Omani mother who brought literacy to remote mountain villages wins Ruler of Dubai award

Zahra Al Aufia, who left school to marry at the age of 12, teaches women and children who struggle to read

Zahra Al Aufia, with husband Salim, was honoured for her efforts to champion a love of reading at the Literacy Challenge Forum in Dubai. Ruel Pablo for the National
Zahra Al Aufia, with husband Salim, was honoured for her efforts to champion a love of reading at the Literacy Challenge Forum in Dubai. Ruel Pablo for the National

An Omani mother who has dedicated her life to eliminating illiteracy in the Hajjar mountains has been honoured at an awards ceremony in Dubai.

Zahra Al Aufia left school when she married at the age of 12 but her love of literature has remained with her in the decades since.

The mother-of-seven opened the doors to her home to teach when her eldest children left for university.

She has funded her passion project through her cooking skills and her appetite to help others continues to sustain her.

I started noticing that those children who came from the mountains were weak in reading

Zahra Al Aufia

Ms Al Aufia was presented with the Literacy Challenge Award on the final day of the Literacy Challenge Forum, a programme hosted by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation.

“I got married young because at that time, our parents married us young,” said Ms Al Aufia, who is 51 and from the town of Al Hamra.

“I continued learning even after getting married. I bought so many books about politics, about psychology and I read every single day, even when I had children.”

“I had some free time.”

Eventually, word spread about ‘Zahra’s classroom’ and she was asked to do substitute teaching at local schools.

While teaching, she met withdrawn children who confided that they struggled to read and could not practice at home because their mothers were illiterate.

“I started noticing that those children who came from the mountains were weak in reading and do not even interact much in the classroom,” Ms Al Aufia said. “I went to the principal and she said, ‘we know this but we don’t know how to solve the problem’.

“I said, ‘I know how, just provide me with a driver. A good driver, because driving in the mountains is not an easy task. I want a driver to drive me to even the most remote town’.”

Ms Al Aufia dedicated three days a week to teaching women in mountain villages and taught at schools two days a week. Many of the mothers had left school after marrying young, as was once common.

Zahra Al Aufi receives the Literacy Challenge Award from Jamal bin Dewari. Ruel Pableo for The National
Zahra Al Aufi receives the Literacy Challenge Award from Jamal bin Dewari. Ruel Pableo for The National

In 1970, Oman had just modern 16 schools and about seven per cent of women in Oman were illiterate, according to 2017 data from Unesco.

Seeing a wide need for teachers, Ms Al Aufia established a network of 40 volunteer instructors with programmes in 22 villages. They teach women in the mid-teens to their mid-eighties.

Most classes are taught in majlises and even outdoors under trees. To fund the expansion of the programme and the construction of five classrooms, she started her own catering business.

She finances her programme by cooking traditional Omani food for schools and caters for weddings. This provides a small stipend for volunteer teachers.

“All such thing are spent from my own revenue, from my own work,” said Ms Al Aufia. “I did not write any message asking people for aid, I just depended on my own income. Only my husband and my children knew what I was doing.”

In 2017, her work was recognised by the Omani government. Now she has become a local celebrity.

Financing remains a challenge. Ms Al Aufia would like to expand her kitchen and invest in porta-cabins for classrooms in other villages.

Ms Al Aufia was honoured in the best individual category of the awards.

The award for best organisation went to a Palestinian organisation that provides education for children and adults at refugee camps in Lebanon.

The Children and Youth Association was founded about 24 years ago to help Palestinian youth but has since expanded to support Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians and refugees from other parts of Asia who live in Lebanon’s camps.

“The most prominent challenge was education because education is not only about the academic growth for children, it is about the protection of the child,” said Mahmoud Abbas, the association’s founder and director. “If a child is not in school, will he be anywhere but on the street?”

Mahmoud Abbas was recognised for his commitment to providing education to refugees. Ruel Pableo for The National
Mahmoud Abbas was recognised for his commitment to providing education to refugees. Ruel Pableo for The National

The association works with Unesco and Save the Children to help children at risk of leaving school and to provide adult education.

“I don’t want to say everything is rosy,” said Mr Abbas. “We face a lot of difficulties, especially war and unstable lives, which break our programmes from time to time, poverty and the hard life of camps. Some camps have been demolished or moved.”

Mr Abbas asked the Arab world to remember Palestinian children.

“If we don’t have peace and stability, everything we do will be just a waste,” he said. “We need to put our hands together.”

The Egyptian governorate of El Wadi El Gadid won the award for best government entity for work on school attendance in the interior region.

Updated: February 25, 2020 06:16 PM

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