Mah-e-Muneer: One college's novel programme to teach domestic staff English, Urdu and Maths

Published May 8, 2017
Mah-e-Muneer's first batch at their graduation ceremony with the organisers and patron, Sheheryar Rashid.  ─ Photo Courtesy: Shutter Speed/Cedar College
Mah-e-Muneer's first batch at their graduation ceremony with the organisers and patron, Sheheryar Rashid. ─ Photo Courtesy: Shutter Speed/Cedar College

Raz Muhammad, a security guard at a private college in Karachi, and Muhammad Rizwan, a domestic staffer at the same institute, share a similar backstory when it comes to education: their families' financial difficulties prevented them from pursuing one.

Muhammad only managed to study till sixth grade, while Rizwan cannot recall when he stopped going to school.

With time, the burdens of life restricted them from gaining a decent education — that is, until the institution they worked for offered them a solution.

“Those who study are the ones who have a bright future,” says Muhammad, who recently graduated as a student from Cedar College's Mah-e-Muneer educational programme.

Mah-e-Muneer — ‘Mah’ meaning ‘light’ and ‘Muneer’ meaning the moon, a symbol of beauty and knowledge — is an adult literacy programme for the domestic staff at Cedar College.

The idea for Mah-e-Muneer took birth in late 2016, when A Levels students at Cedar approached their teacher, Sheheryar Rashid (affectionately known as Sir Sherry), with a proposal to start an adult literacy programme.

Speaking to Dawn.com, Rashid said he insisted the programme first start off at Cedar College itself.

“I told them they had to start with the staff at Cedar because any real change has to initiate from home,” Rashid, who is the patron of Mah-e-Muneer, told Dawn.com.

In the following months, Mah-e-Muneer took shape as the students in charge of running the programme contacted Literate Pakistan for help in developing a curriculum. They were provided a three-month course which would help provide the foundations for subjects like English, Urdu, and basic mathematics.

As an institution, Cedar College assisted the programme by paying for books, bags and events, providing air-conditioned classes and dedicating a section in the school library to books for Mah-e-Muneer.

Though adult illiteracy continues to be a major issue across the world, the situation in Pakistan is far more serious. A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) report reveals that more than 40pc of Pakistani adults (ages 15 and over) are illiterate. The statistics for adult women are even worse, with nearly 60pc categorised as illiterate.

“We’re grateful to the school not just for providing us with the chance to restart our education, but for providing decent facilities as well,” Rizwan said as his colleagues next to him nodded in agreement.

When the first batch started off in January, the teenagers organising Mah-e-Muneer ran a tight ship, even assigning a ‘head auditor’ tasked with recording weekly updates on syllabus coverage.

Realising the social complexities they would have to navigate, the organisers made flexible arrangements for those in need.

“For female staff members who cannot stay back after school, we have one-on-one classes during school timings,” said Minha Khan, the head of curriculum at Mah-e-Muneer.

A one-on-one session with female staffers who often cannot stay back after working hours. ─ Source: Mah-e-Muneer
A one-on-one session with female staffers who often cannot stay back after working hours. ─ Source: Mah-e-Muneer

“We hope to remove the taboo against female literacy by making sure everyone knows that to get an education is the right of every human being — regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion.”

In an effort to broaden the scope of their curriculum, the programme included an additional session on General Knowledge held every Saturday, where the domestic staff participating in the programme collectively decided on the topic they wanted to discuss.

Some of the demanded topics in these open-discussion sessions included profound issues such as global warming and health care.

“We expect the domestic staff to be able to use the Urdu and English literacy and basic math skills that they've learnt,” explained the Mah-e-Muneer management in a prepared statement. “We want to see them applying these skills in their everyday life, even if it means just being able to read a billboard somewhere.”

When inquired about the content they studied and learned, the domestic staff at Cedar College seemed gratified and confident with their progress.

A typical Urdu exam conducted under the Mah-e-Muneer programme. Source: Mah-e-Muneer
A typical Urdu exam conducted under the Mah-e-Muneer programme. Source: Mah-e-Muneer

“Rather than being left blind, it’s better that we be given the chance to bring some light before our eyes,” says Rizwan, who travelled from his village in Punjab to the city in pursuit of a better life.

“I have gained a lot of benefit from this programme,” explained Rizwan. “I couldn’t read SMS messages on my mobile phone before Mah-e-Muneer started. Now I can read messages on my phone and read boards on the street, which helps me understand routes very easily.”

Muhammad Rizwan (right) is more than content with the improvement Mah-e-Muneer had on his life. ─ Picture: Author
Muhammad Rizwan (right) is more than content with the improvement Mah-e-Muneer had on his life. ─ Picture: Author

“Even though I can’t speak English that fluently, whenever someone from outside the school shows up now I can understand their requests in English and know what to do.”

“Along with basic algebra, we’ve learned a lot of English words now,” Raz Muhammad revealed as he proudly explained what he had learned. “At first we did not even know the meanings of words like ‘he’ or ‘she’. However, now we can understand some English words, even when they are spoken to us.”

Expounding more on the sort of impact Mah-e-Muneer has had on his personal life, Raz added, “My oldest daughter, who is in the sixth grade, often asks me questions related to school work. Thanks to this programme, I can answer most of those questions now.”

Elaborating about how they hope their programme will be seen, Mah-e-Muneer’s management, in a prepared statement, said: “On the social level, we think we’ll see more schools taking up adult literacy programmes; people would also try to individually teach their house servants. The general public would also start caring more about the issue.”

“If adult literacy programmes grow really popular perhaps it’ll convince the government to increase the education budget. We really hope that programmes like this will inspire their participants to take up teaching as a profession.”

Raz Muhammad hopes other institutions will follow suit and come to the aid of their domestic staff. ─ Photo: Author
Raz Muhammad hopes other institutions will follow suit and come to the aid of their domestic staff. ─ Photo: Author

On the other hand, Raz hopes other institutions adopt similar programmes to help society thrive as a whole. “I feel like colleges and universities everywhere should take up this initiative and help their domestic staff,” he says as he describes his wishes.

“Education has to be continued. It will be better for everyone.”

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