Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning, delivered her Transformative Thinking talk on the theme of “Inspire” at the close of the 2010 Adventure Travel World Summit. The ATTA sat with Dr. Yacoobi for a few moments during the Summit to hear her reflections about the spirit of the adventure travel industry, the work she is doing in her country, and thoughts on effectively inspiring others.
This is your first time at the Adventure Travel World Summit. What do you think of the program and the people you’ve encountered here?
I want to thank ATTA for the whole Summit from the bottom of my heart. Coming from Afghanistan, where I cannot walk freely, move around freely, where there is much pressure and scrutiny, coming to this place was beautiful.
Watching this organization, how it functions educationally – everyone here, they’re not greedy people, not everything is for themselves. Where I come from, people have lost their generosity and openness. There is fear, they walk by you and don’t talk to you, don’t even look at you. They don’t share stories and knowledge. The people here, they are really sharing everything – knowledge, experience, emotion. For me, as an educationalist, that creates sustainability and growth.
These are open-minded people, really focused on humans and service – I will really bring this back to my country and share it with the government. I see now what we can offer – to share its beauty, history, language. We have beautiful skies, mountains, palaces, caves – we should be exposing those things to the world. I see what people here have done – I’m also working local, grass roots and now I see how effective that can be.
There is a great relationship here between the profit companies and the non-profits, because the profits have the same mentality as us- yes, they make money, but their mind on clean water, for local people, preservation, helping communities.
Yesterday, I didn’t know tourism. I thought it was just people paying to go somewhere. Now I know it is passion, it is environmentalists. Because of Shannon, because ATTA brought me here, I know these are caring people, loving people, people who want to help.
What is the current situation in Afghanistan regarding tourism?
We used to have very good tourism. Now, UNESCO is working to preserve our many historical sites for the World Heritage Foundation – they have all been bombed or land-minded. But some people, they don’t mind, they come anyway. And I have learned from attending conferences that people want to come – they hear about it in the news, and it reminds them of all the history, culture and tradition that we have. There is a lot of possibility in my eyes for the next few years to rebuild that tourism infrastructure.
You told a moving story in your talk, and we know that your foundation has provided healthcare and education for 7.7 million women and children to date. Can you give us some more background on how this has evolved?
When I returned [from receiving her Masters in Public Health in the US] my people were in refugee camps in Pakistan. I went there and surveyed they situation – it was ground zero.
The women were all disabled, abused and sitting around with nothing to do. The only way to help people is to help them help themselves – and that happens through education.
I went first to the religious people in the villages and asked them to teach. I said, I will train you. But they felt they couldn’t do this effectively. So I created something called Student Centered Technique – the teachers works among the students, instead of standing in front of them telling them things. It promotes critical thinking, for people not to become like sheep. Now I have 17 thousand teachers – they can help people learn to read and write in three months. It used to take four years and most people would quit.
Women in my country are sick, tired, abused – they have lost children, brothers, husbands. They eat last, do all the work, and have six or seven children – they are so exhausted, they fall down in my clinics. We have six clinics, which provide immunizations, pre-natal care, and teach health education so people can take care of themselves and their children. Now, these people are cleaner, healthier – and mortality rates improved by almost 70%. When you see that, you know that education is really something no money can buy.
We educate 350,000 children annually, which includes kindergarten through high school as well as clinic care.
Also, 60% of women in Afghanistan are now head of households (with 6 or 7 children and elders to care for). The men are dead or cannot get work. The men couldn’t’ believe it when the women started working after getting training from us – they see now that they can also provide for the family and village. It is creating respect and tolerance – people are encouraging girls to go to school. We have 6 million children in school. Children will come, even if there is no furniture or supplies – they know education is the most important thing.
And if we work with a woman, we educate the whole family – she comes back with them and puts them in school. And when you educate the whole family, you educate the village. And when the village is educated, you are educating the whole nation.
You are running a wide reaching non-profit movement with limited resources – how do you manage to be so effective?
We are one of the number one women’s organizations in the world. We have $3 million but it is a $5 million project. There are a lot of security and safety issues doing what we do. People ask, why, how can you do this?
Seeing a child smile, seeing an exhausted woman become excited after a few months because we have helped her build a small, self-sustaining business to feed her children…
When we build community centers, the village takes ownership. People – no matter how poor they are, how uneducated – they can always make the distinction between good and bad quality. When you give them good quality, they will trust you and listen.
You will speak today about inspiring others. How else would you suggest people work to inspire others?
Other programs see what we have done and get inspired through us and then run their programs that way. Learn from others around you who are doing something well. That is how it works.
Is there anything else you’d like to express to people here?
See how much these women have changed, been inspired, helped their children. Please don’t think of the women of Afghanistan as submissive or victims – they are intelligent. When you give them the facilities, give them the opportunity – they will inspire you!