Vote school for illiterate Afghans

Seventy-year-old shepherd Khak Mohammad arrives at Herat’s eye hospital just as a team of election educators wrap up a lecture on how to vote in Afghanistan’s upcoming polls.

As staff pack away mock ballot papers and leaflets aimed at teaching the illiterate masses scarred by decades of war the practicalities of casting a free vote, Mohammad mulls the importance of democracy.

“I will vote. I’m from this country, I have to vote,” said the old man, who, like more than 70 percent of Afghanistan’s population, cannot read or write.

How he will cast his ballot in Afghanistan’s presidential and provincial elections on August 20, however, remains a mystery.

“We have some tribal officers in the village and they tell us how to vote,” he tells AFP. “Everything that our tribal officer says, we will do that. I don’t know anything, I just vote how the tribal officer tells us.”

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) staffers are racing from village to village with their “mock election” — holding picnics, music shows, sports matches and poetry competitions aimed at educating voters.

But trying to shift ingrained perceptions in a deeply tribal, mostly rural society where ethnic loyalties and hierarchy often trump individual decisions is a huge challenge ahead of the nation’s second presidential poll.

During Mohammad’s lifetime, Afghans have seen bitter civil war and been governed by an absolute monarch, a Soviet-backed communist regime and religious Taliban extremists — but only one elected leader.

Compounding the problem is the woeful education in the fifth poorest country in the world. Two-thirds of people will not be able to read the names on the ballot paper. Among women, illiteracy soars to more than 85 percent.

“Democracy needs a historic background, like in Greece and major European countries… we’re just practising it for six or seven years,” said Salahaelin Aryapur, a politics professor at Herat University.

“It’s a new thing for Afghan people, it’s an innovation for the society. It’s a tough job to do to bring the new culture of democracy.”

At the eye hospital in the western city of Herat, IEC instructors urge men and women who cannot read to memorise the photo, symbol and number of their choice candidate, all of which will be on the ballot paper.

The symbols of the 41 presidential candidates are imaginative and varied — two hopefuls are represented by differing numbers of aeroplanes, another by an alarm clock, while stethoscopes, work tools and roses are also popular choices.

“When I came here I did not know anything. Now they told us and I know how to vote for the person I want,” said 52-year-old mason Abdul Ahad, fingering his prayer beads and peering at the mock ballots through kohl-rimmed eyes.

Ali Ahmad, the IEC civic educator in Herat, says they are trying to reach every potential voter through mosques, hospitals, clinics and tribal offices all over the province.

“We try our best, but maybe there are parts — due to security — that we can’t go to,” he said.

In Herat, they are relatively lucky. It is one of the most educated cities in Afghanistan and isolated from the worst of a violent insurgency by Taliban militants bent on disrupting elections.

In more insecure or remote parts of the country, voter education is rarer and candidates struggle to get their message out, with television and radio not always available in rural homes without electricity.

Some can afford to send envoys to villages and mosques to create a word-of-mouth campaign, but many voters rely on ethnic or religious leaders to make decisions for them.

At a campaign rally in the central Baghlan province, organisers hand out postcards with President Hamid Karzai’s logo — scales of justice — and a mock up of the election ballot, and tell villagers which box to tick.

“I don’t know the other candidates. I have not seen their pictures. We know when we see the picture who we will vote for. We know Karzai’s picture,” said Gulnigar, 30, a mother-of-four.

Rahmatullah Habibi, 60, said he knows nothing about any of the other 40 candidates — because “I am an illiterate and simple farmer” — but planned to follow his spiritual leader’s guidance and vote for Karzai.

“I don’t need any information, I have got the information that I will give my vote to Karzai.”


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