QUETTA: Three days a week, underprivileged children in the province of Balochistan have rare access to books through an unusual source — Roshan, the camel.
“We have named the camel Roshan (or bright light) because he has been lighting (the path of) education for deprived children of Balochistan,” Raheema Jalal, principal of Zubeda Jalal Girls High School (ZJGHS), told Arab News.
The school is named after and owned by Federal Minister for Defense Production, Zubeda Jalal, with her sister, Raheema, at the helm in the town of Mand on the Pakistan-Iran border, nearly 600km from Balochistan’s capital, Quetta.
Raheema says Zubeda initiated a camel mobile library in Mand in August because she wanted children around her remote hometown to continue learning despite schools being closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Jalal sisters roped in the Alif Laila Book Bus Society (ALBBS), a non-profit group tackling educational problems across the country, and the Female Education Trust Balochistan (FETB) to ensure the supply of books for the library never ran dry.
The Jalals still needed a camel for their library, and by word of mouth found local herder Murad Dur Muhammad, 45, “who knows the routes and terrains very well” along with his 12-year-old camel, Roshan.
“We finally launched the program on Oct. 2,” said Raheema, who is also director of FETB.
In the first six weeks, Muhammad and Roshan have taken their library to six villages near Mand, with more than 150 children benefitting from the program.
“Roshan supplies the books on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and covers three villages each week. The library is open for two hours, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Children choose the books they like and return them a week later,” Raheema said.
Roshan carries nearly 50 books at a time. The titles are in Urdu and English and cover topics ranging from general knowledge to Islamic studies.
A majority of the children who borrow books from the camel library are from Grade 1 to 6, but students from secondary classes have visited it as well.
Roshan and Muhammad are often accompanied by Haneefa Abdul Samad, a 30-year-old science and math teacher at ZJGHS, who helps to answer the children’s queries.
When Samad was first called in by Raheema to discuss the initiative in October, she says she didn’t think the program was viable in one of Pakistan’s most impoverished regions.
“Initially, I was uncertain as to how the idea would work in remote villages. But after seeing the reaction of the children toward books, I decided to accompany Roshan to every single village,” said Samad, who is also the project coordinator in Mand.
“As Pakistan grapples with the deadly coronavirus, and educational activities across the country are yet to be fully restored, the camel library has been engaging children to continue their studies and maintain their attachment to books,” she said.
The province of Balochistan has the lowest literacy rate in the country. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, up to 62 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 16 are out of school in rural areas due to limited access to education, health and infrastructure facilities.
The camel library is proving to be a beacon of hope for students in the area, such as Sara Abdul Rauf.
Rauf, a Grade 7 student in the village of Koh-e-Pusht, nearly 5km from Mand, said that she had been eagerly waiting for Roshan to visit — for one particular reason.
“I am fond of reading Barbie tales, but never had a chance to get the books. But when I heard that the camel library was coming to our villages, I was waiting for it and finally found a Barbie book for myself,” the 14-year-old said.
When she’s not catching up on the latest adventures of the American fashion doll, Rauf says she is studying to “become a doctor.”
“Not (just) me, but all the children, especially girls, are very happy with the camel library,” Rauf said, adding a quick request: “Please ensure the supply of books continues.”
“We had planned this program till December. Fortunately, we have received a positive response from the children. After December, we will look for more donors and hire more camels to reach more villages of Kech,” Raheema said.