Is it possible that something as simple as an English nursery rhyme can accomplish more than the world’s strongest leaders to break the shackles of Third World poverty and illiteracy? Canadians Gem Munro and his wife, Dr. Tanyss Munro, thought so and their non-profit organization, Amarok Society, is proving it, one impoverished slum at a time.
Motivated by the belief that education opens the window to opportunities, the Munros first established literacy projects in the poorest regions of Canada, then expanded their sights abroad to Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Munro recently visited the SCV Rotary Club to describe the Amarok Society’s outreach program in the urban slums of Bangladesh, an area that he described as the “poorest of the poor,” and “the worst of the worst.”
The overcrowded, impoverished area provided three unique challenges: how to build a school where there is no suitable land available, where to find teachers, and how to raise enough money to hire those teachers. The Munros’ solution was to turn to the most valuable resource that the slums have plenty of – mothers.
Amarok’s Mothers of Intention program recognizes that mothers are already central to their families, and by educating them, and teaching them how to teach their children, they provide the first steps towards enlightened thought, and give some sense to the chaos that accompanies poverty and ignorance. The process begins with daily, two-hour training sessions led by Amarok teachers recruited from nearby areas. The classes use songs, drama, and games to engage the Bangladesh mothers, empowering them to pass the same techniques on to their neighborhood children.
Besides teaching arithmetic, social studies, and reading in their own language, the program adds the bonus of teaching English, a language considered only fit for the privileged in Bangladesh society. That’s where the English nursery rhyme comes in to play. Munro clicked on a video, which showed a mother leading a group of neighborhood children in the song “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Limited sunlight streamed into the darkened shanty, illuminating the faces of the children as they worked on the song’s phrasing, striving to perfect the pronunciation of words that were once foreign gibberish to them.
The patience of the mother/teacher was rewarded by the smiles of accomplishment on the children’s faces as they mastered the word “above” in the rhyme. This then, is Amarok’s mission, to educate a mother to teach at least five children everything she has learned. And, according to Munro, the side benefits of the schooling include an awakening of socialization as well as optimism and hope in those whose existence has heretofore been living hand to mouth, scraping out meager livings collecting and selling trash.
The women, themselves, are elevated within the household, encouraging the education of young girls and a path towards gender equality. Munro also feels that education has exhibited a potential for moderating extremist behaviors in children.
While the benefits of the literacy program have proven rewarding, they are not without risk. Though Bangladesh is one of the more moderate Muslim countries, the patriarchal system is still the backbone of the culture and many husbands are resistant to the changes occurring in the neighborhoods. Beatings are known to occur and the Munros, themselves, must have bodyguards accompany them as they travel to and from the region. Both Gem and Tanyss have accepted the risks as part of their mission, however they did wonder, at first, if the mothers would be able to persevere.
Their concerns have been answered as neighborhood classes continue to thrive. Munro says there are even growing numbers of men in the slums who sit outside the small hovels, listening and eager to learn the lessons being taught inside. Gem believes the eventual effect will be an awakening to a world outside their own and an escape from the violence that ignorance and isolation tends to breed.
He also believes the programs the society has established in Bangladesh and Pakistan can serve as models for the over 70,000,000 children in the world who are too poor to go to school.
“There will never be enough money to build and staff schools for these children,” he said. “We must find the volunteers and the donors to take the Amarok program to them.”
He ended his presentation with this quote: “If we really mean to create peace in the world, we must stop rattling sabres and start ringing school bells.”
To learn more about the Amarok Society, one may visit the website: amaroksociety.org