Selene Biffi

2012 Young Laureate, Cultural Heritage
Italy, Born 1982

Project Goal

Revive traditional storytelling to craft a new narrative for Afghanistan

Location: Afghanistan

A twist of luck

Evacuated from Afghanistan after an attack killed her United Nations colleagues, Selene Biffi returned to Kabul and eventually decided she wanted to set up a story-telling school that will preserve oral heritage, give hope to youth and help to spread crucial development information.

On 24 March 2013 the future grew a bit brighter for some young people in war-torn Afghanistan. That day, Selene Biffi’s dream became a reality, when the storytelling school she founded opened in Kabul’s Foundation for Culture and Civil Society with an inaugural class of 17 students.

The school is the realization of an idea that began in tragedy. On 21 September 2009, the International Day of Peace, Biffi left Italy for Kabul to work for the United Nations on what she then described as “a cute little project”. She was to write a textbook for rural Afghan children –in a country with a literacy rate of about 30 per cent – to teach basic concepts in such topics as health, agriculture and the environment.

Her original goal had been to work as a UN electoral observer in Afghanistan but her application had been turned down seven times, fortuitously, as it turned out. Shortly after her arrival in Kabul, the Taliban attacked a guesthouse where electoral observers were staying. Six UN staff were among the 12 people killed. Most of the remaining staff, including Biffi, were evacuated a few days later. She was, she says, “spared by a twist of luck”.

Safely at home in her small village in northern Italy, she had a decision to make. Stay, or risk a return to Kabul and finish the work? The best way to honour the memory of her colleagues, she decided, was to get back on a plane. Early in December she went back to Afghanistan. The deaths had marked her deeply and transformed her view of her project. She now believed that if this textbook could help “even a single child understand the power of education, he or she would always be free to choose peace over violence”. She turned, she says, from “an observer to a facilitator for change”.

Apart from the textbook she had been contracted to write for the United Nations, she had also developed a comic booklet on public health, reasoning that in a country with such high illiteracy, finding illustrative ways to communicate information was the key to success.

With her contribution to the comic book finished she went home – but not to rest. Inspired by her experience in Afghanistan, in 2010 Biffi founded an NGO, Plain Ink, her second NGO. (Her first, Youth Action for Change, offers online educational courses for young people in 130 countries.)

Resilience and dignity
Plain Ink, she says, is an organization “built on stories”. It produces and distributes educational children’s books and comics among poor communities in Italy and India. Her Rolex Award-winning project to set up a storytelling school in Kabul is an extension of this work and is Biffi’s attempt to do something for a country she fell in love with despite the chaos and danger. “There was something magical despite the hardship, the war and everything else: the resilience and dignity of its people”, she says.

Through the Kabul storytelling school, Biffi aims to give Afghanistan’s young people a foundation for their future while preserving an ancient culture, through the tradition of oral storytelling. In its first year, the school has enrolled jobless young Afghan men and women, and from several ethnic groups – in courses taught in Dari and English by master storytellers and other professionals.

Uniquely for a project designed to protect Afghanistan’s oral heritage, Biffi’s school will teach storytelling skills in an effort to support these young people in finding employment, most likely in the field of development, and in conjunction with partner aid agencies. Courses will include English lessons, storytelling and creative writing, and the complementary use of music and art, the curriculum will also include support and mentoring for personal and professional development.

The student storytellers will perform narratives to educate communities about important public issues, such as food security and disaster preparedness, and to spread messages about peace and development. Because of the country’s strong oral tradition, this way of educating and conveying information is likely to be more effective than less culturally familiar methods.

The project will scale up over five years, with the aim of training 100 students every year in schools around Afghanistan, with its performances and messages eventually reaching some 20,000 people annually. Expansion will, of course, depend heavily on the security situation in the country.

Another innovation of the school will be an online, curated compilation of traditional stories, using crowdsourcing techniques on a dynamic website to engage the Afghan diaspora. This repository will add to archives of Afghan stories and will be accessible to people around the world.

Biffi has few illusions about the challenges her project faces, ranging from the country’s political instability to finding opportunities for the students. The school’s launch took place only weeks after a suicide bomber killed nine people in her Kabul neighborhood. Nevertheless, she sounds undaunted. “When working to open up possibilities for change”, she said, “challenges abound. But so does hope.”

Other 2012 Young Laureates