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Bringing The Archers to Afghanistan

In the 1990s, as Head of the BBC’s Afghan Education Drama Project, John Butt – who now heads PACT Radio – was known in some circles as the “man who brought The Archers to Afghanistan” when he set up the radio soap opera, “New Home, New Life”. Like The Archers, this soap was designed to contribute to post-war reconstruction.

“The post-war scenario never materialized in Afghanistan,” Butt recalls about his time with BBC AED. “Perhaps, instead of just concentrating on post-conflict reconstruction, we should also have focused on more conflict-related issues. We never really got to grips with the political issues of the time.”

Butt felt that there should be a stronger link between the current affairs the BBC was reporting and the content of its soap opera. He said: “This is a deficiency that we have sought to rectify in our cross-border soap at PACT Radio. Here, we have appointed a story line reporter, whose job it is to channel storylines from our day-to-day reporting to the radio soap opera.”

In 1998, Butt left BBC AED with one story line in his head. It had failed to make it beyond the drawing-board at BBC AED but it was the first story line to see the light of day in The Pulay Poray.

John Butt: “It was a story line about the Pashtoon tradition of giving refuge to outlaws. In the late Nineties, it was clear that this custom had moved a long way from its original model. Originally, it had been intended as a way to keep the peace – a recourse for those fleeing from injustice. A powerful, benign person would give refuge to an outlaw and would be a guarantor of that person’s good behaviour.

“With the passage of time the custom became corrupted. Instead of the strong giving refuge to the weak, the people who took refuge in the tribal areas dictated terms to the tribal people. Far from being a way of keeping the peace, the custom of giving refuge to outlaws became a mechanism for increased conflict. The safe haven provided to outlaws enabled them to have a base from which to spread conflict far and wide.”

The Pulay Poray tackled this issue from a traditional angle, promoting the idea that the custom of giving refuge had been conceived as a mode of preventing conflict – not causing it. John Butt said: “This approach – going back to true traditions as opposed to the corrupted form that exists in the modern age – defined PACT Radio and our slogan became: Traditional Solutions for Modern Problems.

Another lesson that Butt learned from his experience setting up radio soap operas in Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, was that generating mountains of scripts on paper was not only a very expensive exercise, but it was limiting for the actors. They were always a part of the community which the soap opera was designed for and many could bring their own ideas and spontaneity to parts, which was lost when they read scripts. Scripts also excluded illiterate actors, depriving members of the target community from taking part.

The Pulay Poray, The Cross-Border Soap, is a very carefully planned and structured scriptless drama, improvised by actors who know their characters very well and have meticulously rehearsed each scene.

Both these features of the drama – reflecting political along with other issues and delivering a scriptless soap – caused some initial consternation amongst the aid agencies who have been the traditional financial supporters of radio serial drama. Would their own educational messages sit comfortably alongside more political messages? If there was no script, would there be a structure which would enable coherent educational messages?

“On both these counts, we tried to put people’s minds at rest,” Butt says. “Educational story lines – nowadays ‘behaviour change’ terminology is more fashionable – sit even more comfortably within the fabric of a soap. Showing life in all its facets makes the behaviour change components even more realistic. It makes them sound more natural and less propagandist.”

The structure and direction of story lines is detailed over a one-month period and each episode has a scene-by-scene structure and each scene a detailed synopsis. John Butt says: “The fewer the scripts the stronger the structure, since it means one concentrates more on developing good, structured story line notes and strong synopses.”

Though the soap opera itself is in the Pashto language, the story line notes and synopses are available in English.[:]

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