August Issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

“Your car is parked on my classroom,” a visibly angry man scoldedNewsline’s photographer, Danish Khan. Confused, we looked around to discover that the narrow lane in which we were standing — watched by curious half-clothed children with runny noses and surrounded by rubble, roaming goats and heaps of rubbish — was being partitioned with a blue parachute sheet. At exactly 5 p.m., the section that was being cordoned off was converted into a classroom, with the blue sheet serving as a curtain marking the classroom and the wall opposite as the blackboard. (see photo gallery below).

This was just one of 60 street schools in the Lyari area operating on the “Each One, Teach One” model. We apologised profusely for interrupting the first shift (grades one to five) and were told that after this shift, at 6 p.m. the second batch would come. Like clockwork, the sixth to ninth graders arrived, armed with heavy school bags and wide smiles. In fact, as Nadeem Baig, a founding member of ARM explained, “When I was in the fifth grade, I taught Montessori and grade one,” and most students from the senior classes help out in this way.

ARM Child and Youth Welfare, in collaboration with the Rotary Community Corps in Baghdadi, has been running this street school for 25 years. When asked how it all started, Baig says, “I am part of the founding team, comprising Abdul Jaleel, Abdul Ghaffar, Sohail Ahmed Rai, Fida Hussain and Shahjaan bhai. But it was a truck driver, Nabi Baksh, who came up with the street school idea: he observed that everyone in the city went to work in offices or study at schools, and the Lyari kids didn’t stand a chance at a job as they were loitering in the streets with nothing to do. So he suggested that we hold classes for students in the evenings.

Nabi Bakhsh used to park his truck on the same spot where the street school now stands. One day when parking his truck, he decided to put his concept into action: he gathered mats, benches and eventually set up a street school with the help of other community members. Word of this homegrown self-help model spread fast and it caught the attention of journalist Ayesha Azfar. When Azfar visited the school, she felt that it was in urgent need of donations. Subsequently, she brought Ejaz Ahed, a friend from the Rotary Club of Karachi Metropolitan, along with her to elicit support for the project. The club donated wooden benches, canvas, curtains, stationery, books and reading material to ARM. This partnership has grown in two decades and so has ARM’s vision. Today, the school includes a small library and an impressive technical set-up called the Women’s Skill Development Project. This project helps women in the area to earn a small income through its associate sewing and embroidery, computer, beautician and handicraft sections.

The office of ARM is located in a small room adjoining the street school. When we visited it, the foyer was choked with piled-up chairs that are dragged out during school hours and a huge tin signboard that had fallen off due to the recent cyclonic winds. The main office contained a large, old desk and chairs that were lined up against the wall on either side. There was a shelf on one side that held books, pamphlets and files on activities related to the school. Baig, the occupant of the office, smiled as he recounted that the place where he sat was previously the site of a stinking garbage dump. He walked out of the office to show us a bullet hole in the wall — a grim reminder of a time when gang wars traumatised the people of Lyari. Locals couldn’t walk on the streets, leave alone set up schools on the pavement. “This was the only school that continued to function amidst shootouts and violence,” Baig told us proudly. “The teachers would hide the children in the office until it was safe for them to come out and resume their studies.”

The people of Lyari are daily wage earners, labourers, donkey cart drivers or rickshaw owners. These congested streets are home to diehard PPP supporters and the infamous gangs that rule the roost. Baghdadi, the base of ARM’s operations, was previously infested with criminal mafias dealing in alcohol, heroin, ganja and charas, and all age groups, including school dropouts and little children, were recruited as sellers and runners. Those were the circumstances under which ARM Child and Youth Welfare materialised. They had no financial backing, so they sewed together discarded bags of flour to make a curtain and put mats on the streets where the children sat to study every evening. Baig explains that the children are never forced to attend school: “They come to us of their own accord.” Today, ARM boasts 29 teachers, out of which 12 are female. The school also doubles as a community centre where the youth gather to share the social and civic problems that plague Lyari. The total number of students that ARM has educated stands at an impressive 1,007 and many have gone on to obtain their Matric certificates and Intermediate and Bachelors degrees.

In addition to running street schools, ARM has also educated 5,362 female students in 282 home schools run by women and aimed at the women of the community. When asked if any student goes on to pursue higher education, Baig says, “We work towards sending as many kids as possible to university. We had a big group before and many from that group went to Karachi University, including two girls, Khadija Gul and Fatima Bibi. Other than that, we had three students who earned their medical degrees and one of them now works at Jinnah Hospital.” In 1995, the Home School Literacy Programme was launched for working adults to enable them to attend night classes to learn basic math as well as reading and writing in English and Urdu.

Since 2006, ARM, through the street school replication project, has been introducing their street school concept in other slums of Karachi. Pilot projects have been launched in Mauripur, Mawach and Lyari along with teachers’ support programmes. Through ARM, teachers can learn English at the Pakistan American Cultural Center. The Rotary Club also runs several workshops on teachers training, organisational development, leadership, training, lesson planning, school management and presentations. Training workshops also include community mobilisation, reproductive health and theatre techniques. The positive initiatives that ARM has spawned are not all so practical, though.

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Ya Khudaya! What will become of this country?” sighs a despondent Adnan as he paces the stage restlessly. “Who will think of its future — the feeding the hungry infants or those already in their graves?” We stand there watching with curiosity and incredulity as five talented actors perform a play called Kasur Kis Ka Hai. This group is not part of any professional theatre company or even a liberal arts college for that matter. They are an offshoot of ARM, which prides itself on more than just its street schools in Lyari. Loosely formed several years ago, this group was formally introduced as part of their project called Youth Initiative Corps (YIC), which aims to promote various activities among the youth of Lyari. They found a string of problems plaguing Lyari’s youth, such as apathy to education, a lack of direction and counselling, and most of all, a lack of places for them to explore their hobbies and interests. Keeping this in mind, they formed YIC in 2009, enabling these children to develop interests other than just studies. YIC divides children into several categories, according to their individual interests. Their activities include an annual talent show, theatre performances, development workshops and sports tournaments.

While all these activities have had a great impact on Lyari’s youth, it is the theatre group that has proven most noteworthy. Theatre allows Lyari’s children not only to express themselves but also to shed light on the many issues confronting Lyari through their plays; they develop awareness of societal issues among the residents of the area, thereby involving them in the process of resolving them. “We create the plots of our dramas according to the problems we think are important,” says Nadeem Baig, who is not only a teacher but also a founder of this theatre group. “Whenever an issue crops up, we discuss it and design our characters accordingly. We’ve done health issues, women’s issues, and recently we wrote a really good play on the energy shortage — it’s called Kasur Kis Ka Hai.”

On special request from Newsline, Kasur Kis Ka Hai was performed for us in the community centre a few blocks down from the street school. As we walked up the semi-constructed steps that led us to the first floor of the building, we were astounded by the unassuming interior of the place where many of their activities took place. Big hollowed windows surrounded us on all four sides, and we watched as the boys rolled out a frayed rug on which they performed their play. As the performers took their positions, we wondered whether we should move closer to the stage, they had no microphones, after all. But how wrong we were to assume that voice projection would be a problem. Each word was pronounced with clarity. The acting, the expressions and the use of space were all reminiscent of an advanced-level theatre performance — but one without a fancy backdrop, supportive costumes and dramatic lighting.

For formal performances, they had a dress code. “All of us wear white shirts with black trousers,” says Sania Naz, one of the actors and coordinators of this theatre group. A charming young girl in her late teens, Sania appears mature beyond her years.

Once a student of this street school herself, Sania went on to become a teacher and coordinator for ARM. Alongside her work with students, she also manages a women’s “saving group” in which she teaches women to save money and adopt better skills for budgeting. Confident in her skin and full of positivity, Sania is proud of her efforts and it shows in her cheery smile. “The point is to teach women how to save their money instead of spending it all and being left with nothing at the end of the month,” says Sania. “Things are so very expensive now and people in our community don’t know how to save. Saving is not very difficult. They give me Rs 50 a month or whatever they can afford, and I save it.” However, Sania doesn’t keep the money with herself. She has opened a joint account at Habib Bank, and the 80 participants in her group have collected Rs 48,000 since January. This Female Saving Group started in January of 2010 and aims to help women set up small businesses by providing loans to the women of the community when needed. Her younger sister Zehra, too, followed in Sania’s footsteps and spends much of her time teaching and doing theatre.

Of course as young women working so actively in this downtrodden neighbourhood, their lifestyle inevitably poses problems vis-à-vis the community. “A lot of people say a lot of things about me and my sister,” says Sania, “as we are probably the only girls in the area who come home at 11 or 12 in the night. They criticise our closeness to these men and don’t like the fact that we work together, walk together. But what they don’t know is that these men are like family to us. We have grown up with them and call Nadeem sahib ‘Dadu’; Sohail bhai is ‘Aboo’ for us. My mother says that if she doesn’t have a problem with anything, why should anyone else? She’s really supportive.”

The performances are not only about involving the youth in extracurricular activities; each play contains a strong message. “They say that you can’t understand everything simply by hearing or reading of it. However when you see it, you can immediately understand the importance of something. For example, loadshedding exists everywhere. Through our play, we try to tell the audience why loadshedding is happening and the problems associated with it. So we brief them through theatre,” explains Baig.

Their plays haven’t always earned a positive response. While the energy play found the performers feeling like celebrities no less than “Aishwarya Rai or Rani Mukherjee,” there were those rare occasions when the audiences booed them and pelted them with rocks. “We once did a play on AIDS where we were showing them right from wrong and the different ways in which the disease spreads. We wrote a whole song about it, but I don’t think they understood our message. As a result, we got stones thrown at us,” laughs Baig.

The theatre group boasts some success stories as well. Adnan Haroon, a 20-year-old who was a part of this theatre group, was approached by Mani Chow for a play staged several years ago. At the time, Adnan volunteered only to escape his pending exams,but soon he realised it was something that really interested him. When Sheema Kermani was auditioning people for her own play, she asked to be introduced to Mani’s crew, which is where she met Adnan. Five years down the road, Adnan is still a member of Sheema’s Tehrik-e-Niswan team and travels to different countries for their performances. And to think that he began his career as an actor with a humble theatre group in Lyari.

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Walking on the streets of Lyari clad in shalwar kameezes sans dupatta, our initial hesitation gave way to a feeling of liberation. One of the female teachers turned around to ask us if we could walk like this anywhere else in Karachi? She informed me that if anyone harassed a young girl, the Amn (Peace) Committee would punish them. The Amn Committee rules Lyari, and following the assassination of kingpin Rehman Dacait two years ago, Sardar Uzair Baloch heads it. An extension of the PPP, the Amn Committee is revered in these streets. Ostensibly, it has put an end to the infighting, it provides rations, helps to bestow wedding dowries and supports schools and other social activities. Still an uneasy calm pervades the streets of Lyari. Walls are riddled with bullets holes, children roam the streets with rifles and rocket launchers and the drug trade is still rampant. But the street schools and theatre group provide a glimmer of hope — hope that the younger generation may succeed in putting Lyari’s bloody past behind them.

Click on any photo to begin the slide show:

Photography: Danish Khan