Mymensingh is a town with thousands of students. Many come in from the villages or small towns in the area and often they are from poor families, perhaps even the first generation who can read and write. Many of them need financial help to continue their studies. This is why the Brothers of Taizé already 25 years ago, started a small stipend program. What began as a simple gesture of solidarity with poor students slowly and naturally developed into something more elaborate. One could say that the principle guiding this work is: “If you receive for nothing, then you should also give for nothing.”
Everyone who receives a stipend is asked to do something for others. While some become teachers in primary schools, others help coaching children on a daily basis, work with disabled people or do some other kind of service. These students are Muslims, Christians and Hindus, men and women from at least five different ethnic groups. Working together, they learn to know each other and become friends. Each year, they all participate in a Christian prayer service, a Muslim iftar (breaking of the fast during the Ramadan) and the puja (celebration) of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning. These young men and women give a lot of their time to run the schools, they have earned the respect of older and qualified teachers in nearby High Schools. Serving the poor together encourages a sense of being one human family. In the monthly meetings, the teachers are encouraged to develop an inner attitude of justice, peace and love for the poor, and respect for each others’ religion and culture. This is a vital part of development.
“Learning for life” is the kind of learning that is not only concerned with what can be taught from books, but also takes into account what we learn from each other, from people who have little or no academic qualification, from poets and artists and from testing one’s own artistic gifts and developing generosity. In these schools teachers and pupils alike are learners. In “learning for life”, it is important to balance a healthy desire for achievement with respect for the weak and compassion for all. “Learning for life” also means learning to know oneself a little better, by open discussions, analysis and recognition of feelings and fears. “Learning for life” is difficult, but not impossible to combine with the examination-centred style of teaching that dominates in Bangladesh. The teachers learn how to put together a lesson plan, follow a syllabus and run regular classes; how to interact with parents and fellow teachers, keep track of the development of the children in their classes and help them to advance. The children learn all the usual subjects according to the books issued by the government. But they also have cultural classes, learn songs and drama and receive classes in Peace and Conflict Resolution.
The Stipend Program Schools have been running for over twenty years, entirely funded by well-wishers and donors. In this way, the schools remain a sign of what we can do together, without demanding much in return. Year after year we have been able to keep this program going. For the 1600 children in our schools, this means a changed life. The students of the stipend program now run five schools. With five small schools and fifty teachers we cannot do very much, but we try to do what is possible with the means we have.
There is a great need for primary education in the rural areas and the urban slums of Bangladesh. The population is very big and while the government is trying hard to provide schools and teachers, there are still many children who grow up without any formal education at all. It was natural to ask the stipend holders to help giving classes to such children. At first, they were a handful. What began as simple tuition sessions became regular primary schools where the whole staff consists of College students. One brother tells the story of the first school, in Binpara, across the Brahma Putra river:
“We started our first school in 1988 in Binpara, a predominantly Hindu village on the other side of the river. There was much drinking and quarrelling, and some of the men were addicted to gambling. We built a small house (walls of dressed bamboo and a tin roof) in an empty space near the river. The children started to come, with much hesitation. Every morning, the teacher went to the houses to encourage the parents to send their children. They would come one day and the next day they stayed at home. We managed to continue with the first small group until the first year was over. Then the children passed into class two; the battle was won. Slowly the attitudes of the Hindu parents in the area and the nearby Muslims changed. They agreed to come to the school for small meetings where we discussed their problems of drinking, gambling and domestic violence. They started regularly saving money and deposited the money with us for safe keeping. Mothers came to learn embroidery and how repair their children’s’ clothes. Fathers started showing interest in their children and came to the school, until gradually it became the centre of the locality. After a few years, the school had to be moved because the area was threatened by erosion caused by the river. Today, this part of the village has disappeared completely. The new school has over 400 students from a large area around Binpara: a few are Hindu, most are Muslim, with 18 young teachers. Year by year, we have repaired the school after floods, adding houses when needed. The trees we planted have become bigger and the school gradually melts into the environment. The change in mentality is also gradual. All the parents contribute a little to the school now. They understand the importance of learning and they appreciate the vision we share.”