Hearing a Gem of an idea
Gem Munro and son Alastair came to the North Island last week for a pair of addresses to Port Hardy and Port McNeill Rotary members.
Gem, along with wife Dr. Tanyss Munro and their four children, are integral members of the Amarok Society, a Canadian charity organization which aims to improve standards in some of the poorest areas in the world through education.
The husband and wife team worked as teachers in an isolated First Nation reserve in Northern Alberta, solidifying their belief in education as a driving force for change.
In 2005, the family relocated to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to teach in the slums there.
Gem explained to the Rotarians that Bangladesh posed unique challenges, and the family quickly recognized the traditional approach of building schools and bringing in teachers was not going to work.
They hit upon a different approach, one that many people assured them was unworkable, and decided to go into the slums and teach uneducated mothers there to be teachers, a project dubbed Mothers of Intention.
Gem explained that the project presented a series of challenges, culturally in particular. In Bangladesh, described as a “moderate Muslim country” by Gem, women typically marry young, and once married, their education ends.
He explained that many of the women they educate typically enter the program with a vocabulary of around 700 words in Bengali. An educated westerner can draw on somewhere in the range of 15,000 words.
Most are illiterate, Gem said.
“One of the first things we teach is how to hold a pencil,” he said. “The next is which end goes to the paper.”
By the time they graduate from the program they can read and write in their local language, have learned English (described by Gem as “the language of opportunity” in the region) and math, as well as basic nutrition and conflict resolution. These women then go on to educate children in their area.
The program has been a huge success, Gem explained, with fourteen schools now in operation in Dhaka and a further six in the city of Khulna.
The group has received invitations to open more such schools.
After initial resistance from some husbands and the slumlords who control the areas in which the schools operate, the project and the results it has shown have won over opponents.
The society has a partnership with the Rotary Club of Belleville, Ont., and in 2010 also formed an agreement with the Rotary Club of Midtown Dhaka to support its projects.
Gem explained that besides Rotarian support and individual donations, the society is also funded through sales of his book, South Asian Adventures with the Active Poor, a bestselling narrative of some of Gem’s experiences in the region.
For more information on the Amarok Society and the work it does, or for excerpts of Gem’s book, go to www.amaroksociety.org.