Sunday, August 19, 2012

Begging to learn. A mothers quest to educate her daughter

The classes in the slums where we volunteer have a reputation for teaching even marginalized children exceptionally well. REAP, the NGO that runs 24 classes in the Kalwa slums and hundreds more in slums around Mumbai is at the forefront of providing quality education to the doorsteps of the children in the slums. REAP has an array of teacher-training classes and its educational supervisors travel the breadth of Mumbai to ensure that the curriculum is taught with dedication and professionalism. We were told that some other schools in the city are awful – in many places, they don’t actually teach the children but serve as glorified babysitters, letting children play in a yard for four hours and go home. I had heard about what goes on in other schools (and read about it in Katherine Boo’s best-selling book Behind the Beautiful Forevers) but I didn’t fully appreciate and see for myself firsthand how different REAP is – until today.

We had just finished teaching our English lesson and distributing hot meals to the children who attended lessons when a woman and young girl approached the teacher of our class.  The woman held the girl’s hand and spoke spiritedly to the teacher in Hindi. While she spoke, her voice gradually became more insistent and frustrated. One of the GPM staff gave a ‘play-by-play’ translation of the conversation. Apparently, the woman had been observing our class all morning and was begging and pleading with the teacher to accept her daughter into the class. Her daughter was about 14 years old while the class was for 7 and 8 year olds, so the teacher told her that her daughter was too old. The woman started begging and told the teacher that she had been sending her daughter for six years to a local school and made sure that her daughter had a pencil and notebook and that she attended class every day. This was not easy as every day was a struggle to survive for the woman’s family of five. The woman values education even though she herself is illiterate. At the end of the previous school year, she had asked her neighbor to check her daughter’s reading and writing and was shocked to find out that her daughter could not read or write! For six years her daughter ‘went to school’ and was illiterate! After hearing about the quality of the REAP class nearby, the woman came to observe and almost cried when she saw 7 and 8 year olds who could read and write while her fourteen-year-old daughter could not! The teacher called the regional supervisor who was luckily about ten minutes away from the class. Soon the mother was speaking to the supervisor and together they worked out which class would be perfect for the woman’s daughter!

This incident highlights the complex and difficult realities of living in the slums. Most parents know that education is important for their children, a way for children to develop skills and attain knowledge that will give them a better life. This is what all parents want for their children. But in the slums there is a constant struggle to survive. A family’s priority is shelter and food - then comes education. So parents are placed in a difficult situation. An eight year old child can bring in a few cents a month by working and this money can contribute to feeding the family. For some, education is a luxury they simply cannot afford. To others, like the woman in this story, they would sacrifice so much to educate their children and even then the system let her down.

This is where Gabriel Project Mumbai and REAP come in. This is where we are trying to end the cycle of poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy. It’s about supporting those parents who have a vision and  commitment to giving their children a better future. We need to give children tools to get out of the slums, and giving parents relief by not only teaching but also providing nutrition. So the school becomes a place where kids can build a different future. We hope to change the trajectory of this girl and hundreds of other children’s lives.

Photo courtesy of Sara Birnbaum, GPM volunteer Summer 2012

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