My evening in Assiut proved to be one of the most unique and interesting parts of my visit to Upper Egypt. As it began to get dark, the streets became clogged with young people coming home and going out. We traveled to a youth center, supported by the local government, to attend a play organized by local young people with the help of some of the adults in the community. The play was written by a well-known local author of children’s books and focused on key health messages directed towards young pregnant moms, parents, and children themselves.
The format of the play was unusual and incredibly creative. Part of the play was acted out using large puppets (think of a local version of the Muppets!) and then the puppets literally “came alive” with actors dressed as the puppet figures to finish the story. There were also young dancers, an impressive narrator who showed talent beyond her 14 years, and a few professional adult actors from the government theater troupe. The content focused on such things as the importance of nutrition for pregnant mothers, the need for professional medical services for birth and post-natal care for babies, and the issue of child abuse.
One vision that will stay with me for a long time was one of human-size “germs” attacking a pregnant woman who had forgotten to prepare her food in a clean way…scary! The audience was enthralled and the place was packed—so there were plenty of opportunities to get the message across about what it will take to decrease maternal and child mortality in a place like Assiut, which still has a long way to go to reduce preventable deaths.
The play not only delivered some important health messages but also, in a country where over half the population is under 25 and the unemployment rate for young people hovers at around 40 percent, activities like these give young men and women an opportunity to learn new skills. They were in charge of everything from costume design and production, to lighting, to set design and construction, to playing most of the roles. It was a huge undertaking and they did an amazing job.
My late night ended well after my usual dinner time with a light meal in the Egyptian tradition and a good night’s sleep on my floating hotel on the Nile.
Early the next morning, I spent a few minutes looking out my window at the beautiful sight of a traditional dhow tacking up the river as the sun rose, before heading back to the Assiut office for a few final meetings. That is where I met two terrific sixth graders from our programs, Sarah and Achmed. They came to do an interview for their local school magazine and grilled me for a good 30 minutes on how Save the Children uses our funds, how we choose our priorities, and how we’ll do more for the future of the children. Though Sarah and Achmed claimed they wanted to be an engineer and football star, respectively, I think they might have a future in hard-nosed reporting!
Sarah and Achmed also joined me for my final meeting with a group of eight of our local partners or Community-Based Organizations (CBOs). These groups are so critical to our programs in Egypt and I was eager to hear more about what they saw as key priorities for children in Assiut and to talk about Save the Children’s global priorities as well. We agreed that health care and education remained at the top of the list for all of us—with a particular focus on the quality of education, particularly in these times of great change in Egypt.
As I said goodbye to our staff and partners and headed off for our six-hour train ride back to Cairo, I was grateful to have had the chance to get a sense of some of the challenges during such a short visit. There is real knowledge of what must be done for children, and excellent programs already in place, but the sense of uncertainty hanging over Egypt will need to clear before change can be achieved across the county. The next several years will be key in determining whether the “New Egypt” will really be new, or just a superficial layer over much of the old way of doing things.
I got a hint of this again on the train trip back. At one stop about an hour from Cairo, a large group of female teachers joined the train. They were talking very excitedly among themselves in Arabic, and I asked my colleague what they were talking about. He said they were discussing a one-day strike that had just been called at their university. I asked why they were striking and he said, “Ah that’s the thing, they actually don’t know. That’s what they have all been talking about to each other.” When I gave him a quizzical look he laughed and said, “Yes like we have been saying, change is hard here…it takes time for us to figure this out.”
Indeed, change will be hard and it will take time, but Egypt and the Middle East stand on the edge of the fast-moving river of change—and they have the will, even if the way is not yet clear, to get to the other side.