The city of Kabul, Afghanistan sits in a narrow valley among the Hindu Kush Mountains. In the winter, the peaks are snow covered, and muddy footpaths cut lines through the snow to houses clustered on the sides of steep hills. When the air is clear, the mountains look beautiful, and I can almost imagine a calm mountain town, far from war.
Unfortunately, peace is elusive in this mountainous country, and multiple civil and regional wars have taken their toll on the landscape as well as the people. Taliban fighters use the mountains to move throughout the country, rendering Afghanistan’s most beautiful landscapes inaccessible to its own citizens.
In a school gymnasium in Kabul, though, I’m sitting with a group of children, imagining a different world. Girls in brightly colored tunics and headscarves are eyeing a 30 foot high climbing wall with considerable doubt. “When I come back in 10 years,” I say, “Who will be my mountain guide? Who will take me climbing?” A teenager raises her hand. She lives in Kabul, but has a family home in the countryside nearby, and she tells me she’ll be the first female to stand on top of the mountains around her village.
We are at a unique school, called Skateistan, where both neighborhood children and “street children” –poor or homeless children who beg on the street for money – can learn sports and arts alongside traditional curriculum. At the back of an arena-turned-skate-park is a climbing wall, built by two German visitors 10 years ago and then left to disuse.
Upon hearing of its existence – a mythical climbing wall in Afghanistan? Really? – I was eager to bring it back to life, and I set about developing a curriculum for the Skateistan students. Teenagers and teaching assistants learned to belay younger children, and the entire group alternated between encouraging each other in the Dari Language and shouting out English climbing commands.
Fierce young girls, some as young as six, scampered up the climbs. Irritated that their headscarves kept falling in the way of their climbing, several simply tucked the tails of the scarf into their climbing harness, and continued. A 10-year-old boy, the jokester of the class, approached the wall with bravado, only to freeze with fear half way up the wall: “The girls are tougher than we are! This is terrifying!” he shouted from the midpoint. Moments later, with the encouragement of friends, he regrouped and made it to the top.
I had taught kids climbing programs in the States before, and I have always been struck by how empowered it leaves children as they explore their athleticism and ability to problem solve. In Kabul, where children have few opportunities for play and experimentation, the opportunity to move vertically instead of horizontally was just the ticket to encourage laughter and play. Afghanistan has incredible landscapes, beautiful cliff bands and stunning mountains, and I truly believe that with peace, these Afghan children will grow up to enjoy these wild places in their own country. In the meantime, the first generation of Afghan climbers and mountaineers are learning the ropes at a wall in Kabul – waiting for their first ascents!
Kelsey is a PSNW athlete and lived in Afghanistan from 2010-2013, consulting on humanitarian aid projects for UN agencies and government programs.