KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Marni Gustavson’s eyes brimmed with tears as she watched a dozen Afghan children learning the words to Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
“It’s a tribute,” she said, to the artist who quietly donated funds that helped pay for the building she was standing in, the headquarters of Afghanistan’s national scout movement on the outskirts of Kabul.
The boys and girls, aged 12 to 17, with blue and yellow Scout bandannas tied neatly around their necks, quickly grasped the tune and pulled it together in just an hour. Outside, the sound of automatic gunfire reverberated from a nearby military firing range.
Gustavson, a Seattle native who has made Kabul her home and runs an organization that has revived Afghanistan’s 80-year-old scout movement, said it’s important the children know that a performer beloved by Americans cared for them as much as Prince did.
“Especially now,” she said, “with all the anti-Muslim rhetoric that we’re hearing from the States.”
Gustavson is the executive director of Parsa — which means integrity in Farsi but also stands for Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Services for Afghanistan — an independent charity that runs projects across Afghanistan. The headquarters building was in disrepair until a friend of Gustavson’s met Prince backstage at a Los Angeles concert in 2007 and told him how he could help Afghan children. “The next day he wrote a check” for $15,000, she said, and paid for the foundations of the new building.
Prince, who died in April, never came to Parsa and Gustavson never met him. But he made a huge difference to Afghanistan’s scouts. Most of Parsa’s supporters are small donors, she said, “regular folks who do not have a lot of money but chip in with $10, $50, $100 when they can. They’ve gotten us through.” But it’s major donors like Prince who really get new projects off the ground.
After his initial donation, Prince made an annual contribution to Parsa that “was fundamental to expanding our scout program to what it is today,” Gustavson said.
The scouts were originally established in Afghanistan in 1931. The program was recognized by the World Organization of the Scout Movement in 1964. When war came to Afghanistan in the 1970s, the movement disintegrated, until Parsa revived it in 2003.
Now, said Gustavson, there are 2,000 scouts in 14 provinces. Apart from camping out overnight, the girl scouts, who account for 40 percent of the scouts nationwide, participate in all the same activities with the boys and Gustavson hopes to teach them leadership skills that will help them become confident adults in a country where women are generally discriminated against.
In rebuilding the scouting movement, as with all the Parsa projects she oversees, Gustavson receives no funding from any governments. Instead, Parsa programs are designed to be taken over by other small local NGOs, which Gustavson says gives communities “ownership” by putting the projects in their hands.
“We go into communities and say: ‘What do you need?’ They might say a school or a clinic,” Gustavson said. “We’re a small organization, we could fund a teacher but (we tell them) you have to provide the classroom. So we always do our programs hand-in-hand.”
Parsa frequently has to grapple with the conservative nature of Afghan society where women’s lives are largely controlled by, first, their fathers and brothers and then their husbands and sons. As Gustavson puts it: “We really had to battle the men.”
She cites one program in Bamiyan, one of the poorest provinces in a country which is itself among the poorest in the world. It was a women’s literacy program and the local men were openly apathetic and saw no need for it. But the women she spoke with literally pleaded with her to make the program happen.
“One woman said to me, and I’ll never forget it: ‘Without literacy I’m just like a cow, just like one of the livestock here,'” Gustavson said.
Five years later, they went back to check on the program and the men told Gustavson, “They (the women) are doing all their work. Our children are cleaner and they’re healthier, and the women are happier. We love that program.”
Gustavson spent four years in Afghanistan, from ages 9-13 when her father taught biology at the American International School in Kabul. She “came home” 30 years later, after the U.S. invasion of 2001 drove out the Taliban. In 2003 she talked her husband into moving to Kabul permanently.
She moved in with a friend while she looked for a job that would suit her experience as a charity executive, staying in the sprawling compound of traditional Afghan buildings outside Kabul that makes up Parsa, which had been founded in 1996 to work directly with disadvantaged communities. After three weeks, Gustavson’s friend said she wanted to retire and asked her to take over Parsa.
Having seen Afghanistan in peacetime as a child and now as it grapples with the consequences of decades of conflict, Gustavson acknowledges that it can be difficult for people outside the country to see change amid the violence.
But the withdrawal of international combat troops in 2014 has created a space for Afghan voices to emerge, she said — the voice of young people calling for accountability and identifying themselves as Afghan, rather than by tribe, ethnicity or religion. And the voices of women as participants in society, rather than silent victims of violence.
“During the war, the Afghan voice is characterized by warriors, mujahideen, fighting for the country. During the rehabilitation time there are voices that have emerged, like the voices of youth, who have a hope for their future,” she said. “This is a vibrant, historical time for Afghanistan and I consider it a very important turning point.”