Very recently, the World Bank has elevated Bangladesh to the category of lower-middle income countries. Well and good. Indeed, keeping aside increasing religious fanaticism, the progress in Bangladesh has been quite remarkable in many fronts. Among the much cited success stories are: lower child and maternal mortality compared to other poor nations, women empowerment because of the garments sector and NGO activities and, last but not the least, higher rate of primary and secondary education among children. But if we dig deeper beyond the glossy statistics, the picture that we get is not so rosy.
Last week I visited the government primary school in my ancestral village, Kadamrasulpur. The village is well-connected with Dhaka city as well as Mymensingh and the school in question is a very old one, producing majority of the notable people from the village. The teachers are proud of the quality of their students and informed me that despite such a heavy rain and bad weather for last couple of days, the school is swarming with kids.
However, if you go there, you will need to stretch your imagination to match the reality with the mental picture you might have formed from the description. The front of the school compound has most probably been encroached by the local bullies who built ugly shops there, hiding the school from the main street. Once you are on the school ground, there is an abandoned single-story building on your right, a decrepit tin building in your front and a two-roomed, relatively better-looking brick-building on your left; one of the rooms is used as the office for the teachers. You will keep wondering where exactly the classes are held.
Actually I went to that school to discuss about the possibility of doing a reading and painting projects for the kids. The teachers showed me a number of high-quality children’s books that they have recently received through a donor project. But most of those books were in English and, by default, beyond the reach of the students and even the teachers of primary schools in rural Bangladesh. I wonder who chose those books. Two smiling, young teachers told me that they read the Bangla books to the children, who like it a lot. One of them, teenager-looking, always smiling and according to the other teachers, very passionate Roma Didi, told me how badly she wanted a library for the kids so that they could sit there and read by themselves after school. They once let the children take those books home, but half of the books rented were either lost or destroyed. After all they are kids.
They took me to the bare bone tin-building, which is basically a single room with mud floor where the fifth grade and the first grade students are huddled together facing opposite directions. I learned that the first graders are usually accommodated in a room of the abandoned building. There, they simply sit on the mat because there are only forty benches for the four hundred students of the school. But because it is raining a lot this year, the floor of that decaying building is leaching; so the first graders have temporarily migrated to fifth grade.
As I peeped through a window of the abandoned building, a fetid smell overwhelmed my nostrils and the soggy floor with moldy walls made me very sad. I wondered how the first grade kids sit there even when the floor is not leaching and what exactly they learn. The only good classroom, which the second graders were lucky to have, is in the newer building beside the teachers’ room. Third and fourth grade classes are held during the second shift because of room shortage.
However, it is not all grim. After repeated request for a very long time, finally the authority has sanctioned construction of a new school building, though the teachers don’t know when exactly the work will begin and how the illegally occupied land will be rescued. Roma didi told me very earnestly that she really wishes to have a space for a library when the new building is a reality.
I wished them best of luck and said goodbye. As I stepped out of the school, I asked when the only workable school building was built. 2003, the headmistress answered. I sighed. The building already looks double that its age, thanks to the very honest engineers and contractors who built it and the authority who is supposed to maintain it.