Rolex Young Laureate Selene Biffi is being forced to find radical new ways to implement her dream of reviving the ancient art of storytelling as life in Kabul becomes more dangerous.
Selene Biffi’s school for story-telling opened in Kabul in March 2013. Her first six graduates are beginning internships in NGOs and foundations. But the continuing dangers of life in the Afghan capital and the many obstacles to carrying on activities that are taken for granted in cities elsewhere have convinced Biffi that she must find other ways to implement her ambitious and courageous vision.
“It’s tough at the moment in Kabul, because everyone is pulling out, leaving the country,” explains Biffi, who has spent six months in the city this year. (All U.S. and allied troops might leave Afghanistan as early as December 2014). “I went back to Kabul in March  to open the school and a month later the Taliban spring offensive began. You constantly face the danger of car bombs or attacks. It’s difficult to move around freely and everyone faces daily risks. I was at home one day [earlier this year] and I had to lock myself in a bunker and the students couldn’t come to school.”
The violence and risks in the city also complicate life in other ways. “Afghanistan is a developing country, but renting a place in the protected areas of Kabul can cost US$10,000 a month,” she explains. As a result, she was forced to rent a run-down building in which to base the school.
But, despite the obstacles, Biffi’s school has started to receive local recognition.
Originally, when she first presented her idea of opening a story-telling school, she had difficulty persuading the Afghan authorities that her idea was worthwhile. “There’s been US$18 billion in aid going into Afghanistan between 2001 and 2008 according to USAID and 2,500 registered NGOs in Kabul alone– everyone wants a piece of the pie. I explained I didn’t want to do the same as everyone else, open the millionth school to teach literacy to women or children.
“Little by little, people began to understand that we wanted to open a school to revive traditional Afghan heritage. The school has become better known in recent months, with members of the Afghan parliament and an Afghan princess visiting to meet the students.”
And recently diplomats from the French embassy in Kabul became involved after seeing some of Biffi’s student story-tellers perform. Through ALEM, an educational project run by the embassy, which is overseeing French aid to Afghanistan, the French authorities have commissioned Biffi to train 45 primary school teachers in story-telling, which will become part of the curriculum at two French schools in Kabul, Esteqlal (a school for boys) and Malalaï (a school for girls). The Qessa Academy is training the teachers, in a course totalling three days, one day a month between October and December 2013.
“The project with the French embassy has given us a different angle,” says Biffi, who now believes that a physical location for the school, with all the expenses and dangers life in Kabul entails, is not necessarily the only way to implement her vision.
Move to radio
“My plan for next year is to move the school to radio,” she explains, as this will enable the teaching of story-telling to cover the whole country. Trained teachers will go to a radio station to read and teach how to create stories over the air. “It’s the only medium that has 100 per cent penetration of Afghanistan,” Biffi says. “I’m now aiming to find funding to pay for the radio programmes, which will be broadcast on the Radio Killid Network. Air time costs US$25 a minute, and each programme will last half an hour.”
On 22 October, Biffi’s Qessa Academy took a first step towards radio when students from the academy began recording their first audio story to be broadcast on Radio Killid.
Four days later, on 26 October, she was one of 30 young innovators who spoke at TEDxLecce, part of the international teleconferencing network. The event’s theme was “Courage”, and Biffi vividly described the many challenges and struggles she has faced in establishing the Qessa Academy.
As part of her wider activities which extend across several countries, Biffi, with the support of Angelab Ventures, has launched a new start-up, Spillover, promoting science skills among young adolescents using a computer games app.
Biffi’s reputation as a prominent social entrepreneur has resulted in frequent invitations to be keynote speaker at international gatherings. She is also asked to serve as a judge on major awards for young people. Over the next few months she will be a member of the Katerva Awards’ Policy Panel (a U.K.-based, promoting sustainability in initiatives worldwide) and of the Wired Awards judging panel . On 23 October she was one of the winners of the 2013 Lamarck Prize (with a grant of 10,000 Euros), presented in Milan for start-ups in Italy. The prize was given in recognition of her new venture, Spillover.Learn more about Selene Biffi