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We Shall Overcome… Someday

July 25, 2010

Three boys that attend school at Grameen Shikkha.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

Today we went to a slum school run by a Grameen sister organization – Grameen Shikkha. One of the programs offered by Grameen Shikkha is a non-formal school for slum children. There are currently about 450 students enrolled in 20 schools. The slum was about a 1o minute drive from my hotel – in Dhaka traffic terms that means maybe 2 kilometers away. The mission of Grameen Shikkha is to provide at-risk slum children with a basic education to improve their work opportunities. Students receive basic instruction in English, Bangla, simple mathematics, social sciences and the environment. They also study Bangladeshi customs and some arts. The students sang songs for us, including We Shall Overcome, a well-known rally song from the Civil Rights Movement, adapted from a gospel song. Today as the students from the Dhaka slums sang this powerful song, I realized that it has completely different meaning to them and to Bangladesh than it did to the Civil Rights Movement.

We’re on to victory, We’re on to victory,
We’re on to victory someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We’re on to victory someday.

When we arrived, we immediately drew a crowd as always, a short walk later, we arrived at a small classroom about 10 ft. by 16 ft. There were 20 students and a teacher. No desks, no chairs. The students sit on the floor with their stack of books in front of them. There is one chalk board at the front of the room, one ceiling fan and one light bulb used to illuminate the entire classroom. The students were between the ages of 12 and 14 and were in Grade 5.  The 12 of us, the 20 students, the teacher, the interpreter and a manager from Grameen Shikkha all crowded into this tiny room and immediately, the crowd from outside was blocking the windows and doors to see what was happening. Each student stood and told us, in English, his/her name, age, grade, the name of the school and their teacher and the name of their country.

We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday.

The children at this school get up at 6am and begin work – many of them sewing beads and embellishments on saris to be worn by brides. They work until 9am when they receive a break until 2pm. School is 2pm to 5pm and then they return to their homes where they continue to work until 10pm. They go to bed at 10pm. This doesn’t leave much time to be a child or to devote to their studies, but their families are in desperate need of money the children can earn. It takes about one week for a wedding sari to have all of its beads and embellishments hand-sewn by these children. One child makes 900 taka a week (less than $13 US); another makes about 250 taka (less than $4 US). By the way, the work week in Bangladesh is six days. They only get off on Fridays – the Muslim day of prayer.

We are not afraid, we are not afraid,
We are not afraid today;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We are not afraid today.

As we were preparing to leave, the students asked us if we had any performance to share with them – we sang Itsy Bitsy Spider. It doesn’t seem fitting that we sang a children’s song and they sang a powerful song so deeply entrenched into a major movement in the United States, but they seemed to enjoy it anyway and even picked up on the hand motions. We asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. It seemed too easy to wonder why we would even ask this type of question – these children are grown up. They work 8 hours a day and have school 3 hours a day. Their lives seem to parallel that a working, American graduate student, not that of a child.  But even if I was discouraged by the barriers stacked against them, the students were full of hopeful future plans – teachers, doctors, pilots, businessmen. They are determined to improve their lives and leave the slums and Grameen Shikkha is equally determined to help them do it. They just launched a new scholarship program that will help students’ families pay for high school education and hopefully from there, these children can earn scholarships to University.

The truth shall set us free, the truth shall set us free,
The truth shall set us free someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
The truth shall set us free someday.

Last stop of the day was just one slum-block down the mud road. As we walked into the small room that clearly served as a workroom and a kitchen, two boys from the class were sitting on the floor bent over an easel that held the fabric of a sari firm so that they could quickly and easily sew on beads.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall live in peace someday.

A Grameen Shikkha student who works sewing beads on wedding saris. Photo by Brandi List.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dianne Glenn permalink
    July 29, 2010 11:14 AM

    Lynne B,

    This soundws like the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m still wondering what you are eating. How are the living conditions – are you getting used to them? Have fun and stay well
    Mrs. G

  2. December 8, 2010 1:58 AM

    Thank you for another wonderful write-up. Where else could anybody get that kind of facts in these kinds of a perfect way of writing? I’ve a presentation subsequent week, and I’m around the appear for like details.

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