KARACHI, Pakistan — At the far end of a quiet, unpaved alley on the periphery of Karachi, in the shadow of a mosque affiliated with the outlawed sectarian outfit, Sipah-e-Sahaba, a small, nondescript two-storied structure houses a coed elementary school that offers classes in English, Urdu, mathematics, social studies, religion, and drawing.

In a way, the two organizations vie for the allegiance of the children of the conservative local population: Pathans, mostly Mehsuds of Waziristan, the troubled scrim of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Women in Waziristan rarely leave their houses, much less read or write.

In this school, however, they run things.

There are three rooms inside, arranged around a neat, open-air courtyard. A wizened old lady presides on a bedstead in one. When her husband died a few years back, leaving her to raise three children, she was convinced by a representative of FLAME — an acronym for Friends of Literary and Mass Education — to open a school in her house.

While the matriarch’s son, a bearded fellow who wears a skullcap, only reluctantly conceded, her moon-faced daughters, both matriculate, readily signed up to teach the 55 students, mostly girls. It was a small revolution.

Although the students seem shy at a glance — the girls cover their heads with traditional scarves — they stand up when called on. A 6-year-old boy with his hair combed to one side explained the philosophy of multiplication — when you get down to it, multiplication is basically addition, he said — before solving equations in his workbook, while another displayed proficient portraits and drawings depicting urban landscapes.

One student, a 10-year-old girl named Aksa, read a passage in English faster than most newscasters: “Aunty Sadori was shaping a pot. [The wheel] went round and round. While the wheel was moving she shaped the pot with both hands. It was fun to watch.” She proceeded to read, in the same breathless manner, passages in Urdu and Sindhi. At 10, Aksa speaks four languages.

Although education at FLAME schools is practically free, area parents have to be independently counseled by a teacher or field coordinator to convince them to dispatch their children to the school. The field coordinator for the area, an articulate Sindhi named Ahmed Hussain, said that Pathans often refuse to send their girls to government schools where there are men on the staff, whether teachers or plumbers. Many are even wary of him.

“Some parents, some teachers even, have never met a man who is not from their clan. I have to explain myself, explain the importance of education, explain FLAME,” he said.

The dynamics, however, of each neighborhood and each demographic are different. The Baluchis, for instance, are said to be even more conservative than the Pathans. In another home school 20 minutes away, the Baluchi teacher had her face covered. On the other hand, in a school in the Shia neighborhood of Pipri — populated by Shia Pathans, Sindhis and Punjabis — Hussain said the hijab wasn’t the problem. There simply aren’t many functioning government schools in the area.

Owing to the poor social services infrastructure in parts of Pakistan, initiatives such as FLAME have multiplied over the years. From the uncanny Edhi and Chippa ambulance services in Karachi to the health, education and poverty alleviation programs of HANDS to the formidable network of low-cost schools operated by The Citizen’s Foundation, individuals and donors have stepped up to the plate.

And there are private sector initiatives as well. Nasra School, for instance, which began in a garage five decades ago, has become the largest private school in Karachi under the aegis of Kaniz Wajid Khan and Zohra Karim. In the last four years, it has expanded to two more campuses in far-flung areas of the city — North Karachi and National Highway — and now educates some 12,000 students.

Though not unique, FLAME is a remarkable startup venture. Started in earnest in 2004 by Mansoor Alam, a retired diplomat, it is becoming a phenomenon.

“I wanted to use a low-cost model for basic education, for the poorest the poor. But even that requires money,” he said.

Initially, Alam solicited funds from his extended family. The Japanese Embassy in Islamabad subsequently furnished a one-time grant of $33,000. The government of Sind and the Italian government have also recently become involved in the effort. Most funds, however, are raised from private local donors and diaspora Pakistanis.

At present, FLAME accommodates some 12,000 students — about 7,800 are girls — in and around lower-income cantons of Pakistan.

In addition to providing blackboards, textbooks, uniforms and paying utilities and teachers’ salaries, FLAME regularly dispatches “mobile health units” to each school. The unit comprises two or three women doctors who hold a clinic to treat common ailments, from bruises and cuts to coughs, colds and the flu.

While administrating Calpol syrup, a 20-something doctor at the school in the Pathan neighborhood said the mobile health units not only encourage the students to maintain hygiene but also to attend school. After all, it’s free health care, she said. The teachers also avail of the service; it motivates them as well.

“Education changes motivations, objectives, and perceptions,” said Alam. “The girls who attend school start thinking differently. Their world becomes bigger. And the boys also have more options than just going to madrassas.”

Contingent on funding, Alam plans to expand FLAME’s network to a whopping 10,000 “non-formal basic education schools” in the next five years. It’s an ambitious target and the organization faces many challenges: funding, issues of scale and teacher training. Not to mention many critics.

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