The ghost schools of Pakistan

KARACHI — Despite ankle deep garbage, charcoal-scribbled graffiti of machine guns and the scorched remains of squatters’ fires, the dusty green chalkboard still reads “December 2, 2006,” the last day that classes were held in the primary school wing of Mirza Adam Khan, a government-run compound of schools in the poor and violence plagued Karachi neighborhood of Lyari.

This is just one of as many as an estimated 30,000 “ghost schools” — nonfunctioning schools that continue to exist only on paper — throughout Pakistan. Recent government reports suggest almost 7,000 such schools exist throughout the southern Pakistani province of Sindh, many of them in the megacity of Karachi.

“A ghost school might be a school which is not there, it never was built, and they said ‘oh we’ve built the school’ and there’s actually no school there,” said professor Anita Ghulam Ali, former Sindh education minister and head of Sindh Education Foundation, a government agency that works to address education issues in the province.

“Then of course the usual, the most common one is where the school is closed and there are no teachers, so for all intents and purposes it’s a ghost school.”

Literacy rates and school attendance in Pakistan, while recently improved, still hover around 50 percent. The Pakistani government has promised a renewed commitment to improving education in the country including an increased budget and the launching of new programs.

And the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a military and civilian aid package to Pakistan with earmarks for education which now awaits approval in the Senate.

But many here worry that money and promises alone won’t address the root problems. 

“If you don’t have people who go regularly to check up and see whether the school is running, then obviously you don’t know what’s happening on the ground,” said Ali about the mismanagement of government schools. “The whole problem is that nobody wants to upset anybody’s apple cart.”

And while international attention is focused on religious extremism in madrassas and the destruction of girls’ schools by the Taliban, the violent fallout of neglecting education in this part of the country may have been overlooked.

Though there are many definitions for a “ghost school,” and many paths schools take to end up on this shadowy list, most narratives include tales of persistent government neglect, corruption and mismanagement.

According to teachers and administrators within the Mirza Adam Khan compound, drug addicts began breaking into the primary school a few years ago, using the empty classrooms every night to shoot heroin, eventually even stripping metal grates and ceiling fans to resell for scrap.

When repeated requests to government representatives for additional money to hire the security necessary to prevent the nightly break-ins went unheeded, the situation became untenable, the wing was emptied and students were absorbed into other classes.

With all attempts at saving the primary wing forgotten, addicts and gangsters have claimed the building as their own, arriving like clockwork every evening to build fires where desks once sat and to add to the violent mural of graffiti that now marches across the soiled whitewashed walls.

Freshly discarded needles and rolled newspaper straws used for snorting drugs strewn across the floor are left as evidence of the school’s new inhabitants.

Whether this primary school continues to exist on paper as a functional school somewhere in the labyrinthine government bureaucracy is hard to determine, but community members hold a cynical suspicion that it does.

“Government schools in Lyari are like this” said Haji Noon Baloch, head of a community organization here, as he wanders through the dejected compound gesturing not only to the haunted classrooms of the primary wing but also to the six other troubled government schools squeezed into the courtyard, “It is all about bread and water for the politicians,” he continued, invoking an Urdu phrase for corruption.

A sense of doom permeates the remaining classrooms that cling to fringes of functionality throughout the compound. Outside of one primary classroom, young children loiter in the searing midday sun waiting to see if their government appointed teachers will arrive, complaining that classes are habitually late and that teacher absenteeism is common.

In a classroom across the courtyard, three despondent teenagers sit around a few tatty books. Evidence of the nightly invasions is prevalent here too as ceiling fans and metal grates have been ripped out and the original lock on the classroom door broken apart.

“Most of the students haven’t been coming because there are no fans and it’s been hot,” said Munawar Ali Lasi, a 16-year-old ninth grader with the faint smudge of mustache above his scrolling upper lip. “When the children come they go into the washroom and there’s no water.”

Lasi said that unlike other teachers here, his are committed to education, but that while he shows up every day, most of his classmates have become too discouraged to attend regularly.

“I come here to study because it’s better than riding a donkey cart,” he said, anger creeping into his voice, “that’s why I still come.”

To add to his frustration, his dilapidated classroom looks out on physical reminders of the corrupt system that works to erode his opportunities: a half-built library now inhabited by goats and glassy-eyed teenagers lolling in its shade, and the recently broken ground for a physics lab next door.

New building projects are politically popular and can provide lucrative contracting opportunities, government money and grants, but no one here expects much from these promises.

When asked whether the two-year-old cement skeleton of a library will ever be finished or if anyone holds out hope for the physics lab, Baloch shakes his head and laughs, answering simply “if Allah wills it.”

The impoverished and densely populated neighborhoods of Karachi are also infamous for mafia activity and a rampant narcotics trade, illegal activities that snare many of the community’s unemployed and under-educated young men. As a result, Lyari is a regular flashpoint of violence — a reputation that was further entrenched during the surge of ethnic clashes that rippled through Karachi in April.

Lasi, the 16-year-old, acknowledges that more than just his future is at stake.

“If the situation continues and there are other schools like this, only God knows what is going to happen to this country,” he said, swiping at the sweat forming under his beaded prayer cap, “but it’s not going to be anything good.”

Sarah Stuteville, a journalist with the The Common Language Project, traveled to Pakistan on a grant from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.