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The innovators
Bonfire of invention

Rahmat Alizada
At what point does a person become so desperate that they will destroy the things that are most precious to them? And at what point does a journalist become personally involved in a story, leading them to intervene…
12.03.2013  |  Kabul
Inventor Rajab Ali Andishmand in Kabul's Shahr-e Naw Park earlier this month, still intent on destroying his life's work. (Photos: Alizada)
Inventor Rajab Ali Andishmand in Kabul's Shahr-e Naw Park earlier this month, still intent on destroying his life's work. (Photos: Alizada)

At Afghanistan Today’s October workshop in Kabul, Afghan engineer and inventor Rajab Ali Andishmand announced that he would incinerate his existing inventions and blueprints after displaying his work one final time at the city’s Shahr-e Naw Park.

The reason for such a drastic step was sheer desperation at struggling in vain for recognition and assistance for 30 years, hoping to use his skills to benefit all humanity. No department or ministry ever gave his work due consideration, let alone financial support, says the 53-year-old inventor. And because of lack of protection of intellectual property, his experience of dealing with private companies abroad usually led to him getting his fingers burned by unscrupulous partners.

Finally, on March 5, Andishmand moved closer to building the bonfire of destruction. First he set up a large display stand at the Shahr-e Naw Park, so the public could see his work before he consigned it to the flames. At this juncture the authorities did respond - forcing him to vacate the spot after one day. Accompanied by family members, he then relocated to the city’s Alowdeen Park to continue his three-day swan song as an inventor.

Word of this desperate last gesture reached me through the grape vine. We had interviewed the inventor as a group at the October workshop, and I was asked by AT editors to try to dissuade him from following through.  

House of clay

When Andishmand was 15 he designed and built a mechanized loading vehicle, winning a scholarship to the city’s technical university. Dozens more inventions followed, from steel cutting devices to small pilotless drones, reflecting a lifetime dedicated to helping to improve the lives not just of Afghans but all humanity.  But still his work has to make it out of his clay-built home in the Sar-e-Kareez district and into production.

A drone prototype shares a shelf with an array of steel cutters in the family living room.

When I entered his house I saw his inventions everywhere, but few signs of material comfort. An unknown inventor's life style is spartan, especially in this country, where he has been unemployed for the past eight years after bringing the family back from Iran. He did so out of a basic wish to serve in the rebuilding of his country.

“I previously worked as a designer for a [German] company in Iran, I made good money and life was good,” said the father of two grown-up sons and two daughters.

But coming back to Afghanistan in 2004 was the beginning of many hardships for the family. “When we were in Iran, my father was working for a German company and I also worked there. We had a good life,” Jaweed, Andishmand’s eldest son and a sophomore at the Kabul Accounting Institute, told Afghanistan Today.

The company frequently asked his father not to return to Afghanistan and to stay in Iran. “We have been in Afghanistan for the past eight years. We have barely experienced a good day so far, but plenty of problems,” Jaweed added.

Same message to the world

As in the past, Andishmand urges the government of Afghanistan to patent his inventions and help him and others like him to safeguard their property. “Some of my inventions have been stolen by foreigners and I have been given no credit,” said the inventor, who despite his advancing years is still brimming with ideas and energy. Unique safety systems he says he has designed will prevent ships from sinking, and cars and even aircraft from crashing.

An Afghanistan Today journalist persuades Andishmand to abandon his protest and keep the faith a little longer. 

Having helped him dismantle his stand in the park and sat with him again, this time in his home, I can vouch for his dedication. He does this not for money - although material support is long overdue - but clearly out of altruistic motivation: “My inventions are totally new and nobody else has ever come up with anything like this,“ he says. “I want the government to patent these inventions, in the hope that humanity uses them for good.” 

Quite where this story now goes from here is beyond my control. I exceeded my mandate as a journalist by intervening, but satisfied my duty as a fellow human watching someone suffer for his convictions. In the park I managed to avert a local tragedy in the short-term. Whether anyone now pays heed we cannot yet say, but one thing is indisputable: As the international involvement in Afghanistan is scaled back, the country will increasingly need to embrace the abilities not just of Mr Andishmand but many other inventive and resourceful citizens who could do so much for their villages, disticts and provinces if some basic support were available.

You need only to take a look at AT’s innovators series to get a sense of what people can do here, often using little more than scrap materials and their own ingenuity.

And perhaps after 11 years of importing everything we need, it really is time to look to the seeds of homegrown invention that were already planted in our midst.