Monthly Archives: October 2010

On the point of change?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE tent cities for the flood-affected in Khairpur are now being dismantled. According to the EDO of the district only five remained last Friday.

As I watched the occupants of the Indus Resource Centre’s (IRC) camp prepare for their return journey, I wondered if this watershed event in their lives would also prove to be the turning point. For two months the trauma of the flood’s ravages became a distant nightmare as they lived in a new caring environment they had never known before.

The question is whether this experience will move them to change their lives radically. The two tent cities organised by the NGO in Dadu and Khairpur, where I spent several hours with the flood victims, provide a textbook example of what development is all about.

Sadiqa Salahuddin, the executive director of IRC, who is far from being a desk-bound activist, summed up the choices before the displaced people in her farewell speech. “Your children [there were 685 among the 1,221 victims] were so happy here and we hope you will also keep them happy. Be gentle with them as well as with their mothers. You were also happy here. Take back these memories to give a new direction to your lives,” she exhorted them.

From August to October, it was not just their basic necessities — mainly food, water, shelter and healthcare — that were attended to; their children received schooling, their women got guidance in handicraft and lessons in reproductive healthcare and the men learnt the virtues of living in harmony.

This was done by setting up schools in the two camps I visited, organising health and sanitation education classes, workshops for handicrafts and setting up a conciliation council comprising leaders of different clans to take collective decisions and resolve disputes.

Here was participatory governance at its best. Some teachers and camp managers had to be hired from outside (but from the local population) as expertise was not available among the affected. But assistants — teachers and managers — and manual labour for any project undertaken came from the inmates of the tent cities who received due emoluments in cash.

According to the executive director, it was a record of sorts that no violence occurred in the camps, notwithstanding the diverse backgrounds of the people thrown together by the doings of nature. It was amusing to see a police guard deployed per routine trying to make his presence felt by unnecessarily throwing his weight around.

This participatory form of governance must continue if lives have to change. Sadiqa Salahuddin’s advice to flood survivors carried weight. They could empower themselves if they lived peacefully and did not allow their enemies to hurt them by dividing their communities. haris

Of course it will be a challenge for the flood victims to replicate their camp life in their impoverished home environment. Lacking political empowerment they have to struggle against socio-economic odds that are daunting. Land owners can be tyrannical when it comes to exploiting their to extract undue privileges for themselves. Denied the benefits of good education and the basic facilities of healthcare, family planning, sanitation and nutrition, the farm workers are unaware of the rights they are entitled to.

Nevertheless, the parting message was, ‘Help yourself and we will help you’. The emphasis was on self-reliance and dignity. To show the way, gifts were handed out — tools (shovels, spades, saws, etc for the men), kitchen utensils for women and schoolbags for children (courtesy Unicef). Families were given dry rations for a fortnight and seeds to grow vegetables. Earlier they had received beddings and were allowed to take their tents with them.

Most of them live on land that they have no title to. They were leaving with mixed feelings. They were satisfied and grateful but also pensive. The good times were drawing to a close (evenings had been occasions for folk music and women had been spared the violence that was their fate earlier on). Above all, they were stepping into an uncertain future.

But at least, the first stirrings had been created in a people who had previously shown little interest in sending their children to school. The young ones had became absorbed in their lessons — there were three- and four-year-olds who tugged at my sleeve demanding that I listen to them recite rhymes and alphabets. Will this interest blossom into something more? wadera bara

Many villages have no schools. There are others where the uses the school building as a for his cattle. Others have schools but no schooling. The people lack the means and organisation to pressure the government to safeguard their rights. Two months were not enough for them, the weaker party, to acquire the skills to neutralise the levers that are traditionally used against them.

But there is hope. Seeds of awareness have been sown, new relationships forged and new friendships struck. Ingenious uses of the ubiquitous mobile phone are being discovered. Above all, they have been promised continued support to keep alight the flame that has been lighted. wai

Ali Madad, an IRC project officer who helped with the Khairpur camp, captured the message poignantly when he recited Shaikh Ayaz in -style: When the red roses burst into bloom/We will meet again.

Much now depends on the government. Last week it appeared to be nudging the NGOs out of this space some of them have created for themselves in the life of flood-affected communities. It declared that henceforth the government will manage the $3bn additional aid it was seeking.

Will it be used to dole out meagre charity to individuals to hurt their dignity? Or will this aid be used to stimulate economic activity in the flood-ravaged regions to rebuild the infrastructure on a cash-for-work basis — albeit keeping contractors out and employing only indigenous people?

A Beacon of Hope From Within

They are “ordinary people” with no claim to fame. But in their own way they are making a useful contribution to society and rebuilding their own lives. This is the story of Parvin who attended primary school for only three years before she was married at the age of twelve. Denied her rights to education, healthcare and a decent life, Parvin was doomed to be one of the oppressed class who could not hope to live with dignity. But she is a woman of courage and decided to act. She went back to schooling herself and also opened a home school where she teaches children from her neighbourhood.

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A Beacon of Hope from within Pakistan: A Home-school in Karachi

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: The WIP

Floods in 2010. Earthquake in 2005. Pakistan has been severely battered by the elements. Thousands have died and millions have become internally displaced. But even without Nature’s unkind revenge, life in Pakistan is not easy for the teeming masses who toil hard to feed themselves and their families. Poverty is their biggest adversary, and according to one estimate over 40 percent of the country’s 180 million live below the poverty line.

Yet in this gloom there are beacons of hope – many of them women – showing the way to people who are on the verge of despair. Parveen Lateef, age 40, is one of them. Her story reads like fiction. But fortunately, it is a true account of a woman’s struggle to change her life and that of her children.
Continue reading A Beacon of Hope from within Pakistan: A Home-school in Karachi

Language in education

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

A CLUTCH of letters has appeared recently in Dawn debating the language issue in education. A very sensible one by Fazal Muhammad Khan from Lahore published last week reads, “There is no denying the fact that students find it very hard to understand subjects when they are taught in English or Urdu, the languages not spoken in their homes and society.”

Mr Khan adds that by making the mother tongue compulsory as the teaching language for primary-level students we can ensure the students would not only remain in touch with their culture, we would also be taking a reformative step towards the betterment of the educational system in Pakistan.

Under the heading, ‘Little sign of English in China’ Mr Umar Mohamad Sajid, an engineering instructor, writes from his five-year experience, “English is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in our progress.”

He says he has “had students who memorised large sections of books and excelled in examinations but they did not understand what they have memorised.”

The issue could not have been summed up more succinctly. These and other letters confirm what language experts — Dr Tariq Rahman of the Quaid-i-Azam university at once comes to mind — have been saying for decades. Dr Rahman has been pleading the case of the mother tongue as the language of teaching at the primary level.

Whether it is Zakia Sarwar who has been striving since 1984 to improve the standard of English language teachers in Pakistan through SPELT, or Farida Akbar, the director of the Montessori Teachers Training Centre who is best qualified to understand the process of language acquisition in a young child, the consensus is, “Use the mother tongue as the language of teaching at least at the primary level.”

The arguments put forward are logical and convincing. Beginning with the physiological aspect, a child learns best in his mother tongue or the language of his environment. English which has been over-emphasised is not the language our children are exposed to in the early years of their childhood (I am not talking about the elite classes but the vast majority).

A very large number of children enrolled in schools are first-generation school-goers in their families and their parents are either illiterate or can read, write and speak only Urdu or their mother tongue but definitely not English. Which means it is left to the teachers to teach them as best as they can.

Most teachers are also new recruits to the English brigade and, as Zakia Sarwar would testify, they are not the very best in English. They also have many other failings but requiring them to teach in the English language when they do not even understand and speak correct English is equally unfair to them as to the children they teach.

True, many teachers are not brilliant in Urdu or their mother tongue either as they have had no training in pedagogy and their knowledge of the subject is poor. But if provisions have to be made to train them in a crash programme it would be easier to teach them their own language rather than English.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against English or the teaching of the language. English is now accepted as the international language of communication in an increasingly globalised world. It offers distinct advantages to those dealing with the outside world whether in higher education, trade or diplomacy.

English is also the language of science and aviation. Hence the language cannot be ignored. If it is taught as a second language to all children to give them basic knowledge of the subject it will be possible for those who need it in later professional life to build on the initial introduction they have already had.

That hardly requires us to adopt English wholesale as the medium of instruction and entail all the disadvantages listed by Mr Khan and Mr Sajid above. But it does mean that English must be taught correctly and well as a second language. It also means that a core group of teachers must be trained to teach English as a second language.

This calls for shedding the social prejudices we have nursed against non-English speakers and carefully cultivated in our society. I do not find this prejudice against non-English speakers even in countries where English is the language of the people.

The greater use of English to the exclusion of indigenous languages in our society creates a false status for the language which benefits a privileged class by virtue of its command over English. That helps it perpetuate its power and privilege by grabbing the best education facilities and thereby the best jobs. This is a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. Since 9/11 English has become a prop for Pakistan to project itself as a state trying to modernise itself and emerge as a moderate society.

In this context I found an article written by Sir Michael Barber, the British educational expert, who heads the task force on education along with Shehnaz Wazir Ali, intriguing. He speaks of many factors that determine the success or failure of educational reforms in Pakistan. Most of them have been identified ad nauseam by educationists here. It is good that an expert from Britain has been familiarised with the challenges we face.

But the language issue, which I think is at the root of our failure to teach our children effectively, has not been given the importance it merits. Sir Michael Barber writes, “Drawing from the global literature on education reform, the task force’s account combines accountability with capacity-building or, in simpler terms, pressure and support. The pressure for change will come from three sources. First, there should be clear standards for all students in Urdu or the mother tongue, in English, and in maths and science.”

There is a need to address the language issue squarely. Fudging it or being diplomatic about it serves no purpose. Sir Michael Barber would understand that better. It is time we understood it too.

Contribution of expatriates

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IT was President John F. Kennedy who exhorted Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you…..but what you can do for your country”. This ‘do for your country’ spirit is very much in evidence in Pakistan today, especially among the generation that got the best from it in its youth. It is heart-warming to see that many Pakistanis are now willing to repay the debt they feel they owe their people. And they are doing it abundantly.

Recently, I received an email from Saquib Hameed, the honorary vice chairman and CEO of the Layton Rahmatullah Benevolent Trust (LRBT) that runs its eye hospitals all over the country and is rendering excellent and free service to those suffering from eye diseases. Saquib was my contemporary at the University of Karachi. He described his own service at the LRBT as a “payback” after retirement.

There are others who have not yet retired but are giving back to the country what they feel they owe to their motherland. Dr Azhar Salahuddin, an ophthalmologist working in the US, has been visiting Karachi for a week or so every year since 2006 to perform eye surgeries at the LRBT hospital in Korangi. He partners with a group called SEE International in the US which gives him enough supplies for 100 cataract surgeries which he brings with him.

Apart from performing a few cataract surgeries and cornea transplants, he also teaches new techniques to the local doctors. The supplies that are not used up are donated to LRBT. Dr Salahuddin is in the process of setting up an eye bank in Pakistan. His services are pro bono.

During the August floods, the financial contributions from Pakistani expatriates were phenomenal. No figures are available and it is unlikely they ever will be. Most of these donations came through private channels and were given to trusted NGOs and some charities set up spontaneously and informally to help provide relief to flood victims.

A Rotarian who sent out an appeal for funds for flood relief managed to raise a big sum of which 63 per cent came from abroad. In Toronto a Pakistani raised $420,000 from one fund-raiser. The migrants have been selflessly generous and do not expect any rewards in return as a few high-profile Pakistanis have in the past. The latter became ministers — returning home to make hay while the sun shone.

Another response to the floods came from a friend Azhar Fasih in Oaksville, Ontario (Canada) who is an engineer (having graduated from the NED in 1967 and completing a Masters in engineering from Cornell). He works for a Canadian company and has been posted in Argentina, Poland and China. Azhar was very concerned about Pakistan, as I have found most expatriates to be. He wanted to know what he and his friends could do to help the country. They had all donated hefty sums for flood relief.Azhar, along with his fellow NEDians, would like to offer his expertise as his namesake, the ophthalmologist, is doing.

I asked him what kind of services he envisaged to help Pakistan in these trying times when a large area of the country lies in ruins with 20 million people affected. Being an engineer his focus is understandably on reconstruction. But he wants to go beyond the simple act of rebuilding all the structures which he believes may face the fury of the floods in a few years again.

As pointed out by the World Meteorological Organisation, Pakistan’s floods fit international scientists’ projections of more frequent and more intense extreme weather events due to global warming.

The ecological damage has been so severe, especially deforestation, that even unusually heavy rainfall can lead to flooding. There are few trees and plantations left in the mountainous areas to bind the soil and serve as a barrier to the torrential flow of rainwater.

Azhar describes the 2010 floods as a disaster as well as a “wake-up call” for future calamities. He emphasises the important of undertaking forestation on a large and concerted scale to pre-empt the devastation wrought by floods in future,

Azhar speaks of using the expertise of engineers for designing projects such as reservoirs, bridges, roads and houses designed to withstand the pressure of floodwater and also solar panels for heating water and homes in winter as a form of conserving electricity. barani

These are very feasible and affordable propositions. Millions of cusecs of water flowed into the Arabian Sea through the Indus River system during the floods. But with the dry season there is talk of water shortage given the absence of storage capacity.Azhar speaks of rain-filled reservoirs that have been built in some areas with “engineered earth” with an impermeable liner, mainly clay, to prevent seepage. I wonder if such reservoirs can’t be built to store the excess water in the rivers during rainy season. They would expand the irrigation network and boost agriculture. Why not plan these reservoirs in the reconstruction phase?

He is bubbling with ideas as he has seen many such projects in China where he lived for five years. I find it intriguing that the government in Islamabad should be eager to buy nuclear plants from China but not acquire something simpler for the power sector such as solar panels, which would help conserve trees that are used up as firewood for heating.

Similarly the bridges that have been washed away by the floods, Azhar points out, were too low and close to the riverbed. Their spans were not wide enough. They must be redesigned keeping the floods in view. Pakistani bridge engineers in North America could provide this expertise.

The need is to tap into this huge reserve of goodwill that Pakistani expatriates have for the country. Some coordination and organisation is needed. It would be so satisfying to see Pakistanis help out their less fortunate brethren in the reconstruction task on a self-help basis rather than our leaders going round the globe with a begging bowl in hand.

Richness of diversity

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PROF James Ron of Carleton University, Ottawa, complains that mainstream students in Canada are oblivious to the role of religion in contemporary life. He says that they achieve competence in secular politics but have no interest in learning the basics of different religions, even their own.

This is an interesting observation on Canada. But it holds true only partially for most young people in our society. Given the religious environment and our religion-centric syllabi, students pick up quite a bit of knowledge of their own faith. But unfortunately they learn little about other religions — even those of the minorities living in their midst.
Continue reading Richness of diversity