Still feeling jet-lagged and not quite enough caught up on sleep, I jumped out of bed this morning excited at the day ahead. We headed over early in the morning to the Jaago Foundation in Dhaka to visit a free school for young children, and we were not disappointed. The visit started with a presentation by a young man, Korvi, who is the founder of the foundation – which is completely youth led and the largest youth movement in Bangladesh boasting 10,000 volunteers from all walks of life.
This is a youth movement so big that politicians are caught eager to be seen sporting one of their iconic yellow t-shirts. One so big that, a few months ago, when Korvi heard that a nearby slum was being dismantled by bulldozers and 3 year old child had been killed, squashed to death like a bug after being left inside, he posted a fb status saying he was heading over to stop this madness. On arriving, 300 young volunteers had already assembled themselves there to stop it. In 5 years it has reached 12,000 children and opened 6 schools. And their services don’t end with education and schooling. Such is the prowess and ingenuity of this young man, that he has helped develop programmes to help parents find employment, created sustainable livelihoods that promote entrepreneurship, collected awards and accolades from all over, helped ease relationships with the police and started a movement that has made some real noise.
And it all started, he told us, in a small room with him teaching just 17 kids from the slum on weekends. “There is nothing permanent except change”. After deciding to take this path and use his western education to teach those worse off, Korvi went all around the districts of Bangladesh to see what was going on. In Sylhet, for example, he recalled how a young girl had asked him “Will you be my father? I have nowhere to live” but at the time, he says, he didn’t have the courage to bring her home with him. And so he described to us how he began very small, with a room, a whiteboard, no furniture and very basic teaching methods. His idea was to give slum children a free Edexcel UK/US standard education, something which even the middle class in Bangladesh couldn’t afford. “But if I could learn this curriculum, why couldn’t they too?” Thus, the focus at Jaago is on teaching English – as it is a tool to advance yourself in the modern world. In the background as he recalls the early days, a classroom full of small kids is in the midst of a lesson, their high pitched voices reciting letters in the alphabet in unison.
Eventually, he goes on to describe how it went up and the class went up to 40 kids. Things were beginning to pick up. But then winter break arrived, and along with it, his first big obstacle. 18 returned after the break, as many had moved on to other cities in Bangladesh to find work – they moved where the work was and when the money ran dry again, it was off to the next place in search of some sustenance. And so, after scraping some money together from an already constrained budget, they decided to buy two sewing machines to give the parents of these children training and employment so they would stick around long enough for the kids to be educated and provide a stable environment for them to grow up in. But nobody came. Change of tactics then, he thought. They decided now to offer 500 taka a month. After some time, they found and convinced 2 ladies. “Most don’t have the chance to indulge the scope of vision to think so far ahead. They live day to day. Taka to taka. So initially it was difficult to convince to invest in this training”. It has now begun a brand called Bachhara, running successfully enough to export it’s good all the way across the world to Australia. This generates more income for the foundation, a social enterprise in itself, allowing consumers in Australia to hear the stories about the clothes the buy through a label attached to each item with a name, photo and story of the child/parent they are investing in.
I’m conscious of post length so I won’t describe everything (there are so many other amazing projects they run, from free healthcare to making and selling candles for those who can’t sew, as well as advocacy and policy) but he went on to describe the vision of Jaago is to open schools in all districts in Bangladesh, finding quality teachers to teach quality education. Where they can’t, they have developed a web software, using WebX to teach, and even have something in place for if there is no internet – the goal is simple, “to spread education everywhere”.
“When I started most people thought I was crazy. A middle class boy teaching slum children? What was wrong with me, they asked. My parents, friends, classmates, relatives. People thought at the time it was just another phase, that young people go through. Where they dream of changing the world and doing all these things. And I admit, at the time it was a phase. But, I stuck with it. I wanted to prove people wrong, I wanted to prove myself. And 5 years on, I’m still in that ‘phase’… Poverty is in the mind, not just the stomach. And I knew that’s where I needed to start. 65% of the population is under 25 and that number is still growing”.
As he ended he told us about a fantastic campaign they ran for International day of the child. The kids who are usually on the streets selling flowers were taken to a theme park for the day to enjoy themselves, and to make sure they didn’t lose their day’s earnings, volunteers who are mostly middle class kids took on their jobs and sold flowers for them. This campaign was so strong, it even pushed the government to start celebrating the day too officially. Such is, the power of young people – we are not just dreamers but doers.
Once the presentation finished, we were given a chance to meet the children and the volunteers and could easily have spent a full day, week, even months there. It really is an inspiring and fascinating place and you can see the simplicity and effectiveness in everything. I was very humbled and inspired to have visited and we were given the most warm welcome ever, as everyone went out of their way to show us around and make sure we had a good time.
After this came a visit to the Parliament of Bangladesh. We were given a tour of the entire building, spanning a massive 12 acres and designed by famous architect Louis Kahn. A few of the MP’s came afterwards and discussed what they were doing with us and asked us what youth participation (theme for our week here) was like in our respective countries and how they could implement better frameworks and policies here in Bangladesh. Finally, our day came to an end with a debate on youth participation in politics, some of the local young people who are involved in the youth parliament here also came and there were some very interesting views and discussions taking place. “participation of youth is vital..it’s a responsibility and duty that comes with being a citizen of your country. It takes years and we need each and everyone to take part – education is key. Enable yourself to be one of the #activecitizens in society, be involved!”
Tomorrow we are going to be split in two to visit two local communities in Bangladesh. The group I am in will be going to Sylhet, which is a short plane journey away and I can’t wait to see what is next, it has been a brilliant and eye opening experience already ful of very inspiring stories and people. (and the hotel doesn’t look too bad either!).