“Bhai re [Brother], I could not attend school. And now, I have to toil from dawn to dusk to eke out a living. Even at night, I go to bed with my head full of worries. No, I don't want my son to grow up to be someone like me. I want him to be educated and become an officer ... a big service holder.”
This is how 40-year-old day labourer Idris Mia was describing his dream for his son to this correspondent, sitting on the roof of a boat in Batiparar Beel, a wetland at Kagapasha village in Habiganj district's Baniachong.
Down inside the boat's big single cabin was his nine-year-old son, Rajon Mia, taking lessons along with 29 more children, all aged between 7 and 10.
This is a unique boat. Used both as a classroom and a school bus, it is named Shikkha Toree which literally means the boat of education.
Co-funded by Qatar-based initiative Educate A Child, Brac is operating this boat school along with around 400 more in 14 districts of the country.
“Earlier, we enrolled our son at a [government] primary school. But it was 3km from here. He had to walk all the way to and from school during the dry season. It was very painful for him,” said Rajon's mother Mala Begum.
“When the water in the Haors started swelling, the roads would go under water. How could he go to school? So, he stopped.
“But after we've enrolled him here [at the boat school], he doesn't want to miss even a single class!” she said with a gleaming face.
And this exactly what Brac, the world's largest NGO, had envisioned when it floated the project.
The objective is to ensure qualitative primary education for the isolated and most deprived children in low lying and Haor [wetland] areas which remain submerged for around six to seven months of the year, turning homesteads into tiny isolated islands, said Masud Alam Khan, head of Brac's Integrated Development Programme (IDP).
“There are a very limited number of government-run schools in these areas. Besides, parents are often reluctant to send their children, especially girls, to schools in distant locations. Even when some do, their children cannot attend the school regularly due to seasonal flooding,” said Ilias Farazi, Baniachong area development coordinator of the IDP.
The boat school, however, has changed the scene. It has brought new hopes for the Haor people like Samsia Begum, whose two daughters -- Soma Akter, 10, and Seema Akter, 7, -- attend the school.
“The other day, I asked Soma to go with me to my parent's house for a night. It's in a nearby village. She said, 'No, Amma. I cannot miss my school. You go alone.' Instead of being sad for her rejection, I was happy ... I want my daughters to be educated like her,” she said, pointing to a senior Brac official who was accompanying this correspondent during the recent visit.
Apart from regular education, students are taught singing, dancing, recitation and other co-curricular activities at the school, said Asma Akter, teacher of the school.
“We also hold monthly meetings with the guardians to inform them of their children's performance, and discuss issues like importance of regular attendance, health, personal hygiene, nutrition, parenting, moral values and social awareness,” she added.
“This whole project is based on a simple idea,” said Fatema Tuz Johora, communications manager of the IDP. “If the children cannot go to schools, the schools will go to them. And this is exactly what we're doing through these Shikkha Torees.”