Our Journey to Smile

Sometimes, ‘no’ is better for Afghan toilet development; building a Peace Park in Afghanistan

Please watch a short video clip of Bamiyan Peace Park’s opening


Bamiyan Peace Park Opening

Bamiyan Governor Dr Sarobi with volunteer youth at Peace Park opening

Play that Afghan flute with your own breath of truth

Sound that Afghan tune with your own heart of love

Transform that Afghan poverty with your own hand of labour

“No, in that case, don’t apply for those foreign funds!”

In 2007, City Mayor Zahir proposed to the Bamiyan Peace Committee ( a UN-facilitated government and non-governmental peace building committee headed by the Bamiyan Provincial Governor Dr Sarobi ) to build a 1134 square meter Peace Park within Bamiyan City.

From the Peace Park site, you can see the Bamiyan Buddhas which were destroyed by the Taliban. These Buddhist structures were built more than 1800 years ago and though Bamiyan locals are all Muslims, they were dismayed at the loss of this heritage.

Also seen in another direction is the City of Gholghola. ‘Gholghola’ means ‘noise’, said to be the noise made by the screams of the ancient city’s inhabitants as they were being slaughtered by the raiding hordes of Genghis Khan. Genghis was taking revenge for Metiken, his favorite grandson who was killed earlier in a Bamiyan battle.

Bamiyan City is a fascinating, historical crossroads whose atmosphere holds both hurt and hope.

Can Afghans develop a single-street city and its environs? No? Size-wise, it’s merely a ­­­2 km-long street lined on both sides by mud-brick haggling shops and chair-less tea-houses.

The main Buddha statue, though ‘artilleried’ beyond recognition, tells the stone-silent Central Asian story that humans in every age build their culture with their own hands, and build it well. Surrounding the original 53 meter tall statue are other smaller statues and a natural system of caves where monks and pilgrims stayed and came to worship.

Human civilizations do not lose their ancient skill of community building, unless the skill is deliberately quenched or subdued.

Ahmed Rashid talked about Afghanistan being a ‘rentier’ state in the book Taliban, ‘rentier’ alluding to a state almost totally dependant on foreign help. This un-natural dependence has become so ingrained and extreme that Afghans joke about it. You can hear the regretful damage done to their proud Afghan spirit. “Nowadays, to construct our own latrines, we also have to submit project proposals to foreigners.”

Suddenly, after centuries of resilient survival under rather harsh conditions, Afghans can’t make latrines in which to relief themselves! Yes, Afghans are poor but latrines have always been hand-built at practically no cost, constructed out of free bricks made from the ample, free indigenous soil, the same earth-bound way the caves were hewn out of rock!

This self-effacing laugh at themselves is an unwilling protest that something important within them has been taken away.

Many of the Afghan youth I work with, emulating their adults, genuinely believe that ‘without foreign money and help, we cannot do anything. We just can’t!”

So, as ‘conventional wisdom’ would dictate, there were NO questions asked about how the proposed Peace Park would be built. Like for every other public Afghan development, proposals written in English (rather than in their equally beautiful Dari) would be handed to foreign donors and if ‘successfully’ approved, there would be funds for the Park’s construction and perhaps ‘extra dollars’ for a few personal pockets too.

Basically, if there’s no foreign money, there’ll be no local park.

So, the government-allocated Peace Park site remained its un-cultivable rocky, neglected self, for more than a year.


Bamiyan Peace Park in August 2008

Then, in July 2008, college youth involved in a peace workshop took an interest in the yet ‘un-seen and un-funded’ Park. On their behalf, I suggested to the Peace Committee that as this was just a small park, it should be a Park built entirely by the people of Bamiyan.

“Please, we have to be realistic!”

“Aren’t you aware that there’s not a single public structure in Bamiyan that is not foreign-stamped?”

“Er…we don’t have the capacity to be self-sufficient.”

“We can’t do it!”

I felt that a different kind of proposal needed to be heard by local and foreign committee members alike, that the dignity of Afghans whom I love needed space, needed room.

So, in Dari, I persuaded, “Please understand that I’m not antagonistic towards foreigners. I can’t be. I’m a foreigner myself. But we should try to make this Park a Park built by the people! How about mobilizing village councils to contribute in various ways? How about the private or civil sectors? ”

Thankfully, Dr Sarobi, the only female Governor in Afghanistan, despite her doubts, was willing to try. “Let’s invite the private sector to consider funding the building of this Park.”

In September 2008, Dr Sarobi officiated at the Park’s ground-breaking ceremony. Agricultural soil was donated by the naturalized Afghan-Japanese boss of a local hotel. 2 of the bigger local construction companies sent their graders for leveling the soil. Bamiyan volunteer youth came, wielding shovels to help with the leveling.

Winter set in.

I heard from City Mayor Zahir about a hopeful proposal submitted by a government directorate. Otherwise, there was no movement.

I gave in.

You see, the result-orientated foreigner in me hurried to seize an opportunity to get funds from the German Embassy. After all, the intention of assistance is usually good and benign. Why say ‘no’ to good-will?

But, what I did when I submitted a proposal to the German Embassy through the UN office in Bamiyan was this : I was nipping the budding resolve of my Afghan friends and of myself, to do this patiently, on our own.

My ‘pragmatism’ became the betrayer of our nascent hope.

‘Fortunately’, through providence or the lack of it, the German Embassy rejected the proposal.

Time slipped by and we all had our own individual challenges as the harsh winter deepened, and the thin topsoil that had been leveled at the Park grounds froze over.

But time also nurtured thoughts of a new spring and independence in our minds. A few youth gathered again in the spring of 2009 to prepare the soil for planting. The volunteer turnout was meager and on one occasion, was only a pathetic pair.

But there was a remnant of effort and a trace of determination.

The City Mayor’s municipality workers tilled the land and landscaped it.

We reminded the Environment Directorate to source for and plant grass seed. We took an official government letter requesting for tree saplings to the Agricultural Directorate, only to face a bureaucratic hold-up, “I can’t give you any saplings as the number of saplings needed is not specified in this letter.’

In short, reform demands patience and persistence.

And patience, perhaps especially when it is NOT rewarded, grows.

The grass and trees were planted and began to grow. And our courage grew with the greening of the Park.

Bamiyan Peace Park after

Bamiyan Peace Park October 2009

It was then that the youth’s appreciation of independence was ‘tested’. This time,I merely explained to the youth that an international NGO ( Non-Governmental Organization ) was willing to fund a part of the Park’s further development, including the possibility of building toilets for the Park, but that the NGO had an understandable regulation of placing a signboard to acknowledge their contribution. If the NGO helped, it might eventually appear like a foreign-built local Park after all.

After surprisingly quick discussions, all except one of the youth decided that they would submit a proposal on condition that the NGO waivered the ‘signboard regulation’.

I got back to the NGO’s project manager, a foreigner, who said, “No, sorry. We have our regulations. I’m very busy. We have the money. Just submit the proposal.”

Here’s another strange and humanly-disturbing irony about well-meaning help, rendered a crippling crutch by the assumed ‘right’ and ‘power’ of money, which inflates the helper with a semblance of philanthropy and deflates the helped with the embarrassment of inferiority.

So, the youth politely said ‘no’! “No, in that case, don’t apply for those foreign funds!” I myself was pleasantly surprised. No, I was overjoyed.

Sometimes, ‘no’ is better. Sometimes, ‘no’ gives room to play our flutes and give sound to our hearts.

The youth participated in the sale of a book and from the proceeds of the book sales, Bamiyan University students had an engraved marble plaque crafted and placed in the Park.

On the 1st of October 2009, Dr Sarobi inaugurated the opening of Bamiyan Peace Park as part of the International Peace Day celebrations. In her short speech, she said, “Firstly, I want to appreciate & thank all the volunteer youth who, with their own hands, have turned a place of stone into a park of beauty. Unfortunately, through years of war & conflict, we’ve lost some values. We’ve lost self-sufficiency and self-belief. Everyone waits for a foreign NGO to place a stone or brick before doing anything. If we work together, we can do a lot. Building this Peace Park is an example that if we set our own goals & not wait on others, we can build our own country and not be dependant on others.”

At the quiet opening ceremony, the predatory forces within the hearts of all men were seeking their rude expression; some of those who had hardly participated in the Park’s development claimed credit, some belittled the beautiful tune of the village flutist and others ridiculed the quivering voice of the young master of ceremony.

But there were those of us who held the grace of those who truly laboured for the Peace Park close to our hearts, workers who say ‘no’ to external appearances and empty rhetoric, and who, though often ignored or despised, would stand steady on their own two feet.

The Dari script on the plaque says, “Bamiyan Peace Park. Established 1388”

Bamiyan Peace Park 1388Bamiyan Peace Park Established 1388