Our Story

Against All Odds - Story of a Struggle

Nasira Habib
26 April 2013

It was the sweltering heat of May 1999 in the plains of Punjab. The vehicle struggled on the narrow dusty pathways spiraling through the crop fields. There was not even a semblance of a road. The moment the vehicle entered the village of Kot Dina in the district of Sheikhupura children of varying ages flocked after us. Seventeen kilometers away from the main road, like majority of the surrounding villages Kot Dina, with its mud thatched houses, had no functional primary school either for girls or boys. The area was the hub of ghost schools – the schools which were functional only on paper according to a government commissioned survey. The girls were the most deprived of the most basic educational opportunities as they were not allowed to go out of the village. The situation was breeding perennial illiteracy and, understandably, the area could not produce teachers. The fact that the villages were amongst the worst crime hit areas in the country made the prospects of availing the opportunities of getting educated very bleak. School buildings were in the personal use of the village elite – as meeting or storage places.

I had been to this village earlier in 1995 as a GTZ consultant. The village was randomly selected as the one away from the main road and the basic services in order to do a comparative situation analysis of the role women play in livestock keeping in the villages on and off the main road. The visit was an eye opener and explained the politics of development in the country. The villages were just sixty five kilometer away from the metropolitan city of Lahore but looked centuries behind in development and opportunities. That was the day when I made a resolve – as Founder of a development organization - to focus our energies and resources on building capacities especially of children and women and what was a better approach than providing education that was relevant to their situation and responded to their learning needs.

Strategically, Khoj launched its education program first for women and adolescent girls in 1999. Without building their consciousness on the issues confronting them and the critical role education could play in development the interventions with children could not be very meaningful. Just after six months a project for children was also launched – a project that was embedded in the realities of their life. The rate of literacy was less than 20 % in most of the villages at that time.

The story of our work is a story of an unending struggle. Given the history of the outside interventions, the village communities were not willing to believe that outsiders could take any trouble without vested interest. There were so many rumors about the intentions and objectives of the project launched. They threw challenge after challenge to test our resolve. To prove ourselves, for years, we had to walk from village to village for miles under the scorching sun, to walk through the overflowing rain nullah during monsoon, cross muddy and slippery pathway along the canal on a tractor and push the vehicle stuck in the mud after rains. But that was not the end. It was impossible to find even a single secondary school graduate in more than twenty surrounding villages to appoint as a teacher. If, at all, such a woman could be identified in a non-project village her family refused to send her to the crime ridden villages. After tireless hunting and without success in finding women with secondary schools certificates it was decided that Khoj project team would take on the job of teaching themselves. Local women who had graduated 5 classes from the village schools were appointed teachers whose mobility was severely restricted and we had to be innovative to select the venue for teaching. Members of Khoj project team traveled to the villages every day from Lahore and taught in various classes for the first six months. Simultaneously, teachers were given on the job coaching and training through demonstration. After six months, Khoj coordinating and training staff reduced the number of classes they took to three day a week. The local teachers were asked to take a repeat class the day Khoj staff was not in the field. Next day the learners would be taught something new and local teachers would be trained side by side. It was a challenging task.

The demanding process of teaching and grooming culminated in the local teachers reaching matriculation themselves and they became well versed and very articulate in Khoj methodology of learning and teaching.

It was an extraordinary spectacle that side by side their teachers, women and adolescent girl learners were also earning secondary school certificates, amidst so many challenges and hurdles. It was no easy task. They were registered with Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad as matriculation students and they were required to take the term examination in a nearby town. Even those learners faced serious problems where men at home didn't have serious concerns about their mobility for education but there was a formidable resistance from other men in the communities who in many cases were their close or distant relatives. But we did it together. This was something unprecedented in the history of the area; absolutely illiterate women and girls working in the mud of agricultural fields emerging as educated women teaching in schools. This did wonders to the self image of the hitherto self effacing women. And most importantly they had become the torch bearers of change for other women and more importantly for the next generations – the children.

I have been working with urban and rural women and children for over twenty years now. In order to make the work meaningful and result oriented I experimented an educational approach and methodology that has been based on the principles of relevance of curriculum and content and teaching/learning methodologies, responsiveness to the learning needs and encouragement to action emerging from learning. This was a years-long process of doing and undoing which yielded tried and tested learning and teaching methodologies, teaching aids, curricula and educational materials. The singular achievement has been the development of a fast track method of teaching literacy in Urdu that provokes dialogue on issues scattered around the learners, is logical in understanding and is creatively phonetic.

This was a revolution for us when graduates from the women's program started teaching children in their villages and proved better teachers than graduates from the formal schools.

In 2003, the foundation was laid to consolidate and formalize the work with children and women in thirty villages into a model school in the village of Thathi Bhanguaan. A local landholder from the village donated a piece of land measuring ¼ of an acre. Two rooms and school boundary walls were built in the first phase in 2004. Three rooms and three latrines were built in the second phase in 2006 and two rooms and a staircase and parapet were built in the third phase in 2008. Two larger classrooms and one staff room were built in 2011. All funds were raised through private individual donations. The school is offering education to 124 children of more than six villages. A computer lab, a very basic science and agricultural lab and a small library with more than 800 books are functional in three of the ten rooms. It has an agricultural plot as well for experiential learning.

Local women with new identities were teaching at the school alongside teachers coming from Lahore holding university degrees. Local teachers were good at teaching the basic level using Khoj methodology. The learners were making a quick progress and in 2008, a decision was made to hand over all school operations to the local staff. But the experiment proved disastrous as they could not transcend the petty domestic politics and there was a sharp dropout of learners as a result of frequent rows between the teachers and the parents. For parents, it was difficult to accept "nobodies" of yesterday as teachers and the teachers could also not show magnanimity on their part. Moreover, these teachers who had been used to living in the freedom of village life could not cope with the discipline of a formal school. Learning a very serious lesson, the structures and the operations at the school were totally revamped.

Another critical decision taken was the initiation of early childhood education at the school which means trying to inculcate the social and moral values from an early age of three years. The area that is a hub of criminals requires an early immersion of the children in play and activity based education that may leave lasting prints on their young minds.

Given the criminal nature of the area, pathetically low status of women, absence of functional schools and irrelevance of the school curriculum led Khoj had to focus on social mobilization among women and men, develop curricula and methodologies relevant to the learning needs, partner with women for their social and economic empowerment and support them in affirmative action. As a result, the concentration never was on increasing the number of children and adults in the program or the school. Despite that, around five thousand children and women have benefitted from Khoj education program.

The school now is on firmer grounds to serve the children and adults of the area, though still a lot more needs to be done in terms of more rooms, residential facility for learners and teachers, a better equipped library and a science lab, a distance education facility, pick and drop facility and most of all creation of an endowment fund that could ensure sustainability of the school operations.