Educated mothers can lead to an educated nation, as Napoleon said two centuries ago. Abu Zafar seems to have taken that belief to heart and has opened a school for slum children and for mothers too.
He opened Alor Pothe Bidyaniketan with funds from his father's pension, Zafar leased a plot of land and established the school there, at Chotobangram of Rajshahi city.
Some 400 students and 50 mothers study in the school free of cost.
The school has four rooms and runs in three shifts. Playgroup runs from 8 am to 9:30 am. KG-I, Class-I and Class-II continue up till 11 am and Class-III, IV and V continue till 1 pm.
Zafar also provides lessons in the afternoon and classes are held under mango trees at the Barorasta intersection of the city. Children and mothers from 15 surrounding slums attend the lessons. They are taught the alphabet there and then attend school.
A day in school
Alor Pothe Bidyaniketan is housed in a tin-roofed building and the classrooms are small. It can be a bit too hot in the classrooms at times.
While the correspondent visited the school, Nusrat and her mother Rahina Begum were taking an an exam. Rahina Begum smiled, saying she was also trying to get educated along with her daughter. “It is good if I can read and write a bit too,” Rahina added.
Another mother, Pushpo Das, studies in Class-III and her daughter studies in Class-I.
Pushpo Das said, “I myself knew nothing. I could not even teach my child the alphabet. I have now learnt all this by attending school. The teachers are very cordial and teach us in a friendly manner.”
There are some important messages on the walls of the school -- ‘stop child marriage’, ‘prevent premature death’, ‘plant more saplings, save environment’ and ‘wash your hands correctly’.
Zafar’s house is in Professorpara of Chotobangram in Rajshahi city. There was a big slum near his house. Children of the slum would get up to all sort of mischief throughout the day and did not study. Zafar wanted to educate them for a better future. That was about 16 years ago, but nobody responded to his plan. The children did not listen to him.
Zafar gradually befriended the children with chocolates and goodies. He could persuade around 40-50 children. He arranged study materials for them. He bought old exercise books from scrap vendors, tore out the unused pages and made fresh exercise books for them. With the support of his friends, he bought pens too.
On a particular day in 2015, Tk 50,000 of his father’s pension arrived. Before dying,
Zafar’s father had told him, "Serve the people as much as you can." He reminded his mother of these words and Rahela Begum handed over the entire money to her son.
Zafar started looking for a piece of land. Nobody was interested to provide land for him to establish the school for slum children. Land owners had thought the children would spoil the neighbourhood.
Finally a man named Sadu agreed to provide five decimals of land for Tk 20,000 on a year’s lease.
Many called Zafar ‘mad’. However, a teacher of Rajshahi Mahila College, Sarwar Jahan, gave him ten benches and also had a latrine built. A certain Mohsin Ali and Noor-e-Islam helped in making the floor of the school. Inexpensive tin was used to build the school building. Thus Alor Pother Bidyaniketan began.
Zafar has to pay Tk 20,000 for the land a year and also the teachers’ salaries. He has electronic goods store which he runs with his brother. He meets the expenses of his school with income from his shop.
Zafar is 40. He is married and has a son and daughter. His wife Kaniz Fatema initially opposed her husband’s initiative, but is now all right about it.
“It is a good deed and I now cooperate with my husband,” Kaniz Fatema said.
Zafar’s father Mohsin-ul-Bari was a deputy general manager of Rajshahi Krishi Unnayan Bank.
Zafar has a post graduate degree in social science from Rajshahi College. He did not take up a conventional good job because he was more passionate about his mission to educate the children.
Noor-e-Islam is a senior deputy director at Physical Education Department of Rajshahi University. He said Zafar does the work out of passion. “I appreciate his work and extend my support as much as possible,” he said.
Noor-e-Islam said Zafar will be able to take the under-privileged children forward if the educated people of the community lent their support.
Sabbir Hossain, Sharifa Khatun, Rabeya Khatun, Munni Islam and Md Siddque teach in this school.
Sabbir Hossain said he has been teaching under privileged children in this school since the beginning. “We get minimum wages but are satisfied that these children will be good citizens in the future,” Sabbir said.
The school is located at Ward No 19 of Rajshahi City Corporation. Councillor of this ward Towhidul Haque said he has visited the school and that it impressed him.
The councillor said Zafar is working selflessly, simply to enlighten the local people.
Towhidul said the children have to use a muddy road to go to school. He said he was taking steps to build a road.
Abu Zafar had taken up a job in Dhaka, but quit. He said, “I enjoy teaching students so I left the job.”
*This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.