March 10, 2008

Building schools with colour

Express India

On most evenings, architect couple Kabir and Preeti Vajpayi of Vinyas take a break from their flourishing business to track the progress of an impossible dream that’s suddenly grown wings. The Vajpayis are creators of a concept called Building as Learning Aid (Bala) that has a simple target—to make drab government schools the stuff of every child’s dreams.

“There is nothing more boring for an imaginative child than going to a school that is a block of grey concrete. Children learn best through games and interactive experiences,” says Kabir, 39. The Bala concept is currently revolutionising education in states like Gujarat, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. In Delhi, the couple has worked on the Sangli Mess NP School near India Gate and the Mandir Marg Navyug School and is currently working on two more city schools.

“In one government school on the outskirts of the Gir forests in Gujarat, students have to be bribed to go home after classes. Absenteeism is down and the playgrounds are teeming from early morning,” he adds.

The Bala concept uses simple but effective methods—the classroom walls have green board running along the walls for students to scribble, the window grills have interesting curves, unlike the steel rods in most places, and the stained glass windows are patterned with maps that come alive in different colours when the sun’s rays fall of them. The playgrounds are embossed with board games and rulers. “Children often improvise jump games. With rulers marked on the playground concrete, children can measure who jumped further and by how much to the exact decimal. This way they learn numbers and decimals without even realising it,” laughs Preeti, 38.

Most of these innovations emerged 10 years ago when the couple was working on a project called Lok Jumbish to renovate 60 schools in Rajasthan. “By the end of 20 schools, we were bored of repairing the cracks and concrete. So, on our next school we painted a wall in bright colours and engraved it with alphabets. Not only the children but their teachers also loved it. Children gathered near the wall during interval and took turns to run their fingers on the alphabets,” says Preeti.

After Lok Jumbish ended, the couple initiated a research into the ways to enhance the educational value of buildings in 2000. “We were architects and knew nothing about child psychology or educational techniques. But, we realised a need for an interdisciplinary study into the issue,” says Kabir.

The study, initially supported by Unicef, stretched to two years and involved over 150 educationists, toy makers, students, architects and other experts. The result was 150 ideas, which today, form the foundation of the Bala concept.

But, the acid test was convincing the government to introduce Bala in schools. “The red tape nearly choked the project. We got used to making presentations, chief ministers and education secretaries gushing over it, making huge promises and then nothing happening. Our report gathered dust for close to two years,” says Kabir.

The turning point came in January 2005 during yet another meeting, this time of the education secretaries of states that had introduced the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan.

“We had a 20 minute slot in the morning, but there were so many questions that we finally talked for an hour and a half. By lunch, six states had decided to implement Bala in government schools. One education secretary even announced that he would not sanction any schools that did not include Bala methods,” says Kabir.

The Vajpayis are now looking at another ignored sector. Preeti, who graduated in architecture from Bhopal in 1991 along with Kabir, is now pursuing her PhD in moulding Bala for children with special needs. “Another dream, another struggle,” she adds. And another success story, we hope.

Ghana: Let's Focus On "Development Communication"

Hannah Asomaning

People understand the word development in different ways. While some people would term availability of pleasant goodies and services to enjoy on daily basis as progress and development, others may think that the availability of more physical infrastructure in a particular country is development.

In other words development could also mean that a country has very good roads, 24-hour supply of electricity and water, discovery of oil culminating in a comfortable livelihood.

Yet others may see development as absence of corruption in a country where there is good governance and democracy.

Whatever one's understanding of development is, be it from the opposition party or a ruling party, the general aspiration is to develop the country.

It may not be totally wrong then to say that every politician, no matter the political party he or she belongs to, prioritizes development on his or her agenda, especially when seeking to be elected.

Journalists have been defined as agents of social change and promoters of public forums in which it is possible to discuss issues considered beneficial to the wider public.

The media in any given country, thus, obviously has a role to play in the achievement of the development agenda. Unfortunately, sometimes the media in Ghana would rather focus more on what politician A or B has said rather than writing on developmental issues like malaria, guinea worm or poverty.

A research report by the Centre for Media Studies Research and Networking in Dar Es Salaam, on the topic; "Rural Reporting" in Tanzania states that the journalist's job on a development newsbeat is to critically examine, evaluate and report the relevance of a development project to national and local needs, the difference between a planned scheme and its actual implementation, and the difference between its impact on people as claimed by government officials and as it actually is.

A journalist will need to find how national, social and economic policies and political decisions affect women and men, and who are rendered more vulnerable by these decision making processes and policy implementation and if they address both strategic and practical needs/interests of both men and women.

Let us consider this situation. Some people were travelling from Tamale, the Northern Region capital to Techiman in the Brong Ahafo Region on a Metro Mass Transit (MMT) bus. When they got to a certain village, a barrier had been mounted and people from the Wildlife Division came to inspect the bus.

One of the officials opened all the sacks of passengers packed in the boot of the bus and found in one passenger's sack roasted bush meat. He took all the meat with an cynical smile. The woman followed him to a room perhaps to beg him. Finally he gave the meat back to the woman perhaps after taking a bribe. One passenger said aloud: "If you want to protect wildlife why not do it in the forest where people go to hunt these animals."

Another scenario: The fare from Techiman to Kumasi in the Ashanti Region on the Metro Mass Bus is GHc2. However in the evenings some of the drivers would charge double the fare and would not issue a receipt to any passenger no matter the number of people on board.

When a passenger decides to demand a receipt for the fare, people in the bus would shout: "We are in a hurry, what is GHc 2, if you can't pay get down." One is thus forced to be silent in the full glare of corruption.

Can one dare to ask: "What does the media in this country do or say about these situations and many more?"

Some likely answers would be "It will not be interesting to the public"; "Our newspapers would not be bought", "These are not 'hot' issues".

People would want to read about a politician who has raped a 13 year-old girl or some big money that has been embezzled by a Minister. Yes, that is news but why don't we nib such actions in the bud?

How different is a politicians who embezzled money from the MMT bus driver who charges one person double fare?

To discuss the agenda setting role of the media would start a whole new debate but why not get more interested in reporting on issues that impede the development that we all yearn for as a nation.

The media has really done well in how far we have brought the country, especially in terms of political dynamics but a lot more remains to be done.

Many have argued that the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015 is quite impossible looking at the state of most African states.

As an Indian media expert, Aman Namra will put it: "Media has no positive thinking and makes no effort to give the society a new direction. Nor does it underline the successes of the society... If media doesn't define and perform its role and social responsibility, it will have to face people's questions and ire in the future. It will lose its credibility as the Fourth Estate, the vigilant eye of society.

Development journalism...focuses on the needs of the poor, the deprived, the marginalized and emphasizes their effective participation in development planning. Or to say it elaborately, this kind of journalism motivates the active participation of the affected people and advocating for their interests, in place of the views of the policy makers and the planners."

The media has a role to play in the achievement of the MDGs if only we would decide to focus on development communication.

The clarion call for journalists, especially in Africa and other developing countries, now, is turning to development journalism.