In Baharwa, a small village near Ayat in the governorate of Giza, fresh air and the Nile dominate the senses but all that natural beauty is hard to accept due to the sordid poverty in which the locals live.
When Didi Anandarama was visiting a friend who lives in Baharwa, she noticed the residents lacked basic standards of living, such as clear, running water and schools. In order for children to attend school, they had to travel to the next village, which is far away. Some do not attend school due to the long distance.
Anandarama decided to start the Nile River School, a project in which children from age three to 14 are educated creatively free of charge. The centre, located in the village, is an open air area with a table and a few chairs as well as a small room with toys for playing. It provides children with a space to practise several activities, art, handicrafts, as well as learning basic Arabic, English, maths, and general knowledge.
“The Nile River School is a place where children can find a clean area to play and an opportunity to learn useful knowledge without paying tuition,” Anandarama said. “These children did not know the meaning of running water and when I saw them I knew I wanted to help them by establishing a school here.”
The project started in 2011 with the help of individuals who hoped to provide the children with a better up-bringing through education.
Other than not having a clean healthy environment, children who can afford to attend school in the next village are not receiving proper education. “There was this girl who had been going for a governmental school for a few years and when I asked her to write the word ‘cat’ for me in Arabic, she could neither spell nor write it,” Anandarama said. “We decided we should create our own space where we would teach these children useful knowledge in our own way, along with the average education they receive from governmental schools.”
Anandarama and her friends aim to give the children of Baharwa a chance they otherwise might not have had. “We teach them while we are playing with them, so they’re not just saving information by heart without understanding it like in ordinary schools,” she said.
Art and handicrafts are also part of the education process to develop the children’s’ imagination and creativity while they are being taught. “They are never told what to do, they are always left to be educated willingly,” she said.
Communication in English with children who cannot yet speak Arabic properly was not an easy task for the team. “With a few Arabic words and using sign language, we managed to communicate with each other,” she said. “It’s much easier with young children who are still learning to talk because we teach them English from the start with an authentic accent.”
The school is open all day and initially there were no scheduled classes; children can spend their day playing with many different toys donated by the founders’ friends.
At first, it was hard to convince families to send their children to a place that would not take any money and teach their children in an unusual way. But over the years, the team managed to change the residents’ preconceptions of school and they even convinced mothers who never went to school to start attending classes to learn.
“We receive 50 children every day,” Anandarama said. “During the weekends, they might reach 100, so we require the support of our friends and volunteers from Cairo.”
After spending almost five years at the village, the project gained a good reputation as a learning institution and it started having a class schedule for students. Even older children, who attended the school when it first opened, volunteered to help educate younger generations.
In the morning, kindergarten children, aged two to six, attend school to learn the basics of language, later there are classes for mothers who did not have the chance to attend school, and in the evening older children attend after they return from their schools.
Keeping in mind the village’s traditions, teachers decided to follow certain cultural norms, “we have a group for girls separated from the group for boys” so as not to concern any parents.
Over time, the group detected a clear difference in the attitude of the residents towards education. “People have the culture and the will to learn now, which they never had when we first came. Mothers make sure to come now and learn Arabic to follow up with their children and they bring their younger children to the kindergarten classes to be taught both languages,” Anandarama said. “We have made a difference to the entire village.”
“What if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of somebody who cannot afford an education?” is a question that is shared on social media platforms and is what drives Anandarama and her team. The Nile River School proves that when children are provided with good education, they come up with unexpectedly creative ideas.
Children have started creating stories to tell, with the help of some, they started drawing their stories to make their own illustrated story book. “From children that didn’t even have the culture of storytelling, we now have young people who can come up with an idea, and turn it into a story for younger children, and then draw it themselves to make it more visually appealing, thus creating their first illustrated story,” she said.