A small girls’ school in Basti Awan, Pakistan continues to grow, thanks to the efforts of a local physician and the generosity of the people of Lincoln County.
Rifat Zaidi, who directs the school from his home in Newcastle, is an orthopedic surgery specialist at LincolnHealth’s Miles campus and a talented self-taught photographer.
Zaidi has made photographs since the 1980s and he enjoys capturing scenes from unique angles or unusual perspectives, photographing ordinary things in a different way. His subjects range from street scenes in Pakistan to the landscapes of Maine.
Zaidi said he spent five years chasing a single image of geese lifting off near a lake. The striking composition, called “Flight,” conveys a glorious sense of freedom against nature’s background of green grass and golden light.
That photograph is among those in a new exhibition of Zaidi’s photography. The exhibition, focused on birds, blooms, and butterflies, will be on display at the Miles Memorial Gallery at LincolnHealth in Damariscotta from Oct. 9 to Nov. 26. The metal prints will be available for purchase and all proceeds will support the school in Basti Awan.
Zaidi also maintains a website of his photography that exists entirely to support the school project.
A similar exhibition in 2018 raised enough money to add a computer lab with more than a dozen PCs and Zaidi hopes that funds raised this year will help complete a $35,000 extension to the building that will hold a science lab and allow the school to educate the girls all the way through graduation.
Zaidi works with a group of fellow alumni in the United States who formed the Rawalpindi Medical College Overseas Foundation to respond to a variety of critical needs in their native country.
When the village in Basti Awan, located on the banks of the Indus River, flooded in 2010, the organization adopted it, replacing 322 mud homes with more permanent housing units. When they found there was no school to educate girls in the village, they built two that currently educate approximately 350 students. Zaidi is the director of one of them.
He visits the school every spring, but was unable to make the trip last year due to COVID restrictions. While the pandemic did not spread to the village, Zaidi said the provisional government mandated that schools not open. Since the village has no internet service, remote instruction was not an option, and the girls have lost an entire year of education.
The school started out with five rooms and with all students at grade one, irrespective of age. As the students were assessed, they were divided into classes based on performance. Initially, the school planned to get its students to grade five, but as of this year students have reached grade nine.
Students in Pakistan graduate school from the 10th grade at the age of 16. Achieving that milestone is Zaidi’s objective.
“By the end of next year, we will see the first secondary school certificate graduates,” he said.
The school has 193 students registered and 185 who regularly attend. The curriculum is dictated by the government and includes classes that teach English and Urdu, theology, math, science and social studies.
According to Zaidi’s wife Tasneem, girls’ education is not forbidden in Pakistan. On the contrary, even the poorest of the poor send their girls to school if they can. “In Islam, education is compulsory for boys and girls,” she said.
In a later email, Tasneem Zaidi wrote, “Educating a girl has a trans-generational impact, which is what we are striving for to combat fundamentalism, poverty and ignorance. Education is the preventive medicine which then removes the necessity of later, more expensive palliative care of failed states and societies, much like in Afghanistan.”
In the introduction to the Basti Awan school project on his website, Rifat Zaidi said “No part is remote enough in this global village of ours to make us immune to festering diseases, either microbial or social. Education is our main defense. In under-developed countries, girls’ education is usually ignored by their families and governments.”
According to Rifat and Tasneem Zaidi, villagers have told them that the school has affected the entire community. The students are teaching their parents, many of whom are illiterate and that chain of education is having a significant impact on everyday life.
“What happens there affects us here. Education affects everything. (Supporters of the school) are changing the lives of not just the 350 girls at the two schools, but the 350 families of the girls, the community, and future generations.”
The Miles exhibition is for a limited time and with the COVID factor and the cafeteria closed the work will have less exposure than in the past, so Rifat Zaidi is looking for a more permanent venue to display his work to establish a more constant stream of revenue for the school.
Tasneem Zaidi said, “A dollar raised here is translated into a lot more currency and buying power there.”
Purchases from photography exhibitions and the website, along with additional donations have provided jackets, sweaters, and warm socks in winter, new uniforms for the start of school, books and educational materials, teacher training and transportation, a new playground with a jungle gym and merry-go-round, and a computer lab.
Much of the funding that paid for these improvements came from Lincoln County.
To Rifat Zaidi, “Working on this is more important than anything else. It’s just one school, but many drops make an ocean. This is my drop.”
Donations to support the school can be made through the Rawalpindi Medical College Overseas Foundation, a registered charity in the United States. All donations are tax deductible. A $100 gift can sponsor one girl for an entire year.