Islamabad – The Pak-China Friendship Centre resembled a big, happy playground on Friday as children and their parents roamed around book stalls, literary discussions, reading sessions and interactive activities at the federal capital’s first-ever Children’s Literature Festival.
The festival, which has previously been held in Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta, is being organised by the Oxford University Press (OUP) and Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi (ITA) in collaboration with the Foundation Open Society Institute (FOSI). It will conclude on May 25.
Hundreds of children and students from various private and public schools from the twin cities accompanied their parents, families and school teachers at the festival’s first day, where around 100 writers, intellectuals, theatre artists, singers and performers had gathered from across Pakistan to conduct a plethora of activities and sessions.
The festival began with song performances by children from schools around the country including Lahore, Islamabad and Quetta.
Dr Kozue Kay Nagata, the director of UNESCO in Islamabad, said children are often made to read textbooks that are boring. Nagata said such textbooks push children away from learning instead of attracting them towards it.
“It is the joint responsibility of the United Nations, the government, civil society organizations and donors that all children, including underprivileged children, have access to stimulating and interesting reading material,” Nagata said.
Organizers Ameena Saiyid of the OUP, Baela Raza Jamil of the ITA and Nargis Sultana of the FOSI addressed the audience during the ceremony. They said the festival aims to preach the message that all children are equal, irrespective of their social standing or the type of school they attend.
The festival is also an attempt to promote book reading among children, the organizers said.
“Books are your best friends,” Saiyid said, addressing the children. “If you are friends with books then you would never be bored or lonely.”
Ambassador of the Netherlands in Pakistan Gajus Scheltema said education is the most important thing in life and without education people can never overcome violence and discrimination in their societies.
“I request the new federal and provincial governments, which will soon take charge, to increase the budget for education considerably,” Scheltema said, before the festival was officially opened for the public with a launching of coloured balloons into the air outside the Pak-China Friendship Centre’s building.
Fun and Games and Learning
In the first floor exhibition hall, children were kept busy with fun activities such as mural painting and pottery making, video games on tablet PCs. Audiovisual booths set up by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan also attracted the kids.
Fatima Khurshid, a housewife from Islamabad, who had accompanied her two children Abdullah, 7, and Irum, 4, said the festival is a great opportunity to attract children to reading and learning activities.
“The interactive sessions and activities have really engaged the attention of the children,” Khurshid said. “Usually, these children always want to play video games but today they have asked me to buy books for them.”
Laajverd, a group of art activists who run a project titled “Bacha Bulletins” also set up their art installation in the hall.
“Bacha Bulletins” focuses on young children from marginalized communities who are encouraged to explore their surrounding using storytelling and photography workshops. The material generated from the workshops is turned into newspaper comics that are printed in The Express Tribune on a weekly basis and also broadcast as an online radio show.
Meanwhile in the main auditorium, famous singer Khalid Anum held an interactive music session with the school children that was followed by a puppet show by Uncle Sargam.
Upstairs, Mira Hashmi captivated the imaginations of a group of primary-age children, most of them wearing school uniforms, with her expressive and interactive storytelling. Her recitation of an Urdu story and a Japanese story translated into Urdu was complete with characters’ voices and body gestures, which was well-received by the young audience.
Similarly, Fatemeh Qazilbash conducted an informative session for young students on how creative writing skills can be developed through book reading.
Sweets and Spacecrafts
A children’s picture book titled “Ladoo” and a children’s magazine titled “Uran Tashtri” or Flying Saucer were also launched at the festival.
Ladoo, which is published by the OUP, is based on the adventures of the book’s main character, a monkey named Ladoo. The book is based along the lines of the minimalistic picture book series, “Miffy”, drawn by Dutch artist Dick Bruna, said Rumana Husain, who wrote the rhymes for the book and was also part of the book’s 4-member illustration team.
Uran Tashtri will be a bi-monthly magazine encompassing areas that are relevant to children and teachers in classrooms. It targets children between the ages of 6 and 13.
Even though the festival was for children, the organizers had planned some highly intellectual session, which dealt with issues about children’s learning but from an adult’s point-of-view.
In a morning session moderated by Pakistani physicist and educationist A. H. Nayyar, Panelists Pervez Hoodbhoy, Zubaida Mustafa and Peter Jacob talked about the continued challenges of textbooks and curriculum.
While Mustafa and Jacob talked about education in mother languages, a visibly agitated Hoodbhoy criticized the content of Pakistani textbooks.
“I have seen a lot of textbooks being used in Pakistan which deserve to be thrown into the sea,” Hoodbhoy said. “A book should make you to think and it should develop a sense of curiosity in you, but in Pakistan, textbooks are being written by inept and incompetent people.”
He said content and the method of imparting education are the biggest problems, before launching into an impassioned speech about the education system.
“Children, you are taught a lot of lies,” Hoodbhoy said, addressing the three dozen or so kids in the audience. “Your elders lie to you. Your textbooks, teachers even your journalists lie to you.”
He cited the example of an article written by a famous journalist, who according to Hoodbhoy had got a textbook banned because it did not have enough Islamic content in the journalist’s opinion.
Hoodbhoy told the children to remain skeptical of everyday claims and to use their own brains to differentiate between truth and lies. He asked them to read extensively and do their own research before reaching any conclusions.
The festival drew a huge crowd and things went smoothly for the most part. But there was some mismanagement during the day, mostly because the large number of sessions planned by the organizers. In a single one-hour time slot, there were 12 sessions planned which is even more than the number of events at the recent Islamabad Literature Festival.
Because of the time conflicts, some events saw empty halls. Samar Minallah’s “Films for change: Child Rights are human rights” sessions was aborted because it failed to get any audience. Similarly, Kishwar Naheed was listed on the programme at two sessions in the same time slot. She ended up moderating the “Tyranny of Language” session and the other session “How to write inspirational poetry for youth” was dropped.