At 16 years old, Babar Ali must be the youngest headmaster in the world. He’s a teenager who is in charge of teaching hundreds of students in his family’s backyard, where he runs classes for poor children from his village. The story of this young man from Murshidabad in West Bengal is a remarkable tale of the desire to learn amid the direst poverty.
Babar Ali’s day starts early. He wakes, pitches in with the household chores, then jumps on an auto-rickshaw which takes him part of the 10km (six mile) ride to the Raj Govinda school. The last couple of kilometres he has to walk. The school is the best in this part of West Bengal. There are hundreds of students, boys and girls. The classrooms are neat, if bare. But there are desks, chairs, a blackboard, and the teachers are all dedicated and well-qualified. As the class 12 roll-call is taken, Babar Ali is seated in the middle in the front row. He’s a tall, slim, gangly teenager, studious and smart in his blue and white uniform. He takes his notes carefully. He is the model student.Chumki Hajra is one who has never been to school. She is 14 years old and lives in a tiny shack with her grandmother. Their home is simple A-frame supporting a thatched roof next to the rice paddies and coconut palms at the edge of the village. Inside the hut there is just room for a bed and a few possessions.
Every morning, instead of going to school, she scrubs the dishes and cleans the homes of her neighbours. She’s done this ever since she was five. For her work she earns just 200 rupees a month ($5, £3). It’s not much, but it’s money her family desperately needs. And it means that she has to work as a servant everyday in the village.
But Chumki is now getting an education, thanks to Babar Ali. The 16-year-old has made it his mission to help Chumki and hundreds of other poor children in his village. The minute his lessons are over at Raj Govinda school, Babar Ali doesn’t stop to play, he heads off to share what he’s learnt with other children from his village. At four o’clock every afternoon after Babar Ali gets back to his family home a bell summons children to his house. They flood through the gate into the yard behind his house, where Babar Ali now acts as headmaster of his own, unofficial school. Lined up in his back yard the children sing the national anthem. Standing on a podium, Babar Ali lectures them about discipline, then study begins.Babar Ali gives lessons just the way he has heard them from his teachers.
Babar Ali was just nine when he began teaching a few friends as a game. They were all eager to know what he learnt in school every morning and he liked playing at being their teacher.
Now his afternoon school has 800 students, all from poor families, all taught for free. Most of the girls come here after working, like Chumki, as domestic helps in the village, and the boys after they have finished their day’s work labouring in the fields. “In the beginning I was just play-acting, teaching my friends,” Babar Ali says, “but then I realised these children will never learn to read and write if they don’t have proper lessons. It’s my duty to educate them, to help our country build a better future.” Including Babar Ali there are now 10 teachers at the school, all, like him are students at school or college, who give their time voluntarily. Babar Ali doesn’t charge for anything, even books and food are given free, funded by donations. It means even the poorest can come here.
The school has been recognised by the local authorities, it has helped increase literacy rates in the area, and Babar Ali has won awards for his work.
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Image Source: SheWatchedTheSky