‘Open’ing libraries, transforming lives

Saba Khan

The Savitribai Phule Fatima Sheikh Open Library serves 11 different deprived colonies of Bhopal where most people belong to the Pasmanda Muslim and Dalit communities. Poverty forces the children residing in these communities to leave school (usually around the time they reach classes 6-8) and start working in kirana shops, tea stalls, workshops, etc., to add to the family income. These children cannot read or write and have experienced violence/abuse either at home or outside. The idea of the first Savitribai Phule Fatima Sheikh Open Library came from this need to provide some kind of a learning space for these children. A need I felt during my time as a volunteer in the COVID days in these colonies. Initially, the number of children that would visit the library was small, but that number soon grew. As our libraries are open in the evenings, even those children who went to work in the morning were able to come to the library after work.

Almost all the staff that works at the different libraries are girls and women from the communities living in these colonies. Initially, we had thought of calling our library Ambedkar Library. But when we participated in a program organized for the Savitribai Phule Jayanti, two of my colleagues, Fiza and Sahiba, said that our library should be named after Savitribai. I thought it a good idea since we were all women, also working to help the underprivileged communities. I added the name Fatima Sheikh to the library as after all Fatima Sheikh worked with Savitribai for the education of Dalits and girls. And so the name came about – The Savitribai Phule Fatima Sheikh Open Library.

Patrons and educators
Ayush is a student of class 3 in the nearby government school. He often gets punished at school for not remembering his lessons, but surprisingly he has been able to memorize 14 stories he enjoyed listening to in the library. Ayush doesn’t like to go to school, not just because he gets punished but also because children fight and tease each other in school.

Arman likes to study and learn new things. But all that he gets to do in school is copy down questions and answers from the board. He wants to learn English but is afraid of his teacher in school.

Aman discontinued his studies after four years in school as he had not learnt to read or write in those years. He has started to work in a kirana shop.

Rehan dropped out after class 5 unable to pay the fees at his private school.

I have seen these children come alive in the library. They are starting to dream again. Rehan who didn’t think he would go back to school is now nurturing the idea of finishing his studies. While working with children, we need to understand their challenges and help them find ways to deal with these challenges. Currently these children are fighting their battles alone while providing for their families and thinking about their futures. Since the educators in these libraries come from the same circumstances as these children, they understand and identify with each other very well. This is one of the reasons that draws children to the library on a regular basis. And not just the children, the educators in our libraries have managed to build a connection with the parents too! That the parents allow us to take their children on field trips, let them participate in library activities, have understood why we tell them that their girls should be educated too all point to their faith in us.

Zoya, Sahiba, and Zeba run libraries for the children of the Valmiki community. Zoya’s house is a few meters away from the Valmiki community settlement. Sahiba lives in the Valmiki settlement. In the beginning, Sahiba had to set up the library on the terraces or courtyards of the homes of the children in the colony, but now the mothers of the children have got Sahiba a permanent place for setting up her library, under a shed in the courtyard outside the Hanuman temple. Sahiba and three members of her library take care of the cleanliness of the temple courtyard and when they close their library, they are careful to remove any litter that their library activities may have produced like pieces of paper, pencil shavings, or pictures they might have put up as display. Sahiba’s library is so popular that even after she has closed the library for the day, there are children who come to Sahiba’s home asking her for books.

Zoya receives a lot of respect and regard for her work with the children and the library. Mothers have made spaces for her library in their homes during rainy seasons. They too listen to Zoya’s stories as they cook. Even though most of these mothers are much older than Zoya, they come to this ‘Library wali didi’ asking her to teach their children English and Hindi.

Zeba was in the third grade when we first set up a library on a mattress in the courtyard of her house. She started as a member with us and then helped in storing and issuing books from her house and finally took over the responsibility of the library in her courtyard. Today Zeba is both a student of B.Com. and also works as a library educator with us. Zeba started a second library near her house.

After this whenever we saw girls from the community coming forward and taking the initiative, we started libraries in those areas. Most of our educators have only studied till class 12 and now some of them have resumed their higher education with help from fellowships that our library provides.

What we do in the libraries
The days on which our libraries are open and for how long is decided by the educator and the children depending on their work/study schedules. Usually our libraries are open for two to four hours. Sometimes we have special days when we talk and read about changemakers and discuss important issues like human rights, rights of women, etc. We carefully choose the books to read on these occasions. On regular days we read aloud, tell stories, make posters, solve puzzles, draw and write. Some of what the children do in the library, like drawings and writings, are sent to newspapers to print. This motivates the children to do better. We want to involve the children in selecting books for their libraries as well but we have not been able to do that just as yet. When we choose books for our libraries, we are careful to avoid books that promote caste, colour, religion, race, superstition, etc.

Over these couple of years, we have found that the libraries and activity centres are good ways to provide space and support to children of deprived communities, particularly girls, to sustain their education, discuss issues that keep them back and collaborate for solutions. They are also a very good way to give back to the society either in terms of volunteering as educators, or by supporting with funds for books and resources for the libraries or the volunteers. The Savitribai Phule Fatima Sheikh Open Library is thus helping both children and library educators transform their lives in small ways affecting them positively.

Translated from Hindi by Sundar Singh.

The author is the founder of The Savitribai Fatima Sheikh Group that runs the libraries in Bhopal. She can be reached at saba94bpl@gmail.com.

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