Notes from the Field

New Books Equal New Opportunities in Bangladesh

September 8, 2010

Today is International Literacy Day, an occasion to acknowledge that, despite advances in education worldwide, there are still hundreds of millions of people who do not have the ability to read and write. In fact, Asia is home to 75 percent of the world’s illiterate population.

Bangladesh boat school

In Bangladesh, more than a third of the population lives on less than $1 a day, almost one-half of the population is illiterate, and one in five children is not enrolled in school. Here, children go to school on a boat along the banks of the Meghna River.

Faced with such a shocking statistic, it is natural to wonder if any government, organization, or individual can truly improve this situation. The odds some developing countries and marginalized groups face are indeed daunting.

Take Bangladesh. The human development indicators are grim: more than a third of the population lives on less than $1 a day, almost one-half of the population is illiterate, and one in five children is not enrolled in school. At the same time, the government of Bangladesh has increased gross primary school enrollment dramatically – up to 97 percent –  in the last two decades, and the country’s economy is growing at a healthy 6-7 percent. Taken together, is this data cause for optimism or pessimism?

I just came back from a visit to Bangladesh where I tried to better understand what’s behind these statistics. As monsoon season approached, I spent time in the three extraordinary communities featured nine months ago in Books for Asia’s “Choose a Book, Change a Life” video. Just an hour outside Dhaka, I entered a more traditional world where people depend on the river for food and shelter and are locked into the livelihoods and conditions of their forbearers. I boarded small canoe-like boats, meandered along an island’s sandy paths, and weaved through dirt alleyways to speak with children, parents, and teachers to see if our donations of Bangla- and English-language books to the schools established by the local Subornogram Foundation were being put to good use.

Shahed with students

The Asia Foundation's Books for Asia program is helping marginalized communities across Asia gain access to information by partnering with thousands of committed indigenous organizations such as Shahed Kayes, above, the founder of the Subornogram Foundation.

In each community I visited along the Meghna River, for reasons ranging from endemic poverty and discrimination to geographic isolation and lack of overall services, the children of the Bede (“river gypsies”), fishermen, and cobblers had never attended school nor held new books until the Subornogram Foundation stepped in to help. The Bede still live on traditional boats along the river, going ashore only to sell wares. The fishermen and their families were resettled onto the small island of Mayadip in the early 1980s, after massive flooding in the south displaced them, but the island still lacks electricity, medical care, and, until recently, access to education.

Tulshi with her mother

Tulshi, an 18-year-old teacher in Bangladesh's rural Sonargaon, with her mother. Tulshi is the only school teacher in her neighborhood.

The visible impact of Asia Foundation book donations in such challenging environments surpassed my expectations. During my conversations with the students and their parents I found that the students, simply by reading books, were gaining new ideas, greater confidence, and bolder career aspirations. By partnering with dedicated local leaders like Shahed Kayes, the founder of the Subornogram Foundation, and Tulshi, an 18-year-old teacher in Sonargaon, I saw that we were able to help the students gain new skills and envision a new world of opportunities.

Though young, Tulshi is the most educated person and only school teacher in her neighborhood, a community of cobblers who, considered “low caste,” suffer from overt discrimination. Tulshi comes from an extremely poor family where her talent, grace, and determination were in stark contrast to the meager resources and expectations around her. She made a deal with Shahed to become a school teacher in exchange for English and computer lessons for herself.

Now, Tulshi leads energetic, attentive students, ages 4 to 12, in daily lessons. About 70 students crowd on to floor mats in a one-room, corrugated tin home vacated for several hours a day by the family who lives there. While visiting, I was offered the only place available to sit – the family’s bed. From there, as class continued beside me, I interviewed students and their parents. I learned that almost every one of these eager students wants to be a teacher like their role model Tulshi, and others aspire to be doctors or police officers. None of these professions seemed possible before the Subornogram School began offering education. For now, when the students are not in the classroom they help their parents with housework, tend to younger siblings, and play “school.” One exceptionally bright 10-year-old boy, Ripon, an avid cricket fan, wants to be a social worker like Shahed. Tulshi herself eventually wants to pursue a law degree.

Of course, achieving quality education is a bit more complicated than simply getting books into students’ hands. Bangladesh, for instance, needs to overcome poor school attendance and high drop-out and grade repetition rates, and its teachers require more training and support. But books provide a critical first step to getting people hooked on the idea of reading and learning. They can open almost anyone to ideas and broader horizons since books don’t discriminate against a reader’s social or economic class, ethnicity, or gender.

I’ve found that an effective way to accomplish this is to work with schools and organizations that are serious about helping themselves, and providing them with the books they say they really need. When books are given to perseverant community leaders, motivated teachers, and eager students, even the most marginalized communities can participate in their country’s development. When books are opened by eager young hands, they help form –in this case – the first literate generation along the Meghna River. They create a ripple effect that will surely contribute to a more optimistic future for Bangladesh.

Melody Zavala is the director of The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program. She can be reached at mzavala@asiafound.org. The Books for Asia Program Coordinator in Bangladesh is Sukla Dey. She may be reached at sdey@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Melody Zavala | Bio

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