Category Archives: Poverty

Re-thinking rural education: Bringing the outside world to a village

I am from a village in rural Punjab, Pakistan. Like most other villages, my village lacks proper infrastructure. Poor people live in houses built with mud and only the rich live in huge mansions. Children of the rich go to private schools in the city but the poor parents cannot even afford the heavily subsidized government schools. They are left with no other choice but to educate their children in the village school.

Visiting my village as a kid, I remember hearing about the experiences of students in the village school. As you might or might not know, schools in villages have a multi-grade teaching system. A multi-grade teaching system is where a single teacher would teach children of different grades, usually 3 or 4 grades. However, there is only one teacher in my village’s school who teaches students in grades 1-10.

Let me show you how a typical class might look like. Here’s a cousin of mine who volunteered to teach English and Mathematics to a group of students in the village.

Imran Maken teaching a group of students

Would you ever be willing to study like that? As a parent, would you pay to send your children to study in a place like this?

Poor parents in villages have no choice. Not having a choice means they either send or do not send their children to such schools. Talking to parents and children in the village, I realized these people saw education as a need and not as a want. I saw the children sitting on the ground for hours wanting to learn new things. I saw parents forcing the children to go to these schools. Both the students and the parents saw education as they only thing that would result in better lives for them. Unfortunately, due to the unavailability of teachers, the un-friendly environment of schools and the lack of resources, a lot of children drop out after grade 5 to help their parents with other stuff.

Knowing how much students in my village want to know about the outside world and with an understanding of how education can change lives there; I have decided to use my education, exposure and experience in Toronto to take back something for them.

Most people in my village have not seen anything outside the village or they have only been to the nearest urban center. So, naturally, when I go to visit them from Toronto, they cannot stop asking me questions about the world they might never be able to go to. For a while now, I tried to come up with something which would not require them to spend resources they do not have but at the same time be able to get what they want. I found the answers in Internet. I bought a projector to make it even more exciting.

I am going back to my village in December. This time, I am not going to be doing much talking. Instead, I will let the projector, hooked up to internet, show these children all they want to know about the world that is still alien to them. The children are going to be shown a few visual documentaries and a couple of movies to get them excited about the prospects of learning they will have available to them.

The internet and projector can not only be used to educate these children but can also help in trainings for women & men in the village. For example, we can have virtual classes where someone sitting in Canada or anywhere else in the world teaches women in the village a skill or an art. I believe all of us have a unique touch, a talent. Some of us are lucky enough to have the conductive environment that allows us to discover, realize and use our talents. Unfortunately, most of the times these talents and special skills go unnoticed.

A poor kid in a rural area could be a great artist or a great painter or even a singer but due to his upbringing he or she has not been able to find time for him/herself and look within them to see what they are good at. When these children go to the village school, a person who does not care for them, their opinions or their talents, greets them. A new, innovative, friendly, flexible, fascinating classroom for these children can change the way they perceive education. Human beings are the most important resource we have and we cannot let these children and their lives go to waste. The potential is limitless. I am taking this classroom back to my village and hope for it to work successfully. If successful, it can become a role model for schools in other villages. If that happens, thousands of lives will change.

Note: If you have any ideas, suggestions, criticism, or anything else that you think will help in making this happen, I would be very happy to listen to you.


Pakistan under apartheid?

Apartheid was the official policy of the South African government until the year 1990.  The National Party had introduced apartheid after being elected to power in the elections of 1948. Apartheid called for the separation of the white population of South Africa from its non-white population. Laws were put in place to exclude black people from voting, public places and even traveling inside South Africa. Inter-racial marriage was not permitted and considered as an offence. Apartheid was finally removed in 1994 after the African National Congress (ANC) led by Nelson Mandela reached a resolution with De Klerk the President of the South Africa and the head of the National party (NP).

Growing up in Pakistan and witnessing continuous injustice towards a particular section of the society, I have started to believe apartheid still exists. It exists in Pakistan between the rich and the poor. I see a wall, a divide, and segregation between the two.

Sarfraz Shah was shot dead at point blank range by the law enforcement agencies a few days back in the city of Karachi. The incident was recorded on camera which brought some attention to his death. While looking at the video and the way Sarfraz was being pushed around, I felt as if he were some other species.  Sarfraz was a human being and yet he was not like you and me. His only fault was that he was poor.  Similarly, a few months back, a relative of mine was walking towards his house when a few drops of paint fell over his clothes from the top of a wall that was being painted. He looked up towards the person working on the wall who apologized immediately. This relative of mine went on swearing at the laborer. After a point, the laborer swore back. My relative took out a hand gun and shot him in the head.  The laborer was left there to die and (I am ashamed to say this) my relative roamed around free as if it were a bug he had shot at. Again, the laborers only fault was that he was poor.

These and many other such incidents happen in our society on a regular basis. Very few are recorded on the camera. Hardly any victim gets justice. Our politicians come and make a few fancy statements against such incidents. The media talks about it for days. A commission is formed and we move on. No one addresses the underlying causes. Once our emotions die away and they do with time, no one cares anymore. We have to take a more proactive approach and take action before these things take place. Crying over someone’s death or forming a commission serves no real purpose. It is superficial justice.

In the rural areas of Pakistan, the land lords sit on high-rising chairs while the poor, the peasants and the farmers are made to sit on the ground or ‘peeris’- low rising stools. This is done to remind the poor of their position in the society. These customs are there to instill fear in their minds. So many places in Pakistan have different cutlery for the poor and the rich. A friend of mine rightly said, a few people in Pakistan are citizens, others are just subjects.

All the laws and all the law enforcement agencies we have work towards protecting the rich from the poor. The poor have no big houses, or property or wealth that needs to be protected. They have no money that they can use to bribe or silence anyone. The sad reality is that if Sarfraz Shah came from a rich family, he would never have been shot like that. The sad reality is that if the Sialkot brothers were sons of a politician or a wealthy businessman, police wouldn’t have stood there watching them being tortured.

We keep asserting how Islam treats everyone equally and yet there are no signs of equality in this society. The poor only find solace in their religion as it promises them a better after life. This keeps them from rising against their masters and rulers. If anyone, it’s us the fortunate portion of the society who have to stand up to all the injustices towards the poor. We have to give those a voice whose voices have been suppressed. We have to give those people hope who have been shunned by the society. We have to give those people an opportunity who have the potential but find all doors to progress locked. We have to free those people who have been chained by the society. We have to free those peasants who have been enslaved by the landlords. We have to provide equal opportunity to all regardless of their social status, their religion, their ethnicities and their backgrounds.  Justice has to be based on merit and not money. It is never too late to change. If we still heed to Imam Ali’s saying, ‘societies can run without God but not without justice’, we can steer our society towards the right direction.  If we remain satisfied with what we have, if we only care about ourselves, if we let things be the way they are, our society will never change.

Islamic Republic of Pakistan

(If Pakistan were a person)

Don’t start judging me by my name. Please, for a moment, forget everything you have previously heard about me and put everything you know about me aside. Give me a chance to talk a bit about myself and then feel free to form your opinions.

So I have been in the news lately and you might have noticed. It is possible one of your friends mentioned me in a conversation or you heard a politician say my name. Whatever the source of your information might be, it is likely that the content wasn’t positive. Unfortunately, I have become known for a lot of bad things. Popular belief is, I am a terrorist. I have been accused of violating human rights by many several times. Many have blamed me for not having done enough to fight extremism. Fingers have also been pointed at me for sheltering dictators.

I will understand if you look at me with disgust. I realize no one likes to associate themselves with someone with a reputation like mine. My own children have left me and I am not surprised if strangers want to distance themselves from me.  However, I would appreciate if you give me some of your time today to hear my story. To save your time, I promise to keep it simple and short.

Let’s start with where the problem started. I became independent in 1947. I had grown big enough to live by myself but the struggle to become free wasn’t easy at all. There were many bumps along the road and many unexpected turns that I was forced to take. My children toiled with me for independence as all of us realized its worth. In the process, a lot was lost but there was a lot more to be gained that kept us moving forward until one day we became free. However, not too long after we became independent, something very unfortunate happened. The vision of our independence was blurred.

People started to attribute different reasons for our independence. It wasn’t so shocking to see outsiders attribute false claims but my own children had started to give dangerous colors to the partition. Soon, I was given a name by my children that became my identity. Even though I loved my middle name, ‘Republic’ and my last name, ‘Pakistan’, I always felt uncomfortable with my first name, ‘Islamic’.

I never wanted a faith to be associated with me. To me all my children were equal irrespective of what their personal belief was. I was aware that my children spoke various languages, had different faiths and followed different traditions. I knew differences amongst my children existed but I had hoped, perhaps naively, that they would accept each other as there was a fundamental bond between them. All of them shared the same mother.

As time passed, I found out my children had started to betray me and my vision for independence. They had started bringing out differences and imposing their views on the others. My vision of a pluralistic society where everyone lived peacefully together was put in the background. I found out soon that my own life’s story had been distorted. It had been tailored for personal interests. I had spoken of the protection of all religions, but as I was revealed, some of my children had associated my views to a particular religion. These children also seemed to have taken the right to correct others in their own hands. It became more obvious as some of my children started to be mistreated. They were denied the right to talk about their faith in public and even stopped from calling their places of worship by the names they wanted to.

This mistreated group of children included a great scholar as well. His name was Abdus Salam. Abdus Salam was a genius. He took my name to countries and places, I was unfamiliar with. Because of him people happened to want to know about me. They started to praise me for producing such a great scholar. I was so proud of him for setting an example for other children to follow. Little did I know that his success wasn’t liked by all. Religion was brought in to undermine his contributions and so his achievements were submerged by his own siblings.

Another thing I couldn’t come to terms with was that while some of my children were spending their money on luxurious items and vacations, many were begging for food. No one was helping each other out. Those who had the money had shut their curtains and were enjoying their meals in their air-conditioned rooms while others stood in the heat waiting to be fed. Those who had the education had it for themselves, no one cared to cater to the illiterate. Similarly, I noticed that some of my children had started using religion to control others. There were a few attempts by those with the guns to rule through fear too.

Mosques, which were supposed to unite, started creating divides. So much so that there were different mosques built for different groups. One had to prove their membership of a certain group to be allowed into the mosque. The house of God became the property of individuals and some children took the duties of God in their own hands. The sight of equality eventually vanished and tolerance started to disappear. The bonds began to fade away and differences started to fill in the vacuum. My beautiful daughters were forced into marriages and told they were somehow less important to the society than men. The society shaped their identity in such a way that people looked down upon them.

The dream of independence came true but only as a nightmare. My dreams had been shattered by my own family. I was betrayed by my very own children. This gave an opportunity to my neighbors to exploit my weak position. Some came forward to show concern only for personal interests. Some shunned me completely. Yet others kept telling me I had to do more to be accepted.

Only if I could tell the world, I didn’t want to be what I am today. This is not why I was born. This is not what I wanted to be known for. Only if I could tell the world, I wanted to be known for producing squash champions like Jehangir and Jansher, for producing great scientists like Abdus Salam, for respecting all religions, for fostering democracy, for creating equality, for removing gender bias. Only if I could tell the world, all these things are as dear to me as they are to you. Only if I could say it to the world, all my children are being blamed for the faults of a few. Only if I could show the world, my children are nice people. They just need to be guided through education and not punished with drones. If you still mock my condition, at least don’t doubt my intentions any more.

I hope I haven’t taken much of your time today. I hope I made sense. It was very hard to talk against my own children. I had to hold my emotions back while saying all of this. I am glad though that I took it out today. I realize it’s only the mother’s blind love which ruins its children. I have already been blamed for so many things. This one more accusation wouldn’t have made a difference but I care for my children and I did this with only their good in mind. May be somewhere, one of my children has heard me, and seen him/herself in my true image.

Just remember, it’s never too late. We only go down to come back up even stronger. Remember, it’s your responsibility to help your brothers and sisters who are in need. In need of education, of food, of justice. You don’t have to be scared of them being dependent on you. They just need a chance, a push, an oppurtunity. Remember, religion is your personal relationship with God. Don’t let it come in between your interactions with anyone. Remember, remember the sacrifices we made for independence. Let’s value them and work towards reaching our true potential. Remember, I will always have hope in you. You are the only thing I have.

The Land of Pure Hypocrites

Perhaps when people say you realize someone’s worth when he/she is gone, they are right. Salman Taseer had never been a man I admired but he is an inspiration for me after this death. His death came to me as a surprise at first and a shock later. That he was attacked by his own security guard is what surprised me and the reason behind the attack is what shocked me. Many people in our society have closed doors to any debate or dialogue and have seemed to find a remedy for dealing with anyone with a different opinion. That is by killing him. All that our religion teaches us about using reason to acquire truth has gone down the drain and all the things our religion advises us against are seen to be stuck with us. The death of Salman Taseer is meant to act as a deterrent for those who wish to speak out against such injustices. It is meant to scare us with the fear of silencing us forever.

I only knew Salman Taseer as Governor Punjab. Like everyone else he wasn’t a perfect man. He had done and said things which had angered many. However, to justify his death on the basis of his views on a man-made unjust law and difference of opinion is barbarianism. There are many questions which come to one’s mind looking at the killing. Did Salman Taseer not know what he was saying could lead to his death? Was he so immature of a politician that he would say something so politically incorrect? Was he stupid enough to not realize that very few in his own party are behind him on these words? He knew everything. He knew about the dangers he had dived into. He did it because it was the right thing to do. Salman Taseer spoke the truth and died for it defending it.

More shocking for me was to see the reaction to the assassination. While anyone’s murder cannot be justified on any grounds, it was upsetting to see a section of the society rejoicing the murder just because his views differed from theirs. Many embraced the killer as a hero. So much that the fan page of the killer on facebook had 2500 fans only in the space of an hour. Let’s not forget these people were from the relatively well educated section of the society. Unfortunately outside facebook many more sympathizers for the killer are present in other places of the society. There has always been a presence of such people in our society but this recent incident shows their extent of infiltration. Today these people are all around us. This should come out as a big challenge to the very few balanced and rational people of the Pakistani society but what these people find comfort in and what the jahil forget is that a lie told by a billion people a billion times remains a lie while a truth spoken by a single person remains the truth. These people are well aware of how much reason and logic their arguments lack. This is why they are trying to silence anyone and everyone with opinions different than their own.

When women in our society are forced to turn to prostitution to feed their dying children, no one finds it blasphemous. When children die on the streets because of malnutrition, no one finds it blasphemous. When the poor of this country are left without a roof in the shivering cold, no one finds it blasphemous. When suicide becomes the only option for the oppressed and unemployed in our society, no one finds it blasphemous. When the riches of this country are looted away by corrupt politicians, no one finds it blasphemous. But as soon as a sane man raises his voice against an unjust law, Mullahs are the first ones to be passing fatwas against that person. What has happened to our society? Quran sanctifies the human life and values it so much that on one occasion in the Holy Quran, Allah says “If a Muslim kills one man it is as if he kills the whole humanity.” (Quran 5:32) We have stopped using reason to acquire truth and relied on certain people to interpret the Islamic texts for us. The true message of Islam is peace. Killing a person for having an independent opinion is a blasphemous act. Having an independent opinion is not.

The Forgotten People

Photo Credits: Zain Maken

Children from a slum in front of the British School in New Delhi. While I got to attend the prestigious school, these children wandered the streets.  This area was one of New Delhi’s posh areas. With clean wide roads, beautiful compounds of embassies from all around the world, this slum in the middle of everything stood as a reminder to all of us of the huge disparities that exist in the world. The government of India seemed to have neglected these people. The wired fence which can be seen in this picture was put around the slum to curb the presence of the people living in it. These people didn’t have access to clean water. There was also no sanitation.  My younger brother who went to the same school initiated a project to provide access to clean water to these people. With his commitment towards the project and his hard work, a water tank was finally installed in the slum before we left India. This act of a Pakistani student for the Indians living in the slum reinforced my belief in the spirit of humanity which transcends through all geographic boundaries, races and religions.

Pakistan’s Children

A beautiful child I saw on my way to Murree. She was selling hand-made fans on the road side when we called her forward to buy a fan off her.  While these children should be in schools, their conditions  force them to come out on the streets at such a young age to support their families. It’s very unfortunate that these sights have become common and we let them pass without taking a moment to think how these children make it through their lives. Rain or shine, these children come out every day and stand for hours hoping for people to buy their home-made stuff. I was glad our purchase could bring a smile on this girl’s face but how long will this smile last?

It’s a great challenge but it’s a great opportunity as well!

Now that the flood waters have receded and the rescue operations are almost over, I want us to look back at these devastating floods, learn from our mistakes and plan ahead. Listening to an interview of CM Punjab Shahbaz Sharif with The Economist, I came across this sentence which I later used as the title of this post. Rebuilding our country after these floods is definitely a great challenge but one which can be turned into an opportunity we have never had before. I will explain why.

One would think the damage done by the flood is irreversible. I would like to think however much the damage done; our country can still emerge stronger out of this catastrophe. No doubt these floods have put many parts of our country under water. The power of these floods was shown by buildings falling down, livestock of the people floating, and literally whole cities under water with any present infrastructure being destroyed. Whole farms were wiped away and with them the livelihood of all the people living in the surrounding areas. It is unfortunate that every time such a disaster occurs, it is the underprivileged that get to suffer the most. Even this time around if you look at majority of the flooded areas, it’s been the rural areas and in very rare cases major cities.

I personally belong from a village in Punjab and I can somewhat relate to what it might have been like if my village had flooded. If you have never lived in a village, you should visit one to find out what condition the people there live in. Most of the people work as peasants for the landlords and few are lucky enough to find jobs in the cities surrounding their villages. Their houses are made of mud and there are hardly any signs of a hospital or a school. The schools in these villages are run by people who also act as polling agents during the elections. When appointed, their party loyalty is put over their qualifications. Through my interaction with children of my village, I found out that over 50% of these children drop out of the schools as soon as they are physically strong enough to do any kind of labor work. When asked about the reasons for dropping out of schools, most children told me it was the beatings they got from their teachers and the harsh ways of teaching. They also told me that their parents were never so fond of their attending school because even those who went to schools ended up with the same jobs drop outs would have.

Having a hospital in villages is out of question. Sick children and pregnant women have to travel for hours to get to the nearest hospital. There is no public transport to facilitate their travel rather any roads for the transport. Bumpy muddy roads often result in the deaths of those hoping to see a doctor for treatment. Sanitation is also nowhere to be seen. Piles of human waste and other garbage lie on every step as and there is no one responsible to clean them. The locals are living hand to mouth and cannot afford to cater to such things themselves.

The point I am getting to is that these people have been living like this since forever.  Children grow up to a similar future as their fathers. Nothing has been done for these people since the birth of Pakistan. Instead all our money has been used on acquiring weapons we would never even have to use. We never heard about these people in the media because no one felt they were important. They died and no one noticed. These recent floods have only brought them to our attention. If we want to, we can turn these floods in to a great opportunity. With all the international aid that has poured in, all the money that has been given by the philanthropists in Pakistan, all the attention the media has finally given these people, we can improve their lives. We can create brighter futures for their children. We can help build hospitals for them. We can build schools for them. I believe the biggest resource our country has is its people. If educated, we can reach heights which have previously deemed impossible.

Some of the ways we can create livelihoods for these people are to provide them with opportunities. Micro-finance can prove to be a great way to create a circle of economic activity. Small loans and the right business knowledge can help these people set up small businesses. Education can guarantee their children with better jobs in the future. Hospitals and sanitation can guarantee a much better hygiene for them. It can help them live longer.

For all of this to happen we need to play our role properly. If our politicians keep pulling each other’s legs we would not advance. We have to show unity amongst ourselves, remove corruption from our institutions and properly plan the rehabilitation phase for these people. From politicians to the common man, we have to help each other in our own capacities. We have to share with others what we have been blessed with. We have to pave way for them to move forward.  If we fail to take these steps, these people, who have already lost everything in the floods and have nothing more to lose, will not waste any time in getting to the skins of those who have what they want. As Alan Kay said “the best way to predict future is to invent it”. Let’s sow the seeds today to see a brighter future for these people tomorrow.