Telling a good story doesn’t just pass the time — it passes along the history and culture of a people. Italian social entrepreneur Selene Biffi is working to harness the long Afghan tradition of oral storytelling to deliver modern messages of public health, hygiene, nutrition, environmental protection and natural disaster preparedness.

Biffi, 31, is the founder of Plain Ink, which produces children’s books and comic books in Italy, India and now, Afghanistan.

“Plain Ink is all about harnessing the power of stories to help illiterate communities leverage their ingenuity to find solutions to local problems,” says Biffi.

But in Afghanistan, where nearly eight out of 10 people are unable to read and write, Biffi had to find another way to tell stories.

“The Afghan culture is however predominantly oral,” Biffi says, “and it is hard to overstate the importance of storytelling and the extent to which it pervades all levels of society.

“As such, master storytellers are held in high regard as repository of values and information. As most of them are also elderly people, their skills may soon vanish with them.”

Preserving that tradition of storytelling — and adapting it to meet current, urgent needs — is the idea behind The Qessa Academy, a place where elders will teach young people how to weave a tale.

“The Qessa Academy builds on our passion for stories and our belief that stories can be a powerful way to instigate change,” Biffi says. “Because Afghanistan is a land where literacy stands at 23 percent after 35 years of war, we wanted to be context-appropriate and able to leverage the local oral tradition to pass on vital messages, instead of rely on printed matters as we do in other countries.”

Classes begin in March for 20 students, all 18-25 years old. Each day there will be classes in community development, storytelling and English.

The lessons in community development will focus on public health and will provide students with an understanding of the work that international organizations and the government are doing and will prepare the students for securing internships or jobs after completing school.

The storytelling component will cover traditional storytelling, memory techniques and creative writing.

“Students will have the opportunity to perform their work and learn how to interact with an audience through the staging of performances at schools, community centers and other forums,” Biffi says.

The project has faced some bureaucratic hurdles, Biffi says, but she is encouraged by “the unexpected help of many Afghans, who embraced our idea with enthusiasm.”

Read about other innovators and ideas at The Leaderboard. If you have a story suggestion for this year-long project, please contact us.

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