Mujeeb Arez seems perpetually amused as he dons a playful smile, and appears equally at ease shooing goats in Badakhshan, partaking in a sumo-style wrestling showdown in Balkh, making fresh cheese in Nangarhar, dirt-biking in Herat, or picking pomegranates in Kandahar.
His comic asides and looks of wide-eyed bedevilment as he interacts with denizens of his country make him instantly likeable.
It would seem then that the 23-year-old television actor was the perfect choice for host of On the Road, Afghanistan's first travelogue and one of the country's most popular television programs. Sponsored by USAID, the show has just entered its second season.
On the Road is more than just a weekly fix of homegrown entertainment. Each week, the 23-year-old Arez takes viewers to one of the 34 provinces to show off Afghanistan and the progress the country has made. On site, he interacts with locals and partakes in their customs while accompanying them to visit successful development projects by the Afghan government in partnership with the international community.
The television series highlights Afghanistan's pivotal role in the region as a trade route and examines the historical relevance of roads and development to the country's economic growth, education, and access to services. It is at once a window to the country's varied culture and geography, and a subtle educational and diplomatic tool.
During the first season, Arez criss-crossed Afghanistan, chatting with a pomegranate farmer (the prized fruit of Arghandab District) in Kandahar province, witnessing the launch of a newly repaired turbine at the Kajaki Dam powerhouse in Helmand province, and exploring the social, cultural, and historical aspects of Badakhshan province through interviews with community leaders and citizens.
Through Arez's interactions with farmers, doctors, workers, youth, and community leaders, television viewers see the changes within their country and the impact recent development efforts have had—in the unscripted words of their countrymen.
Jeremiah Carew was the deputy director of USAID/Afghanistan's infrastructure office and the project officer for On the Road during its first season, which began airing the first of 26 episodes in November 2009. One of the challenges of the project, he said, was to create something Afghans would want to watch but that also was able to convey the positive impact of USAID-sponsored development projects in the war-torn country.
"Our objective was to produce an entertaining TV show and stop around and see some development projects—just weave that in very naturally. I think if you do it right, and it's coming from the right place, with the right objectives, that's very honorable—and people respect that," he said.
Because maintaining credibility with the Afghan public was a crucial component to the program's success, branding proved a thorny issue, especially considering the show was being produced by Tolo TV, Afghanistan's largest private TV station.
"There was maybe some trepidation on the part of the television station of whether to be branded," said Carew. "Partly based on our branding regulations, we said it needs to be branded. So we came up with an agreed-upon text at the end—something along the lines of, 'this show was brought to you by the Afghan government in cooperation with the U.S. government through USAID.' And we went ahead. We had that for a few seconds at the end."
It was the right decision, Carew said. Halfway through its first season, USAID commissioned an independent viewership survey that found that, even though around half of all viewers knew the U.S. government was behind On the Road, they also rated the program's credibility as one of its main assets.
"It didn't seem to impact the credibility of the program. And I, as a program manager, felt that was the right decision. We took some risk with it because we didn't know how people were going to react," said Carew.
The survey, he explained, had two main objectives. "One was to see just how many people were watching it, regardless of what they came away with. The second was to see what messages they were hearing on the show."
It turned out that viewership was surprisingly high: the probability sample survey estimated that between a third and half of the Afghan population had watched the program at least once, a number that grew to nearly 75 percent in urban provinces like Herat and Kabul. Viewers were loyal to the program as well; most viewers—82 percent—watched every week or every other week. The second objective was also being met, the crew found out from both surveys and focus groups.
"People seemed to hear that the show was about improvements in Afghanistan's infrastructure, improvements in the lives of women, educational opportunity for kids. And these are the development objectives," Carew said.
But of most interest to locals, On the Road provided entertainment that was both of high quality and sensitive to local customs.
"There are a lot of scenes that reinforce traditional Afghan values," Carew said. "So visits to a mosque or visits to what I call 'Muhammad tourism'—places where Muhammad had been or that have relics or artifacts or local shrines. So that also reinforces that this is an Afghan program. This is a healthy thing to be watching."
The survey cited that 97 percent of viewers wanted to continue watching the show and the top recommendation was to lengthen each broadcast.
While highlighting development milestones, the show was also promoting national unity—not an easy feat in a country divided by decades of civil animosity between ethnic groups.
"Especially in focus groups, people hit upon the fact that this show informs about other areas of Afghanistan […] so people definitely understood that that was something—we were trying to promote a culture of tolerance and identification of Afghanistan as a country," said Carew.
The show may also be expanding local horizons. While On the Road took ample precautions to be culturally sensitive, it did push the envelope, if only slightly.
"If you're an Afghan villager, you're seeing women without a family member on TV. That's radical to them. And it opens your world and it opens your mind. So this little TV show fits into that overall trend of people being exposed to modern ideas, being exposed to different people and places and concepts. I think it can be a very influential and benign influence on people's lives," said Carew.
The show's producer, Tolo TV, is also proud of the result. "The most exciting aspect to emerge from the success of On the Road is that, as a first of its kind for this format of programming in Afghanistan, it has enabled everyday Afghans to get to know each other better," said Saad Mohseni, chairman of MOBY Group, the umbrella company for Tolo TV.
Based on Arez's star reception wherever he travels to shoot, there is evidence that he has touched a chord with the Afghan public. This is helping unify the country around positive messages of development, optimism for the future, and pride in Afghan culture and history.
"The show is an attempt to introduce Afghans to their culture and country," said Arez.
And Carew thinks this chord can be amplified beyond Afghanistan.
"This format is pretty easy to produce because you only have one paid actor," he said.
"I think that building national unity is something that you could do in a lot of places. Stopping by USAID projects along the way could be woven in very easily, as we have here. It's a public diplomacy tool as well."
Last updated: November 23, 2015