(An ongoing series on the Radio Literacy Program)
FORWARD OPERATING BASE LAGMAN, Afghanistan – Shinkai district is an inauspicious place in southern Zabul Province, Afghanistan, where the population lives a humble existence in contrast to western standards. There is no electricity, televisions, computers or internet. The only working telephones in town are a few satellite phones that are available for use by locals who can afford to pay per minute to use them.
The communities here are largely comprised of poor farming families, most of whom are uneducated. Schooling in Shinkai has been nonexistent since the Taliban kidnapped and later murdered several village elders in March 2011. Consequently, the literacy rate here is negligible - most residents cannot read or write - therefore there are no newspapers or magazines.
The outcome is that most residents get their news and information from word of mouth or radio, said Sgt. Kat Klosinski, one of the Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul non-commissioned officers from the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, Green Bay, Wis.
“It is hoped that the school will reopen soon, but until it does, radio is the only form of education in the area,” Klosinski said.
Recognizing that widespread illiteracy only strengthens the Taliban by allowing them to control the dissemination of knowledge – and therefore power – in Zabul province, and across Afghanistan, the U.S. State Department put into practice a program called the Reading Literacy Program to counter the Taliban and instill in the local populace a desire for education.
“Radio Literacy’s purpose is to … push them [the Afghan people] to demand more education from their government and therefore lead to legitimacy in their government,” said Master Sgt. Joel E. Fix, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Fort Belvoir, Va., who oversaw the Radio Literacy program during 116th IBCT’s deployment to Zabul province.
“Radio Literacy is not a replacement for schools and education. (It) is not meaning to teach people to be fluent speakers, writers and readers of Pashtu,” Fix added. “The conceptual idea is that over the course of a period of time of the program, that people will say ‘I like this; I want to know more.’”
A program is reborn
When 432nd CAB arrived at Forward Operating Base Sweeney, in July 2011, the Radio Literacy program was largely undeveloped. The Radio in a Box – a self-contained unit that includes a CD player, an audio-visual jack, a laptop connection and an amplifier – was broadcasting a 90-hour loop of Pashtu music and little more. There was not a disc jockey to broadcast any news or information; until two days later, when a 21-year old Afghan, by the name of Atta Muhammad, approached 432nd CAB at FOB Sweeney.
“He'd never had a job in his life, but his English was good, his ‘radio voice’ was excellent and he was smart enough to see the difference he could make in Shinkai,” said Klosinski.
“I joined the PRT team to earn some money for my family as well as serve for the poor people of the Shinkai [district],” said Atta. “Everything for me was different; strange to me. That was my first time talking into a microphone.”
With Atta onboard, the PRT at Sweeney set about reviving the Radio Literacy Program.
The Radio Literacy Program is part of the “Knowledge is Light” Campaign, which was designed to raise literacy awareness and is being run in some capacity across most of Afghanistan. The target audience is largely women and children, though many men participate. The participants can complete the Radio Literacy Program from their homes and villages. The 116th IBCT, Fort Belvoir, Va. introduced the Radio Literacy Program to Zabul province in 2011. The 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, Green Bay, Wis., and the Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, Combined Task Force Arrowhead is currently running the program in Shinkai district.