As a quick background of seldom mentioned information about Afghanistan, there are an estimated 33 million citizens. These people mostly live in poverty. With the exception of highly developed parts of cities, most of the Afghan population lives in mud-brick buildings. Many people beg for food, water, or anything that you are willing to give them. Shoes are a luxury in some areas and many of the people who do have shoes, do not even have shoes that fit. Prior to the US and coalition forces helping the people of Afghanistan, the Taliban was in control of the country. While the Taliban was in control, most people were not allowed to attend schools, especially women. Less than 30% of all the people in Afghanistan are literate and only 12% of women can read or write. The Taliban did not allow music, athletics, telephones, cell phones, televisions, computers, or internet. Outside of major cities, very few people have access to electricity.
Afghanistan has a few major sports. Until recently and even at present, most of these sports are recreational only and do not have developed structure. These sports include running, football (soccer), volleyball, and cricket. Until recently, none of these sports are played at the local, regional, or national level. People run for pleasure only, very few do it for exercise. The only time people run in competition, is between friends. Volleyball seems to be the most played sport for Afghans and from observing them play, I would have to say it is their best sport. I cannot find the origins of why the Afghan’s love that game or why they are so good at it. I believe Afghanistan would have the best chance, out of all team sports, of making an Olympic bid with volleyball. Cricket is the least played, out of the team sports, which I have seen played in Afghanistan. Some Afghan’s obsession with cricket would be from British control of Afghanistan from the 1800s until 1919. Generations must have fully enjoyed the sport and taught it to their children. There is not much else that is known about it.
Football (Soccer) is the most widely known sport and as equally popular as volleyball. Most competitions are between people within a village and rarely between two villages. In my time here, I have seen many different versions of the soccer ball to include volleyballs, a plant that looked like a gourd, round watermelons, patched rubber, and what looked like bubble wrap taped with duct tape are some of the many examples. Football goals are as creative as the balls they shoot them in, clothes marking the ground, shells from mortar rounds, weapons, sheep or goats, rocks, trees, or rickshaws. My first experience of coaching in Afghanistan was in the sport of soccer. I was working with other Americans, a French soldier, and Afghans with trying to create a football league. We each took soldiers out of the units that worked with and developed teams. We were practicing a few times a week to hone their skills and teach them the international rules. Teaching basic fundamentals, like throw-ins, was an experience in itself. One day, in February, the Pol-e-Charki Base Commander decided to put barbed wire around the football field. This did not stop us from playing. However, once the Pol-e-Charki Base Commander, started sending his military police officers, with drawn weapons, to tell everyone that they could not use the field until the field was made to be perfect, we had to stop playing. The field has not been opened since that day.
Swimming is another pastime of Afghans. There are a few rivers, lakes, and reservoirs within the country. This is where the majority of swimming is performed. But there version of swimming differs as it is completely recreational. Proper stroke technique or the teaching of it is completely nonexistent. Based on a survey conducted in June of 2008, of 300 people, there is an estimated sixteen pools in the country, all located in the major cities. It is also estimated that less than 20% of the population knows how to swim (Paddling or treading water without drowning) and less than 2% of women know how to swim. Just like in athletics, women are not allowed to swim in public areas. The only opportunity that women learn how to swim is if they learned to swim before they were six years old, or if their family is rich and has their own pool.
Many of the Afghan soldiers are anxiously waiting for the pool to open as well. As it is hot, all of the buildings here have no air conditioning, and there are very few trees to find shade in, what is a better way to beat the heat than to jump into a pool? There are other uses for this pool that I have seen already. The Afghan National Army uses it as a reservoir as the water tower on the west side of the base is inoperable. I have also seen soldiers use the pool to do their laundry when the water is high enough for the soldiers to reach.
It is unknown when the pool was actually built. The buildings around the pool were destroyed during heavy fighting in different wars. The pool was rehabilitated a year ago but the pool was not open very long last summer. There is no pump or recirculation of water. No heating element, covers, lane lines, seating, or anything else you expect in a pool area. It is just a 25 yard pool with a bed of dirt lying on the bottom.
Once the pool does open, I still do not plan to jump in. There is no chlorine, bromine, or any other pool chemicals to keep the water safe. To add to the sanitation issue of the water, in Pol-e-Charki, there is no potable water. According to Safewateronline.com, the water and sanitation infrastructures in Afghanistan are severely damaged and non-operational. However, this information only includes where there are water and sanitation infrastructures in place. The United Nations specifies that almost all of these water facilities are only within major cities. The CIA World Factbook states that Afghanistan has “inadequate supplies of potable water” and the website lists almost every waterborne disease, known to man, that are in this unhealthy water. According to figures from the United Nations Children’s Fund, nineteen percent of those living in the cities, and only eleven percent of those living in the countryside have access to safe drinking water.
Another issue about this facility is the access to pool time when it opens. The pool is not a priority for the base commander. I have even offered my services to teach the Afghan soldiers how to swim in exchange for a few hours of pool time a week. The base commander’s response was that the pool is for soldiers to have fun and it should not be used to make soldiers work hard. In addition to this negative response, I recently located a company that was willing to ship free pool chemicals so we can keep the pool sanitary. Again, my request was turned down because if they need water for the base they may need to get it from the pool and it cannot be chlorinated.
Even with all of these setbacks, I am still as excited about teaching these Afghans about water polo as they are to learn. Soldiers that want to learn how to play “swimming football”, are so excited that they go to the pool everyday and see whether it is filled or not. These soldiers are amazing, to say the least. They have endured hardships that most Americans and the western world cannot fathom. They have had their homes destroyed, family members killed, have had to live in exile in other countries, little or no education (Most soldiers only have a 3rd grade education and most of their wives have had none), and they only get to see their families for a few weeks a year and some do not have direct access to contact them as telephones are a relatively new utility here, but they still find ways to smile, laugh, enjoy camaraderie with their friends, and be able to get excited about new things.
Their swimming apparel will be their army physical training shorts. No swim suits for these guys. They would be too embarrassed to wear them not because they fear jeering from their friends but because Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is a very conservative culture. Men do not walk around with their shirts off and women are required to be covered (Whether completely covered with no skin showing or everything but their face being covered). Swim suits are not needed but I do require some other equipment that is vital to the sport of water polo. These items would include balls, caps, and water polo goals. Bahram Hojreh, from Los Alamitos Water Polo, has done an outstanding job so far by donating caps, balls, a ball bag, air pump, a coach’s whistle, and instructions on how to build goals. I cannot wait until these items arrive in the mail. Now I just need to find the wood and metal to build these goals.
Through extensive research, through the internet, United States military, and through citizens of Afghanistan, there are no known swim teams and definitely no known water polo teams. This just might be the water polo polo team in Afghanistan and maybe even the first aquatics team. But some of these soldiers, who will come out to play water polo when the pool opens, may not be playing here in a year. Some will finish their duty in the army, some will be moved to another base, and some will be killed in the line of duty. We will see how the first water polo team in Afghanistan fares in its inaugural season.
A reminder that Afghanistan is in the middle of a war. The remnants of this building are down the hill from where the Camp Pol-E-Charki pool is.
Staff Sergeant Arif, a Commando in the Afghan National Army, stands next to the Camp Pol-e-Charki pool, where he plans on learning to swim and play water polo in.