Sunday, 4 October 2015

A New Beginning ... Self Learning Initiative

There was a spark! Sindh felt awakened just for that moment; because its children knew they were the ones who lit the candle.

Computers were placed, walls painted in green and while, and a ribbon tied waiting to be split apart. This was the inauguration ceremony of the Self Learning Initiative [a project launched by RETO Foundation] at the Community Based School, Tando Jam - a town placed at the outskirts of River Indus in the province of Sindh. 

Our young hosts Iqra and Baakh [students at CBS] introduced the program with couplets from Shah Latif's poetry. The entire launch was celebrated in the language of the Indus - Sindhi, and students as well as members of Shades [youth led community development initiative] performed dances on music that brought forth the embedded cultural and pluralistic values of Sindh to the audience of parents, teachers and educators of the Town. 

What stood remarkably outstanding was the vigor and passion with which some of the speeches were made by the young and enthusiastic participants. The dilemmas of Education System of Pakistan and alarming figures such as 25 million children out of schools, were eloquently shared, vilified and deliberated upon. Dur e Shahwar's [second year medical student] pitch made the audience deeply reflect on the multifaceted picture of education in Pakistan, demonstrating the disparity not only in class, but also clothes, medium of instruction, structure of assessment, and the curricula and its implementation in their entirety, Questions were raised and pockets of hope were shared with humility. 

"Computers will do no magic, unless they are introduced in the spirit of learning", quoted one participant. So true was this observation, and what followed was an enlightening discussion on the value of curiosity, exploration and the role of teacher as a facilitator - who guides the students into the unknown with motivation and encouragement.

For me, this event was a walk back into Sindh - a place that has historically and to-date been exalted for its cultural wealth and humane philosophy, but lately remembered as a region that has made headlines only to show the debilitating state in which the future of its children lies. 

I believe the latter part of the picture will change - and when I see these young students communicate so passionately, I am truly hopeful that this will happen very soon!     

Sunday, 5 July 2015


"Is there something smaller than a proton?" a curious student asks. And the reply is 'you find out'.

"Practical is what is practiced!" one wise person told me. So I am happy to be in this lively place right now, where although heat is trapped in the room of 40 and sweat is pouring from all four-heads, but learning science is not considered boring and blowing balloons to build rockets is not deemed as impractical.

I am here in Tando Jam, a town known for its agriculture university, located 25 km from Hyderabad; attending a session organized by RETO Foundation (Reach Engage and Transform the Outreach) under its summer Smart Study Program. 

It has been observed that grade 11 and 12 are highly stressful years for students; exams become an entry or exit door to universities and performance is measured by the monetary gains expected to be retrieved. But this room appears very different. The students are preparing for a new life ahead yet eyes are not dimmed by boredom and burden, instead they are curiously trapped on to the experiments they are conducting.

I see Ms. Lala (as students call her) running around the room, using chemicals playfully and dancing with her hands to make daily used resources a medium for inspiring inquiry. While traveling to Tando Jam from Karachi in the early hours of Sunday, Lalah Rukh tells me about her exciting experience with students in Norway. For the past 5 years she has been working with students across Norway celebrating science education. In her words 'I want to see everyone speak the language of science'. Her enthusiasm and passion brings her to Pakistan now.

Without doubt everyone in this room spoke the language of science. I have never experienced learning Newton's law with a balloon racing across a piece of thread, or studying molecules by mixing calcium tablets with water and see them exploding in front of my eyes.

We were also fortunate to be accompanied by Mr. Kaleem Durrani, a peoples person who is enthusiastically committed to social work. He shared his experience working with the IRTIQA Institute of Social Sciences, and stated 'every destruction brings an unprecedented opportunity to create anew, it is us who will decide how our education system now is recreated'.

RETO brings a new platform; I hope one, that thrives to channelize exploding creativity from such rooms into meaningful innovations that make our society a self sustainable and sharing community to live in.  

Tuesday, 13 January 2015


We all admire the things that shine. Our eyes are first attracted to glowing lamps, dark polished shoes, glittering dresses, sparkling stars and articulated speeches. But the real shine is only tested with the pigment of time. Education is a wonderful mixture of ingredients, which if absorbed in accurate proportions and patiently cooked at a balanced temperature, can produce one of the finest recipe that is ready to shine at all times. Rajwanti is one of the few girls from rural Sindh, Pakistan who I feel is enthusiastically treading on this patient path. She is a first year student at Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences (LUMHS), aspiring to become a doctor and serve her community.   

Rajwanti's grandfather was the first from the family to migrate to Tando Jam and pursue education in Engineering, thus bidding farewell to the family profession of farming. The story of her grandfather and encouragement by both parents, always instilled the eagerness for learning, and made Rajwanti face all obstructions with optimism.

Women education is not very welcome in rural Sindh, where traditional understanding of women's role restricted to four walls is profoundly embedded. Like majority families in Sindh, ties with cousins were strongly knit for Rajwanti as well. Therefore interaction with them would always be a discomforting reality. To this, Rajwanti's response remains "I always feel, when I achieve something, my extended family will value education and understand the wonders it can achieve."

The second obstruction for Rajwanti was quite unique. While most of us struggle to learn, speak and academically perform in English, Rajwanti transited from English to Sindhi in grade 5. With change in father's income, the change in address and school followed. A position holder in her erstwhile English medium primary school, Rajwanti faced a two pronged struggle - learn a new language and maintain the hard-won status of being the 'First'. She failed to do so in the initial years, and as a result was not awarded yearly gifts by her father and underwent a phase of reflection: "If someone has a position, only then they are awarded and recognized otherwise ignored. I must study more and more." From a beginner to a proficient academic performer in Sindhi, Rajwanti met the demands of her family and self, and by grade 9 again acquired the first position.

Eagerness to learn and compete do make Rajwanti a skilled and determined individual, however that is not the reason for her uniqueness. It is her ability to perceive the complexities of life and form web of connections, that make her grow into learned individual. Because of her father's habit to challenge, Rajwanti became more competitive, as a result of her oscillating relationship with co-mates she observed how competition and friendship unevenly interplay, and due to societies positive response to rank and fame but narrow thought on women education, she recognized the contradictions of life and the mixture of individual effort and inequality of opportunity, that collectively result in ones growth and another's demise.   

RETO's intervention in the form of "Career Opportunities Program" in 2010 followed by community led leadership program - "Shades" was effective in shaping Rajwanti's holistic perspective towards life. In her words, "Sir Shahzad was very thought provoking - he always demonstrated and advocated for multiple perspectives at the same time." After having enrolled in the workshops conducted by Shades, Rajwanti excelled academically in her higher studies, optimized the opportunity to prepare for and apply to erstwhile unheard of Pakistan's finest medical institutions like Aga Khan University, and finally secured her place in LUMHS. Today, she also serves as a campus ambassador for the Aao Parhao Campaign, led by the Express Tribune. 

Rajwanti's story is on one hand, an example of commitment and perseverance by an individual, and on the other, a case study that demonstrates the wonderful opportunities out there for individuals if the society together upholds and invest in the promising enterprise of education. There are many more girls in rural Sindh who have all that it takes to shine, and await patiently for organizations like RETO and the community at large to step ahead and invest for a better tomorrow.