The expressions of the children change when she takes their class in a fun way. Meet Zaiba Taj, the favourite teacher of Haleem Nagar slum kids in Mysore. Here is how she found her own dreams by teaching these young minds.
Every morning, a young woman steps out of her small two-room home, which she shares with her grandmother, parents and three siblings, ready to take on another hectic day at work. As she briskly walks past a row of cramped tenements, a gaggle of enthusiastic children follows her. She takes this opportunity to quickly find out whether they have done their homework and what they plan to do after returning from school.
Every once in a while she stops to talk to some older women to enquire how their little ones are faring in studies and whether they need any guidance. There is something quite charismatic about this girl, who has donned the traditional ‘salwar kameez’ and ‘hijab’ – everyone seems to love her and the respect she commands from the community belies her age.
Meet Zaiba Taj, 21, mentor to several hundred children in and around her Haleem Nagar slum in Mysore and a true agent of change, who has not only managed to bring about a positive transformation in her own life but has been able to motivate others like her to follow in her footsteps.
As someone who has seen her parents struggle to make ends meet, Taj, who belongs to a conservative Muslim family, understands the importance of quality education and gainful employment, something she constantly talks to her young mentees about in her capacity as a Youth Mentor with Magic Bus, a non-government organisation that attempts to move children from poverty by making sure they have the basics they need to grow up well.
Founded by Matthew Spacie, the organisation works in 22 states in India and runs a successful youth programme that uses sports and other “fun activities” to impart valuable life lessons.
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Over the years, Taj has closely observed her grandmother and parents work day-and-night to keep the home fires burning, a harsh reality that has only started to improve since she began working with Magic Bus three years ago. While her grandmother is employed as a mid-day meal cook at a government school, her father is a daily wager who makes Rs 3,000 a month. Her mother is not just burdened with household chores but she tries to take out time to roll ‘beedis’ (country cigarettes) to augment their meagre earnings.
Of course, had it not been for Taj’s grandmother, who sat in on a recruitment drive organised by Magic Bus in their neighbourhood, she would never have gotten the chance to turn her life around.
Recalls the 50-year-old, who staunchly supports her granddaughter, “The NGO was looking for youngsters who they could train as mentors to talk to children about why they should go to school regularly or the need for maintaining cleanliness and hygiene. I felt Zaiba was capable of doing this job, so I suggested her name.”
What came next for this reticent young woman was an eight-day residential training programme under the guidance of Venkatesh N.T., Programme Manager, Magic Bus, Mysore. Says Venkatesh, “We have been working with children in this city since 2012 and have created a dynamic group of staff and volunteers. We pick potential team members with the help of community elders, parents and teachers. Thereafter, the selected candidates are put through an effective training module. I have watched Zaiba grow from being a shy teenager to a confident young woman, keen to make a real difference.”
Naturally, prospective mentors have to first change themselves in order to be able to do the same for those they reach out to. And that’s precisely what the programme equips them to do.
Elaborates Mrinalini Sanyal, State Head, Magic Bus-Karnataka, “This intensive programme is designed to create change-makers. At the onset, most youth mentors are quiet. But since the programme is activity driven and focuses on team building, in the end a kind of emotional upheaval happens in them. In a sense, we allow them to explore and evaluate themselves as individuals.” Though it is an immensely empowering experience, Sanyal does admit that “families are not comfortable sending young women for a residential training. Magic Bus staff has to explain everything in great detail before they agree”.
Taj is glad that her parents let her follow her dream of “doing something big with her life”. “That training was an eye-opener for me. I gained insights into a variety of issues like health, gender and child protection. I came to know the difference between what is right and just and what is unfair. But more importantly, I learnt how to express myself. There was a time when I couldn’t step outside the home on my own or speak freely with my peers. These days, I am not afraid of approaching the area municipal corporator if the need arises and can effortlessly address a large gathering,” she remarks with a smile.
Among the several duties that fill her busy six-day work schedule the time she spends at the HUDCO government school at Bannimantap is perhaps the most precious to her.
She does not mind trudging for nearly four kilometres to interact with 320 students four days in the week.
Incidentally, Taj trades her ‘hijab’ for a blue T-shirt, trainers and peaked cap while at school, where “pilelo-didi”, as she is known among her mentees, makes it a point to introduce interesting educational games and other sporting activities to make schooling enjoyable.
“The curriculum developed by Magic Bus is fun and every week we do something different during our sessions so that the children are engaged enough to keep coming back to school,” explains Taj.
So much so, that besides students, teachers at the government school also look forward to overseeing her interactive sessions that are held in the playground.
Stella Kumari, who teaches Classes One and Two, and her colleague, A.K. Gunavathi, who takes Class Three, acknowledge Taj’s contribution, “When we instruct them using textbooks the children learn concepts in theory. But Zaiba teaches them the same subject from a practical point of view, which reinforces their knowledge.”
Adds Parvathi, who teaches Class five, “Every week there is some new activity and so there is a great deal of curiosity among my students regarding what they are going to learn when they go out of the classroom.”
For Fatima, the Urdu teacher, it’s the expressions of her pupils that are priceless, “You should see the way our children’s expressions change when they see Zaiba; the sheer joy is rewarding. Her powers of persuasion are so incredible that no parent complains when she gets the girls to join in the football matches she organises, despite it being a sport for boys.”
Apart from visiting the HUDCO school, Taj spends time in Haleem Nagar conducting after-school workshops and visiting homes of children who are absent from school. In fact, attendance at HUDCO school has gone up by 20 per cent in the last three years thanks to her relentless efforts.
On Sundays, too, she holds meetings with the Community Youth Leaders in the area, exchanging notes and evaluating their work. Currently, through its three-tiered structure, which comprises six Team Monitoring Officers, 30 Youth Mentors like Taj, and over 550 honorary Community Youth Leaders, Magic Bus is reaching out to 20,263 children across Mysore.
Taj’s ambitions do not end with her success as a Youth Mentor. She hopes to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree soon and has been religiously saving up from her Rs 7,500 monthly salary to be able to buy things for the two most important women in her life – her grandmother and mother. “Zaiba is an ideal Youth Mentor and the kind of changes she has brought about in her locality are simply amazing. Leading by example, she continues to inspire many young people to improve their lives,” signs off Venkatesh.