The War Against Illiteracy: The View From One Small Corner of the Battlefield
As I turn off of the Jama Masjid Road on to one of the side streets in Ilyasnagar in South Bangalore, I come to a big, colorful shamiana that takes up the entire width of the street. At the head of the shamiana is a dais draped with a thin carpet. On the dais are chairs, a rectangular table with two flower vases (that the photographer promptly removes when the program starts because they’re blocking his line of sight) and a microphone on a long stand.
Off to the left of the dais, past the sound system, its snaking wires and the loudspeakers, is the gate that leads to Noor Ayesha’s house. The gate opens to a long corridor at the far end of which is the front door that opens to a room about 8 feet by 12 feet that is filled to capacity with people and is buzzing with activity.
Noor Ayesha, petite, reed-thin and bubbling with energy is resplendent in a shimmering green and pink chudidhar. She has a constant stream of guests, some already seated in molded plastic chairs that dot the front room of the house, others still arriving, removing their slippers at the front door before coming in. She is at once in command of the goings on in her house and shies at all the attention she is receiving.
Noor’s male relatives are busy lifting low, long school benches lined along one wall of the front room and taking them outside. The women of the house, other than Noor, are busy in the kitchen getting out paper plates, snacks and fruits.
Noor is busy attending to little children, guiding them to a bench in the far corner of the room, getting them to sit. The children are dressed in their best clothes and their faces made up as if for a performance. They sit quietly and patiently and watch the adults.
The room itself has a showcase built into the wall to the left of the front door. The showcase is full of children’s notebooks, blocks and puzzles. Number charts, alphabet charts, fruit, vegetable and flower charts hang along the wall facing the front door. A little higher, towards the left of center of the wall, hangs an illustration of Mecca and a chart welcoming everyone. A roll-up black board in the center of the wall proclaims that Noor Ayesha’s home is also the Little Lord Pre-Primary English School. Today, Noor Ayesha and her children are celebrating their school’s Annual School Day.
Noor’s house, in short, doubles as a pre-school and Noor is a foot-soldier in the war against illiteracy in India.
She started out as an Akshara volunteer in their ‘Community Outreach’ program (of which the pre-school or ‘Balwadi’ program is one of four components) in November 2004. She went around from house to house with research provided by Akshara (number of children in the household, how many are in school, how many are not and why not) and urged parents to send their pre-school aged children to her house for a few hours everyday so she could school them.
For eight months, she ran her pre-school under Akshara’s banner and received all the necessary teaching materials and a monthly stipend from Akshara. Within a few months, she had the experience and a sufficient number of children in her school for her to contemplate going independent. So she took the training offered by Akshara on how to run a self-sustaining Balwadi in April of 2005 year. From June onwards, she has been running her pre-primary school on the fees she has collected from the families and with some help from her locality’s Corporator.
Now Noor has 54 children in the age group of 2 and a half to 6 years old and she’s hearing from parents who want to send their children to her even earlier. Initially, her language and math classes were conducted only in Urdu. Following numerous requests from parents, she has now hired an English teacher and offers classes in both Urdu and English.
Enabling Noor to accomplish all this within a span of a few months are her family, her neighborhood and the leadership in her locality. Her in-laws were both school teachers and are fully supportive of their daughter-in-law’s efforts to get children on the right track in their community. Her family is investing in building an entire floor above their existing ground-floor house to help her expand her classes. Her local Corporator, known as Mr. Tipu to his constituents, encouraged Noor’s efforts by donating books to the school, mementos for functions, funds to Noor to help her get started when she went independent and fees to families who struggle to send their children to her pre-school.
Although she’s been on her own for close to eight months now, the Akshara volunteer coordinator looks in on Noor often to check on her progress and help her address operational problems. On the day she celebrated her pre-school’s annual day, Mr. Tipu arrived with his entourage to grace the function and exhort the audience to send every child to school and praised Noor’s efforts. The Chief Operating Officer of Akshara Foundation, Col. Murthy Rajan attended the annual day celebrations as well, along with Lata Devi, the Balwadi Coordinator for Bangalore and Mamata, a Cluster Resource Person for that part of Bangalore with Akshara. Also in attendance were Balwadi operators from other areas in and around Ilyasnagar who’d gone independent, seeking inspiration from Noor’s success and in turn providing support just by being there, sharing her moment of joy.
The success Noor has had not only in starting a Balwadi in her area, but going on to become independent is a sign of the level of demand for education at the pre-primary level. There are no government-run pre-primary schools in Bangalore, so most families who cannot afford private school education end up keeping their children at home until they are old enough to be sent to first grade in the government schools.
Unfortunately, by that time, they are already behind in terms of the things they could have learned in the crucial formative years of their lives. This leads to learning problems in the primary schools and government primary school teachers are overwhelmed by the amount of work necessary to bring the children up to speed. Schools resort to social promotions until the fifth grade with no attention to what the children have actually learned in the intervening years. All these factors collectively result in children dropping out of school altogether somewhere along the road.
This is where Akshara’s Balwadi and the government’s Anganwadi programs step in. While Anganwadis try to provide health, education, and other services that are not accessible to the poorer communities, Balwadis, which became operational in Bangalore in 2000, try to exclusively address this gap in pre-primary education in the slums and day-laborer communities of Bangalore.
Noor’s is one of 94 self-sustaining Balwadis in Bangalore. 234 other Balwadis are operating under the Akshara banner. In all, Akshara’s Balwadis cover about 4,214 children while the self-sustaining Balwadis serve about 1,915 children.
On this day, Noor, who has not summoned up enough courage to go up on stage, is standing on the ground next to the dais, the microphone pulled low to her height and is welcoming her guests and the parents of her school children. She nervously tugs at her duppatta willing it to stay around her head, her fingers gripping the microphone and adjusting her duppatta by turn. After every sentence, she turns to the English teacher in her school, who has Noor’s speech ready in her hands. Together, they make it through the welcome speech.
The audience, mostly women in the front rows, but a sizeable group of men from the community as well in the fringes, many with young children on their laps, are appreciative of Noor. They listen intently when Mr. Tipu speaks, turning to look at Noor every time her name is mentioned.
Noor has moved off to the side now, and is organizing her children. She is already intent on the next stage of the program. This is what the Annual Day is all about. It’s about how far they have come in the span of a year, and it’s about showing the parents and the rest of the community why it is important they go to school and stick with it. The children are as excited and nervous as she is. They are about to perform on stage showing off all they’ve learnt in their Noor teacher’s school.