By: Somaya Mandgar
Eighteen-year-old Ozra dreams of becoming a famous writer. It sounds an impossible dream in one of Afghanistan’s most deprived and remote districts, Lal wa Sarjangal. But she’s found her way, becoming a member of the Dehkada (village) library. She’s been going there continuously since it opened seven years ago.
Ozra, a fanatical reader, rattles off the famous books she’s read. “Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, Telesmat by Jawad Khawari, Symphony Mordagan or Symphony of the Dead by Abbas Marufi and several other interesting stories,” she says.
Ozra tells Rukhshana Media that she has borrowed and read more than 50 books. “I think the best place for a person’s idle time is the library and the best thing to do is reading.”
Before the Taliban took over, she was in the 10th grade of school. If the Taliban hadn’t stopped girls’ education, she would have graduated by now. “When we went to school, we had thousands of beautiful dreams and we were sure that one day we would achieve them,” she says. “But with the arrival of the Taliban, most of our dreams were destroyed.”
It makes the library even more important for girls and young women. “The Dehkada library is the only one in our area. So it is a great treasure.”
The fountain of knowledge in the heart of the desert
Remote, deprived, and poor are accurate descriptions of Lal was Sarjangal district and the lives of its residents. There are at least 800 villages in the northeast of Ghor Province in central Afghanistan. In 2019, the former government’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development put the population at 336,500. Most are Hazaras.
Ghulam Ebrahimi, 32, has been running the Dehkada library for four years. He says it’s always open for anyone interested. But its main activities are actively engaging children through reading classes and taking books to distant schools. It’s also set up a Dekhada art group and holds painting competitions.
Ebrahimi says that they gather children from the fourth grade and above in a class and read story books to them. “Also, we take books to some schools far away from us, both for the schoolteachers and for the school students,” he says. “We take the teachers books they can study and story books for the students who are mostly children.”
The first round of the painting competition was held last month and they’re already preparing for a second round. “It’s going to be a lot bigger with more people competing,” he adds.
How was the library started?
In 2018, local educators launched a book collection campaign in the district and from other provinces. They gathered enough to open a small library, sharing their campaign on social media to engage book lovers..
Mr. Ebrahimi says the library now contains about 7,000 books, including 4,000 volumes of children’s stories, with more being added all the time.
About 1,300 young people, teenagers, and children borrow books from the library every year. Girls have become the biggest borrowers since the Taliban barred them from high schools and universities.
“More than 60 percent of our clients are girls for now,” Ebrahimi says.
His organization supported another library in the district but it didn’t survive the change of government. “After that fall of the previous government, the library was closed and everyone took their books to their homes,” he says. “Currently, Dehkada library is the only active library in the district.”
Ebrahimi says the number of visitors has been increasing day by day since it opened. “The very existence of this library promotes reading,” he says.
Accessing and reading books has always been difficult in central Afghanistan or Hazara-dominated areas. There is still no library in most of the remote areas of Hazarajat. To try to fill this gap, youth groups have followed the example of Dekhada library and launched book collections. Just six months ago young people were able to start the Kateb library in the Ghad-e-Qolukh bazaar of Chaman area of Yakawlang District No. 1.
Dehkada, Kateb and the Bandar library in Sangi Takht of Daikandi province are examples of how public effort can promote the culture of reading.
Twenty-year-old Latifa Danish, one of the active members of the village library, says the existence of Dehkada library in these difficult conditions gives girls hope and motivation.
She came back to Lal wa Sarjangal, her hometown, two years ago after living in Kabul. “One day I went to this library and since then I haven’t stopped borrowing books.” She estimates she’s read more than 70 books in six months.
Latifa was in her first year at Bamyan University studying for a Bachelor of Economics when the Taliban banned females. “The Taliban stopped us taking a step on the path of science and knowledge.”
Twenty-year-old Shegufa Mohammadi was a medical student at a private university in Kabul when the Taliban seized power. She says joining Dekhada library after she was forced to come home introduced her to the joy of reading.
“Before the library was established, I did not read a book at all with the intention of studying and obtaining more information,” she says. “Because we could not find our favorite books.”
Shegufa believes a library is a necessity of life, especially for Lal wa Sarjangal district. “In my opinion, a library is essential in every area, it’s like water, food, and clothes. Libraries are never loud, but they make pathways for people society really needs. When outstanding people are honored, no one talks about the library they used or the books they read. But in fact, it’s those books that change lives.”