A passion for learning results in a school for India's poorest children

Babar Ali, just a teenager himself, has started a free school in his parents' backyard for the poorest children in his village in India's West Bengal region.

Jocelyn Wiener
Babar Ali stands in front of students who have gathered at the afternoon school he began in his parents’ backyard in Bhabta, a village in eastern India.

In a poor village four hours drive north of Calcutta, India, a young boy named Babar Ali runs a school out of his parents' backyard. The school has almost no desks or chairs. A smattering of coconut and guava trees provides hardly any shade.

Yet, every day, for a few hours in the late afternoon, this plot of hard, sunbaked earth fills with hundreds of children. Most of the students are barefoot, their shorts dirty, their dresses torn. Clustered by age, they sit cross-legged on plastic bags, gazing up at teachers who are often just teenagers themselves.

And then something incredible happens: They learn.

Babar, the school's 17-year-old headmaster, walks from class to class. He squats in the dirt next to 5-year-olds singing their ABCs and checks the work of eighth-graders immersed in Indian history. A slim boy in shorts and rubber sandals, Babar offers a stern look that seems more to befit someone four times his age.

Despite the many responsibilities that come with running a grade school, Babar says he feels burdened by only one: "If I don't do it," he asks in Bengali, "who will?"

The Ananda Siksha Niketan (Joy Education Home) School – as Babar Ali has christened it – fills a great need in Bhabta village. Despite the promise of free government education, the literacy rate in the district is about 66 percent as of the last census – and is even lower in poor villages like Bhabta. More than 78 percent of the students here in the state of West Bengal drop out by 10th grade.

While school is technically free, lower-caste Hindu and poor Muslim families are often unable to afford school supplies, uniforms, or transportation.

Many parents also feel there's no time for school – they depend on their children to work. Babar was 9 years old when he noticed other children grazing cows and cutting grass for livestock as he headed home from school. He invited them to sit with him under a banyan tree and began teaching them to read.

His few hours of instruction, he saw, presented a rare opportunity for his friends. Enrollment in his late-afternoon classes grew – first to a few dozen, then a few hundred.

"I want to build our nation," the young headmaster explains in careful English. "I do not fear to accomplish this work."

Inzamul Haq, 13, is a seventh-grader at the school. Starting from age 3, he has spent every morning herding cattle. Because the cows wander all over, his younger siblings help him. Together, the three children earn 44 cents a day.

Inzamul's father is sick, and his mother rolls cigarettes, called bidis, to support the family. In their little mud hut, there's no money for school.

But when Inzamul turned 5, Babar persuaded him to come study in the afternoons, after work. With an education, Inzamul hopes to start a business some day.

"I don't want to do bad jobs," he says. "Herding cattle is a bad job."

Walking around his yard, Babar spots a small girl who is engaged to be married. "Some of my students," he says, "are very, very poor."

Babar's own background is privileged only by contrast. His family home consists of an office and a single bedroom, which he shares with his parents and three younger siblings. The toilet is a hole in the ground. The kitchen is an outdoor cookstove made of baked mud.

Still, Babar's father – who sells jute fiber – has prioritized his son's education. Babar estimates that his family pays $125 a year to cover books, uniforms, transportation, and other costs at the best high school in the area. Last month, Babar completed 12th grade.

As his little backyard school has won notice across India, Babar has traveled to receive honors in Bangalore, Delhi, and Mumbai (Bombay). But his school remains very much a local community effort. A dozen young volunteer teachers follow a government-approved curriculum covering English, math, history, and Bengali.

Chumki Hajra, 14, has been teaching ever since she graduated from the school's eighth grade two years ago. In the mornings she cleans two family homes to earn $11 a month. Then she heads to a local high school.

As soon as her own classes let out, she hurries to Babar's to spend the next four hours teaching. The walk back to her family's mud hut, in the dark, takes an hour and a half.

"I studied here without paying anything," she explains. "And I want to give them the chance that I got."

Chumki's grandmother, Tulu Hajra, is an unsmiling, illiterate woman who serves as the school's security patrol. She ekes out a living selling fish in the morning. After lunch, she grabs a switch and walks from house to house, herding local children to the school. She stops traffic on the nearby highway to help them cross, then stands guard at the gate to make sure local adults don't disturb their studies.

"If they don't study, they'll turn out like me," she says. "This is the only chance they have."

Babar's story spread worldwide last fall after the BBC ran a report about his school. Among those who saw it was a young woman in Orange County, Calif., Manjaree Ghosh.

Ms. Ghosh, a former financial analyst, was born in India. She decided to help by raising funds for a proper school building. She called friends and relatives, asking for donations. Eventually she teamed up with a Los Angeles-based foundation called the Deenabandhu Trust – Friends of the Poor.

In mid-April, Ghosh joined a few India-based philanthropists on a visit to Babar's school. The afternoon was sweltering, and the group clustered in front of two whirring fans in Babar's small office. They looked through the school's record books, met with local officials, and discussed the obstacles to building on a small plot of land Babar had purchased with donations.

"On the one hand," Ghosh says, "meeting him just reinforces the fact that he is a 17-year-old kid. But on the other hand ... I have to admit that there is something in this kid, there is something that made him start this whole school, that made him feel very passionately. He, more than anybody else I've met, feels very, very strongly about education."

Once his visitors left, Babar headed back to his school, taking a turn teaching English to the older students. Nearby, a gaggle of chickens squawked. Trucks honked as they sped past on the highway. The yard filled with the sounds of children: giggling, crying, reading aloud, singing, questioning ... learning.

•Contact the Deenabandhu Trust – Friends of the Poor – at deenabandhu.org

•For more stories about people making a difference, go here.

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