It was a day playing with plastic bottles that changed Korvi Rakshand’s life. Named one of 10 inspirational Bangladeshis last year, Rakshand was born to a wealthy family. But he turned his back on money and for the past eight years has been running an NGO in one of Dhaka’s biggest slums.
He talks freely about the moment that changed everything for him. While travelling around the country at the age of 21, Rakshand met a group of children who were collecting bottles to sell and ended up spending the day with them.
“In the evening when it was time to go home one of the kids – a six-year-old girl – took my hand and said ‘Sir, thank you so much for the day, but I don’t have a home to go to, will you take me with you?’” Rakshand recalls. “I felt helpless, I didn’t know what to say to her. I had to leave her that day, but I resolved that I must turn my guilt into something positive.”
He decided his focus should be on children. Half of Bangladesh’s population is under 25, so the country’s future depends on them rising out of poverty. When lots of call centres started opening up in Bangladesh, Rakshand realised that speaking English gave employment opportunities. “I thought that if I teach children English they might get a job in the future – either locally or internationally. That was the vision.”
It wasn’t straightforward. At first he received a suspicious reaction in many of Dhaka’s slums. Although he is Muslim, he has an unusual Bangladeshi name and some of the inhabitants thought he was a Christian missionary. In the end, a domestic assistant who worked for his mother recognised him and agreed to send her children to learn English. From her endorsement he got a class of 17 children. He rented a room in Rayer Bazaar, one of the main slums in Dhaka, and hung up the letters of the alphabet on a piece of string. That’s how his NGO, Jaago Foundation, started.
Rakshand’s parents weren’t happy with his choice of career. They had sent him to one of Bangladesh’s most expensive schools and expected him to get “a good job”. They gave him an ultimatum – he could either work for their business or “pick his madness”. He chose the latter and moved out of their comfortable airconditioned home to live in the school, and was dependent on the slum dwellers generosity for food. Living alongside the poorest people in Bangladeshand becoming part of their community taught him a lot.
When Rakshand realised that a lot of children in his class dropped out because their parents lost their jobs, he decided to help them find employment. He bought two sewing machines and offered the mothers discounted sewing classes. No one was interested. Then he offered free classes – still no one was interested. Finally he offered them 500 taka (£4.12) to learn to use the sewing machines and the women turned up. “It showed how we have a different mindset,” he says. “That was a new learning for me.” The dresses the women make are now supplying an Australian social enterprise, Bachhara.
Despite success setting up a school in the capital, Rakshand knew that the places in Bangladesh with the least opportunities for children were rural areas. “There is no quality education outside Dhaka,” he says. When he visited remote schools he saw that quality teaching was unavailable and got an idea – primary education viaSkype. Jaago now has 10 successful online schools. “Everyone said the kids will lose concentration,” says Rakshand. “But they think the teacher is on television.”
Classroom assistants and frequent video clips help keep the children focused. An unintended advantage of the system is that the assistants – local teachers – get free training. “They repeat what the main teacher is saying,” says Rakshand. “Automatically, you might not need the online school after two years.”
Jaago works with big communication companies to ensure the rural schools have reliable connectivity and Rakshand is now talking about scaling up. The government’s Digital Bangladesh mandate synchronises well with the model.
As well as connectivity, Jaago is catalysing the use of renewable energy in the rural communities. The online schools have unreliable electricity through generators. “If we can convert the schools to solar energy it will give them an uninterrupted connection,” Rakshand says. The electricity can also be sold at a low price to the rest of the village. He is currently pitching for funding to install solar panels at the schools.
Jaago is eight years old now. Rakshand has come a long way from sleeping at the school in the slum and being fed by the children’s parents. His proudest moment was when one of his students, 15-year-old Shuborno, was on a Unicef conference panel with the UN regional secretary. “That was when I really felt that I’d done something,” he says. “For one person at least.”
This article was first published in theguardian.com