How the ‘Afghan Archers’ – a Pashto radio soap made by an ex-BBC journalist – is tackling polio

With plot lines telling the everyday stories of country folk, the long-running radio drama Across The Border would strike a chord with any devotee of The Archers.

But while the popular radio soap opera may be the brainchild of a former BBC journalist originally from Surrey, its setting is a long way from the English countryside.

The long-running serial is set in the remote border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan and broadcast to millions of people in the Afghan south and east.

With a mixture of lively drama and public information messages, the soap, called Da Pulay Poray in Pashto, has built a huge following.

Listened to by millions in one of the world’s last haunts of the polio virus, it is now at the front line of trying to eradicate the crippling disease.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the only countries where polio is still endemic and efforts to finally stamp it out are hampered by widespread conspiracy theories about polio vaccine drops.

Scriptwriters for the soap are trying to defeat stubbornly held notions in Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt ranging from fears that polio drops are plot to sterlise Muslims to the bizzare theory that they are George Bush’s urine.

“When people say what’s your biggest achievement, I say, well it’s making good storylines about polio because its not really the most captivating and interesting subject at first sight,” the show’s creator John Butt, 67, told the Telegraph.

Polio | Key facts

A character from a more adventurous era, Mr Butt has lived in the region for nearly 50 years, after becoming captivated by it as a young man on the hippy trail. He studied for 13 years at the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, the most influential Muslim seminary in south Asia, speaks fluent Pashto and wears local dress.

After working for the BBC’s Pashto service in the 1990s and creating another popular soap called New Home, New Life, he then set up his own production house, Pact Radio, in Jalalabad in 2004.

With a passion for Pashto radio and a mission to find “traditional solutions for modern problems” his soaps have in the past tackled women’s rights, militancy, the rule of law and health.

Health issues have also become a favourite of British soaps, with Coronation Street and The Archers recently tackling sepsis and several storylines revolving around mental health.

“You can actually bring up issues in a soap opera which you can’t bring up in day to day journalism,” he said.

Recent plot lines have seen characters debate polio vaccination and question hearsay that drops are harmful. Extremists have preached against the global vaccination programme and health workers have been attacked in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Pashtuns will just believe anything you tell them and that’s the whole problem actually.

“Whatever the facts say, they don’t believe facts, they believe hearsay, they believe rumour and that’s what the problem with polio is. If someone says its Bush’s urine, okay it’s Bush’s urine.

“There is a saying in Pashto that if you tell a Pashtun a dog has bitten off your ear, then the Pashtun will run after the dog, but won’t check his ear to see if it’s there or not.”

Mr Butt still divides his time between Afghanistan and India.

“It’s a very infuriating country but then at the same time you feel that you are doing some good,” he said.

But the country’s complexities can provide great radio, he said.

“You listen sometimes to The Archers and it’s all ‘the Environmental Agency is going to be coming and checking your land, because your land is contaminated’ and this and that. It’s really boring actually, the Archers. In Afghanistan, you have no shortage of really interesting issues to cover.”

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