They looked up shyly as I entered the class room. Curious eyes focused on me, as I bend to sit on the jute mat on the floor, careful not to step on all the books in front of us. They were learning about the difference between "ship" and "sheep" – the difference in pronunciation, spelling and meaning.
I stole a look around the classroom – it was a small dingy room with bamboo walls and a thatched roof – but in spite of the surroundings, the children had put in their best efforts to liven things up. Colorful paintings of flowers, fruits, trees and birds were hung up all around – vivid splashes of red, green, fuchsia and sky blue. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a painting of a woman in an orange sari, balancing a pitcher of water on her hips, a plump mango in her hand, a wide grin on her face framed by long flowing black hair.
These must be the images and colors of their dreams, I thought. They were the children of Ananda Schools - Learning Centers known as the Schools of Joy.
Ananda Schools formed under the World Bank assisted Reaching Out-of-School Children (ROSC) Project, gives disadvantaged children a second chance to continue their education. In 60 of the poorest upazilas of Bangladesh, some 500,000 children who had been forced to drop out of formal schooling have now enrolled at these alternative learning centers. These include children from ultra-poor families who can’t afford their education, children who had to drop out of school and start working to support their family and disadvantaged children living in remote poor areas of the country with limited access to education and opportunities. Through the ROSC Project, Ananda Schools provide education stipends to these children and to lessen the burdens on their families, distribute free books, stationeries and school uniforms.
Formed with a small group of around 20 - 30 children, each Ananda School aims to eventually help integrate these children as students into the formal school system. As the name suggests, at Ananda Schools or the Schools of Joy, children are taught Mathematics, English and Bangla in innovative ways. Extra-curriculum activities such as music, dancing, painting and sports are given priority here, and the focus is on having fun while learning. The overall atmosphere at the schools is lively and friendly, but most of all it offers a nurturing space that allows the children to escape from their harsh lives for a few hours and gives them the courage to dream of a better life.
As the day’s English lesson came to an end at the Ananda School we were visiting at Shaghata, Gaibandha, the wide-eyed girl sitting next to me, suddenly leaned in towards me. Blushing, she confided that she will be singing a traditional Bangla song for us, and watched in glee as I juggled bags, water bottles, camera and handy cam to record her performance.
She sang a lilting song of the green fields, of freedom, of living and loving life – and I was amazed at how easily she seemed to be able to transport herself into another whole dimension where life was simpler, easier and free from omnipresent shadow of poverty and deprivation. We walked out of the classroom and away from the Ananda School while the strains of the song “We Shall Overcome ” echoed behind us. The entire class seemed to be singing in unison, 20 or so boys and girls of varying age and from different families, bonded by the determination to rise above the challenges in their lives. The children sang it confidently, once in English and then in Bangla –
We shall Overcome, Some day…Amra Korbo Joy, Ek Din…
And deep in my heart, I do believe them. Ananda Schools have brought hope and courage to many – myself included.
For more information about the US$51 million Reaching Out-of-School Children (ROSC) Project (co-financed by the Government of Bangladesh, the World Bank and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation), please visit the IDA at work ROSC project profile.