Children’s Agency Central to CLF in Pakistan
Baela Raza Jamil
We all agree that there is an urgency to build positive narratives in Pakistan that truly reflects the capabilities and spirit of our generations in the making. At the heart of each Children’s Literature Festival (CLF) lies the agency of the children themselves (3-18 years), and it was no different at the recently held CLF Islamabad on October 23-24, 2019, at the Lok Virsa Museum buildings and grounds.
A society where children are routinely silenced by adults, it was a welcome departure from the norm at the CLF. Among 25,000 plus children and teachers who participated atthe two-day festival, children’s writings, voices, photography, and lively activities were boldly prominent. Syeda Zahra Bokhari, an eight-year-old (grade 4student) launched her book ‘Adventures of Bokhariya and Knowledge in Space’, which was conceived when she was only five-year-old fascinated by planets and solar system; her second book in the making is called ‘Bukhariya and the Oceans’. Zahra, in conversation with Ifrah Ahmed was confidently sharing her passion for reading and writing, with a clear message for the room full of students that “children do imagine, can write and get published as well”. Sitting in the Parveen Shakir Ki Baithak, Zahra’s session resonated well with a bold poet-author who never held back expression.
The CLF supported 25 children from the Pehli Kiran Schools (PKS) – a low cost, free school system promoting children’s interactive learning experiences alongside studies – who participated in a pre-CLF photography workshop by The School of Writing trainers to take photographs of their city Islamabad, their neighbourhoods, markets and Saidpur village, titled ‘My City My Heritage’. The photographs taken by children were exhibited at a photo walk along with a video to sharechildren’s capabilities at the CLF, giving the magency and space to explore their potential.It was most endearing to see the students of PKS speak on Skype with Fauzia Minallah who was in Germany. Fauzia has served as astoryteller for PKS and is an advisor of the CLF. She designed the beautiful CLF Islamabad poster with Margalla greens in the background and children chasing hearts and books of many different colours showing diversity amidst nature.
The tech-enabled interactive conversation with Fauzia facilitated by Samar Minallah, the famous anthropologist and film maker currently promotingthe slogans for girls’ education on trucks, was a vision to endure. Sheasked the girls to interpret the symbolism of ‘Amai the bird of peace’ in Fauzia’s long scarf of PEACE displayed along the CLF Pathways at Lok Virsa. The online conversation became even more magical when Fauzia asked themto dance on their favourite song and they were joined by Dr. Ambreen Ahmed of Rozan along with Mehru, her daughter on a wheelchair who has just woken up from two years of deep coma after a devastating accident in Australia. Mehru was all smiles with her bright talking eyes, thoroughly stimulated by the CLF spirit and activities; yes CLF is truly learning, feeling and healing festival.
Clearly Mehru healed some more at the CLF Islamabad as she was also made the Chief Guest instantly at the closing ceremony of CLF on October 24.Trained as an educator, Mehru was not overwhelmed at all with one of her first public outings, but felt the empathy all around her as everyone naturally welcomed her inclusively almost as a celebrity.
Young author Zohaib Ahmed spoke about his inspiration for writing, as he challenged the curriculum, topics and subjects that were thrust upon students in silos, when infact, they can be much better presented across subjects in thematic areas of interest. The first book he wrote when he was much younger as a student was a reaction to precisely such narrow notions of learning; in his expression Zohaib the ordinary student became the extra ordinary writer for the book ‘Phoenix Legion’.
In each plenary, on critical thinking and CLFs; heritage and children’s literature; and media’s role in promoting children’s literature, the speakers engaged with children vibrantly. With Hamid Mir, the young Malaika Lodhi a grade 9 student from Mardan joined the panel, being the first panellist to share that testimonials on literature are as old as human beings on earth. She quoted Northrop Frye and said, “Adam’s sorrow and sadness was sheer literature when Qabeel killed Habeel”, and added, “Literature speaks the language of imaginations and the study of literature is supposed to train and improve the imagination”.
Her statements became the trigger for the moderatorand CLF co-founder Ameena Saiyid to pose questions to Hamid Mir, Javed Malik and NigarNazar. Malaika, her friends and teachers were overjoyed to see how the space was provided for their voices. Hamid Mir confessed that he was a doubter coming to the CLF but when he independently visited the locations with various activities, he found the festival much empowering. His pledge to support the CLFs in the media and through his presence touched so many profoundly.
In a session on heritage in children’s literature, one of the panellists – educator Chaudhry Faisal Mushtaq of Roots Millennium schools- generously offered students to go the Oxford University Press (OUP) bookstall and get free books on heritage published by OUP and CLF. Suddenly one witnessed so many students carrying Rumana Husain’s ‘Tota Khan aur Bakri Ara ka Safarnama, ‘BhooliBisriSuniSunai’ and Fauzia’s work on ‘Amai in Mohenjo Daro’. This was the best memory they could carry from the CLF Islamabad 2019. At the inaugural, Komal a teenager from Multan showcased a documentaryfeaturing herself ‘A dreamreignited’ which is about girls like her dropping out of school at primary level, due to poverty, norms and schools being far from home. Now studying in grade 9 she is the recipient of Oxfam scholarships from the Women Leaders of Tomorrow program, she is one of the 70 other girls recipient, but is also skilled in Science activities at the CLF.
Both days, around 100 children held marches on climate change and gender justice for education led by Samar Minallah, Nargis Sultana and me. On day one of CLF Islamabad, the march moved along with Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mahmoodwho saw that children meant business with their active slogans.
At the Abdus Salam Labs, children ran active experiments in science learning, robotics and 3D animations at the stalls by ILM Association members along with Robo Minors, Wonder Tree, Science Fuse, Oxbridge and Sight savers. In theatre, Atif Badar ensured that hundreds of children become part of the exercises in speech, body movement and expression whilst Nadine Murtaza of Head Start and Dheere Bolo fame made children sing along poetry with her on the guitar.
The Art of Bookmaking ensured children became young authors every hour and Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi’s (ITA) stall engaged children in self-assessment on the ASER tool, maths, story chain and storytelling along with art activities on origami and wearable art by Inam Elahi and Salma Habib.Children were freely accessible to print and electronic media, sharing with enthusiasm the need for more CLFs where they can express, learn and ideate.
The CLF Islamabad truly celebrated 30 Years of Child Rights Convention (1989 to 2019) with each of the 16 learning strands of CLF as well as an installation of Child Rights by the children of Pakistan titled ‘Our rights in quilts, hands an ladders’by CMPHR and ITA; infact the entire CLF Islamabad was a testimony to Child Rights in its myriad well-crafted activities that came alive with children’s agency.