Mohammad Likhon looks furious as he sits in class. The nine-year-old had thought that he would be the first one to answer his teacher’s complex math problem; he had even screamed the solution in one breath: “230 x 7 is 1,610, madam!”
It, therefore, seemed unfair that his teacher should be congratulating his friend Abid, who happened to sneak in the right answer a few seconds earlier. Likhon sharpens his pencil grumpily and gears up for the next question.
His friend and classmate Khadijah Khatun sits in a corner in front of the only available desktop to draw the perfect rectangle on Microsoft Paint, in order to create her day’s masterpiece: the Bangladeshi flag.
Eight-year-old Sumaiya Khatun sits next to the window with a confused look on her face. It’s her turn to write a four-line poem on her village. She has already spent close to 30 minutes on it and is struggling. After all, there isn’t anything romantic about living in a region that flirts with natural calamities every time the monsoons arrive.
The scenes above could be straight out of a regular, traditional classroom, but the setting is anything but conventional. These are glimpses from a school boat in Natore in Bangladesh, a city around 200 km from the capital, Dhaka.
Every monsoon, Natore in western Bangladesh is affected by rising water levels. The rain and the floods make it difficult for students in the local villages to attend school. The government-run schools either close down or all the paths leading to them go under water, making it impossible to travel unless one owns a boat.
Forty-year-old Mohammed Rezwan, who grew up in this region, has known the struggles of the residents too well. An architect by profession, Rezwan thought that if the children couldn’t go to the schools, then the schools should come to them.
That idea eventually led to the creation of “floating schools” plying along the Chalan Beel, the largest billabong in Bangladesh’s Natore district. “I remember how difficult it was for my friends to go to school. Back then, my family owned a boat, so I didn’t face any problems, but it wasn’t the same for my friends. Owning a boat then was equivalent to having a car in Dhaka today,” he says.
In 1997, after he graduated from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), the top engineering institute in the country, he decided to address the issue. “I had around Tk 20,000 ($300) in my pocket, a Pentium 1 computer and a strong belief. The idea struck me when I saw how dependent residents in the village were on boats. I thought to myself, if they can set up markets on boats, why couldn’t we set up schools? My family didn’t want me to take such a huge risk, but I saw it differently. It was a good time to enter the NGO world in Bangladesh and I knew that if we worked hard, we would be able to get funding in two years,” says Rezwan.
A lot of attention went into creating the perfect boat that would withstand the vagaries of weather and have adequate space. “We initially tried working with local boats, but that didn’t work out. So I made a design and gave it to the boat makers,” he says. His NGO, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, created its first boat in 2002 and today claims to have built 22 school boats which ply along the Atrai, Gumani and the Baral rivers, teaching around 2,000 students in the Singra Upazila in Natore district, besides some areas in the Pabna district.
The group received its first funding in 2005 — $5,000 from the Global Fund for Children. After the initial donation, they received $100,000 from the Levi Strauss Foundation and one million dollars more from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These helped the organisation expand. Their work has won them several awards, and, according to Rezwan, their module is now being replicated in seven countries, including India, Pakistan and the Philippines, through the United Nations.
The floating schools pick the children up along a fixed route and after a day’s study, drop them back in the evening. Each boat has three shifts and each shift has 30 students. The students are taught for free and are given stationery and study material.
For many of the students in the region, the schools provide a ray of hope in a life that’s governed by natural calamities. Take, for instance, the case of Mohammad Likhon, who studies in Class III. The rains have nearly destroyed the path to his village and the boy has to walk through knee-deep mud to reach the school boat. But that’s better than travelling another 13 km and going to a public school every day.
For Likhon, whose mother works as a housemaid in the city, the time spent on the boat is the happiest hours of the day. “I wake up at around 6 am every day. It takes me two hours to come here. By the time I reach, I have a lot of mud on me. I have to wash myself before I enter class.
“I like that we are studying on a river, surrounded by trees and birds. It feels good. We also get a chance to use the computer. My elder brother goes to a public school and he tells me that the computers there don’t work. I have already learnt to paint on the computer and even type a little bit,” says Likhon, who wants to be a doctor when he grows up.
According to the school’s instructors, the students rarely miss classes and many of them have gone on to join public universities later in life. The students are taught till Class IV, after which they have to join a public school. The presence of a computer and the cartoons shown at the end of every class is another incentive for the children.
“They don’t always have access to electricity in their homes. The boat is powered by solar energy and is probably one of the few spots in the region where there is always access to internet and television. Naturally, they look forward to all these things,” says Baby Khatun Bulbuli, who has been teaching at this school for the last 11 years.
All the teachers in the floating schools come from neighbouring villages and need to clear at least their Class X examinations to apply. They earn a maximum of Tk 3,000 a month.
The children study all the subjects taught from Class I to IV in any other public school of the country. However, the school boats have a special emphasis on environmental studies. Unlike public schools which have a more theoretical approach, the floating schools work on giving students a real-life sense of how vulnerable their habitat is and what they can do to protect it.
The students, for instance, are taught not to eat certain kinds of fish in certain seasons because they are gradually disappearing. “These children are among the worst hit by climate change. Some of them change their homes every three to four years because of the floods and heavy rains.
“Many might think that it’s a bit too early to teach them about the environment and how the climate is changing, but we do that right from Class I. So, instead of just telling them about the different seasons, we talk to them about unseasonal rain and the reason behind it, about why the weather is changing, about animals that have gone extinct, etc” says Bulbuli.
Rezwan has even written a language book, with environment as its focus. “It’s an ordinary book of Bangla alphabets, except that the letters here are used to describe environmental problems besieging us. For instance, ka stands for Kajoli, a native fish that is slowly disappearing. Or ta for Tengra, another native fish that is in danger of disappearing,” says Rezwan.
The reason behind the special focus on climate change is obvious. According to scientists, rising sea levels could engulf 17 per cent of Bangladesh’s land by 2050 and could displace 18 million people. The other fallout has been a high level of internal migration. According to a research conducted by Dhaka University, close to 2,000 people migrate to Dhaka every day and more than 70 per cent of them are compelled to move due to climate change.
Rezwan and his team hope to help acclimatise people to their changing circumstances. Apart from the boat schools, Rezwan also runs training institutes and libraries on boats. “The training institutes are attended by women, most of whose children attend the floating schools. So, on a bright afternoon, you will often see their mothers learning about certain forms of agriculture on the second storey of the boat, while the children study below. We try to teach them techniques of farming that help them grow crops even during the floods — such as spinach in a container. The women share the information with their husbands, and eventually, it spreads from one group to the other,” says Rezwan.
The library boats follow a schedule similar to that of school boats. They dock at each village for at least two hours. People flock to the boats to borrow books, read the newspaper or use the internet. “This is the only library that I have access to. The thing I like the most is that I get to read the newspapers online on time. At home, we get today’s newspaper tomorrow. Also, you get to borrow books for seven days for free,” says Mohammad Khaled, 18.
Fourteen years since he started the first floating school, Rezwan says he feels vindicated by his decision to tread an unfamiliar path. “Earlier in the day, I had asked an eight-year-old girl to write a poem. Even though she found it hard, she eventually completed it and gave it to me. I felt really good. I don’t think I would have had this sense of achievement abroad,” he says.
Naimul Karim is a journalist based in Dhaka. He tweets at @naimonthefield
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