I use Twitter a lot in Afghanistan. Hear a big explosion and want to find out what and where it was? Twitter has answers first. Expat and Afghan journalists alike send out messages and queries, and the stream of information following #afghanistan or #kabul is quite substantial. A lot of information that I wouldn’t find on traditional media sources, I can find links to on Twitter. Three years ago I was woken by something. Earthquake? Explosion? I didn’t know. 10 minutes later on Twitter, confirmation of earthquake. 15 minutes later, a map showing where the epicenter hit and where aftershocks had rippled out to.
The Taliban even have a Twitter account.
The key is the ability quickly sift through the bullshit, misinformation, and mindless prattle, and to remember that just because someone says so, doesn’t mean its true. Citizen reporting can lead to group think and endless retweeting of information that isn’t true. I’ve seen it first hand with photos I’ve taken that have be reposted by someone else with inaccurate information, if not outright lies. But as with all social media, it has its flaws and also its benefits. Especially in countries like Afghanistan, where everyone has a cell phone.
As we are 6 days out from the run off elections in Afghanistan, and yesterday’s attack on Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah reminds us that road side bombs and suicide bombers are determined to create fear and suppress voter turnout, photos and posts like this one are important tools in citizen led security.
It reminded me of old-school neighborhood watch signs I’d see posted around residential neighborhoods in North Dakota when I was growing up. This was before entire areas of towns became covered in CCTV cameras and other big brother style surveillance. The idea was that it was up to all of us, as community members and citizens to keep an eye out for each other. See something disturbing? Let someone know.
In a country like Afghanistan, and a city like Kabul, where the ring of steel can only be partially effective if you operate on random stoppages and half hearted searches, security is even more dependent upon a strong community watch. Twitter is one potential way to make it easier to crowd source security and share in real time unusual behavior, suspicious cars, and street violence. Structured correctly with a strong communications platform and community outreach, twitter could also be an amazing tool for gender violence and street harassment. Of course it only works if others are playing, and more importantly, if police and security forces are watching and are engaged. Neighborhood watch campaigns or street harassment campaigns could find a valuable tool in Twitter if developed and used correctly.
5:30am Friday morning in Kabul. Already a crowd of around 50 boys on bikes has gathered in the street in front of Darul Aman Palace. Coach, along with a few of the women’s team, Mariam, Sadaf, and Massouma, are blasting the Afghan National Anthem over a loudspeaker on the roof of Coach’s car. More boys roll up and several older men join the group with their bikes. Many ancient Phoenix bikes decorated in full Afghan kitsch are ready to race through the now empty streets of Kabul. Empty because of the early hour and because the route from the palace to Kabul Stadium has been blocked.
As often happens in Afghanistan, things get strange really quick. Presidential candidate, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, has made this a campaign stop. The run-off elections are one week away and the two candidates are in campaign full court press. So that means security, in the form of heavily bright green armored jeeps full of men with guns, pull to the periphery of the gathering one after another. Until there are at least 15 jeeps full of men with guns surrounded the event.
A tall Afghan has been handing out white tshirts to all the cyclists, and it turns out that the shirts are emblazoned with the face of Abdullah Abdullah. Slowly the multicolored sea of nearly hundred boys and men turns white. Another man is handing out small flags that can attach to the bikes, also with Abdullah Abdullah’s face. This bike race just turned into a shameless campaign rally. Now we had a large scale campaign rally for the candidate that the Taliban were vocally against, in a very public and normally busy road, now blocked by highly visible security forces. The irony? The candidate and his convoy was no where near here yet. So now we get to wait.
It took a monumental effort just to get 63 boxes of bikes, tools, clothing, and equipment to Denver Airport to fly with me to Kabul. It took an even bigger one to get them released from Kabul Airport customs house. Apparently rules have changed since my previous arrivals with Liv/giant bikes and donated cycling equipment last spring. Instead of accepting my letter, they looked at me, one lone woman with 63 bike boxes and bags loaded onto 11 trolleys creating a Everest like line of porters, and gave me the dreaded yellow paper. The yellow paper meant they would take the bikes into the customs house and that I would have to get a letter from the Ministry of Finance to release the bikes, ideally duty free as these were a donation and not for sale.
Najibullah was waiting outside the airport with a truck bound for central Afghanistan that I had requested. I explained the situation and he called Coach Sedique, the head of the Cycling Federation and the coach for the women’s and men’s cycling teams and together we tromped through the halls of the Olympic Stadium offices, the Ministry of Finance, and the Kabul Airport custom house for a total of 18 hours over two long days. Back and forth we went from office to office, searching for signatures, given new forms to fill out, told to stamp this form here or there, endless waiting and cups of tea, and a receptive mantra of “Bishi. Burro.” Sit. Let’s Go.
My view of these two determined men became a repetition on a theme, and inconspicuous went right out the window as the tall blond foreigner dutifully followed.
April 2013 – Mountain2Mountain set up a mini bike school with a few members of the Afghan National Women’s Team as part of the outdoor entertainment on the women’s day at the Sound Central Music Festival.
One of the young girls that rode around the courtyard was this young woman below.
Fast forward to October, 2012. I meet the coach and the girls for a training ride on the outskirts of Kabul to meet some of the new girls learning to ride bikes. Guess who’s there in a pale pink helmet!
She is attending the Goethe Institute and while we couldn’t communicate much in English or Dari – we found our common language in basic German.
It was a fabulous day of riding with Coach and several of the national team like Mariam, Nazifa, Massouma, and Sadaf, along with six new riders from American University, Kabul University, and the Goethe Institute! #pedalarevolution
Training with the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team is hard work!
I grabbed a cat nap amongst the bikes post filming with the Afghan Cycles film crew outside of Kabul. But Coach didn’t even wait for the bus, he just took a nap roadside after a particularly hot training day.
Several months ago, I sat down with the Alchemy crew again about building bike #2. A dedicated singlespeed mountain biker, I needed a road bike. Probably with gears. I didn’t know where to begin.
The first bike they built me, a gorgeous stainless steel 29’er single speed, had its very first ride in Afghanistan last fall in a series of rides that happened to coincide with the announcedment that I had been chosen as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. Emblazoned on the top tube in bright pink #GIVEASHIT. The tagline we coined for our upcoming partnership with Mountain2Mountain’s domestic program Strength in Numbers. One of my favorite memories of that trip was when a member of the Afghan National Army took it for a spin and discovered the strength of disc brakes. Many memories are made on a bike, even in a warzone. Maybe even moreso in a warzone.
The twist? I met women who bike, as part of the National Afghan Cycling Federation last fall. This is the first time anyone has heard of Afghan women riding bikes. Its still a cultural taboo, and in my own four years of mountain biking throughout areas of Afghanistan, I have never seen a women or girl riding a bike. Till now. Riding heavy steel bikes, often with kickstands, these women are the first to not only ride bikes, but to do so publicly and competitively.
Emblazoned on my bike as a surprise when I picked it up – the day before I flew to Afghanistan. Bike #001 was not just a thing of beauty, it had soul.
The incredible team at Alchemy Bicycles blew me away from the moment I met them. Thanks to a surprise meeting arranged by Skratch Labs founder, Dr. Allen Lim, I found myself at a warehouse in south Denver. Alchemy’s new Colorado headquarters. They told me that they believed in the work that I was doing in Afghanistan and wanted to support me with a new bike and be part of the new program I was launching in the US – Strength in Numbers. It was immediately aware that this was a company with soul. A company that ‘gives a shit’.
How much awesomeness can you cram into one day in a country known worldwide as a war zone? A lot.
Its starts with a 6am bike ride through Kabul with photographer and fellow biker, Mikhail Galustov.
We spin our wheels through quiet Kabul streets towards the historic Darulamon Palace. Tony, Anna, and Warren joining us with the mini bus for a little early morning Kabul adventure. Warren snapping Tony snapping us.
Riding past Kabul’s Inside Out project that was put up the day before by a group of Afghan artists in three different locations around the city as part of a worldwide street art project created by JR.
Everywhere you look you see men and boys on bikes, in the mountains, in villages, and in city centers like Kabul. But never women. For the past four years, I’ve been riding my bike in Afghanistan every chance I get. When a local offers up his bike, complete with pinwheel and three horns, I don’t hesitate. Ever.
It was October 2009 when I first put two wheels to dirt in the mountains of the Panjshir Valley, no big deal if you live in Colorado, but a first for any women in Afghanistan.