Tag Archives: children

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.

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.

Gratitude is the best attitude

The other day I went to work without having anything to eat. Two hours in to work I started feeling really hungry. Fifteen minutes later my stomach was gurgling. Twenty minutes after that I could hardly focus on my work. I had forgotten my wallet at home and there was no way I could get anything to eat from the cafeteria of the library I was working at. Then I did some self talk. I asked myself what’s the worst possible thing that could happen to me if I don’t eat for another few hours. I wouldn’t have died of hunger.

This made me think of those people who do die from hunger, who live their whole lives without sufficient food. I thought of the millions of children who are malnourished and the millions of people who don’t know when they will have their next meal. In my case, I only had to kill some hours before I was back home making myself something to eat but what about these people. What do they look forward to?  So many people around the world have committed suicide because their existence has became a burden for them. So many have killed their own children because they have been unable to feed them.

I couldn’t complain. I had so much. Our own problems seem so big to us sometimes. It’s as if we look at our problems through magnifying glasses. Its only when we look at the world around us that we realize how much we have been blessed with. We have to be grateful for what we have and reach out to those who have nothing.

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?