Just before the midday Zuhr prayers, tiny figures in sky blue uniforms skitter out of the mosque. They jump and hop their way down its steep rock steps, giggling past a man rinsing himself up to the elbows. School’s finished for the day and the Azan is around the corner.
These are the students of a one-of-its-kind kindergarten mosque in Basi and Rahimabad, which are such a remote part of Shangla that it takes you a day to walk there from the nearest town, Alpuri. “Nobody goes to the mosque after Fajr prayers till Zuhr and so we specified this time for our children to study in it,” explains Fazal Dad, an elder of the area. There was no primary school in the area and they had no place to even build one, so they asked the mosque to help.
This was a bit of a radical solution. Madrassas and primary schools have traditionally sat at opposite ends of a debate in Pakistan. And indeed, initially some people were against using a mosque as a school. The sticking point was simple: some residents of the community were of the opinion that you cannot give a western education in a mosque to male and female students.
In this part of the hardscrabble Hindu Kush mountains most people are too busy trying to get their next meal to worry about the literacy rate of the next generation. Of course, Rahimabad and Basi had no primary school but some of its people had repeatedly asked the government for a teacher. No one wanted to take such a difficult posting. The only education you would get would be at a maktab or madrassa but the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government had ordered them all to close. The recently transferred Shangla district education officer of Shangla, Muhammad Amin, says, however, that the school which is run by Rahimabad and Basi doesn’t fall in that definition. “They are running it by themselves,” he explains.
Times have been changing, and some of the people of Shangla had seen the outside world when they were displaced during the recent conflict. Fazal Dad says he and his neighbours were inspired by a school they saw in Mansehra when they had to live there as IDPs after fleeing the fighting. When they returned to Shangla in 2011 they decided the children needed something like it.
Luckily, primary teacher Muhammad Zeeshan volunteered. He came here to teach five years ago. Before this the clerics were the only ones teaching the students inside the mosque where the school was set up. He not only started teaching the 30 boys who came to the mosque but also asked the parents to send their girls to school. Today he has 70 students of which 40 are girls. This is no mean feat in Shangla where the female literacy in general is 3% and probably the lowest in the region. When many of the initially reluctant families saw the progress of the students themselves, they enrolled their own children later on.
One of the active members of the community who encouraged people to send their children to school is Nisar Ahmad of Rahimabad. He was quick to clarify that it was just a primary education they were receiving from kindergarten to class 2. The teacher just gives them basic English, Math, Urdu and Science for three years and then passes them on to the Government Primary School in Alpuri which is 8km away in the mountains and offers them fourth and fifth grade study. The children are then old enough to walk the distance to go to school. “It’s a blessing that these children are getting an education near their homes,” he said. “No one allows their girl in this area to walk 8km in the wild to reach Alpuri and study there. Their parents think it is better to have them stay at home.”
That said, there are children within a 4km radius who walk to the madrassa school every day. He feels that demand merits that the government set up a primary school in the area. “If we want to move ahead we have to educate this young generation.”