-telling and community development. It will equip the students to find work with NGOs - the largest employer in the country. The school will eventually reach out to the unemployed youth, but for the time being it is getting applications from students from refugee families who are slowly returning to Afghanistan after the end of Taliban rule. Biffi has also launched a website, quesaacademy. org (' quesa' is the local term for a story) that will cloudsource folk tales from the Afghan diaspora.

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