By Rumana Husain
On April 29 and 30, the large grounds and building of the Public School in Sukkur, Sindh, were bustling with the laughter of thousands of children. They came from various schools from within Sukkur, and also from Rohri, Khairpur, Pannu Aqil, Gambat, Shikarpur and the villages near and far, to participate in a unique two-day experience. This was the first time a festival for children was held on the banks of the River Indus in Sindh, and that too a literature festival!
The CLF was holding its twenty-fourth celebration in a period of just five years in the historical city of Sukkur. Spearheaded and steered by its founder, Dr Baela Raza Jamil of Idara-e-Talim-o-Aagahi (ITA), who is an education activist and former technical advisor to the Federal Ministry of Education, and co-founder Ameena Saiyid, Managing Director Oxford University Press (OUP), CLFs have been held several times in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, twice in Bahawalpur, and also in Swat, Quetta, Peshawar, Multan and other places.
The CLF in Sukkur was a landmark event, as this was the first time it had the support of the Education & Literacy Department, Government of Sindh as a key sponsor, along with the Sindh Reading Program (SRP) and Dubai Cares. The Public School, managed by IBA Sukkur offered its building, its grounds and its support.
As an author-illustrator, and honorary member on the Board of the Children’s Literature Festival (CLF), I take children and children’s literature quite seriously. It is my professional raison d’être. Not only me, but all of us associated with this movement love children. Similar to Philip Pullman, the award-winning British writer, we also believe in the power of the arts. Pullman has rightly said that “children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play”, and that “we must understand that every child has a right to the experience of culture. We must fully understand that without stories and poems and pictures and music, children will starve.”
Everyone h as imagination, but children’s imagination is more vivid. Literature and art take it a step further. At the festival, the entrance area was decorated with hundreds of colourful (origami) paper doves and cranes that artist Salma Habib of Karachi had made, and the poster designed by Sukkur-based artist Haroon Channa (coloured by Karachi-based artist Akbar Zia) set the mood for this CLF: big and small copies of the poster showing the River Indus and the various iconic heritage sites of the city were displayed everywhere.
The famous Sindhi language poet Adal Soomro, who works in the Sindhi Literature Department of the Shah Abdul Latif University in Khairpur coordinated with a wonderful galaxy of Sindhi writers and poets from interior Sindh. The inaugural session was joyful, laced with Sindhi music, dances, a theatre performance, and interspersed with a few speeches. Later, Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah, Leader of the Opposition who was visiting his hometown, also made an appearance and addressed the audience.
A Sindhi Mushaira was held by Bekhud Baloch, Ghulam Mohammad Ghazi, Azad Bukhari and others who recited poetry for children. Storytelling sessions were held by me and a few others from Karachi, including author Amra Alam, journalist Khursheed Hyder and musician Natasha Humera, and local writers. Recitation of children’s poetryand messages for children by famous Sufi poets of Sindh were taken up by Dr Ismail Mako, Mukhtiar Malik, Naseer Mirza, Mir Sobdar Saeed, Akhtar Dargahi and Azad Bukhari. CLF, in collaboration with the OUP has published its own books, and these were launched. The latest issue of the CLF bi-monthly magazine, Uran Tashtree / The Flying Saucer was also distributed.
OUP’s Batool Nasir demonstrated the Art of Book Making and worked with hundreds of children who created their own books. Salma Habib trained the children in the Art of Origami, whereas artist Zheela Ali Khan facilitated chalk paintings on the floor.
Panel discussions were held on the subject of Heritage. It was a bit disheartening to note that the children (as well as most teachers) had a complete disconnect with the richness that abounds in the land all around them. It was therefore vital to emphasize the need to read, observe, ask questions, find answers as well as opportunities for traveling around the district to visit a myriad heritage sites.
Discussions were also held on the need for a Curriculum of Peace (rather than hate) and on Non-formal Education. Dr Fauzia Khan, Head of Curriculum, Education & Literacy Department, Government of Sindh, Dr Christopher Ashford of the Sindh Reading Program, Dr Baela Raza Jamil and other academicians, scholars, authors and textbook writers formed the panels.
After a discussion with the children on the importance of education for girls, a screening of the world-famous documentary film on Malala Yousafzai was also held. Once again, it was depressing to note that an overwhelming number of the children were clueless as to who she is. This brings us to what the CLF founder says about the urgent need to crowd-source funding to keep the CLF going round the year, across Pakistan, and in at least 1,000 schools annually. These schools in turn could host ten schools each to show how the CLF works at local levels and inside the classrooms.
The low learning standard in most schools across the country necessitates such out-of-the-box solutions for new beginnings. This social movement for children must reach all rural and urban, public and private, rich and poor schools, as it enables children to come in contact with authors, poets, artists, musicians and actors, to learn in a multi-sensory, multi-disciplinary environment, and in unconventional ways. At the same time,they all have a lot of fun too!