On the last weekend of February, Dawood Public School located in Bahadurabad, Karachi, does not resemble an ordinary educational institute; Instead, it looks more like a playground. On the building’s exterior is a banner bearing the words “Children Literature Festival” and more than 10,000 children have gathered on campus. As they yawn and stretch, scratch their heads and fidget, someone instructs them authoritatively, “Form a straight line, kids.” Inside, a big red tent has been put up and the space has been partitioned into several stalls. Multicoloured paper flags are strung across inside the tent, and ethnic wooden chairs and bean bags are part of the décor, set on a printed beige carpet. The smell of fresh cheese paratha and biryani wafts over the din and chatter of the attendees.
The organisers of the third Children Literature Festival (CLF) have roped in as many as 150 authors, musicians, artists, and educational experts to participate in the event and conduct sessions on music and story-telling. There are also theatrical displays that, along with the abundance of books, captivate the attention of those present. Students from different schools and grades, ranging from pre-kindergarten to grade 11, are immersed in fun-filled learning activities and lively discussions conducted by the panelists and moderators. One can spot teachers on duty scattered among the crowd in order to maintain discipline among the children while parents stroll around holding the hands of their little ones.
Baela Raza Jamil, CLF founder and adviser at Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA), refers to the children’s event as an opportunity and “a space for the young minds to blossom and dare to think otherwise”. The idea is to empower the youth and let their voices be heard. She explains that children from around the world are progressing in every field, but our nation continues to lag behind. “It is time for us to give them a chance to speak up and serve as active members of this society,” she adds.
Moving out of the tent, a road leads to the pre-primary and A-Level sections of the school. Sign posts bearing the names of famous authors are put up along the way. The various sessions underway seem to aim at breaking away from the conventional shackles of classroom learning and introduce the children to a different idea of education, one that requires creative thinking and imagination.
At a station reserved for USAID's Sindh Reading Program, young performers wearing brightly coloured costumes, ajrak and Sindhi caps, sing and dance to folk beats that the musicians play on a dholak and tabla. “Sing along with us,” one of the performers encourages his audience.
But not all activities involve singing. In a different session, three girls sit together and learn the art of book making.
“Our book is called The Jungle Series. It’s based on wildlife,” says 8-year-old Saba. “I chose this topic because my mom tells me that animals are God’s gift to humankind,” she adds. She and her friend discuss the animals, their habitats and brainstorm ways to make their book interesting.
Ruqaiyah Taufiq, mother of a thirteen-year-old, appreciates the efforts of Oxford University Press (OUP) and ITA in bringing forward such an initiative. “Such events are important in raising awareness among children and bringing our precious culture to [them]. In this day and age, children are cut out from our literary heritage; this event fills that void,” she adds. Ameena Saiyid, managing director of OUP, Fahmida Riaz, Urdu poet and writer, and Sarwat Mohiuddin, poet and prose writer, serve as panelists for a session and recite prominent poems periodically.
A session organised by The Science Fuse – a social enterprise that aims to change how science is taught and practiced in Pakistan – employs an interactive way using videos and demonstrations to introduce scientific concepts. Lalarukh Malik explains the three laws of motion with the aid of a puppet and young volunteers from the audience. Children break out in laughter while their parents watch them carefully, amazed at their reaction as they learn scientific concepts joyfully.
Here and there, artists paint messages of hope and interpretations of Karachi. Zheela Ali Khan, senior art teacher at The AMI School, displays the journey of her life in a mural and reveals the meaning behind each symbol. “The heart is the controlling mechanism that is in charge of our emotions. The butterflies above the heart symbolise transformation and birds signify freedom,” she says. “This is how I’ve lived my life.”
As the clock strikes five, children attend a musical performance by Zoe Viccaji and head back to their homes; Their faces radiating with excitement despite the exertions of a tiring day.
“I’m already counting the days to next year’s CLF,” says Safa, a student of Dawood Public School. “To me, this event is all about following your passion and enjoying the ride. We can truly be whatever we want to be if we take learning as [something] fun.”
All photographs are by the author