by Jonny Bealby, MD & Founder of Wild Frontiers.
It’s been almost five years since we started the Baleygon School project and it’s great to be back. There’s no bunting across the narrow dusty track that leads from the suspension bridge into the village as there was in 2012 when we came to inaugurate the new buildings. There are no misspelt banners proclaiming ‘Welcome Wild Fronters’. And there are no kids cheering our arrival.
But there are kids in the new classrooms, sitting on the new furniture, listening to their teachers and that is all that matters. As I enter a room with around 30 kids, aged between about 4 and 6, they all stand and scream, ‘Good morning sir!’ My heart almost pops out of my mouth! It is a wonderful moment.
Walking in to the next classroom around 20 older children are reading English out loud. The girls here are more shy and turn away when I try to photograph them, but the boys all want to show off their skills and fight with each other to make themselves heard.
It has been a long journey to get to this point and for those that don’t the story here it is. Wanting to put something substantial back into a part of the world that had given us so much, I asked Attaullah Khan – one of our most dedicated Pakistani tour leaders – to find a suitable place to build a school. Inspired as I was by Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea, education seemed like the best way to help the children of this remote corner of the globe.
Atta found Baleygon, a place that had a tiny ‘school’ of two rooms where 108 kids were essentially being looked after, not taught, by one old guy. There was no furniture, the kids had no uniform, there were no pens, books, teaching aids… for all intense and purposes it was simply a place for the kids to be, not a place at which they would get an education. It was therefore perfect for us.
Having consulted the village elders and agreed that they actually wanted an extension to the two rooms they already had, we first had to raise the money which we did by putting a group together and walking to K2. Susie, Annabel, Ian, Petre, Nina, and myself raised over £20,000 and so the project began. We bought the land; sadly not the land we wanted right next to the old classrooms – the owner of that wanted three times the going rate – but a new piece of land 50 metres away and set to work buying the materials and building the new compound.
By 2012, when I came with a small group to inaugurate the place – when we were treated like royalty; I literally had to cut a ribbon that crossed the doorway of one of the new classrooms – the main structure was ready, and we had signed up another excellent young teacher, but there was still much to do before it could really be used. But at this point ISI – the Pakistani equivalent of MI5 – put a block on all NGOs work while they assessed that we were real charities working for purely altruistic reasons or a front to sponsor terrorism. This took a year out of our schedule and when I returned in 2013 the place looked pretty much the same; the floors were still bare, the walls were yet to be plastered, there was still no furniture.
So returning yesterday was wonderful and the place is finally all but finished. The compound wall is in place, as are two smart new latrines – these are essential if you want girls to come to school – furniture fills the rooms and most of the kids have uniforms. We have also procured another teacher meaning there are now three working here. Sure there are still issues which need addressing; the white boards and teaching aids need to be collected from Skardu, the outer wall needs painting, and doors need to be put on the latrines so that they can be sued. Also, rather annoyingly, what I imagined would be the kids’ grassy playground in front of the classrooms is actually now an allotment growing potatoes! But Atta has promised that all this will be put right by the time our next group arrives in late August and I’ll be checking to see that they have.
When I first set foot in Baleygon five yes ago, this is what I most wanted; to help give the kids here a chance to get the foundations of an education so they can move on to the middle school six kilometres down the valley when the time is right. Without this basic learning facility that simply wouldn’t happen, they’d be in the fields working, never become literate and numerate and therefore never move on.
It’s been quite a journey, and I know its not finished yet. But at least I can now say it really is working.
Thank you to all those that have helped make this happen. If you’d like to donate, please visit our JustGiving page.