ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Without education there can never be peace in the world. So says teenage activist and Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai. In her own country of Pakistan, there is an education crisis. Pakistan has 58 million school age children and nearly half are not in school. NPR's Philip Reeves traveled deep into the countryside of southern Pakistan to learn about an unusual attempt to change that.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A big crowd of kids is jammed into a cattle shed. They're sitting on the dirt floor, some are as young as three, all are covered in dust. There's at least 150 of them - so many they're spilling into the yard. Words scrawled on a plank outside proudly proclaim this mud hovel to be a school. These kids have no desks or chairs, maps or world charts, and no teachers, except for one very young women sitting before them with a wooden crutch on the ground beside her. Her name is Aansoo Kohli. A small boy stands by her. He has a little blackboard on which he scratched some English. A cow and a couple of goats watch from a few feet away as Aansoo checks the boy's spelling.
Aansoo's pupils are Hindus in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. Their families have been here for centuries, picking cotton and chilies for feudal landlords. They're among the poorest of Pakistan's poor. You have to drive across fields to reach this village. There's no road or electricity or running water.
Aansoo's the only person here with anything you'd call an education. As an infant, she lost the use of her leg after a botched medical procedure. Realizing she couldn't pick cotton, her father packed her off every day to a school miles away. She's now 20 and doing a bachelor's degree. Getting educated in a highly conservative rural society wasn't easy.
AANSOO KOHLI: (Through translator) People would laugh at me when I went to school. They would say what's she going to do once she's educated?
REEVES: The school in the cattle shed is Aansoo's answer to that question. It's a personal campaign to give all the kids from her village the chance to go to school.
KOHLI: (Through translator) I'll make these children doctors. I'll make them teachers and engineers.
REEVES: That's quite an ambition when you look at the conditions inside the cattle shed. This can't accurately be called a school at all.
KOHLI: (Foreign language spoken).
REEVES: Overwhelmed by pupils, Aansoo teaches the alphabet to a few older kids. The kids then squat on the ground and impart what they've just learned to the smaller ones.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: P Q R S W.
REEVES: Something else is going on here. Aansoo says getting all these kids together in her cattle shed is a way of sending a message to people way beyond her village.
KOHLI: (Through translator) I want to tell Pakistan's teachers that you have a duty to the nation's children. Please come to school and teach.
REEVES: If you think only children play hooky, think again. In Pakistan, the teachers do it too. Thousands of government teaching jobs have been handed out as political favors. The teachers pocket the wages, but don't go to work. There's a girl's school less than a mile from this village. It's closed because the teachers don't show up.
JANIB DALWANI: (Through translator) Aansoo is posing a question for all of Pakistan.
REEVES: Janib Dalwani's a Muslim from a nearby village who's playing a leading role in Aansoo's campaign.
DALWANI: (Through translator) If someone with her disadvantages can teach, then why can't teachers who are sitting at home drawing salaries go out and teach?
REEVES: Dalwani says he persuaded villagers to release their kids from working in the fields and let them go along to the cattle shed.
DALWANI: (Through translator) I told them God's on their side. He'll help them.
REEVES: Ram Chand was reluctant at first. He now has three daughters in the cattle shed.
RAM CHAND: (Through translator) I'm very happy. We don't want the children to lead the life we've led.
REEVES: Aansoo's message is being heard. Liaquat Ali Mirani, a school principal, runs a website publishing the names and photos of absentee teachers. He hopes this will shame them into doing their jobs.
LIAQUAT ALI MIRANI: (Through translator) I fully support Aansoo, and I have a lot of sympathy for her. May God help her.
REEVES: Mirani's from the same Pakistani province as Aansoo - Sindh. He estimates 4 out of 10 teachers in Sindh never set foot in a school.
MIRANI: (Through translator) Some of them run shops, some work in the media, some for feudal landlords.
REEVES: A few years back, Pakistan's federal constitution was amended to make education compulsory and free for all children from five to 16, but education is run by provincial governments. They haven't yet turned this amendment into law.
FARHATULLAH BABAR: The state of education is very bad in Pakistan. In fact, we have what we call education emergency.
REEVES: Farhatullah Babar's a leading figure in the party that runs Sindh - the Pakistan People's Party, or PPP. Babar says that the PPP bears much responsibility for the province's education emergency. But it's tackling this with plans to fire absentee teachers and make all government teachers take a proficiency test.
BABAR: I think these measures indicate, very strongly, realization on the part of the PPP that if it was responsible for the mess, it is also determined to clean the mess.
KOHLI: (Foreign language spoken).
REEVES: Who knows if that'll make any difference to Aansoo and her kids. For now, they're on their own, relying only on Aansoo's determination.
KOHLI: (Through translator) I love these kids. I'm urging them to study.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: I.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: J.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: K.
REEVES: The eager eyed cattle shed kids don't seem to need much persuading.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: N.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: O.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.
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