Is education for Karachi slum-dwellers a waste of time?

Published: September 8, 2012
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Kids have to work to support their families, and themselves. Teenage, male kids are expected to earn first and foremost, and anything else has lower priority. PHOTO: SHAHBAZ MALIK

In 2008, on a typical hot and humid summer morning, I was driving through Karachi city to get to work. Passing close to Karachi’s biggest slum area, Orangi, my car broke down and I had it brought to a workshop nearby to get it fixed.

The workshop had a head mechanic, who diagnosed the problem and then assigned one of the several teenagers working for him to fix the issue.

I observed the child working on my car and found him to be very talkative. He asked me about how I’ll be late for office and commented on my good luck that the workshop wasn’t experiencing loadshedding at the time. He seemed like an amiable, friendly young man. I asked him a few questions about cars, and discovered that he had a pretty good understanding of how car engines work; perhaps better than his head mechanic, as he was diverging from the instructions given to him and doing the job even better.

**All conversations with the child were in Urdu, translated here in English.

I asked him if he goes to school. His hands stopped working, and he looked up at me.

“Why should I?” he asked.

I was taken aback. I had thought education was something every child wanted by default, and if a teenager is working at a car workshop during the day time, he’d be desperate for an opportunity to be at a school.

“So you could get a better job… ”, I said, my tone clearly lacking confidence.

“Life is not so simple, sahib ji. So many MAs and BAs waste time in college and then start working at workshops. Experience is the real thing. I’ll open my own workshop in a few years. Studying is a total waste of time.” He remarked with the confidence of a grown man.

For the lack of a better answer, I said,

“Hmm… You can become an engineer and design a car engine.”

He looked into my eyes, smiled a little and said,

“Sahib ji, boys from Orangi don’t become engineers. And even if they do, they can’t find jobs. Who makes engines in Karachi? Only the ‘Japani’ know how to make car engines.”

The boy was street smart. I was happy. At least he fixed my car the right way. I wished him well, and left.

I joined uni after a long break, and thinking about the pattern of lives in Karachi, I recalled the boy’s statement and thought more about it. Education for him meant an absolute waste of time. Was that mindset a result of his observations or just street wisdom passed on from other teenagers?

I’ve come up with a few reasons why education is such a bad idea for children in Orangi (entirely my opinion):

The labour of necessity:

Children have to work to support their families, and themselves. Teenage males are expected to earn first and foremost, and anything else has lower priority.

Schools within slums:

Schools located within slums would be staffed by locals, and are bound to be poor quality. This would surely have a great dampening effect on any kind of motivation.

Social connections:

Of course, school peers, teachers and other actors in the ecosystem are from the same locality. Social connections which lead to opportunities such as a job or even an apprenticeship simply don’t exist. Connections within the family work very well, but they got nothing to do with how educated the kid is.

Heavy indoctrination:

Schools, and the society in general, remain very rigid. A large amount of teaching is in the form of unquestionable axioms you must accept. Creativity is shunned. Teachers hate the ‘why’ questions. The room to wiggle through this control structure is very narrow.

The link between education and financial success:

This connection is understood by default in most parts of the world. But for the dwellers of Orangi, money actually has an inverse relation with education. When you are socially isolated, education creates barriers instead of opening doors. Maybe the workshop next door would not like to employ you for being too smart. As for the uptown companies with large offices in the city; well, at least the workshop boy wasn’t too optimistic about it.

Instant gratification:

For the poor, education is a ladder to climb out of poverty. If there is not enough evidence it’ll happen quickly, they’ll most likely push the idea away. Instant gratification is required for the efforts put in. Of course, school education is too loose to fit the bill.

So the average street child has to earn money, survive the verbal and physical abuses of those around him, and hope to one day get out of the shackles of poverty, counting on his ‘experience’. Education certainly doesn’t fit in their timetable, culture, financial forecast, or logical sequence of events.

Usually the government intervenes. They sometimes pay to keep children in school, or issue vouchers to poor families so they don’t have to deal with paying private school fees. Of course, we can count on our government to keep ignoring the millions of young children trapped in this ordeal.

A mix of great teachers, financial aid, social connections and potential opportunities are required to get the wheels rolling. The real world doesn’t work like that, yet. But here is a hard question: The government can provide money (if they want to), but can they provide great teachers? Of course not! That’ll be you and me, and maybe the children themselves, if they are empowered by us.

Are you ready to teach the next generation of Pakistan, without any expectations? Maybe teach your servant at home for an hour a day, or the delivery boy who brings lunch to your office? This resolution will be your greatest sacrifice.

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Adnan Khan

Adnan Khan

A student of Computer Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He has a deep passion for education and previously served in the Pakistan Army. He tweets @adnkhn

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