Asia and the Pacific

by Don de Silva

On a green patch of land in the heart of Lahore, capital of Pakistans most populous state, Punjab, stands a brightly coloured double-decker bus. Unlike other buses, it is not used for transporting passengers. Instead, the bus helps to shift the minds of children in the area to wider horizons. Inside the bus, both the upper and the lower decks, are neatly stacked with books.

The "book bus", as it fondly called by the local people, is the first childrens lending library in Pakistan. It was the first project of Alif Laila, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to improving the standards of education among disadvantaged communities in Pakistan. The organisation was established in 1978.

Several "education experts" cautioned Midhat and Basarat Kazim, directors of Alif Laila, against setting up the bus project. You cannot trust the children in the area, they were warned. The response would be poor and the parents would not send their children to the library. The children might take the books and not return them.

Alif Lailas experience has proved otherwise. The library has become much in demand. Books are returned in time. The library has a membership of over 1000 children.

After this experience, Alif Laila persuaded the Punjab government to construct a reference library next to the double-decker bus. The reference library also contains magazines, games, puzzles, photocopying facilities, and a TV set and video cassette recorder. Educational films are shown regularly.

Every day, after school, the children in the area make a bee-line to the libraries. Both libraries keep a number of books on environmental issues, in several languages, including Punjabi and English. A volunteer teacher from the Society is present at library hours and sometimes holds discussions on problems that effect the children and the community.

Basarat and Midhat Kazim are concerned about the quality and standard of education among the disadvantaged communities in the developing countries. They are critical of stereo-typed education methods, based rote learning. "Many children drop out, as state schools have poor facilities, and education is largely irrelevant to the needs of the community", said Basarat Kazim.

The society constantly searches for innovative education methods. Four years ago, the Alif Laila Hobby Clubs were born in a rented house, about a five-minute walk from the libraries. The place is now a major education resource centre. The centre conducts hourly practical classes in subjects, such as computer science, art, photography, crafts, aero-modelling, mechanics, and wood-work. The emphasis is on practical training.

Six state schools in the area send about two thousand children from five to sixteen according to a roster to attend classes at the resource centre, conducted by Alif Laila teachers.

The children respond quickly to facilities at Alif Laila. They develop model trains or boats, discover their ability to draw, learn computer graphics and word-processing, re-cycle waste-products, or use paints and brushes. Through hands-on techniques, they are exposed to the world of science and the environment.

The centre also uses drama and puppetry to communicate messages. The children put on plays for their communities. The content of the plays touch on themes like the importance of education, caring and preserving the environment, and health and sanitation. "Readosaurus", a green dinosaur, is a popular character appears in several plays, and encourage children to learn rather than drop-out of school and become educationally "extinct".

Using the hobby clubs as the base, Alif Laila tried out an interesting experiment: to facilitate contact between rich and poor children. They invited children from a leading private school in the area to help children attending the hobby clubs to learn English. The exercise benefited both sides. According to Midhat Kazim: "All children developed a healthy relationship. There was a feeling of give and take. The poor benefited in learning English. The rich children were also educated in the causes of poverty and life in the slums."

Alif Lailas latest venture began when Basarat Kazim investigated the conditions of the schools around Lahore. During one of her visits, an old school master confronted her and forced her to listen to the poor conditions that teachers had to work with. Basarat informed him that she was not from the education department. But the school master went on. "At this point, I realised that hobby clubs and libraries were alone not enough. We had to go deeper into the community," she added.

Alif Laila began schools in slum areas. The first was started in a Bihari community. The teachers had a difficult time during the first six months. Some parents demanded money for sending their children to school as the children are sent to work to earn money for the family. "They asked for 200 rupees (6 US dollars) for each child. We told the parents that we did not have that kind of money," said Basarat Kazim.

At first, attendance at the Bihari community school was low. Gradually, the numbers began to grow. The mothers, in particular, grasped the importance of education.

Across fences and at water taps, word about the community school quickly spread around the area. The Pathans living next to the Bihari community asked Alif Laila to also set up a school for their boys and girls. This request surprised the organisation as the Pathan community have been known to known to strongly object against the education of women.

Commenting on the community schools, Basarat said: "The children studying there are bright and intelligent. They are quick to learn. Unfortunately, some are forced to roam to the streets as their parents are drug addicts. After their encounter with education, the children do not want to go back to their old ways."

Alif Laila has written up the syllabi and teaching aids that are used in their education programmes. Based on their experience, they have also evolved a 90-day functional literacy programme, which requires one-hour teaching and learning a day. The organisation is keen to share their experiences with other NGOs, and also to set up libraries, hobby clubs and community in other parts of Pakistan. "Our methods are not only effective, but affordable as well", said Medhat Kazim.

The founders of Alif Laila have also launched a computer network to facilitate education among disadvantaged has been established in Pakistan. Entitled EDUNET, it is the first programme of its kind in South Asia.

EDUNET is managed by a small team of dedicated educators and computer specialists in Pakistan and has been created with the assistance of the United Nations Development Programme's Sustainable Development Networking Programme (SDNP).

EDUNET started its operations early 1995 in Lahore and links a number of state schools among disadvantaged communities in the city.

EDUNET is builds on Alif Lailas computer training programme for children from disadvantaged communities for the past several years.

Through EDUNET, users can participate in discussion forums and conferences in either Urdu or English, and access massive database containing information on variety of issues. EDUNET carries weekly journals on computer technology and mailing lists of organisations concerned with development issues. Users can also download shareware computer programmes.

In addition to these services, EDUNET offers electronic mail and and access to several newsgroups throughout Pakistan. Through the Internet services of UNDP's SDNP, users can access worldwide e-mail facilities.

There are heated debates in some of EDUNET's discussion forums. Among the most popular is the one on the state of education in Pakistan. Users can also suggest and create forums of topical concern.

The database contains masses of text and graphics covering many disciplines. The database is indexed and contains a brief description of each article's placed on the service. A user can download relevant material.

Since its main emphasis is education, the database is designed to be a source of teaching resource material for schools. Teachers can find up-to- date information on subjects taught at all school levels. EDUNET has a number of computers running as Compact Disc (CD) servers. They contain reference sources, such as, information and encyclopaedias, atlases, literature collections and dictionaries.

Students raid the shareware programmes on games. Schools communicate and exchange experiences. A user can tap into mailing lists of resource persons on various issues and communicate with a list member.

Midhat Kazim believes that computer technology can be used to benefit the disadvantaged communities.

According to Midhat Kazim: "Only the financial elite of this country are able to send their children to the better private schools and the monetarily disadvantaged classes are left no choice but to either leave their children illiterate or to have them 'educated' in government and municipal schools."

"A lot of blame is put on teachers of Government and municipal corporation schools for not teaching properly and not performing their duties honestly. It would be interesting to see how the people who lay this blame would react when they themselves are put in a situation where they have to teach non-stop, up to 6 periods a day to a class of sometimes even a 100 bored and unruly children. After all, what else would the children be, but bored and unruly when there is absolutely no mental stimulation in their class. For them, it is only the rod and a string of abuses from a frustrated teacher."

EDUNET stirs the imagination of children to learn and gain knowledge.

The Pakistan government spends large sums of money for research to develop syllabi for government schools. Midhat Kazim believes that EDUNET provides a channel for teachers throughout the country to pool their resources and participate in developing syllabi and relevant teaching materials without totting up huge costs. Teachers can also easily up-date the material when needed.

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