UK envoy at Read-Along: Helping kids be kids again
Asked why he chose to be part of the Inquirer Read-Along Festival for the second time last week, British Ambassador to the Philippines Asif Ahmad recalled how he first set foot in the country in 2013, just as the nation woke to the devastation wrought by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in Tacloban, Eastern Visayas.
“One of the ways in which we helped was not just in delivering food and aid,” he recounted. “We discovered the power of storytelling because a lot of kids were traumatized. As we went to some of the projects we funded, teachers and anybody who could would gather kids while their parents run around to rebuild their lives. And just through storytelling and acting out scenarios and small things, the kids were kept amused and distracted, which basically allowed them to be kids again,” Ahmad said.
Bonding with kids through storytelling is something that the ambassador is familiar with.
“As a father, we used to do this thing with my two sons where, just before going to bed, each one can pick a character—anything, an object or an animal,” Ahmad said. “My challenge was to tell a 15-minute story, completely made up that evening. The beauty of the story was, I would start off with whatever they gave me but what they would wait for was how, somewhere in the story, they would appear as characters. So they would go to sleep really happy.”
He added: “The power of storytelling is compelling for kids and adults alike.”
Just like last year, Ahmad chose to read in Filipino Mike Bigornia’s “Si Putot,” the story of a dog that discovers its self-worth.
Last weekend’s Read-Along Festival is an annual special event of the Inquirer Read-Along team that coincides with National Book Week every November. The theme of this year’s festival is “Love for reading anytime, anywhere, always,” which corresponds with the paper’s latest campaign: “#MyInquirer Anytime. Anywhere. Always.” The campaign highlights the brand’s transformation in terms of layout and content across all platforms.
Learning the Filipino language is important for him to do his job well, the ambassador said, adding that it helps him understand better what’s going on in this country. “In some ways, before I came to the Philippines, I became a child again because I had to learn a brand new language. I was sitting in a room like this with a teacher and really, like a 5-year-old, I learned the language.”
He added: “When I upload a video of me reading a book in Filipino and children understand me and are kind enough to applaud, I can prove to my boss in London that the investment in learning the language has been used well.”
Ahmad challenged the younger generation to make sure they have something important to say, considering they have all sorts of gadgets for communicating their ideas.
“A lot of the input that kids get now is impersonal,” he observed. “I see a lot of kids use their smart phones before they can do any other basic thing. They only need a manual and flick through things. But I’m not entirely convinced that those experiences are real. I think you need to talk to people face to face. You need to feel a book in your hands,” he added.
Not that he has anything against the internet and the apps that young people use, Ahmad clarified. “But at a certain point, I’m beginning to think, and I see this in the people we employ when they first came for the job interview, that people are losing the art of conversation and of making their sentiments known. They think in tweet-like sentences and when you get to the fourth or fifth question, they get tongue-tied,” he said.
“If you reintroduce people to reading, to write, and defend what (they) are writing, I think you’ll end up with a better and richer, more educated population,” he added.
Ahmad said that the Read-Along program helps make that happen. “I think it’s good to start (the habit of reading) early. So I like what the Inquirer is doing because I think you also realize that as a print medium, you will be extinct if people only want to read short sentences (like tweets), and don’t want to understand the depth of why something happened, how countries view opinions, and if people are starting to believe fake news.”
Reading to kids in the Read-Along program “opens up another channel of communication,” the British official said. “Hopefully people will remember that we care about the Philippines and that we have more to offer. And then, who knows? When they are older and are faced with choices, they’ll support the British, too.”
Ahmad described his work as an ambassador as a communicator. “I’m an ambassador of many things. As a diplomat I get to communicate on different levels. I’ve been to Smoky Mountain talking to kids who work on rubbish. I’ve talked to fishermen in Dumaguete,” he said. “I learn more of the country because I can speak the language.”
Because of his experience with the Inquirer, Ahmad said he was willing to be an “Ambassador-ambassador”—the British ambassador and a Read-Along ambassador.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.