Every weekend and holiday, Saber Hosseini loads up a crate on his bicycle with children’s books, and pedals them out to rural villages where the children are unable to attend school. In war-ravaged Afghanistan, access to education for all children can be difficult even in big cities. For those in remote communities, going to school is next-to-impossible. With his “bicycle library,” Hosseini offers rural children the chance to access the education and learning they are otherwise denied.
“When I hand the books out to them, I can see their excitement and joy,” Hosseini told MSN. “It is the joy of being able to learn. I am also inspired.”
Hosseini is a schoolteacher in Bamiyan, the capital of the Bamyan province in central Afghanistan. While relatively safe, the province is one of the poorest and most mountainous in the country, with much of the land being barren, inaccessible, and unproductive. Many of the schools were destroyed in the war, and those which remain are so few and far between that children from remote villages are forced to drop out due to burdensome travel times. The result is very low literacy rates across the province, ranging from 0.5% to 31% for adults, depending on region and gender.
Hosseini came up with the idea for the bicycle library around six months ago. After discussing the idea with some friends in literary circles who spread the word through their communities, he was able to raise enough money to purchase 200 books. Now six months later, through the support of the community and people around the world, the library has grown to 3,500 books and Hosseini has recruited 20 more volunteers. He has also opened a public library in Bamiyan, the first in the city.
“We work as a sort of library – every week, we bring kids new books and take back the old ones to distribute to children in other villages,” he wrote for France24’s The Observers. “Some of the adults have even taken to borrowing our more advanced books.”
Hosseini and the other volunteers travel to the border with Iran to purchase most of their books, since the publication of books in Afghanistan is incredibly limited. In the beginning, they would choose simple books, but Hosseini says many of the children are now able to read more advanced books. They have simplified versions of books by Victor Hugo, Jack London, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Samad Behrangi (an Iranian writer), and Ferdowsi (an Iranian poet).
Each time he visits a community, he speaks to the children about a topic – mostly the importance of peace, the dangers of drugs, and the need for tolerance between people with different beliefs or cultures. During one such conversation, he spoke to the children about guns, and used the slogan ‘say no to guns, say yes to books.’ The next time he returned to that village, the children had rounded up all of their toy guns to hand over to him, but on one condition: “They wanted their village to be the first in the next round of book deliveries so that they could get first pick,” wrote Hosseini. “It was the most joyful moment of my life!”
The bicycle library volunteers use bicycles for their project for a few reasons. First and foremost, they can’t afford cars. Even if they could, many of the villages they travel to are only reachable by bike, not even 4x4s can tackle the rough terrain. “Lastly, it’s a bit symbolic,” wrote Hosseini. “The Taliban have at times used bicycles in their bomb attacks, so the message I want to convey is that we can replace this violence with culture.”
While the work is certainly rewarding, it is not without its difficulties. Hosseini says he occasionally gets death threats on the phone – the men on the other end say he must hand out only Islamic books or face consequences. His wife, also a teacher in a remote part of the province, was forced to leave her post after a student informed her that his Taliban-connected relatives had hatched a plan to kill her because of her involvement with the bicycle library. But despite these difficulties, Hosseini and his team are determined to keep going. “These kids live such stressful lives – they live in a society that is full of death and violence,” he wrote. “So we want to keep delivering a bit of joy and calm in their lives through books.”
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