Zeeshan Asad likes reading poetry and his favourite poet is Saghir Siddiqi. He was in third grade when his school in Harighel in Bagh District was destroyed by the 2005 earthquake that hit northern Pakistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
Little did he know what an earthquake was before he witnessed scenes of horror that he might never forget. Seven years later Zeeshan is back at the same school, studying in an earthquake-resistant building, reconstructed through funds from the USAID’s Pakistan Earthquake Reconstruction and Recovery Programme (PERRP).
The new school is well-equipped with spacious classrooms, an examination hall and science laboratories. It also has a library with, to Zeeshan’s delight, a book with a blue spine containing Saghir’s complete works. The book reached the library in Harighel after a unique effort involving community participation and gestures of goodwill.
When CDM Smith, the construction firm contracted by USAID, reconstructed 27 schools in Bagh District, it built libraries in each of these schools. But PERRP funds were only for construction, so CDM came up with the library challenge project.
“We challenged local communities to donate one book per student,” said Ghayyur Abbas, social coordinator for CDM. “We told them if they donate books, CDM will match their contribution.” The school management committees, which were formed by CDM to help it overcome logistical problems and to ensure the schools’ reconstruction designs fulfilled the community’s requirements, were at the forefront of the library challenge. “We went door-to-door for donations,” said Muhammad Shabbir, the teacher in-charge at the government boys’ high school Dhal Qazian. “People gave anything from Rs10 to Rs1,000.”
School management committees, comprising teachers and community members rallied on and soon the schools were competing to raise funds. Since there were no major bookshops in Bagh, CDM invited publishers to Bagh for book fairs in 2009 and 2011.
“We thought let’s see if we can have a book fair in Bagh,” said Jane Thomas, community liaison specialist at USAID. “The second book fair was attended by 25,000 people,” Thomas said. “We had 12 prominent publishers, as well as the Oxford University Press, participate in the fair.”
At the fairs, students and teachers chose the books they wanted for their school libraries, Shabbir said. Thanks to the library challenge, local communities in Bagh and Mansehra raised money to buy 23,000 books.
After CDM’s contribution, the libraries in the 61 schools reconstructed by USAID and CDM in Bagh and Mansehra now have more than 60,000 books altogether for 17,000 students.
In Bagh, school management committees of the 27 USAID-reconstructed schools convinced 63 schools in the district to start their own libraries. CDM also trained teachers on library management, Thomas said. “Government schools didn’t have librarians, so teachers have volunteered to manage the libraries.”
The Dhal Qazian library also has subscriptions for newspapers and periodicals. “My friends and I check out books from the library every 15 days,” Zeeshan said. The reconstruction and the library challenge has mobilised local communities and made them think about new ideas for their own development.
“It’s really given people a new kind of vision about how far they can go and what they can achieve. That’s the whole concept behind community participation. Empowerment is what you see here,” Thomas said.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 24th, 2012.