Teaching Pakistan’s impoverished
Guardian Weekly – Afshan Tabassum (10 October 2007)
Machar Colony in Karachi, Pakistan, is one of the region’s most impoverished and neglected slums. Friends of the Citizens Foundation (FTCF) is a UK charity committed to making education accessible to children in Pakistan and operates a school in the area. Afshan Tabassum, principal at Vohra school, describes life in Machar Colony and a recent example of how children are benefiting from his efforts.
The first impression of Karachi’s aptly-named Machar Colony is that of a garbage dump. One of the poorest and most dilapidated slums in the metropolis of Karachi, Machar Colony is home for hundreds and thousands of families associated with the profession of cleaning shrimp for the nearby port fisheries, with a large majority of Bengali immigrants.
Abject poverty is not the only evil that plagues the sewerage-ridden, broken streets of Machar – its parents are constantly faced with the challenge of protecting their children from street crime, freely-circulated drugs and violence. Human smuggling, breeding of extremist terrorists and petty theft are just a few of the crimes that are as common here as the pungent smell of rotting sewage.
Amidst all of this, is the inviting pink TCF School’s Vohra Campus building, its airy classrooms, playground and beautiful plants (a rare sight in the saline soil of the Colony) providing a drastic comparison to its surroundings. Its students, in their clean khaki uniforms with the green TCF logo, once pointlessly wandered the filthy streets of the colony. Today, school is a place these children and their parents associate with joy, fun and safety.
When we introduced a second afternoon shift in 2005, one of the many families that came and admitted their children was a Bengali woman, who did not seem to speak Urdu, and kept weeping constantly. She was here to admit her two boys in the school, who had been sent to a local orphanage by their father three years ago.
Her husband worked in the fisheries at Gawader (Baluchistan), and due to his absence the boys were getting involved in street crime, which is a regular feature of the Colony. Though the children were attending the government school in Machar Colony at that time, they seemed to be learning nothing. Their father, afraid that the crime-ridden environment of Machar would turn them into fully-fledged criminals, decided to enter them into the orphanage where they would be safe from the streets and receive some education alongside.
The mother, however, was in abject misery throughout this long separation from her children, who only got the chance to visit her on Eid holidays. She told me that she had heard from her neighbours that students were taken good care of at the TCF School, and the teaching standard was high.
She had also heard that the fees were very low (like all other TCF schools, we maintain a pay-as-you-can-afford system) and since she couldn’t afford to pay the exorbitant fees of private schools, she begged me to give admission to her children so she could take them out of the orphanage and keep them with her.
I was deeply disturbed by the tragedy of this poor woman, who had two children and yet could not live with them and give her love and guidance to them. I asked her to bring her boys to me and promised her that I would admit them into the school. But I kept thinking all along how big a challenge it would be for my teachers to train these children, since both of them had been living in the orphanage for the last three years without any decent schooling or parental influence.
When a week later the children arrived, I noticed that they were extremely nervous and seemed afraid. Their faces were blank. When I asked them basic questions, they couldn’t answer with confidence and their eyes had a strange emptiness in them. Regardless, I took their interviews and tests and had to admit them into the 1st and 2nd grade – despite having been in the 3rd and 4th grades at the orphanage, it was plain that they would have to start afresh with the other primary students.
Shahid and Muhammad Hussain have shown a marked change in their academic performance over the past year. Not only that, their character and personality development is taking place at a fast pace thanks to their teachers and their own high aims for themselves.
They have promised to stay away from bad company and work hard at school so they can live with their mother. Their father visited Karachi after several months and was amazed to see the change in them.
He told me that he had taken the drastic step of putting his kids in the orphanage after losing all hope for them because they had started to indulge in petty theft and violence on the streets. He was afraid that they would only get worse if he didn’t remove them from this environment. But his act had caused great grief to his wife and he was relieved and happy now that the boys were not only back home, but growing into good and responsible individuals at school.