On the rare occasion, I get an assignment that allows me to witness contributions that are being directly allocated to those in need. Yesterday was one of those days.
I visited four public schools near the Khan el-Khalili to document an international company’s work and commitment to social responsibility. While I will withhold the names of schools and the company, I was somewhat alarmed at what I saw but in some ways not surprised. I suppose I should backtrack. First, these schools were chosen after the company had conducted a study and likewise wanted four schools near one another. The Ministry of Education approved the company’s contribution, but “suggested” which schools should receive the help.
I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that the recipient schools are part of al-Azhar system where all students are Muslim with the bulk of the curriculum consisting of religious doctrine. It’s definitely not surprising since the Salafist party (al-Nour as documented in How Illiterate Egypt Votes) gained control of the Ministry of Education after forming a coalition with other parties. Most of the books I saw in the classrooms were all a part of the Qaran, or actually various copies of the Qaran itself. The only educational tools regarding reading, writing and arithmetic were mostly provided by USAID.
Each presentation began with select children reciting a passage or two (or three, four , etc.) from the religious book and songs. An Egyptian industry colleague said to me that he was a product of Egypt’s public school system and these schools scared him with their hard-lined rhetoric. He said, “When I went to school, it wasn’t like this.” Interestingly, he is my age (29) and from Port Said – where it is even more conservative than larger cities like Alexandria and Cairo.
|Singing for visitors|
School supplies were being handed out to the less-fortunate children (those that are unable to afford the yearly school fee of LE 45, or $7.50, and orphans) as well as school fees paid for those students that met certain criteria. At one school, the so-called headmaster pulled the company executives in a room and discussed how it was to be a mosque, but he needed monetary contributions to make it. The point: he didn’t ask for more help for the children to give them a better education, he went straight for the mosque. He said how the contributions helped, but the mosque was in need of being built. This reminds me of that story in the New York Times that documented young Pakistanis attempting to clean the streets only to have men at the mosque tell them they should instead be cleaning the mosque (please read my blog, Small Changes).
And despite the sometimes scary banter that ensued from recitation or just the yelling from the headmaster and staff at these children, it was a great experience. I’ve never been to one of these schools before. The last school I visited was near Dead City, an area that is composed of tombs and mausoleums where people reside among those buried. Some residents of Dead City began as tomb keepers, others moved from poorer areas within Egypt unable to afford housing elsewhere. One headmaster told the story of how a man living in Dead City approached him to allow his children to attend the school. Although Egypt has mandated that every child be afforded an education and children are supposed to be able to attend schools in their area, proper documentation of residence is required. For those living in Dead City, this is impossible. Even after several requests to the Ministry of Education, many are still unable to be admitted into school. And if a child is admitted, the LE 45 ($7.50) per child annual school fee is difficult to acquire.
It broke my heart to see some of these kids, especially the orphans. The future of Egypt will directly impact them, maybe more so than others. And in my opinion education should be the first priority. When the industry colleague asked me my thoughts on this, I simply said I was only a guest in this country. I asked him, “If you disagree with this, why don’t you and others like you try to change it?” He said, “We’re a small percentage.” I reminded him that small percentage helped jump-start the revolution.