By: Sameer Mandhro
UMERKOT: At a time when thousands of able-bodied students are out of school across Sindh and hundreds of schools are serving as guesthouse for the influential, one physically impaired girl stands out as a beacon of hope, having converted her cattle pen into a school that has become overcrowded with students within a few months.
This young girl, Aansoo Kohli, has become a symbol of pride for her small village in Umerkot. Her school, the Kombho Mal Girls Primary School, imparts education to young boys and girls, even those who are physically and mentally impaired.
What Aansoo lacks in terms of resources, she more than makes up through her strong conviction and equally kind heart. When Neelam, a 25-year-old girl suffering from polio, landed on her doorstep, she not only gifted her a tricycle, but also enrolled her into the school. Neelam now proudly says she can read and write all the English alphabets.
“I intended to go to school but my legs did not support me,” said Neelam. “Madam Aansoo is educating me,” she added, saying that she had joined the school around 15 days ago. “The cycle she gave me has also given me the freedom to roam around the village.”
Armed with a small slate and chalks, Aansoo sits at the head of the three-walled room that acts as school. The students surround her chair; most of them sitting outside under the scorching sun as the small room cannot fit all of them.
These students are mostly from the Kohli community, negating the myth that children in these areas do not wish to get an education. Four of them, Roop Chand, Pehlaj, Neelam and Jamna, are from another village located around three kilometres away from this school. “We all travel to and from the school together,” said Pehlaj. “There is no school near our village and I want to learn with these children.” They do not have enough writing material, slates or even books. Even without these resources, these children have by now started reciting and writing complete sentences in both Sindhi and English.
Though Aansoo has no formal training in teaching special children, she aptly instructs the two mentally-impaired students who have enrolled in her school. “Where there is no school for the able children, where will these children with special needs go?” asked a villager, Dharmoon.
In the absence of such facilities, the students have devised their own mechanism that helps them learn. There are 109 students in morning shift and 120 students in the evening shift.
“The senior students help me to teach the junior ones,” she explained. They help each other memorise the lessons, often dividing themselves into groups to teach themselves. Those who reach late have to sit outside the makeshift room, making room with the cattle. The students share the few books and slates that are available to them. There is no playground and no time allocated for breaks. There is also no water cooler or toilets. “I understand these students need a washroom and proper arrangement for potable water, but I just don’t have the resources,” said Aansoo.
The newly-built school has been set up in Mina Ji Dhani village, located around 27 kilometres from the historical city of Umerkot. The village has existed for the last 100 years but Aansoo’s community, which is considered one of the most marginalised Hindu communities in Pakistan, has no right to claim ownership of the land.
Hardly two kilometres away from Aansoo’s school is a two-room structure marked as a girls’ primary school in Karo Pali. The school was never made functional after its construction around eight years ago. Next to it is a half-built structure for a boys’ primary school that has been under construction for the last four years.
“This village has three buildings for around 50 students,” said a villager, Nabi Bux Pali, who plans to convert the girls’ school into a seminary. “We store chillies and pesticides in this school,” he disclosed. Pali told The Express Tribune that two teachers were appointed in the school, but the students are taught by a villager who is given a small fraction of their salaries.