Children crowd at the window of a classroom at Feeder School in Mesaki Island of Dibrugarh District, Assam, ‘The Boat of hope’ supports community-managed school initiatives to increase children's access to primary education in the remote River Islands.
By Angela Walker
MESAKI ISLAND, India, August 27 2009 – Education Coordinator Juri Gogoi makes her way along a beaten earth path about half a foot wide that twists from the shores of this Chapori or Island on the Brahmaputra River to the school, a 20-minute walk away. The smell of cow manure wafts through the humid air that wraps around you like a wet washcloth.
To reach this isolated community school, Gogoi has hitched a ride on the Akha ship, a name which means ‘Hope’ in Assamese. The boat delivers medical services to the isolated Island communities along the river and now provides educational support through “feeder schools” that have improved access of Island children to schooling.
“They are totally separated from the world,” Gogoi explains. “If (the Islanders) don’t educate their children, then how will they survive in future?”
Gogoi, whose ready smile lights up her face, says that initially she had to visit one house at a time to explain to Island parents why education was important for their sons and daughters. Parents were not interested at first in sending their children to school, but when they realized that students could potentially gain vocational job opportunities on the mainland, they changed their minds.
The Schools are full - Students want to study
“Since last year, girls are coming to school and coming regularly. Now more girls participate than boys,” says Gogoi, dressed in a modern maroon kurta tunic and jeans. "The schools are full of students – they want to study.”
Families pay 30 rupees, or approximately 63 cents, to pay for school costs. About 80 per cent of the fees go to pay teachers’ salaries with the other 20 per cent for school supplies like chalk and paints. The government provides books free of cost to the Island schools.
UNICEF partnered with an NGO, the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES) and the Government to provide technical support for the education initiative realizing it was the best way to reach isolated communities who otherwise would not have access to basic educational services.
Literacy rates in Dibrugarth District, located on the banks of the Brahmaputra River, are on par with the Assam average. Rates for boys are 69 per cent compared to 71 per cent for the state; girls have a rate of 60 per cent in the district compared to 54 per cent for the state.
“Education is a right for every child, and these children are out of reach for primary education,” said Jeroo Master Chief of the UNICEF Assam office. “Using this model, UNICEF is advocating with the Government to reach more children living on the Islands. We’ve used health to piggyback education.”
Village elder Shiv Shankar Yadav says that students who did manage to pursue their education previously had to journey two to three kilometers away to go to school.
“Everybody in the village wanted (a school), and we made it together,” he says. “Everything depends on education – if (our children) study, they will go ahead and progress.”
The school was constructed by community members out of thatch over a bamboo frame. About 120 children, ages six to 14 in white skirts and blue skirts or slacks, sit on burlap sacks in orderly rows on the mud floor in front of their teacher.
With schools in their backyard, access to education is much easier
Thirteen-year-old Renu Kumari Yadav’s favorite subject is Hindi. She likes to study and hopes it will allow her to get a job someday on the mainland. Having a school in her own community makes it much easier for her to attend school regularly. “This is much better,” she explains. “It was very far away so sometimes I didn’t go. I can come here quickly.”
The programme has been so successful that classes 5-7 have been inaugurated this year. Without this service on the Island, most parents could not afford to send their children to higher level education on the mainland, Master says.
On neighboring Chokia Island, the sounds of times tables being recited vibrate through the morning air at the government-run Hindi Upper Primary School. Chandrika Prasad Yadav, class five teacher, says providing higher level classes enables promising students to continue their education.
“For them to go to town is not feasible. To have this facility in the village is a tremendous advantage,” he says. “It’s a stepping stone for children to get higher education. Education will make these children more capable. It will improve the overall quality of life for the whole village.”
Having class five access means that 13-year-old Sanjay Yadav Bihari can continue his schooling. “There are advantages to education, because I can be a doctor, engineer or a politician.”
But unlike many of his peers, he has no plans to leave his Island home for a life on the mainland once he finishes his education. “I’ll stay in the village – I want to help my people,” he says.