Yesterday afternoon I coached my first Afghan women’s team (one of only two in the country). I had been really looking forward to this opportunity, as a women’s wheelchair basketball team in Afghanistan is a pretty groundbreaking social step forward in a society where both women and disabled people are very margianalized. If someone had told 19 year old pre-injury me that in 15 years I’d be coaching women’s wheelchair basketball in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, I can’t imagine how I would have responded… but I apologize from the future to the hypothetical person posing that hypothetical situation; you were right all along, and I shouldn’t have reacted with such hypothetical incredulity.

Working with the women was a lot of fun. They were very shy to start the practice and responded to most of my instructions with nervous giggling. After I told them there’s no laughing in basketball, though, they got more focused and really started picking things up quickly. It was very helpful having my friend Oldoz translate for me. Her presence seemed to really set the team at ease even though they were using their new wheelchairs for the first time, were being dictated to by a strange American man and had several dozen people watching their successes and failures intently from the sidelines. The training session only had one small hiccup. I was working with the women on a passing drill where I was also trying to learn their names. One of the girls told me her name as I prepared to throw her a pass, but said it quietly enough that I didn’t quite hear her. I gave it a shot anyway and, when I called out her name while throwing the pass, the rest of the team dissolved into a laughing fit. Oldoz explained that, by accidentally switching the first letter of the girl’s name from an R to an S, I had called her “the heavy one.” Just what you want to yell when throwing a pass to a nervous 17 year old girl in front of a bunch of people. Ouch.

It’s been great coaching the men’s team here as well. Despite being the longest-standing team in Afghanistan, they are just as eager to learn as the other teams I’ve worked with and are very upbeat and easy to work with. The challenge is that the court in Mazar is quite small and there are only three basketballs. The men’s team has 18 players, so I’m having to find creative ways to teach them new skills while still being able to observe each individual player. Luckily my old friend from the Maimana team, Sakhi, is here in Mazar studying and has been coming to practices and helping me by translating and showing them some of the basic fundamentals. It’s been great seeing him and another player I missed while in Maimana, Abdul Salom. Abdul Salom missed last week’s training in Maimana because, according to his teammates, “he wants to find a wife, so he decided to push his wheelchair from Maimana to Mazar by himself.” I’m not exactly sure how the cause and effect logic works in that scenario, but that’s 400 km over nearly all desert on a dangerous highway. Oh, and his wheelchair weighs about 60 pounds (four times the weight of an American ultralightweight wheelchair like the one I use). Abdul Salom is tough.

I’ve met some outstanding non-Afghan people here in Mazar too, as I’m staying in a guest house with four ICRC employees from all around the world. Many thanks to my temporary housemates Chrisu (from Germany), Oldoz (Iran and Germany), Monika (Australia, Ireland AND Sweden) and Lindy (yep, I managed to find a Lindy in Afghanistan too, though this one is a middle-aged Danish man) for making me feel so welcome. I’ve shared fascinating conversations with each of these folks, and went to a cool rooftop party with them and a bunch of other Western NGO employees last night. After being lifted out of my chair and over a Land Cruiser by Chrisu and Lindy in order to get through the garage entrance to the party, I was carried up four flights of stairs to the roof by a group of burly but gregarious Germans. Only in Afghanistan could that situation feel completely normal.

This morning Danish male Lindy and I walked from our guest house to Mazar’s famous Blue Mosque. It was great to get out and see the city a bit, though it was seriously hot pushing my chair over dirt and rock roads and through some insane traffic to get there. I wish I’d had some milk.

Today is my last day working with the teams in Mazar, then I head back to Kabul tomorrow for one more day of training with the two teams there before boarding a plane back to the US on Tuesday afternoon.

Photos:
1. Showing the Mazar women how to use proper technique when pushing their new wheelchairs
2. Teaching Michael Jordan’s patented eyes-closed free throw style to the Mazar men’s team
3. Pushing through the rough streets of Mazar-e-Sharif in my brand new $2 Afghan sunglasses
4. Visiting the Blue Mosque