Four months after the Afghan government fell to the Taliban, 22-year-old Asad Asadullah had settled into a new routine. 

In his hometown in Afghanistan’s northern Samangan province, the former computer science student started and ended each day glued to his laptop screen. 

Since late October, Asadullah had been participating in a virtual coding bootcamp organized by Code Weekend, a volunteer-run community of Afghan tech enthusiasts, with content donated by Scrimba, a Norwegian company that offers online programming workshops. 

On some days, Asadullah took a screen break for a game of pickup soccer, but generally he didn’t see his friends that much anymore. Under the Taliban regime, “old friends are getting so depressed,” he explains, and there was only so much of that he could handle. Instead, he tells me, “my life is on my computer.” 

Asadullah is one of the millions of young Afghans whose lives, and plans for the future, were turned upside down when the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan last August. When the capital fell, Asadullah had two semesters of college left, and he was thinking about his post-graduation plans. He wasn’t picky about his first job; anything that let him save up some money would do. But he had bigger plans: Asadullah wanted to start his own software company and share his love of computer science by teaching university and high school students. “When I start coding, I can forget everything,” he says.

Today, those plans are on pause—and no one knows for how long. The country’s economy is in free fall, the United Nations warns of famine, and in the meantime, Afghanistan’s new rulers have offered little by way of solutions to its citizens.

In such dire circumstances, a coding bootcamp—a remnant of a brief period of techno-optimism in Afghanistan—may seem out of place. But for its participants, it offers hope of a better future—though whether such a future is still possible in Afghanistan remains to be seen. 

Virtual learning 

When the Taliban swept into power in August, it was unclear what their rule would mean for the Internet in Afghanistan. Would they cut off Internet access? Use social media posts—or government databases—to identify and target their former enemies? Continue to wage their own increasingly effective public affairs campaigns?  

As it turned out, the Taliban did not cut off access to the Internet—at least it has not yet. Instead, for those Afghan students who can afford the Internet at home—especially women and girls, whom the regime has officially banned from secondary and higher education—online learning has become one of the primary sources of education. 

Some of this is well organized, with encrypted virtual classrooms set up by international supporters, while some is entirely self-directed—learning through YouTube videos, perhaps, or playlists of TED talks. And often it falls somewhere in between, making use of free or discounted online learning platforms. 

Afghan women attend a 2018 event. Photo courtesy Code Weekend.

Code Weekend’s virtual bootcamp falls into this latter category. Seventy-five participants were accepted into the cohort and are working their way through Scrimba’s Frontend Developer Career Path, a series of 13 interactive video learning modules that cover everything from HTML and CSS basics to tips on handling job interview questions about JavaScript or GitHub.

Participants can complete the modules on their own time and in their own homes, with Code Weekend volunteer mentors checking in weekly to answer questions, ensure that they stay on track, and assist with logistics as needed—including providing Internet top-up to keep participants online. According to organizers, roughly 50 members of the original cohort are active. 

Ensuring Internet connectivity is just one of the logistical and financial challenges of running a bootcamp, even a virtual one, in Afghanistan. Another is contending with power outages, which become more frequent every winter. In an attempt to solve both these problems, Code Weekend has been trying to crowdfund the costs of 3G credit and backup electricity through generators and battery storage units. 

But there’s another issue that worries organizers: “what the Taliban think,” says

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By: Eileen Guo
Title: The Code Must Go On: An Afghan Coding Bootcamp Becomes a Lifeline Under Taliban Rule
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Published Date: Thu, 30 Dec 2021 10:00:00 +0000

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