Bearing gifts: the camels bringing books to Pakistan’s poorest children

The Brampton Guardian

26 Feb 2021

The mobile library services are an education lifeline for students in Balochistan, where schools have closed during the pandemic.

Teacher and volunteer Ismail Yaqoob, distributing books to children in the Gwadar district of Balochistan. Photograph: Faisal Faiz/The Guardian

Sharatoon had wanted to continue her studies, but she had to leave school and her beloved books when she got married aged 15.

Now 27, Sharatoon is happy reading again, as every Friday a camel visits her small town, his saddle panniers full of books.

She has four children, the eldest is 11, the youngest 18 months, and she reads to them all, as well as to other children in the town.

Every week, when Roshan the camel comes to her home in Mand, about 12 miles from the border with Iran, in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Sharatoon exchanges the books she borrowed for new ones.

“When the camel came to our area for the first time, the kids were very happy and excited. Schools have long been closed in our area due to Covid and we do not have any libraries, so this was welcomed by all the kids,” says Sharatoon, who uses only one name.

Camel rider Abdul Qadeer leads Chirag, laden with books, to the town of Abdul Rahim Bazar, in Gwadar. Photograph: Faisal Faiz/The Guardian

Balochistan is Pakistan’s most impoverished province, blighted by a separatist insurgency for the past two decades. With a 24% female literacy rate, one of the lowest in the world, compared with a male literacy rate of 56%, it also has the highest percentage of children out of school in the country.

Roshan visits four villages, staying in each at the home of a “mobiliser” such as Sharatoon, where all the district children aged four to 16 can come to read, borrow and exchange books with one another.

“Parents and kids are excited. It is giving hope to many that they can read, and the staff members also work on mobilisation so more outreach can be done,” says Fazul Bashir, a coordinator for the library.

When Covid closed the schools across Balochistan, two women in Mand – Zubaida Jalal, a federal minister in the Pakistan government, and her sister Rahima Jalal, headteacher of a local high school – came up with the idea of a camel.

“Actually, the idea of using camels comes from Mongolia and Ethiopia,” says Rahima. “It suits our desolate, distant and rough terrains. We have received an enormous response that we were not expecting.”

Children read books brought brought by the camel library in Abdul Rahim Bazar, Balochistan. Photograph: Faisal Faiz/The Guardian

The books are donated by Alif Laila Book Bus Society in Lahore, which operates mobile ricksaw libraries in the city.

The trial of the camel library has gone well and it is about to begin its next three months of rounds.

Sharatoon says: “Kids are eagerly waiting; they want to read books and keep asking me [about it]. There should be more science-related books so our kids can learn by experimentation.”

The Jalal sisters say there has been a lot of interest in the scheme from other areas, and they have just started a library in the city district of Gwadar, Balochistan, with a camel called Chirag.

Anas Syed Mohammad is a 10-year-old 4th-grade student in the town of Abdul Rahim Bazar, about 30 miles from the city of Gwadar.

Since the camel library started visiting three weeks ago, Mohammad has read a different book each time. “I loved reading Khazane Ki Talaash (In Search of Treasure). I discuss these books with my friends,” he says.

Chirag visits five towns each week accompanied by his handler and Ismail Yaqoob, a volunteer and teacher. One day, when Yaqoob went to work in his school instead of the village, he got a call on his mobile from one of the children.

Teacher Ismail Yaqoob (left) and Chirag the camel, with children in Gwadar district. Photograph: Faisal Faiz/The Guardian

“He asked me why I had not come along with the camel. They were waiting for books,” says Yaqoob. “Children are so interested in reading and in their studies, but sadly the state does not invest in education.”

Jawad Ali, 10, who has ambitions to be a teacher, has also started borrowing books from the camel library. He says: “I am learning new things from these books and reading stories, understanding photo stories. But I want to read more books. The books are written in my native language – Balochi – but in English and Urdu as well. We want more books – and libraries and schools, too.”

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One thought on “Bearing gifts: the camels bringing books to Pakistan’s poorest children

  1. This article exemplifies the simple fact that a lot of what we, as inhabitants of developed countries, take for granted are what people in many developing countries can only wish and pray for. This article brings up one of these things, which is the lack of access to reading materials, libraries, and schools in Balochistan, Pakistan. Although it is not entirely surprising to learn that poverty-stricken people like those of the Pakistani province of Balochistan are deprived of even the most basic learning materials and resources, I had to pause about midway through and ask myself two questions. Questions like “As students, do we know that we are so fortunate to be living in Canada with such a great education system, or have we taken the Canadian education system for granted?” and “Do we feel as happy and excited about visiting the school or a public library and reading and/or borrowing books from it as these Pakistani kids do?”. If I were to answer the first question, I would say yes to the first part of it, but I do have to admit that it is a yes to the second part of this question as well. Put another way, I, as well as many others I know, understand that we have a great education system with adequate materials and resources to support everyone; however, many of us fail to understand that this is merely a dream for millions of people worldwide even though everyone is said to have the right to education. As for the second question, my answer is “not really” for a similar reason. We have access to books, magazines, newspapers, comics, and more, either as hard copies or electronically, or both; as a result, we fail to appreciate their true value as well as how much they mean to people in many other countries in the world, especially those that do not invest in education. It is also important to note that there are so many things that are not education-related that we take for granted. A good example is food and the prevalence of food waste in developed countries nowadays. Every time I see big portions of food being thrown away by people and lying on the ground, such as a big box of pizza that was barely touched, I get very upset because I think of food waste as both a lack of appreciation for the efforts of the person or people involved in growing/maintaining/preparing the food and a lack of understanding that the wasted food could mean a lot to a starving child on the other side of the world. In summary, I believe that it is important for people in developed countries to be able to put themselves in the shoes of those who may be less fortunate than us so that they would not take so many things for granted.

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