First Afghan female coders bring it on with ‘Fight against Opium’ game

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The Herat girls-only computer programming school, Code to Inspire, was the brainchild of Fereshteh Forough, who was born an Afghan refugee in Iran and only returned to Herat after the 2001 fall of the Taliban. (AP)
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Afghan female coders practice at the Code to Inspire computer training center in Herat province. (AP)
Updated 06 February 2018

First Afghan female coders bring it on with ‘Fight against Opium’ game

HERAT, Afghanistan: A group of young Afghan women in the deeply conservative western Herat province is breaking traditional barriers as their war-torn country’s first female coders in an overwhelmingly male-dominated tech field.
The game they created at the Code to Inspire computer training center in the city of Herat, the provincial capital, underscores Afghanistan’s struggle to eradicate vast opium poppy fields ruled by the Taliban.
For 20-year-old Khatera Mohammadi, one of the students at the center, it was more than just a game: “Fight against Opium” was based on her brother’s real-life experience years ago as a translator for US troops in Helmand province and the stories he told her.
“Each time he came back home, he would tell us about the poppy fields, the terrible mine blasts, battling opium traffickers and drugs,” Mohammadi recounted to The Associated Press.
She and her colleagues at the center thought that if they create a game, it would raise awareness, especially among the young. It’s not dropping bombs form planes or battling insurgent in the battlefields, but it’s a way to combat drugs — through a computer game.
In the game, with five supporting lives, an Afghan soldier mimics a real-life mission in Helmand to clear out drugs. The soldier encounters various obstacles in the process: the enemy hiding in tall corn fields, land mines, drug traffickers and hidden heroin labs.
Afghanistan is the world’s top cultivator of the poppy, from which opium and heroin are produced. The country produces more opium than all other countries combined, according to UN estimates. The southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar are where most of the poppy fields are and where the majority of the production takes place while Herat lies along a key smuggling route to neighboring Iran and beyond.
The Taliban, who have been waging war against the Afghan government since 2001, are heavily involved in poppy growing, which has increased in recent years, all but halting government eradication efforts.
Mohammadi says she and her teammates completed the game in one month and her brother was the first person she showed it to. She declined to give her brother’s name, fearing for his safety and the family’s because he worked with American soldiers.
Her dream, she says, is that one day the opium poppy would be replaced by the saffron crocus — so she put that in the game, having the soldiers encourage local poppy farmers to cultivate saffron instead.
“Saffron is more expensive and it would be better for the country,” she says.
The Herat girls-only computer programming school, Code to Inspire or CTI, was the brainchild of Fereshteh Forough, who was born an Afghan refugee in Iran and only returned to Herat after the 2001 fall of the Taliban. A former Herat university professor now living in the United States, she seeks to break gender barriers and empower girls to learn to code as a way to change their lives.
The school houses over 80 girls, both high school and university students. They learn to create their own websites, mobile applications, games and other web development projects.
“It’s not easy for a girl to find a job and go to work outside of her home in Afghanistan,” said Hasib Rassa, the CTI project manager. “Now, with just one laptop at home, she can work online and earn money and help her family.”
“The plan is to go big, to have more schools across Afghanistan,” he added.
As young Afghans increasingly use social media, 20-year-old Frahnaz Osmani, a student of graphic designer at the CTI, decided to develop Afghan female character stickers. Her stickers show a little girl in colorful traditional Afghan clothing, a red dress and a green headscarf, with the sticker messages in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two official languages.
“I wanted the world to see that Afghan girls can do something, and that we can have our own creations,” she said.
For 18-year-old Samira Ansari, another student at the center, coding was an unfamiliar, strange word. Now, it’s a pathway to her dream of becoming a web designer — which she hopes to study after a two-year course at the center.
“When I first heard about coding, I laughed and wondered what it means,” she said.
“But when I found out that all these creative and skilled people designing websites had started from coding, I became very interested,” she said, breaking into a smile.


At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2020 image, Lizzie Chimiugak looks on at her home in Toksook Bay, Alaska. (AP)
Updated 22 January 2020

At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

  • The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867

TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska: Lizzie Chimiugak has lived for 90 years in the windswept western wilds of Alaska, born to a nomadic family who lived in mud homes and followed where the good hunting and fishing led.
Her home now is an outpost on the Bering Sea, Toksook Bay, and on Tuesday she became the first person counted in the US Census, taken every 10 years to apportion representation in Congress and federal money.
“Elders that were before me, if they didn’t die too early, I wouldn’t have been the first person counted,” Lizzie Chimiugak said, speaking Yup’ik language of Yugtun, with family members serving as interpreters. “Right now, they’re considering me as an elder, and they’re asking me questions I’m trying my best to give answers to, or to talk about what it means to be an elder.”
The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867. The ground is still frozen, which allows easier access before the spring melt makes many areas inaccessible to travel and residents scatter to subsistence hunting and fishing grounds. The mail service is spotty in rural Alaska and the Internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.
The rest of the nation, including more urban areas of Alaska, begin the census in mid-March.
On Tuesday, Steven Dillingham, director of the census bureau, conducted the first interview after riding on the back of a snowmobile from the airport to Chimiugak’s home.
“The 2020 Census has begun,” he told reporters after conducting the first interview with Chimiugak, a process that lasted about five minutes. “Toksook Bay isn’t the easiest place to get to, and the temperature is cold. And while people are in the village, we want to make sure everyone is counted.”
Dillingham was hours late getting to Toksook Bay because weather delayed his flight from the hub community of Bethel, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) away. Conditions didn’t improve, and he spent only about an hour in the community before being rushed back to the airport.
After the count, a celebration took place at Nelson Island School and included the Nelson Island High School Dancers, an Alaska Native drum and dance group. Later, the community took over the commons area of the high school with a potluck of Alaska Native foods, including seal, moose and goose soups, herring roe served with seal oil and baked salmon.
Robert Pitka, tribal administrator for Nunakauyak Traditional Council, hopes the takeaway message for the rest of the nation is of Yup’ik pride.
“We are Yup’ik people and that the world will see that we are very strong in our culture and our traditions and that our Yup’ik language is very strong,” he said.
For Chimiugak, she has concerns about climate change and what it might do to future generations of subsistence hunters and fishers in the community, and what it will do to the fish and animals. She talked about it with others at the celebration.
“She’s sad about the future,” he eldest son Paul said.
Chimiugak was born just after the start of the Great Depression in the middle of nowhere in western Alaska, her daughter Katie Schwartz of Springfield, Missouri, said. Lizzie was one of 10 siblings born to her parents, who lived a nomadic lifestyle and traveled with two or three other families that would migrate together, her son said.
Lizzie and her 101-year-old sister from Nightmute, Alaska, survive.
In 1947 Lizzie married George Chimiugak, and they eventually settled in Toksook Bay after the town was founded in 1964 by residents of nearby Nightmute. There are five surviving children.
He worked maintenance at the airport. She did janitorial work at the old medical clinic and babysat.
Like other wives, she cleaned fish, tanned hides and even rendered seal oil after her husband came home from fishing or hunting. Her husband died about 30 years ago.
She is also a woman of strong Catholic faith, and told her son that she saved his life by praying over him after he contracted polio.
For her own hobbies, she weaved baskets from grass and remains a member of the Alaska Native dance group that performed Tuesday. She dances in her wheelchair.
She taught children manners and responsibility and continued the oral tradition of telling them stories with a storyknife.
Chimiugak used a knife in the mud to illustrate her stories to schoolchildren. She drew figures for people or homes. At the end of the story, she’d use the knife to wipe away the pictures and start the next story with a clean slate of mud.
“She’s a great teacher, you know, giving us reminders of how we’re supposed to be, taking care of subsistence and taking care of our family and respecting our parents,” her granddaughter Alice Tulik said. “That’s how she would give us advice.”