I was bowled over by schools in Dharvi slums: Friedland

How imperative is education? Is it the really the right of every child in the world, like the Indian Government has so expressly declared? No, says social entrepreneur and educator Aaron Friedland.  He certainly doesn’t follow that school of thought. He believes that education is the passport to human development and not merely a right. This belief pushed Friedland, who had a stint with UN Watch, to travel to countries across the world, including Uganda, South Africa and India and start a foundation called The Walking School Bus.

"In Uganda, we are doing a few things. In terms of access, we are raising funds to buy community school buses as many students have to walk over five kilometres to reach their schools now," Friedland said, speaking on his noble initiative to thestatesman.com.

"Our community supports agricultural programmes. One of the biggest problems in Uganda is that they have iron deficiency. We worked with a few economists to develop an economic model. So, given our land constraint and given the fact that we want iron, we found out the best way to grow four crops - kale, sweet potatoes, sweet peas and spinach - which are rich in iron," Friedland added.

The remarkable fact is that school students in Uganda are farming these crops. As a part of the initiative, every student volunteers to work on the field for two hours every day.

"It is something that should have happened a long time ago. To learn about farming is important.  Students don't usually learn about agricultural best practice. They don't have the opportunity to change their agricultural ways. They know only what their father taught them," Friedland said.

In the present times, technology plays a major role in educating children in rural and urban areas alike. It has also acted as a big assistance in relation to the spread of social endeavours.

Explaining the role of technology, Friedland said, “The smart phone usage and technology usage is an amazing opportunity to be giving access to people to apps and education tools which improves learning outcomes. We can reach various groups of people at the lowest cost. For instance, there are different social norms in South Africa, Uganda and Kerala and each of these places need to have different styles and different methods. Technology enables us to actually craft the message in different manner.”

“In the next five years, you'll have 200 million Indians using smart phones and you have more than that who are illiterate. You have this wealth of technology and usage of technology and I think the two can be brought together quite beautifully,” he said referring to India.

Although The Walking School Bus has not initiated any project in India yet, Friedland’s quest to spread education brought him to the country. He visited schools in Kerala, Mumbai’s Dharavi slums and Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur. What took the social entrepreneur by surprise, however, were schools in Mumbai slums which he had expected to be similar to what he had read in Shantaram!  

“I have spent a bit of my time in the Dharavi slums and visited schools there. I had these preconceived notions that Dharavi slums could be more reminiscent of Shantaram. Something that completely bowled me over was that schools in the slum had nine computers. It was a city with schools and computers!” Friedland said cracking up.

There are other aspects about India which impressed the Vancouver-based social worker. “One thing that really opened my eyes in India is that students can speak five languages. Most of the people with whom I come into contact, speak English way better than any of my friends back in Vancouver. I mean, while there are problems, the education system is quite remarkable. Every student that I meet here, they don't have arrogance that westerners have. They maybe the best masala dosa maker, best singer, best artist or whatever, but they aren’t arrogant,” Friedland added.

Now, Friedland wishes to bring his model to India and is looking for the right set of people. “It is like a franchise and I want people to come forward to help us bring our idea here. I would like to work in India because I see India as one of the most remarkable opportunity. I would like to bring our organisation here, at least bring a few chapters here in Delhi,” Friedland signed off.


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