Story By : Essar Batool, Consultant, Kashmir
Fayaz is a young, energetic boy in his early twenties, 23 years to be precise; skinny and yet active as he leads us to the Functional Literacy Center in Nowgam, Sumbal. There is no trace, no evidence that would allow a random stranger to guess that the lean boy walking expertly through the muddy compound, leading us and a few older men into a house, is a teacher and not a student. Fayaz teaches at the FLC in Nowgam and some of his students sit in front of him, demure and happy at the same time. I remember Fayaz, even younger and a nervous soul, two years before as I interviewed him for filling up the post of the FLC teacher. At that time he said he could manage the weavers, all adults, his father’s age. The interpretation of that statement is about to be revealed as we enter the center, decorated with charts screaming out the numbers, alphabets, in Urdu and English. The students all in their 30s, 40s, and 50s come and take a seat near the wall looking with an endearing reverence at the boy who has taught them to read and write. And they begin sharing their experiences.
‘We are happy to be studying with Fayaz saeb. He scolds us when we don’t do our homework’, chuckles Mohammed Altaf, a weaver in his 30s. Fayaz is jubilant, and there are no traces of the nervousness I had seen two years before. He thinks he has achieved a lot. The weavers were completely illiterate, and the FLCs have come to them as an opportunity to complete what they couldn’t when they were children. The functional literacy centers were started to eliminate the vulnerability that the weavers feel given their inability to read or write. The teachers are all young men from the same village, who like Fayaz are students pursuing higher education or have completed their education. It is a unique role reversal, where the elders who have taught everything to the youngsters, including the art of living, are now students, learning from these youngsters the art of reading and writing. The FLC in Nowgam has 22 students registered within age group 18 to 45 years; some of these are young girls who help with carpet weaving in families and haven’t attended school. After overcoming the initial challenge of motivating the weavers to come to the center, the journey has been relatively smooth.
The weavers registered in the center as ‘illiterates’ and today the word can no longer be attached to them. They attend the center every evening after the prayers and shed their outer skin of elderly, worldly people to become little kids, grappling with alphabets. Fayaz is vocal about how when the weavers started learning, they had no idea or recognition of the numbers or alphabets. Fayaz admits to getting a little impatient with his students, who took more time than children to understand the basics of numbers and language and yet he didn’t give up. ‘The weavers, when they came here first, were eager to read. They said they wanted to be able to read a newspaper and not just stare at the images. It was something that I took up as a mission’, says Fayaz looking quite subdued. Today after months of labour and toil the 10 out of the 22 weavers are able to read an Urdu newspaper quite well. Fayaz looks proud of this achievement; it is a mission he and the weavers have accomplished together.
The weavers are overly enthusiastic about their classes, driven by a thirst to learn and a religious obligation to obtain knowledge. An even more encouraging trend and a heart-warming ‘ritual’ can be seen in the weavers arriving 15 minutes earlier than the FLC teacher to practice what they have previously learnt. Fayaz is all smiles as he tells us how he has now handed over the board and the marker pens to the weavers as they always outdo him in reaching the FLC. ‘They just keep writing and practicing among themselves. I can’t stop them. The energy is infectious’. The weavers recently appeared in an exam that tested their learning, reading and writing skills imbibed so far. The exam was a national level exam and Fayaz narrates how excited the weavers were to appear in the exam. He is proud of the fact that most of them did very well in the exam.
For the weavers their lives have changed because of the new experience they are gaining. Mohammed Altaf, a young weaver in his 30s says, ’My children go to the local anganwadi center and are learning alphabets currently. Right now I consider myself like them, a child with no knowledge. I hope to learn enough here so that I can teach my children as well.’ For the weavers being able to sign instead of using their thumb impression is an elevation of their status. It is the removal of vulnerability and shame associated with being illiterate. Literacy has made them powerful and aware of the fact that they can in fact bring about a change.
For Fayaz, being an FLC teacher has not been just an employment opportunity but also a way to fulfill his moral and social responsibilities. He has come a long way from struggling with the idea of teaching elderly men and women to actually being a proud teacher. The experience has made him more confident, and has increased his self respect.
Fayaz shares about his experience as a teacher in the FLC, ‘I feel respected and confident of doing anything now. Honestly even I was skeptic about the success of the center but now I can proudly say that I can take up any challenge that I come across in my life. I feel happy of being capable of changing someone’s life and also of the fact that even in this age and with such a tight schedule, my students have achieved so much. This is bliss.’
In year 2012, understanding the need to respond to most pressing issues of artisans, IGSSS started a workplace project for carpet weavers. The programme works with community of 500 Carpet Weavers, to improve their workplace living conditions and contribute to the overall development of carpet industry.