As a tower of smoke circles towards the heavens, a flurry of frenetic movement transpires amidst the ruble. Sirens screech as neighbors pick through fallen concrete in search of friends and loved ones. Our screens flash to images of mothers in shock, hands covering their mouths, the pain and agony evident in their grief-stricken faces. An articulate reporter describes the carnage, feeding the audience bits of scattered details about the explosion that recently rocked the area that left the background in ruins. Another terrible attack by a faceless and relentless enemy in Kabul, this day in Afghanistan ends with a climbing body count and a think sense of uncertainty.
But not to worry, after another 20 minutes of horror and mayhem streaming on the nightly news, we can return to our regularly scheduled program. Our minds can be engaged with competitions between TV personalities or outlandish scenarios of fictitious families. But first, planted in the recesses of our cranium, a picture of what life is like in the shadow of the Hindu Kush Mountains is created. The 60-second clip about a brutal bomb attack stays with us, defining our perception of a country thousands of miles away. Yet, as is this case with the majority of what is reported over the airwaves, the real story is much more complicated than portrayed in a news brief.
Part of that story is told not by bombs and bullets, soldiers and terrorists, but rather bricks and mortar, engineers and laborers. Another viewpoint of life in Kabul sees a population trying to get back on its collective feet after decades of war and repressive government control, and the international aid groups helping in that endeavor. One such organization is CARE. Known around the world for the packages that bear its name, CARE was established in 1945 to deliver basic supplies to refugees throughout Europe in the aftermath of World War II. That humanitarian aim has guided the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) for more than 65 years as it has established offices around the world, helping millions of poor people with basic necessities, education, and training to improve their lives. Indeed, its core values speak to the eradication of poverty and creating an atmosphere where tolerance is standard and social justice rules. In Kabul, CARE continues towards these goals, emphasizing core principals such as education and women’s empowerment. And, of course, building cricket stadiums.
On the surface, the construction of a sports arena by an aid organization seems bizarre. With all of the problems in the country, all of the areas in which Taliban rule suffocated personal freedoms and outlawed community involvement, how can a place to play a game be of any significant importance? And especially a game that holds national significance only for a handful of former English colonies and the crown itself.
At first glance it seems like appropriations should be given to priorities like national security and basic necessities (clean water, electricity, etc.) Yet, closer inspection reveals something significant about sports, no matter the type of ball or bat.
The psychological effect of sports should not be underestimated. The impact national teams can have on the collective psyche of a country is on international display every two years with the Olympics and World Cup. Games possess an uncanny ability to unify previously adversarial parties under one common goal: beat the other guys. Hopefully that goal does not morph into something dangerous along the way and sportsmanship takes place on the field as well as in the stands, but the fact remains that sports can have a substantial impact on the morale of the communities that support it.
In Kabul, this is no different — cricket matters here. The game is played throughout the country on dusty patches of bare earth using makeshift wickets; players forgoing proper equipment in order to play an increasingly popular game. The surge in the sport’s popularity occurred in the 1990s when Afghan refugees in Pakistan brought the game back across the border. It then took hold within national culture with the inception of the Afghan Cricket Board in 1995 and even endured banishment by the Taliban, which was reversed in 2000 (the only sport to achieve that distinction).
The national team has since enjoyed success on the international circuit, recently achieving international status to participate in one-day test matches. “Cricket in Afghanistan is more than a game,” said Finance Minister Mohammed Omar Zakhiwal at the time of the stadium’s construction, “It is a means for bringing Afghan youth from different backgrounds together. It has become a source of pride for ordinary Afghans and an example of their resolve and determination. It is a game that can contribute positively to peace and stability in our country.”
Yet, despite its high regard to the populace and athletic triumphs achieved on the pitch, there was something missing: a place to play in front of the home fans.
Enter CARE and its organizational ability to take on a project of this scope with funding from the US Government. However, the building of sports arenas falls far from CARE’s comfort zone; its construction forte is more in the line of well-digging and emergency shelter in the wake of disasters. The NGO did not possess the experience of septic tank foundation, installation of turf, creating stairs and parapet walls, and the numerous other aspects of building a national stadium that the project required. Country Director, Brian Cavanagh, had his doubts. “It was a massive undertaking,” says the long-time development veteran, “we had to determine if CARE could mobilize the expertise and skill to build it and gauge the abilities of the construction crew, including the foremen, engineers, and laborers.”
So, once the credentials of the men and women working on the project checked out, it was up to them to live up to their resumes. And in December 2011, months of hard work and determination culminated in the inauguration of the stadium with a test match between the Afghanistan National Team and the Afghanistan National Under 19 Team. Any doubts had been put to rest as thousands of fans packed the newly built stands, proud to finally have a place to root for the home team.
But the story does not end there. Although the positive effect of people’s spirits was an important aspect to the construction, utilizing the stadium for greater purposes still remains a focal point for CARE.
“We want to build on the success of building the stadium,” says Cavanagh, “using sports as a means of reconciliation, building trust, and instilling confidence.” In this regard, CARE certainly has the experience to follow through. Several of its programs have been built upon initial successes, transforming into sustained endeavors to help accomplish their overall mission. For instance, as an implementer of the National Solidarity Program, CARE has developed a model for ways to achieve women’s empowerment through the creation of women’s development committees and building capacity of local government structures. CARE is certainly hoping that this project will result in similar success, not only to help Afghanistan’s cricket team rise on the international circuit, but also to improve the lives of Afghans in a broader sense. And, maybe, transform our perception of the reality of Afghan life.
About Michael Cavanagh
Michael Cavanagh is a freelance writer in search of memorable locales, delectable cuisine, and delicious drink. An experienced world traveler, Michael views globetrotting as an adventure like no other. He hopes to share his discoveries with other oenophiles, foodies, nomads, and travel enthusiasts. Michael has been published in The Wine Enthusiast, PalatePress, Destinations Travel Magazine, Terroirist, and has a regular column at Examiner.
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