Mela in Martadi
Donkey libraries and Reading Mela (Fairs) promote reading culture in far-western hills of Nepal
The clacking of donkey’s hooves on the narrow cobbled streets and the jingling of bells around their necks as they shuffle through town are nothing new to the residents of Martadi bazaar. Martadi is the headquarters of Bajura district in the remote northern part of far-western region of Nepal, and two days’ journey away from Kathmandu. Due to the poor access of roads, mules and donkeys transporting goods from one place to another is the most common sight in the town. Nobody would turn to look twice at them. However, on 28th May 2015, two donkeys grabbed everyone’s attention. People of all ages milled around the animals with curiosity and amusement. These beasts of burden, unlike other times, were not carrying sacks of goods. They were draped with books in large transparent bags.
Prashant Shahi, a six-year-old resident of Martadi was fascinated by the donkeys that had stickers saying ‘Read. Learn. Know’ on their foreheads lots of colourful pictorial books on their backs. He joined other children vying to take a closer look at the books, and pulling out the books to read whenever the donkeys slowed down.
A human procession with placards and loudspeaker followed the donkeys announcing the news of first ever Reading Mela (fair) in Martadi happening the following day, organised by UNICEF’s partners World Education and Seto Gurans.
The Unforgettable Mela Day
On the Mela day, Prashant went to the large play-ground of Shree Kalika Higher Secondary School in Martadi with his mother Sushila Shahi. He was welcomed by the volunteers with badges, stickers and book-marks. The playground was decked with eight stalls displaying different reading materials, games, locally made educational materials, story/poetry recitation, drawing and tattooing corners, amongst others. “My son was so happy to see the Mela that he pranced around from one stall to the next,” says Sushila.
The Mela was a way to bring parents, students, teachers and other stakeholders together to promote reading culture, foster engagement of parents in enhancing the learning capacity of their children. It also aimed to introduce an alternative way to rote-learning method by demonstrating creative teaching, learning methods to early grade teacher and students.
Ishwar Saud, 9, came to the Mela site on a jeep after a 3-hour-long drive in the dirt road from his village in Kailashmandu Village Development Committee (VDC), along with his teacher and a dozen of friends of his age. Ishwar took part in drawing, played dice game and sponge game, took books from the donkey’s back and sat reading for hours.
“I loved the book ‘Mero kukhura chha’ (I have a chicken)”
said Ishwar who admitted that the trip to the Mela had been like an out of the world experience. “It was the children’s first trip to the district headquarters” explained his teacher Man Bahadur Saud. “So they were really excited, and still chatter about what they saw and experienced that day!”
Benefitting 16,000 people the donkey way
Since the children and teachers in the remote northern districts of far-western region lack access to adequate reading materials and appropriate learning techniques, UNICEF and its partners have launched the concept of donkey library and Reading Mela to promote reading culture. UNICEF’s formal education consultant Dipu Shakya explains, “Because donkeys can reach the far-flung areas, are small in size and do not harm children, said we are trying to send these animals with their novel load to villages where children have not seen any other books besides their textbooks.”
As a part of UNICEF’s Early Grade Reading programme, 30 Melas have already been organised at the district and settlement level in four of the most remote districts of the far western region -- Bajura, Mugu, Kalikot and Achham reaching 16,000 people. Similarly, book libraries on donkey’s backs were paraded in the villages to promote Reading Mela and create interest and awareness on the importance of reading.
“Thanks to UNICEF for the novel concept, for the financial support and capacity building opportunities,” said Dhruva Thapa, UNICEF’s partner NGO Seto Gurans’ Reading Programme Coordinator. “Donkey libraries and Reading Mela have become hugely popular among children, parents, teachers and community members.”
Changing norms, creating social movement
“These Melas are aimed at creating a bigger social movement on how society perceives the concept of reading,” says Helen Sherpa, Country Director of UNICEF’s partner World Education. “They help children decode reading independently through games, blocks, cut-out letters, stories and pictures and encourage parents to converse with the children more frequently about their natural and cultural environment for better vocabularies and social skills.”
Bajura is one of the districts having highest number of dropout in school enrolment at secondary level. High repetition or automatic graduation in early grades without acquiring sufficient vocabulary and cognitive skills are some of the reasons for the high dropout rate. UNICEF aims to prevent the dropout trend in the district by increasing the learning capacity of children early on by promoting libraries on donkeys and organising Reading Melas.
"I have seen positive changes in the reading habit and capacity of my students after going to the Reading Mela in Martadi” says Man Bahadur Saud who organised a similar kind of Mela in his school in Kailashmandu VDC together with his students. “The enthusiasm shown by the parents and students in the Mela was really exciting, and encouraging too.”