Tuesday, February 6, 2007

A Man on a Mission; Helping the Forgotten Children

Last month, Mamoon Akhtar won an award for integrating children of different beliefs in a harmonious way, and helping to improve their lives through education (there are many problems caused by religious differences in India). At first, he refused to accept the award because, he says, he doesn't believe in them.
"Awards grow dusty and the sound of clapping fades. The true award is, from the lap of the mother till the death bed, how much time a person has spent serving humanity." He did go to receive it, however, once he learned that it included an opportunity to speak with a large number of youth.

Frankly, when I first read about Mamoon on the Internet, I thought he sounded too good to be true. Then after emailing with him for a while I was intrigued enough to empty out my bank account for a plane ticket and haul my butt to India to meet him. Now I'm here for two weeks to learn all I can about his work, and I can tell you that after just one day I am humbled by what this man is doing, not to mention exhausted just attempting to follow him around.

The Making of a Great Leader

When Mamoon Akhar was 12 years old he got polio and lost most of the use of his left hand. At 13 he was kicked out of school. It wasn't his fault. His father had been pushed out of his job, so he couldn't pay for school exams. A year later his father died. Mamoon went to work to support his mother and family, first in a shoe factory then an iron factory. But he never gave up on education. In his spare time he took courses and managed to finish up to grade 12. Finally, he found a job as a librarian in a local school. It seemed like he had come full circle. But this was only the beginning.

One day, a boy came running into his house in the slum of Tikiapara (a few kilometres from Kolkata), where he was sitting around with some friends. The boy said a man was beating his mother, and pleaded with them to help. When they went they discovered that his mother was being beaten by a notorious druglord, a common problem in the area where druglords force women and children into the illegal trade. The druglord told the men, "Mind your own business," but they didn't listen. Instead, they called the police. A fight ensued where Mamoon was badly injured after being thrown down on the ground. After the druglord left, the woman said she didn't want to sell drugs, she wanted to keep her dignity. The boy said he wanted to learn how to read.

Mamoon decided to teach him, but when the boy came to his house he brought along five other boys. His friends and sister Jahanara helped teach the children until there were so many they needed a better location. So, in 2001, Mamoon turned a small piece of property (600 square feet) inherited from his father into a one-room school. It was located only steps from his home. As more children streamed in through its doors, two more floors were added. At this point, he says, he knew he had been given an important job in life: to help save the women and children from the clutches of the drug mafia in Tikiapara, and give them a real future.

He now has over 400 children and three schools (two in similarly tiny buildings donated by a local charity). He convinced local college girls to teach the children for free, though he covers some of their basic expenses. The children also pay a small fee to attend (5 rps per month), so it fosters a feeling of value. Mamoon donates half of his own small salary toward the administration (the other half goes toward supporting his wife, child, mother and the neighbourhood elderly women who have been ignored or abandoned by their children).

Every single classroom in each of these three schools is used in shifts for optimal use. In one classroom, kindergarten children are followed by computer literacy classes for girls (with donated computers), then classes for recent school dropouts, then coaching to children going to school who need help. When I visited the school last night, the final class, coaching for current students, was conducted by candlelight since power had gone out in the district (a regular problem). While the atmosphere inside the classroom was warm and collegial, outside in the alleys it was dark and menacing, a dangerous place to grow up and live, where children are often taught to hand out drugs to clients in small packets.

At another school I visited, a vocational school, I watched young women and widows who had been forced to work as housemaids or for the drug mafia, learning intricate embroidery, dressmaking, fabric painting and cosmetology. Eventually they will be able to work from home, where they can spend more time taking care of their children. This new independence will also help to keep them out of the drug trade.

Not only does Mamoon help the children, but he adopts their whole families. He believes it's the only way to educate the child and create a stronger community. He holds monthly meetings for mothers to talk about the importance of children being on time and clean when they come to class, and on supporting their efforts. He helps them with any problems they face, whether it be with electricity or druglords. He also teaches people self-reliance. Once when a woman kept coming to him asking for help whenever her husband beat her, he said: "You also have two hands. Why don't you use them?" Every time she would just put her hands together and beg for her husband to stop. So the next time her husband beat her she fought back, and that solved the problem.

He also helps the elderly. While I was with him, he gave one toothless woman a few rupees and a bear hug, and she cried with gratitude. He said there are a few elderly people in the neighbourhood he supports out of his own librarian's salary.

His schedule begins at 6 am and ends at 1 am, closing with hours of paperwork and solving school-related and community problems. He looks exhausted, with a ragged cough that he ignores. His wife tells him he works too much, he says, then defends himself with a quote from the famous Indian sage, Baba Amte, "My work is my life, my life is my work."

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