The Teacher from Kabul
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The Teacher from Kabul

WHAT ARRIVES IN THE WEST ARE MOSTLY IMAGES OF A WARTORN COUNTRY, YET AFGHANISTAN HAS A STRONG CULTURAL TRADITION BASED ON A PASSION FOR POETRY AND ORAL NARRATION. THIS WAS WHERE SELENE BIFFI, A BOCCONI GRADUATE, CREATED A SCHOOL FOR STORYTELLERS, THE QESSA ACADEMY. TO GIVE YOUNG PEOPLE A FUTURE IN A COUNTRY WHERE BEING YOUNG IS NOT VALUED

Everyone is offered a cup of tea and some naan bread. This kind of welcome is always present even in the poorest villages, though Afghanistan is far removed from the idea of peace and serenity. At least this is how the rest of the world knows it today. The country has been at war since 1978 and there are entire generations who have never experienced a day of peace. Yet this is the hospitality that Selene Biffi (photo Rolex Award Reto Albertalli), a Bocconi alumna and social entrepreneur from the province of Monza and Brianza, encountered when she first went to the South Asian country about 12 years ago. From that moment on, a process began of overturning many Western beliefs, along with the discovery of a culture that often ends up in the background in international reports. Biffi met a population that cultivates a passion for poetry and oral narratives and that has retained an appreciation for art and beauty. One time, “I thought I couldn’t even go inside a house,” Biffi tells viaSarfatti25. “An elders meeting was taking place, or so I understood. I thought it would not be respectful of local customs for a woman to walk into a room full of men only. But actually they were there waiting for me. They were welcoming me.”

Selene Biffi lived in both Italy and Kabul until last July when, not by choice, she had to leave Afghanistan. Over the years, however, she has had many opportunities to live not only in the capital but also to travel to rural areas and more remote villages. She began her adventure in Afghanistan as a volunteer to create a manual designed for young people in the most disadvantaged areas. “It had to be a text capable of transferring basic concepts in practical form, from hygiene to food safety,” recalls Biffi. Then she wrote the book, The Teacher from Kabul, about her experience in Afghanistan (Sperling & Kupfer, 2014). One of her most important projects was to open the Qessa Academy, a school for storytellers that aimed to preserve and promote the oral heritage, while using stories themselves to create job opportunities and local development. Free courses in storytelling, theater, English and development cooperation were offered to unemployed young people between 18 and 25 years old. The school continued the national oral tradition where stories are not simple fairy tales but have multiple dimensions, hiding different teachings between the lines: "Each story begins with 'There was, there was not' to emphasize that the audience is free to interpret what they hear and decide what meaning to give to the story. It's not like the beginning of Western fairy tales with “Once upon a time,” as if faced with a sort of fact,” explains Biffi. "The fable of The Porcelain Goat, for example, is actually about what it means to be cunning, while The Merchant and the Parrot focuses on the concept of freedom."

The storytelling school, started thanks to the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, struggled at first, with mixed classes. But it soon needed to implement admissions tests to deal with a higher number of applications every year. After a while, classes have become for women only, due to a greater influx of requests from young women, reflecting a change in the times. Graduating students include teachers and others who have gone on to work at local radio and television stations. But in Biffi's personal memories, one student in particular made a big impression. “When she came to the school for the first time, she saw me and a 60-year-old Afghan man. She later confessed to me that she believed the Western girl was the secretary and the man was the director, thinking that the foreign woman was probably doing a job that any Afghan girl would have had," says Biffi. “When she realized she had the roles reversed, she decided to enroll in the school. She was the only girl to graduate that first year of classes.”
In this school for storytellers, oral tradition rhymes with education, in a country tormented by civil conflicts and external invasions, but where traditional culture, and poetry in particular, has always played a central role. When drafting the Constitution for example in the early 2000s, "the whole Parliament stopped to read poems every time an agreement was not found between the politicians," continues Biffi. “The Afghan oral tradition has distant historical roots and, in the past, itinerant storytellers held a high social status. Then there was a decline of the oral tradition that began with the Soviet invasion” in 1979.
In recent months, Biffi has worked to get about 20 Afghans out of the country, including some of her former students, who were saved thanks to an S for Selene written on their hands. If she were asked to tell a story summarizing the legacy she has been left with after so many years in Afghanistan, “I would describe the scene with a young student I met during the school's first year. When the project launched, several people came to visit me and the students, interested in learning more about why these students had chosen to attend the school, what their dreams were, what they were learning. Everyone gave the same answers more or less,” says Biffi. “One day, a student stood up and replied, 'Yes, here I learn traditional stories and write new ones, I study English and am being educated so I can find a job. But that's not what I'm going to take away from my school experience. I live in a country where being young is not valued. In this school, I’ve been taught how to trust myself, and now I'm no longer afraid to stand up and say what I think.’"
 
Biography
Biffi (born in 1982) is a social entrepreneur who graduated from Bocconi University in 2005 with a degree in International Economics and Management (DIEM program). She then completed a Master in Humanitarian Action in Dublin and is currently completing another Master at Cambridge University. She has collaborated with various international organizations and launched several social startups related to education and local development. Regarding her time at university, she admits that she did not attend classroom lectures much, but “I worked hard to build my own curriculum, to fill it with as many experiences as possible in the sectors I was interested in. I recommend today's young people do this: get on-the-field experience, start digital and non-digital projects, launch social startups." Her first initiative? Youth Action for Change, a non-profit organization that launched in 2005 with a budget of only €150, to promote online training for young people in 130 countries around the world.

by Camillo Papini
Translated by Jenna Walker


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