A Ticket To An Afghan School: The Mobile Mini-Circus For Children in Kabul

(Migrated from another blog, http://chowchowed.blogspot.com/2011/12/ticket-to-afghan-school-mobile-mini.html)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

It is a school brimming with activities. Even in the near zero-degree weather in Kabul on a cold Christmas Eve morning – they do not celebrate this festival in Afghanistan by the way – children had already gathered in different groups by the time I walked in at 8.30 a.m, hoping to catch a ‘performance’ by their youths scheduled at 10. Some were on the Merry-go-round. Some were playing football, and others volleyball. Yet there were others in an enclosed glass house juggling tennis balls and spinning diabolos. There was an excitement and anticipation in the air as they awaited for the winter session to begin.

This is the Mobile Mini-Circus For Children (MMCC), an NGO functioning as an enrichment school for children and youths, where engagement in performance arts is their modus operandi. The public school system had closed for the winter, and so MMCC is starting on their winter curriculum, ranging from Quran Studies, to Computers, and from Theatre to Radio Broadcasting. In that expansive space, there was a vibrant energy which was indescribable. I looked at the children’s faces. Some were laughing and giggling, while others were by themselves, playing quietly but freely. There was something unfathomable. There was, I think, an immense sense of freedom.

It was a freedom that was deeply connected with the sense of play. And in that playfulness, joy emanated. There was a very simple, pleasurable, innocent quality to that joyfulness.

I took a closer look at the facilities of the school. By Singapore’s standards of safety, MMCC would have failed in risk assessment. In my country, all kindergartens and public playgrounds have soft padded mats to cushion the impact of falls, thus lessening the number of accidents. But these Afghan boys delighted themselves in so-called dangerous games, climbing trees, balancing themselves on wooden beams and wooden stilts, as well as twirling their nimble bodies upside down around fence structures. The sense of play and adventure was obvious. Young children skilfully dribbled tennis balls as if they were soccer players. They picked them up, juggled them in the air, and then moved on to other structures and objects that fascinated them. From my observations, no one fell down. Even if they did, I would imagine that it was part of play, part of their experiential learning, part of their lifeskills – to pick themselves up after each fall without much fuss. Unlike Singaporean children who have been protected from these ‘natural’ activities, the Afghan boys were uninhibited in their world of play.

Built within MMCC’s structures and facilities is an educational philosophy that believed in kinesthetics – a psychomotor, and hand-eye coordination training from the outset – but all done, pedagogically, through fun activities. John Dewey would have been proud of this progressive model of education in Afghanistan.

But more importantly, the role of students as independent, autonomous learners is most impressive. They decide what curriculum package to sign up for – something uncommon in their Afghan way of life. Choices are given to the children and they decide – with or without peer pressure – the classes that interested them. Of course, they might start off with more ‘informative’ classes in accordance with the wishes of their parents, but it is not unusual for them to ‘switch’ modules later. Older youths, or seniors, take on the role of peer mentors. They coach and teach the younger children in lessons of acrobatics, gymnastics and other circus-related skills. Leadership opportunities are given to youths, and with role modelling as a necessary attribute of leadership, the MMCC has created a sustainable model of arts education for children since its genesis in 2002.

For the more talented pool of students, they are given exposure and intense training with theatre practitioners from abroad, culminating in public performances, such as the AFSANA Chimera at the Institut Français d’Afghanistan.

As I walked out of the MMCC premises almost four hours later, some of the children were holding cards. These cards were registration cards that showed which classes they had successfully enrolled themselves into. Unsurprisingly, their faces beamed with joy. It was an unfettered joy that even the harshest political climate could not suppress. After all, it was a ticket to freedom. Freedom of the human spirit through a world of play.

Note: I had only observed the boys in the compound, but the girls were also actively engaged in a different section of the MMCC. I didn’t feel ‘right’ to intrude that space, thus focused my observations and reflections in this gender-biased way.


Permission has been granted by MMCC for blog publishing.
2011 (c) All photographs copyright of Edmund Chow.
Part of this was reproduced in the Singapore newspaper, Straits Times, on 26 Jan 2012.