The future looks bleak for Afghan children but books remind them that stories can change and there is room for hope even in the darkest times.
The story begins with a town, deep in the mountains of Afghanistan. There is no daylight in this town, it is always night. The people here are used to living this way. Long ago, a demon came and stole their sun, so the flowers died and the birds left, leaving them with perpetual winter.
In Hazaristan, the remote mountain region of Afghanistan where this story is set, winters are harsh and life is difficult, so people relate to this old folk tale and the predicament it represents. Children listening to the tale gasp in awe as they hear of a girl with golden hair who confronts the demon and restores light to her people.
Inspiring Story for Young Girls
In a deeply patriarchal society, it’s inspiring for young girls to see a female protagonist portrayed as the hero, says K.H Rasa, who worked with a children’s author and illustrator to produce the book version of this old Hazara folktale. “This story is very relevant at the moment as people struggle for their freedom and rights but find there is darkness blocking their access to knowledge,” he says.
For girls, who were barred from secondary school in Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power in August 2021, the story is particularly resonant. “It gives them hope for the future,” says Rasa, who oversees the Afghanistan Box Library Extension program (ABLE), which was set up to promote a culture of reading and establish small libraries in schools and communities across Afghanistan.
Each year, the project publishes between 20 and 25 storybooks for children in Farsi/Dari, Pashto, and Uzbeki, Afghanistan’s three main languages, distributing over 50,000 copies around the county. They focus on reaching marginalized children in orphanages and under-represented communities where access to books is extremely limited. “Children’s literature is not a well-known genre in Afghan communities, most children here don’t have access to reading material other than textbooks,” Rasa says.
14 years after the project launched, Rasa’s team has published over 450 easy –to read titles for different age groups as well as newly literate people and adults. This includes a collection of 280 personal stories chronicling people’s experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in the past two years, Afghanistan’s economic collapse has starved the project of funds and the publication program has ground to a halt.
When Rasa heard about the Ideas Beyond Borders Innovation Hub, he applied immediately and secured a grant to commission and publish a beautifully illustrated version of The Sun’s Daughter and the Black Demon by well-known Afghan children’s author M.H. Mohammadi. “Even if we can produce a single storybook for children in need, it means a lot,” says Rasa. “If we cannot provide children with materials to learn and develop ideas, they will remain isolated with nothing to inspire them or provide a positive message for the future.”
This is particularly true now, with Afghanistan on the brink of economic collapse as the population endures its second year of Taliban rule. For the marginalized children that ABLE focuses on – those from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds, who may be orphans, suffer from disabilities or be affected by child labor, drugs and other crime, books like this are a rare resource.
“Every child has a dream here, and they should go to school to get knowledge and change their world, but right now they just see that everything has collapsed overnight, and they need a reason to have hope for the future,” Rasa says. It may just be a story, but stories have the power to inspire change, and he hopes that these young readers will see an opportunity to triumph in the tale of the sun’s daughter as she banishes the demon and restores light to her world.
Names have been changed to protect the identities of people in Afghanistan.