Afghan kids get candles discarded by temples

by Mie Sakamoto

Kyodo News

Half-used candles left over from Japanese funeral ceremonies are helping children in Afghanistan who are having difficulties studying after dark due to poverty and bad living conditions.

“Children use the candles well and the candles help them to study in the absence of light and electricity,” said Abdul Wali Babakarkhil, director at the United Medical Center for Afghans Rehabilitation Program for Afghanistan, an Afghan-based group distributing the candles in the country.

Babakarkhil said there is often no electricity in rural areas and poor parents cannot afford to buy candles to help their children study.

Afghan children appreciate the candles very much and are grateful to the Japanese who donate them, Babakarkhil said.

The idea of sending used candles to other countries was first raised by Kyoto-based Buddhist altar articles manufacturer Kobori Inc., which was looking for ways to reuse used candles, as many temples told the company they felt it was wasteful just to dispose of candles that had only been 10 percent to 20 percent used.

Candles are used at temples on such occasions as funerals and other memorial services, but are then just disposed of as temples always need new candles for each service.

“It is technically possible to regenerate candles, but it is costly to do so,” said Susumu Kobori, managing director of Kobori.

“Temples are now happy to hear that used candles are becoming very useful in Afghanistan,” he said.

The company began collecting used candles from temples in April 2004 and gathered about 26,000 in the first year through March 2005.

Japanese candles used in temples are 14 cm to 26 cm in length, have a thick wick, are bright and last a long time, according to Kobori.

“We have asked more than 10 nongovernmental organizations if we can ship the candles overseas for reuse,” he said.

After finding out that a Tokyo-based NGO is engaged in sending secondhand school satchels to Afghan children, Kobori asked the NGO in fall 2005 if it could come up with an idea for the candles.

The group, the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning, which started sending the secondhand satchels and stationery to Afghanistan in 2004, offered to ship them to the country with the satchels.

“After making inquiries to a local organization in Afghanistan, we received a favorable response that the candles could be used on such occasions as studying at night and for dinner time,” said the group’s senior program officer, Yoshitatsu Kanno.

JOICFP, which has sent many school satchels to Afghanistan and Mongolia, started sending used candles with the satchels in January 2006.

The candles, which were collected from Kobori and other groups, are mainly shipped in batches of 3,000 to 10,000 to Nangarhar, east of Kabul. It takes about three months for the candles to reach the children as they are shipped by sea and truck, and passed through many hands, the group said.

“Japanese candles are becoming helpful for Afghan people because candles that can be obtained at local markets do not last for such a long time and are very expensive,” Kanno said.

According to JOICFP, people who live in Nangarhar usually use oil lamps as electricity is supplied only several hours a day. Due to recent hikes in oil prices, poor people are unable to afford fuel.

JOICFP has so far sent 32,534 candles to Afghanistan.

Kanno said that by providing school satchels, stationery and candles to help Afghan children study, he hopes adults who lack education will also become keen to learn how to read and write, and this will eventually help to lower the country’s high rate of death among pregnant women, often due to a lack of correct knowledge about health and hygiene.

“When I look at so many candles covering the floors of our office and see there is no extra room to place them, I feel I’d rather end this. But when I look at pictures of Afghan children studying by using the candles, I feel encouraged and think I should continue collecting candles,” Susumu Kobori said.