Against All Odds – Story of a Struggle
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.
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.