In Pakistan, A Self-Styled Teacher Holds Class For 150 In A Cowshed

Nov 25, 2014
Originally published on November 25, 2014 6:26 pm

Every day, shortly after breakfast, more than 150 noisy and eager-eyed kids, coated in dust from top to toe, troop into a mud cowshed in a sun-baked village among the cotton fields of southern Pakistan. The shed is no larger than the average American garage; the boys and girls squeeze together, knee-to-knee, on the dirt floor.

Words scrawled on a wooden plank hanging outside proudly proclaim this hovel to be a "school," although the pupils have no tables, chairs, shelves, maps or wall charts — let alone laptops, water coolers or lunch boxes.

Nor are there any teachers, except for one very young woman who is sitting serenely in front of this boisterous throng, occasionally issuing instructions, watched by a cow and a couple of goats tethered a few feet away. Her name is Aansoo Kohli.

Aansoo is a 20-year-old student in the final stages of a bachelor's degree. She is the only person in this village with more than a smattering of education. Her mission is to change that: "I'll make these children doctors," she says. "I'll make them teachers and engineers."

The kids in Aansoo's cattle shed are from Pakistan's Hindu community — a marginalized, sometimes victimized, minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. Their village has for centuries subsisted on the tiny income produced by picking cotton and green chilies for feudal landlords.

The mass exodus of Hindus to India — 50 miles to the east — during the 1947 partition of the Subcontinent seems to have passed by this remote community.

The village, Minah Ji Dhani, lies deep in the countryside of Pakistan's Sindh province; you have to drive across fields to reach it. There is no road. Nor is there electricity or running water. Its inhabitants are among the poorest of Pakistan's roughly 200 million population.

A crude wooden crutch lies at Aansoo's side. She needs this because she lost the use of a leg as an infant due to a botched medical procedure. Her father, an illiterate farm worker, realized she would be unable to work in the fields, so he packed her off every day to a government-run school miles away.

As an impoverished and disabled Hindu girl in a highly conservative and patriarchal rural society, Aansoo says her school years were difficult. "People would laugh at me when I went to school," she recalls. "They'd say, 'What's she going to do once she's educated?'"

Aansoo's cowshed "school" is her answer to that question. She has no teaching qualifications and works without pay. This hasn't deterred her from pushing ahead with a personal campaign to give her village's children — girls as well as boys — the chance to get educated.

"I love these kids," she says. "I'm urging them to study."

You only have to watch Aansoo at work for a short while to realize that to describe her cattle shed as a school, or her as a teacher, really is a stretch.

Overwhelmed by numbers, she teaches some of the older children, who then squat on the ground and impart what they have just learned to the smaller kids, some as young as three. Somehow the village whipped up enough money to buy some dog-eared government textbooks and hand-held blackboards.

But there is another goal here. Talk to Aansoo, and it soon becomes clear she has assembled these kids in part to draw attention to a chronic problem blighting her country's young, especially the poor.

Over the years, government teaching jobs in Pakistan have routinely been handed out as political favors. Thousands of so-called "teachers" pocket wages but do not go to work. There's a girls' school less than a mile from Aansoo's village that has long been closed because the teachers never showed up.

Aansoo's aim is to generate the kind of publicity that will send a message to people far beyond the confines of her village: "I want to tell Pakistan's teachers that you have a duty to the nation's children. Please come to school and teach!"

"Aansoo is posing a question for all of Pakistan," says Janib Dalwani, a Muslim social activist from a nearby village who's playing a central role in Aansoo's seven-month-old campaign, publicizing her efforts and rallying villagers to the cause. "If someone with her disadvantages can teach, then why can't teachers who're sitting at home drawing salaries go out and teach?"

The task of persuading parents to allow their kids to go along to Aansoo's cattle shed fell to Dalwani. He says they were initially reluctant to release their children from working in the fields and doubtful about the benefits of education.

"I told them God's on their side," says Dalwani. "He'll help them."

This seems to have worked. Ram Chand, a farm worker, has allowed three of his daughters to go to the cattle shed: "I am very happy," he says. "We don't want the children to lead the life we've led."

Aansoo's message is being heard beyond her village. Liaquat Ali Mirani, a principal in the Sindhi city of Larkana, runs a website that publishes the names and photos of absentee teachers in the hope this will shame them into doing their jobs.

"I fully support Aansoo and have a lot of sympathy for her. May God help her," says Mirani.

He estimates four out of 10 teachers in the province never set foot in a school: "Some of them run shops, some work in the media, some for feudal landlords."

In 2010, Pakistan's federal constitution was amended to make education compulsory and free for all children age 5 to 16. But education is run by provincial governments; they haven't yet turned this amendment into law and it seems unlikely they will. This helps explain why, according to estimates, nearly half of Pakistan's 58 million kids of school age are not in school.

"The state of education is very bad in Pakistan," says Farhatullah Babar, a leading figure in the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the late Benazir Bhutto's party that governs Sindh. "In fact, we have what we call education emergency."

Babar says that although the PPP bears much responsibility for the education crisis in Sindh, it plans to fire absentee teachers and make government teachers take a proficiency test.

"I think these measures indicate a very strong realization on the part of the PPP that if it was responsible for the mess, it is also determined to clean the mess," says Babar.

For now, though, the kids in the cattle shed are on their own. Their chief hope is Aansoo's determination — and their own enthusiasm.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Without education there can never be peace in the world. So says teenage activist and Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai. In her own country of Pakistan, there is an education crisis. Pakistan has 58 million school age children and nearly half are not in school. NPR's Philip Reeves traveled deep into the countryside of southern Pakistan to learn about an unusual attempt to change that.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A big crowd of kids is jammed into a cattle shed. They're sitting on the dirt floor, some are as young as three, all are covered in dust. There's at least 150 of them - so many they're spilling into the yard. Words scrawled on a plank outside proudly proclaim this mud hovel to be a school. These kids have no desks or chairs, maps or world charts, and no teachers, except for one very young women sitting before them with a wooden crutch on the ground beside her. Her name is Aansoo Kohli. A small boy stands by her. He has a little blackboard on which he scratched some English. A cow and a couple of goats watch from a few feet away as Aansoo checks the boy's spelling.

Aansoo's pupils are Hindus in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. Their families have been here for centuries, picking cotton and chilies for feudal landlords. They're among the poorest of Pakistan's poor. You have to drive across fields to reach this village. There's no road or electricity or running water.

Aansoo's the only person here with anything you'd call an education. As an infant, she lost the use of her leg after a botched medical procedure. Realizing she couldn't pick cotton, her father packed her off every day to a school miles away. She's now 20 and doing a bachelor's degree. Getting educated in a highly conservative rural society wasn't easy.

AANSOO KOHLI: (Through translator) People would laugh at me when I went to school. They would say what's she going to do once she's educated?

REEVES: The school in the cattle shed is Aansoo's answer to that question. It's a personal campaign to give all the kids from her village the chance to go to school.

KOHLI: (Through translator) I'll make these children doctors. I'll make them teachers and engineers.

REEVES: That's quite an ambition when you look at the conditions inside the cattle shed. This can't accurately be called a school at all.

KOHLI: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Overwhelmed by pupils, Aansoo teaches the alphabet to a few older kids. The kids then squat on the ground and impart what they've just learned to the smaller ones.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: P Q R S W.

REEVES: Something else is going on here. Aansoo says getting all these kids together in her cattle shed is a way of sending a message to people way beyond her village.

KOHLI: (Through translator) I want to tell Pakistan's teachers that you have a duty to the nation's children. Please come to school and teach.

REEVES: If you think only children play hooky, think again. In Pakistan, the teachers do it too. Thousands of government teaching jobs have been handed out as political favors. The teachers pocket the wages, but don't go to work. There's a girl's school less than a mile from this village. It's closed because the teachers don't show up.

JANIB DALWANI: (Through translator) Aansoo is posing a question for all of Pakistan.

REEVES: Janib Dalwani's a Muslim from a nearby village who's playing a leading role in Aansoo's campaign.

DALWANI: (Through translator) If someone with her disadvantages can teach, then why can't teachers who are sitting at home drawing salaries go out and teach?

REEVES: Dalwani says he persuaded villagers to release their kids from working in the fields and let them go along to the cattle shed.

DALWANI: (Through translator) I told them God's on their side. He'll help them.

REEVES: Ram Chand was reluctant at first. He now has three daughters in the cattle shed.

RAM CHAND: (Through translator) I'm very happy. We don't want the children to lead the life we've led.

REEVES: Aansoo's message is being heard. Liaquat Ali Mirani, a school principal, runs a website publishing the names and photos of absentee teachers. He hopes this will shame them into doing their jobs.

LIAQUAT ALI MIRANI: (Through translator) I fully support Aansoo, and I have a lot of sympathy for her. May God help her.

REEVES: Mirani's from the same Pakistani province as Aansoo - Sindh. He estimates 4 out of 10 teachers in Sindh never set foot in a school.

MIRANI: (Through translator) Some of them run shops, some work in the media, some for feudal landlords.

REEVES: A few years back, Pakistan's federal constitution was amended to make education compulsory and free for all children from five to 16, but education is run by provincial governments. They haven't yet turned this amendment into law.

FARHATULLAH BABAR: The state of education is very bad in Pakistan. In fact, we have what we call education emergency.

REEVES: Farhatullah Babar's a leading figure in the party that runs Sindh - the Pakistan People's Party, or PPP. Babar says that the PPP bears much responsibility for the province's education emergency. But it's tackling this with plans to fire absentee teachers and make all government teachers take a proficiency test.

BABAR: I think these measures indicate, very strongly, realization on the part of the PPP that if it was responsible for the mess, it is also determined to clean the mess.

KOHLI: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Who knows if that'll make any difference to Aansoo and her kids. For now, they're on their own, relying only on Aansoo's determination.

KOHLI: (Through translator) I love these kids. I'm urging them to study.

KOHLI: I.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: I.

KOHLI: J.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: J.

KOHLI: K.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: K.

REEVES: The eager eyed cattle shed kids don't seem to need much persuading.

KOHLI: N.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: N.

KOHLI: O.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: O.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.