Book lovers and readers often attribute their reading passion to parents who read them bedtime stories, teachers who affectionately added storytelling to their lessons, reading competitions at school and access to libraries and books in their growing years. However, we don’t realise that this is a huge privilege, as in cities like Gilgit and Hunza, many children in these towns don’t have access to the kind of books we did in our growing years. And so, in the absence of well stocked libraries and bookstores with wide collections, any development initiative to encourage children to read and build a love for learning, reading and storytelling in them, is a remarkable effort.
Mountains shouldn’t be too high for tales and books to reach them. Unlike metropolitan cities, Gilgit lack good bookstores. “It is unfortunate that we hardly have a proper bookstore in Gilgit,” tells Salma who constantly struggles to find good content for her daughter to read and consume. “We have lots of stationery stores named as bookstores but they mostly stock textbooks and stationery. Children here deserve books that they could read for pleasure too. I got someone to send us some books from Lahore and realised my daughter really enjoys reading and hearing stories. I just wish we had access to more of them.”
Salma is not the only one who finds it challenging to access good stories and books. In Gilgit, good reading content is hard to find for many reasons. Although the literacy rate in the province is almost 72 per cent, which is the highest compared to other provinces of Pakistan, finding books that spark creativity and imagination in children is still a challenge.
There are too many logistical issues; far flung towns are hard to reach, weather conditions are harsh and towns in deep valleys have lesser communities. Perhaps, these are some of the reasons why commercial bookstores don’t put any effort in reaching Gilgit. Commercial bookstores will inevitably only operate in cities where it makes most business sense; where the number of buyers is high and the demand for books is huge. But who is going to think about towns and cities with smaller communities? How will children in these cities become fond of reading if they can’t access them? They will end up missing a beautiful part of childhood.
One would think a city doesn’t need bookstores if online bookstores are delivering. There are two famous online bookstores, ‘Readings’ and ‘Liberty’ that deliver to Gilgit. A representative at ‘Readings’ shares that book deliveries to Gilgit take up to a week, “We deliver but we don’t get that many orders from there. People probably don’t know we exist.” A salesman at Liberty Books also reveals that they have never received any orders from schools or libraries either. “On an average, we get one or two orders from Gilgit and they are usually by the same customers,” he mentions.
This could be ascribed to the lack of internet access in the region too. Things could have been very different if Gilgit had access to internet. Children there would be able to find interesting reading material and content, share ideas with others, connect with the world and truly learn and grow. While media and communities have been advocating for GB’s right to internet, one can only hope the government takes speedy action.
Another prominent reason for the lack of reading culture in Gilgit is low literacy levels of parents and caregivers. They grew up without access to stories and books and perhaps never got an opportunity to understand how reading for leisure could benefit their children.
While the road to changing a culture is never steady and always full of challenges, it does seem like things are changing. With people coming in and leaving the valley for several years to study and earn in other cities, there has been an influx of different cultures and knowledge as well. There are close to 50 community managed libraries established in 31 government schools in Gilgit, which is a testament that people of Gilgit have begun to realise that they’ve lived long enough without stories and books, but their future generations should not.
These communities are also helped by social activists who run book drives across Pakistan and collect donations to build libraries and stock them up in the north. Founder and Program Director of a development organisation Innovate. Educate. Inspire (IEI), Marvi Soomro has been working in the education and peace-building space in the north for a few years. Marvi and her team have built libraries at schools and donated books in the North. Through various programmes at IEI, they are not only encouraging children to read but are also promoting public art in remote rural communities to foster a culture for peace, empathy, global citizenship, human rights, gender equality and appreciation for diversity.
It has been a few years that Baela Raza Jamil, the Trustee/Advisor for the Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA), Center for Education and Consciousness (CEC) and the founder of Children’s Literature Festival (CLF) has been hosting reading festivals in the country. CLF is a social movement with a goal to expand the culture of reading for creativity, imagination, and multi-sensory stimulation, a learning experience beyond textbooks. The programme encourages children to read, teachers, and schools to adopt innovative reading methodologies empowering children as learners.
This year, CLF took form of Pakistan Learning Festival (PLF) and was hosted in Gilgit. A one-of-a-kind effort and intervention in the North, the festival caught the attention of many including children, parents, teachers, educationists, community members and government stakeholders. The PLF aimed to celebrate and preserve the multicultural heritage and eco-diversity of the region.
Gilgit-Baltistan’s youngest parliament member, Suraiya Zaman, travelled over a hundred kilometres from Diamer to Gilgit city to attend the festival. Although, Suraiya did not have access to such opportunities during her growing years, she realises the potential of such engagements for the future generations of GB. While she actively engages in community development to cultivate a better tomorrow for her region, she hopes today’s children will have more opportunities to learn, grow and prosper.
In collaboration with the regional education department and with the support of the GB government and organisations including Oxford University Press, Telenor Pakistan, Serena Hotels, Bank of Punjab and several others, the three-day festival featured storytelling sessions, writing competitions, singing, and dancing to folk music and other extracurricular activities.
According to Baela, Gilgit was chosen very carefully for this festival. “Hosting the event in Gilgit-Baltistan for the first time is special for two reasons: to celebrate the richness and diversity of the region, and to mark a return to school activities in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Due to the country-wide lockdown, schools in GB were shut down en masse, and following a significant decrease in the number of cases in the province, children can once again return to their school and activities without fear of infection. And with lots of ideas, activities, and stories to enjoy as they return to learning,” she informs.
PLF also hosted a book stall, giving children and parents in Gilgit a brilliant opportunity to stock up on books for them to read later. But more importantly, the festival gave an opportunity for children, their parents, and teachers to connect with poets, thinkers, literary figures, artists and explore new ways of learning together in these uncertain times.
It takes a village
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Inculcating a love for books, instilling good reading habits, and helping children become friends with stories takes a village too. Contrary to popular belief, school and teachers alone cannot do it. Children only spend 30 per cent of their day at school, where they must learn various subjects. They spend an equal amount of time at home with parents and therefore the responsibility lies equally on both.
In fact, it lies on parents’ more because reading habits are often inculcated in children in the early years, when they spend most of their time at home with their parents. Regardless of the geographical region, if parents narrate stories to children, they are more likely to grow up as readers. Setting up a reading hour during the early years can develop a lifelong love for reading and stories in children.
There are many ways to develop reading habits in children. Here are some of them:
Begin early: It is never too early to begin reading out to children. Once the child starts understanding you, they’re ready for a story too.
Read every day: Make it a habit to read out to your child every day. Even if it’s a small story or a part of it but if you read out to them on a regular basis, they will end up becoming fond of the stories and will read independently too.
Engage during storytelling: Engage with them throughout the storytelling process. Always remember, storytelling for kids and children is a two-way process, where you ask them questions and encourage them to ask questions in return.
Children learn what they see: Chances are if you read in front of your children, they are more likely to pick the habit.