Life may be difficult for many adults in Pakistan, but it is even more difficult for the children. The school kids in Naran worry about more than just homework when they leave the classroom.
More than half of the students walk 2-4 kilometers (1½ -2½ miles) to and from school each day. They travel along rocky paths, and some must cross violent rivers on wood or log bridges.
Several families that live across the river have sent their children to stay with grandparents who live closer to the school. Once home, students must finish their homework before dark, as very few have electricity.
Dust and dirt are pervasive. Their homes are dusty, the paths are dusty, the school yard is dusty, and many of the students arrive at school with their clothes, hands, and faces covered in dirt. In Naran, there is almost no hygiene. Most children seldom bathe, since a bath requires them to carry water from the river. Scrapes and injuries are not treated, so teachers at the school – in addition to teaching – will look for injuries and check the children’s ears and noses, which are often running with pus. Houses in Naran are usually one room, so kids are constantly sent outside to play in the dirt. It is not uncommon to see children in northern Pakistan playing games in the fields and alleys.
“I had a mom come in to ask if her son could be put in a higher grade,” Mary Davis says. “I took the opportunity to talk about hygiene and wash his hands in front of her, watching the brown dirt roll off his hands. Of course, he had been playing in the dirt as usual on the way to school!”
Abuse is also pervasive. Children playing out in the school yard will be physically cruel to other children, because adults are physically cruel to them.
“Many of the adults beat the children,” Dave Davis says, “and they tend to beat on the girls more than they beat on the boys.”
It is common practice in Pakistani schools for teachers to yell at the students and hit them with sticks. Salamat-e-Hazara (S.e.H.) wants the Naran school not only to teach differently, but to treat the students differently. Teachers speak kindly, do not use sticks, and will sing fun songs with the children.
Mary Davis says, “When I first started working with the kids and had to talk to a student privately, if I wiggled my hands in any way, the student would flinch like they thought I was going to hit them. I would say to them, ‘I will never hit you!’”
Salamat-e-Hazara also takes care to interact appropriately with female students and female teachers. Women in Pakistan have many restrictions placed upon them, and it is not much different for girls. It is culturally inappropriate for a Muslim woman in Pakistan to look a man in the face, to speak with a man who is not a relative, or to travel alone. A woman who does not cover her head is considered to be immoral. When she leaves the house, a woman carries the reputation of her family, and if she covers herself and acts modestly, others will believe the family to be respectable.
Christian women working with S.e.H. in Naran willingly dress modestly in order to not offend local culture, but one Christian teacher has seen many of her female Muslim friends struggle with the restrictions placed upon them.
“They really don’t like the way they are controlled, but they can’t help it,” she says. “They want to get themselves out of this culture, but they cannot. Once they cannot do that, they just start assuming that they like it. I know many girls who were very bold and confident, but they have changed to a level where they just say, ‘Oh, God has really changed me and now I’ve started wearing the head guard and the face cover,’ because they know they can’t change it.”
In the poorer, more conservative rural areas of Pakistan, women are not regarded well. Their work is hard, they are treated harshly, and they have few freedoms. A good education and a loving atmosphere are rarely available.
In Naran, S.e.H. strives to make the new school a safe place for female students.
Dave Davis says, “For the girls coming to our school – to an environment where they’re shown respect, they’re shown love, they’re shown concern and care – this is a whole new ballgame.”
Already, Mary Davis can see a difference in the children. Where before she saw sadness, now she sees their eyes sparkle. She hears excitement when they sing.
“I hear their joy and it sets my heart on fire,” she says. “I pray, Lord, help to keep it going. Don’t let it stop.”
-Written by Megan Darreth
-Photography by Jimi Allen
[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, September 2008]Download This Issue of TEAMHorizons