Just 80 km from the city of Minya lies the village of Reedy, where 4,000 people live just above the poverty line but are still keen to educate their children.
However, the nearest elementary school is 3 km away in the neighboring village, requiring the roughly 400 children to navigate dangerous traffic and criminal elements in order to attend classes.
The villagers of Reedy have long argued for their own school, which would allow them to educate their kids closer to home, even offering to build it themselves. But for the past seven years, local authorities have refused their request to begin construction on a patch of land they selected for the purpose.
Now the villagers have gone ahead and started construction anyway, despite the lack of official approval for the scheme. Parents, children and relatives have chipped in to make their plan a reality, and have already put up six cottage-like classrooms.
While the construction is under the direction of adults, pupils have been providing labor, fetching and carrying bricks and other materials, apparently unfazed by the physical effort.
“We collected the money for the school from all the people of the village, even widows and the poor,” said Haitham Khalifa, adding that the kids were the driving force of the initiative, and the adults have followed.
A boy helps sifting sand during construction work.
However, Minya Governor Tareq Nasr told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the construction project is taking place on government land and that it will be demolished if it is proven illegal.
While the discussions about a new school have been ongoing for years, the bottom line, say some locals, is that officials claim there is no public money for such a project. In view of the lack of movement on the part of officials, villagers have taken matters into their own hands, raising the money and providing construction materials themselves
Villagers build another wall at their new self-funded school.
Villager Mamdouh Abd al-Rasoul said, “We started demanding a school in 2009. The local council that is responsible for Reedy in administrative matters allocated 14 kirats [one kirat equals 175 m2] from state land for the school.
“And from 2010 to 2014, the General Authority for Educational Buildings (GAEB) was studying the project. Then in 2014, they demanded further documents concerning the land,” Rasoul added.
“Every time we go to Minya to ask about the thing, we return frustrated, because the officials are absent. And when we find them, they say there is no budget for new schools,” says Amr Kamel.
Officials from Minya Educational Directorate say that the governor have to sign the papers of the land for the school to be built, they add that a school building can’t be recognized officially unless constructed by the GAEB.
The risk posed to life and limb by the local traffic is very real, say local residents, and proof can be found in the long list of injured children. In addition, say the villagers, criminal gangs have been known to abduct children on the journey.
The normal walk to school takes children across two main roads, the first connecting Bani Mazar to Tombo village, and the second connecting the villages of Tombo and Saft Obo Gerj.
Child abduction is not unknown in the area, say villagers, with several children having been kidnapped for ransom. In other cases, thieves will rob the children, stealing, among other things, the girls’ ear-rings.
Parents and teachers take a break during construction work.
Hopes and dreams
Al-Masry Al-Youm spoke with a few of the pupils about their reasons for taking part in the school-building project, and what they hope to get out of it.
Yasmin Saber, 12, dreams of a future without poverty, and says the school is the beginning of her journey into such a future. Yasmin says she is willing to work to reduce the time and distance she and her classmates walk to school every day.
As she carries a brick on her head, she wonders, “Our ancestors built the pyramids, so why shouldn’t we build our school?”
She adds, “You’re a journalist. Tell the minister that we just want to learn.”
Children involved in the project send out their demand for education.
Another girl, Kholod Mahmoud, 8, says she is building the school with her colleagues to save themselves from the fate of Rabaa Ismail, who was hit by a car while going to the school in the neighboring village. Ismail survived the accident but still has scars on her face.
Tabarak Ahmed, 13 years, and Sabrine Mahdi, 7, said that some classmates sustained serious injuries during their daily journey back and forth from school. Among them is Yusuf Jomaa, who sustained broken ribs in an accident. Hind Hassan got a broken leg in a road accident but now helps in building the school.
Hanin Saddam, 7, had a message for the Education Minister: “I am the little pupil Hanin, building my school.”
Finally, Hind Hany, 9, said: “We want to learn. We do not want to die.”