Working for a small NGO, Madeeha Ansari saw temporary, informal schools in Islamabad become more permanent, happier centres for learning.
Published in the Guardian on 5th May, 2015
In Pakistan, the
word katcha is used to describe something raw – in my head it means “unbaked”. The term katchi abadi is used to describe the temporary squatter settlements found along green belts, off main roads, sometimes fanning out from the edges of a city, at other times enclosed by cosmetic walls in the heart of the elite sectors.
Katchi is also the informal word for classes before grade one – an umbrella term for nursery and kindergarten in Pakistan. In 2011, I was working for the Pehli Kiran schools, a network of eight non-formal schools in slum areas in and around the capital, Islamabad. While navigating through the katchi streets, I found myself wondering about the multiple connations of the word – and the potential it represented.
It’s not easy, working on urban poverty. Pakistan is urbanising at the fastest pace in south Asia, and already 50% of urban inhabitants are estimated to be living in katchi abadis. These settlements are an unpalatable reality for municipal authorities, and are forever subject to threat of removal. The schools are not permanent structures – they are simply open-air places of learning as mobile as the communities they serve. Out of the eight at the time, Pehli Kiran School No.4, where I was working, had the most basic infrastructure – four bamboo poles holding up tattered shreds of green cloth, set in a dusty hollo field.
Under this sat a group of forlorn-looking children, who barely acknowledged my presence. The community consisted mostly of Pashtuns from the northern areas, and Hazara refugees from Afghanistan. At that time there were very few girls allowed to attend classes. Of the boys, many would skip school to help their fathers prepare stalls for the weekly fruit and vegetable bazaars.
Bigger development organisations were wary of working with such communities, whose mobility made it hard to measure impact. The team, however, was not one to despair. Temporary or not, the settlements had been there for years, and could possibly remain for years to come. An entire generation would be growing up in this state of flux, exposed to the hard lessons of the streets.
The focus of the schools was on quality, and on trying to get the children to make the transition into mainstream education. But there was also a realisation that schools were meant to be places where happy memories were made. The school space was one where hard lessons could be unlearnt.
My role was that of communication specialist, so I helped streamline fundraising and outreach while facilitating internal communications between the field staff and trustees. In the days of volunteer activities and planning that followed, I took away my own store of experiences to remember. They ranged from the messy joy of finger painting, to the exhilaration of successfully getting a grant for infrastructure improvement. And always, always, there was talk of things to come – laptops, offices, a Montessori system that would revolutionise the way the littlest ones made sense of phonics and the world.
Recently, I went back Pehli Kiran School No. 4. Unlike other, less fortunate settlements, the katchi abadi is still there, a short trek from a busy road in Islamabad. It had been two years since my first snapshots, and things looked radically different. Three open structures with aluminium roofing stood where the original poles had been. A brightly painted store held tools and teaching kits, and a mobile library was parked below. Under each shed sat curious groups of boys and girls, smiling at the new visitor. In the katchi class, a little boy carefully traced the small “d” engraved on a wooden square. Then he reached over for a small tray holding sand, traced a large “D” with his finger, and said: “Duh”.
I watched that understanding come together in that unlikely setting, in a country where, until recently, literacy was measured only by the ability to write your own name. Where, even now, one in four grade five students cannot read a sentence. And I thought that in this temporary, katchi space, that little boy could spell dream with a capital “D”.
Madeeha Ansari is a development consultant, pursuing projects to protect childhood and quality education in Pakistan. Follow @madeeha_ansari on Twitter.