Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Soap Opera Lifts Flagging Spirits

Popular radio drama has provided a much need antidote to the upheaval and tumult of the last ten years.
By Salima Ghafari
Entering the two-storey building gave me something of a shock. A young boy was leaning against the wall, crying. A woman was standing alone and talking to herself. I heard strange voices and loud noises from the second floor.

At first I thought perhaps I had come into a psychiatric hospital by mistake. But no, I was in the offices of the BBC Afghan Education Project, located in the Khair Khana district of Kabul. What I was witnessing were actors getting ready for a performance of “New Home, New Life”, the popular radio soap opera produced in Afghanistan by the BBC.

In the recording studio, two actors stood at microphones, playing their parts animatedly. The studio looked like a farmyard, complete with sieve, clay water pots, a shovel, a pickaxe, a trowel, and a traditional Afghan drum, or daira, and other props used during the drama.

“New Home, New Life”, NHNL, in April 1994. It was produced in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and broadcast from London. Throughout the factional wars of the early-to-mid Nineties and later under the Taleban regime, the soap opera for many took the place of cinema, television, and newspapers, which were almost non-existent.

“Afghan people had many problems during the civil wars and particularly under the Taleban regime,” said programme editor Katib Pasun. “Their lives were full of grief. We wanted people to be happy, to forget their sorrows, so we made the drama. We heard that the Taleban, too, listened to it and liked it a lot.”

Following the ousting of the Taleban, the BBC brought the drama home, opening the Kabul studio in September 2002.

NHNL now employs 108 actors, and broadcasts in Afghanistan’s two official languages, Dari and Pashto. There are also three Dari and three Pashto scriptwriters, a script editor and dialogue editor for each language, as well as one synopsis writer.

The BBC airs the drama via the internet and local radio stations in rural areas of Afghanistan, as well as in Peshawar and Quetta, two Pakistani cities with sizeable Afghan populations.

The series reflects everyday life in Afghanistan, and is meant to instruct as well as to entertain. It follows several dozen characters through marriages, births, illness, and, in some instances, death.

According to Pasun, close to 2,000 episodes have been aired since the programme was created. A recent BBC survey showed that approximately 70 per cent of the population listened regularly to the show, varying from over 90 per cent in Khost to about 20 per cent in Kabul.

In addition to entertainment, NHNL also gives information about health, agriculture, animal husbandry, education, and culture - thus having a real impact on people’s lives, said Pasun.

“We found a young boy who had lost his leg in a mine explosion,” he said. “He was very depressed and even attempted suicide. But then he heard of the drama of how one of the characters, Jaandad, lost his leg, but got an artificial one and learned the tailoring profession. He did the same thing, and told us that the drama had changed his life.”

Nazifa, 23, a resident of Nangarhar province, said that NHNL had saved the life of her three-year-old child.

“My daughter had diarrhoea, we had no car, and were a long way from the city,” she told IWPR. “I had heard on the drama that if no medicine was available, the child should be given ardaba [a mixture of flour and salt with boiled water]. Later on the doctor told me that if I had not done this my child would have died.”

Pasun said that NHNL decides which issues to include in the programme based on letters, assessments done by survey groups in the regions, as well as through regular consultation with donors. The drama is funded by various organisations, including the United Nations, the British government and OXFAM.

Popular themes involve women’s rights, politics, including the recent election process, and, quite recently, HIV/AIDS.

BBC officials declined to give any information about the overall budget of the programme, but a rough estimate puts the figure at just over 1 million US dollars annually.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and the UN women’s development fund, UNIFEM, who contribute 13 and two per cent of the drama’s budget respectively, are keen to continue backing the project. “UNIFEM is extremely happy with the drama,” said Mohammad Qasem, media and gender assistant for UNIFEM.

In NHNL, one of the actors, Sewita, plays the wife of the village chief. She still lives in Peshawar, Pakistan and comes to Kabul every week to record an episode. She gladly puts up with the trouble, she said, because after 11 years she cannot think of leaving the show.

“I love this drama as much as I love my son,” she said, pointing to her eight-month old baby boy. “The drama is my 11-year-old child.”

IWPR’s local editor, Hafizullah Gardesh, has been with the programme for eight years. He plays Sarwar, head of the Upper Village. During the Taleban period, he had to travel every week or so to Peshawar to record, at a time when Afghan citizens had neither passports nor visas.

“I knew all the illegal ways in and out of Pakistan,” he laughed.

Some of his memories are not so humorous, however. He has had to hike through the mountains on foot, he has been shot at, and in one particularly horrific incident, he was involved in a bus crash that killed two people and left 16 others including his uncle with severe injuries.

“But I always made it to the studio on time,” he said.

Mahbooba Jabari, 55, is the director and an actor of the Dari version of the drama, and has been with the programme since its inception.

“I feel proud that I am working for a drama which has so far got several prizes and high [praise] worldwide,” said Jabari.

NHNL has been awarded two bronze and one silver medal, as well as three letters of appreciation in the World Festival annually held in New York City. The drama has also been awarded a silver medal by the European Community.

But it is on the streets of Afghanistan that it receives the most appreciation.

“I have an honoured and pampered guest in my life which is the ‘New Home, New Life’ drama,” said Atiqullah, 23, a taxi driver in Kabul. “The actors perform in such a way that the listener feels that he is right there.”

Mirza Khan, 22, a resident of Paktia, said that the show is very popular in his province.

“Children won’t go to sleep until they’ve listened to the show. Most people listen to the news on the BBC because of ‘New Home, New Life’,” he said.

Salima Ghafari is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.