Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Oliver shares his experience as a volunteer during our February 2020 trip to Bamyan. He happens to be one of our newest, and definitely our youngest, board members at Ascend.
Can you tell me about yourself? What do you do? How'd you get involved with Ascend?
Hi, my name is Oliver. I've recently started work as a Business Analyst at McKinsey. I found out about Ascend through reading a newspaper article in the UK. I was really struck by Ascend’s mission and felt compelled to reach out to see if I could help. Over the last few years my involvement has grown steadily, and I am now the youngest board member. My role in Ascend is quite varied, but most of my focus is on fundraising, partnerships and development.
Why did you go to Afghanistan this time around?
Having been involved with Ascend for almost two years, I was really interested to see our operations in Afghanistan. When the opportunity arose, I immediately said yes!
What was the one thing you learned during this trip?
Going to Afghanistan was invaluable in learning about the day to day operations of Ascend. This was certainly very useful to see the opportunities and challenges in running operations in Kabul and other provinces.
However, I think the most important learning came from spending a lot of time with the girls on the programme. I learnt huge amounts about the challenges they face in such a patriarchal society on a daily basis - often with things that I had completely taken for granted. This reinforced to me the importance of Ascend’s role in the country. Watching girls just...be themselves, full of energy and joy was precious indeed.
What role did you play during the Bamyan trip? What was your experience like?
I was mainly involved in helping coordinate with other Afghan teams to ensure the Winter Festival was a success - facilitating each of them and making things happen and dealing with the inevitable issues that arose. I helped out with everything from shaping the curling rink, right through to helping the girls set up their tents and making sure they had dry kit!
Beyond this, I was there as extra capacity to help our two instructors (Camille and Kaisa). Quite often this involved leading treks with Marina to make sure those not climbing didn’t freeze up. This provided a great opportunity to get to know some of the girls on the program and hear their stories. A lot of the girls had never even stepped outside of Kabul or experienced the mountains before the trip. Encountering the snow was so exciting for them.
Beyond our time at the festival, I spent another 3 weeks in Kabul, working on various grants and partnerships with other organizations and embassies.
What were some of your favorite moments from the trip?
How quickly Shakila was welcomed - (read Shakila’s story here). I struggled to pick her out from the group, she immediately became part of the crew.
Meeting Shakila’s father. Leading a small group hike, we crossed paths with him just as he had given permission for his precious daughter to come to Kabul with us and be part of the programe. Despite the language barrier, you could tell that he was nervous of letting her go but completely trusting of us to give her a better opportunity.
The incredible scenery! Without doubt the most beautiful (and cold!) mountains I have been in.
Many little moments - both in Bamyan and Kabul - observing normal life. It was great to see Kabul full of life and commerce, which was a far cry from the dominant narrative in the media.
What are you most excited about in the future?
I am really excited about the prospect of hosting another winter event in the future. It was such a success. I am also excited about the foundations this event has given us. There are obviously lots of things to improve but there’s so much more we can build on. Not just for Ascend, but other youth groups to maximize the impact.
What impact did you see from the girls?
Direct benefit for the participants. Lots of them had never left Kabul or been in this environment before. Seeing the excitement on their faces was awesome.
Impact within local communities. Going forward, we are held even more with respect and esteem among the other sporting community and locals.
Great practical experience for the girls.
What’s your impression of Band-e Amir?
I remember pulling off the road to the National Park and having to put snow chains on the minibus. It is about a 30-minute descent into a ravine, surrounded by cliffs and valleys, and gradually descends with an amazing view over these huge sets of frozen lakes and this tiny village. It grows in population about 3-4 times in the summer.
This was the first big event in the winter they have. Normally, winters are quiet. Summers include tourists from Kabul. In the summer, there’s peddlers. A lot of the villagers were not really aware, after weeks of not seeing anyone, with no connection to the outside world, then hundreds of people came.
The locals were especially inquisitive about two things: ice climbing and the people doing it: young girls.
There were various comments from the locals. Some questioned whether the girls could do it (ice axes and vertical wall), others were simply amazed at their attempt to do it in the first place. That was apparent quickly. Lots of the locals were interested in our equipment.
When the girls were climbing, we had 15-20 people standing back. In the background, various security officials. And they’d stand there for hours enthralled just watching us.
The fact that girls were only doing it for themselves was interesting to them. Big events are usually very utilitarian. Curiosity manifested itself into people wanting to have a go at it.
We let some of the guys do it.
At its best, the festival felt like a true festival atmosphere. Everyone was really excited. It was an opportunity for people from different provinces and genders to socialize under a controlled environment.
It was very collaborative. There were other reps from sports teams. They were very good at encouraging the spotlight of the girls.