tampabay.com

A coup in the classrom: lessons in life

By REENA SHAH STAMETS
Published October 13, 2006


(Part two of series published in the Times Oct. 27, 1993)

It used to be that parents who cared about their children's future kept them away from school. There was no point in sending them.

The children would be cooped up in a noisy room for the better part of the day, being taught useless things like long division with the help of a cane thrashing. They could learn valuable things about farming, cooking and raising cattle if they stayed home and worked alongside their parents.

But a quiet revolution is sweeping across the Bangladeshi countryside. Villagers are building tin-roofed schoolhouses and sending children to school. In the village of Jorindra in northern Bangladesh, 31 young voices shout, "I bathe in the RIVER!" "I eat a COCONUT!" They are learning to read words they had known before only as sounds.

The schools are the brainchild of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), a national association that organizes villagers and brings about rural change by teaching skills to poor families to increase their incomes. The primary schools are a recent effort, aimed at creating a future cadre of literate farmers in a country where 7 out of 10 people cannot read or write.

Most students have no use for several years of formal schooling. In cities, thousands of school and college graduates are unemployed because there is a shortage of jobs. Schools are luxuries in villages, where book learning is even more irrelevant.

Although government schools are free up to the fifth grade, many children don't go. Even simple school supplies like notebooks and pencils are beyond the reach of villagers. A child's slate costs 75 cents.

The BRAC school requires attendance for just three hours a day, and in a few years, some students are proficient enough to join the formal education system run by the government if they want to pursue higher studies.

"People were not sending children to schools because they did not think that type of education was useful," said Salehuddin Ahmed, BRAC's program director. "The alternative was to create an alternative schooling, and that is what we have done."

Most of the illiterate are subsistence farmers who are caught in a cycle of poverty, exploitation and political powerlessness. "How can people become aware of rights or the constitution or anything if they are illiterate?" queries Gunendu Roy, a rural development coordinator at BRAC.

Many farmers are indebted to moneylenders who extract several times the principal by showing them false ledgers saying the debt is unfulfilled. Corrupt local government officials interpret laws as they want to, knowing illiterate villagers will not challenge them. Slowly, a small thing like knowing the alphabet is giving the powerless some say in their own lives. The schools are simple, but their ambitions for social change are grand. They are required to have more girl students than boys, and to have more female teachers. Teachers need only a ninth-grade education, but still, it is hard to find women who qualify.

"You see, in the government schools and everywhere in society, almost everybody is male," said Humayun Kabir, a BRAC official. "We are trying to change that balance."

Bangladesh is probably the only country in the world where both the head of government and the leader of the opposition are women. But this prominence of women is no indicator of their political or social power. It is more an example of the Asian penchant for political dynasties. Both women are leaders because of their relationship to important men.

The prime minister, Khaleda Zia, is the widow of an assassinated former president. The opposition leader, Sheikha Hasina, is the daughter of a former prime minister.

The majority of Bangladeshi women grow up facing discrimination that begins at home when they are little. Girls are fed only after their brothers have eaten. They are often held away from school to do chores around the house. And besides, the reasoning goes, what good will book learning do to a girl who must spend her life being silent and obedient and doing housework? It will plant only false longings in her mind. The legal marriage age is 18 for girls, but they are usually married off when they are 12 or 14.

"Our prime minister is a woman, but what does it do to the status of women? Nothing," says Salehuddin Ahmed.

"Whereas, non-formal primary education for girls is going to change attitudes."

The new schools win over the trust of parents and make a dent in attitudes that have grown over hundreds of years. Rahana Begum, the teacher in the Jorindra school, has a 10th-grade education. She got married when she was not quite 14. Now she tries to persuade the parents of girls to hold off marrying them until they are in their late teens. "I tell them, send her to school because then she won't have to marry a boy who pulls a rickshaw. She can marry a man who is doing better."

She tells them that if the girls get a good education, they could get jobs, perhaps as schoolteachers, and bring their families a steady income and prestige. The salary of $11 a month isn't much, but it is handsome by rural standards, because there are practically no jobs for women.

Women are typically seen as unproductive clingers who depend on their parents, and later in life on their husbands for support. But when they begin to contribute income, they get a bigger say in family matters because they suddenly become people who count.

In Bangladesh and in other countries of the Indian subcontinent, early marriage is a tradition that lingers in rural areas. That is because parents consider getting their children married as part of their parental responsibilities. And until recently, diseases killed people when they were still in their prime, making early marriages necessary.

The village schoolhouses are just thatched sheds, bare rectangles with a row of students sitting cross-legged on the ground along the walls. The students each have textbooks, a slate, pieces of chalk, a ruler and a bundle of toothpick-like counting sticks - all provided free. Their cloth satchels hang from pegs on the wall. There are no uniforms and very few examinations so students don't feel intimidated. The classes run from Saturday to Thursday. Friday is the day off because it is the Muslim sabbath.

The subjects are basic: reading, writing and arithmetic. The children also learn poems, songs and folk dances. One day, they might learn how to craft a charcoal stove by slapping mud around an old pail. On another, they learn how to weave thatch for a roof.

A class called "our environment" teaches them how to tell time, how to tell east from west, and to be proud of themselves, their families, their village and the country.

The chapters in this textbook are simple. Myself. My family. Our home. Our neighbors. "Our country" tells them that their land is called Bangladesh. It is very beautiful.

Its national fruit is the jackfruit.

Rules for eating food emphasize the importance of washing hands with soap and clean water. Cholera and diarrhea, which affect millions of Bangladeshis, are spread by poor hygiene and contaminated water. There is a short fable to drive home this lesson.

In the middle of the jungle, all the animals gather for a wedding feast. While they wash their hands, a sly fox devours all the food. The animals are angry, but the next day, the fox becomes sick. He keeps vomiting and dashing to the toilet. The others tell him he is ill because he didn't wash his hands and ate germs. "You're right," the fox moans. "Take me to a doctor or I'll die."

At 11, the children go home. There will be no homework. Their three-hour school day frees them for the work their families consider important for the future: tending goats and chickens, doing housework, and learning how to plant and harvest a good rice crop.

Contrast this education with these contents of a fourth-grader's geography textbook from a private school in the capital of Dhaka. It is a reprint of a British textbook written in the 1930s called Seeing the World. It is outdated, irrelevant and wrong even as it pretends to teach about the big, wide world. It refers to marmalade, herring, and the River Severn and has not a word about Bangladesh (which didn't exist then) or its region.

Hundreds of little dark-skinned boys called Mohammed who have never tasted marmalade in their lives learn this: A boy called David lives in a gabled house with a Manx cat called Billyboy and a dog called Nigger. David climbs on to the back of an owl who shows him the world.

Burma is a land of pagodas. America's plains are dotted with "Red Indians" and their wigwams. Africa has "the black, woolly haired people" who hunt and live in kraals. Japan is a land of rickshaws where people wear kimonos, grow mulberry trees and are struck by earthquakes.

The village children will never study any of this. But they won't be any poorer for knowing that their land, with its wide rivers, leaping fish and swaying paddies is the only one in the world worth learning about.