An education initiative in a poor area of Cairo is seeking to address the practical and philosophical shortcomings of Egypt’s crumbling state system
Nineteen children are squirming in the dark. There has been a power cut for most of their 90-minute English lesson. At the front of the room their teacher, who is from the US, leads a demonstration with a student; a plastic emergency light casts their faces in silhouette.
“How. Are. You?” the teacher draws out each word.
“Alhamdulillah,” the child responds in Arabic. “Praise God.”
The school in the poor Cairo neighbourhood of Saft al-Laban is founded by activists and provides after-school classes to help plug the gaps left by the city’s overcrowded, underfunded public schools, with smaller classes and better-trained teachers. The initiative, called Mish Madrasa (Not a School), is run by volunteers and relies on donations for funding and equipment.
The school’s founder, Mostafa Wafa, is standing in the corner of the room, balancing the emergency light on his head with one hand. Wafa, a 24-year–old Cairo University graduate with a friendly smile and scruffy beard, says the impetus for the school came in part from his participation in Egypt’s 2011 revolution, which deposed President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of authoritarian rule. While the larger political project of the revolution collapsed, he believed that a concrete, local initiative might succeed.
“We want to provide the neighbourhood with a good school. A school for humans,” says Wafa at his family’s house, where classes also take place. “In my opinion, education is the backbone of everything. If you want to change a society, you have to start with education.”
He was also inspired to start the school by observing life in Saft al-Laban, a neighbourhood of towering concrete buildings bisected by a highway overpass. The area is one of Cairo’s vast unplanned zones of self-built housing known in Arabic as the ashwayyat – literally, haphazard.
Walking through his neighbourhood one day, Wafa came across a group of young children carrying sticks and knives. They had just fought a rival group. He asked them why. “Because they beat up my little brother,” one of them replied.
“Did you see Salah? The kid in the red T-shirt. He was the kid with the knife,” says Wafa, referring to a student who had wandered in early to the classroom, clutching a notebook for the English lesson.
In Saft al-Laban, just three schools serve about 300,000 people, according to Wafa, who says classes can consist of up to 100 students. “The situation is so much worse now. I used to go to a public middle school, a public high school, and a public university. It wasn’t like that 10 years ago.”
Mish Madrasa follows the government curriculum taught in public schools. Part of the project’s goal is to achieve where the public schools sometimes fail. More than a quarter of Egypt’s population is illiterate, including a significant percentage of school students.
“We’re talking about a system that’s very poor, unimaginative, awful in many ways. Informal areas have access to that,” says Farida Makar, a researcher on education. “They’re not just structural problems, they’re philosophical problems in the way that education is understood. There is no real conversation around what education should be and why.”
Alongside Egypt’s public schools is a parallel system of private centres, tutors, and some NGOs devoted to helping students – although Wafa believes that these focus more on raising funds than on ensuring that teaching is effective. He sees these alternatives as his competition.
He says: “They are literally just teaching them how to read and write. And that’s an achievement. They are surprising their parents by having their children read and write. We want to provide them with a good education.”
In Saft al-Laban, he says, the most prominent private tutoring option is a network of centres founded by an ultra-conservative Salafi former accountant. “He’s popular now in the schools. Every teacher in the school knows him. And he started from nothing,” he says.
Wafa says his aim is to compete with NGOs, private tutors, and Islamists. “For sure, I want to expand like this guy. I don’t want to just receive funds and have the high-class circles know about me,” he says. “I’d rather the slum areas know about me.”
~ Jared Malsin
11 May 2015