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Saving a culture, book by book

Maung Nyeu holds up the storybooks he has published for children in rural Bangladesh

Storybooks can capture a child’s imagination, teach moral lessons, and provide hours of entertainment. Maung Nyeu, Ed.D. candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has demonstrated that storybooks can do something else: preserve a culture.

Through his work with Our Golden Hour, which he launched in 2012, Maung has become an advocate for bringing culturally relevant storybooks to children in his native Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, and will continue this summer with support from a SAI summer grant.

In this rural area of Bangladesh, indigenous communities are served by schools that do not supply children with educational materials in their native language, Marma, something Maung is trying to change. “If you go to a school in Chittagong Hill Tracts and ask the children which books they read, all they would show you is a textbook,” he says. ”Children have no other books to read besides a textbook. Moreover, the textbook pictures do not represent the culture of indigenous children, and children cannot relate to these pictures with what they see in their villages and in their communities. In CHT, students have no children’s storybook  to cultivate their love of learning, and most schools do not have any library.”

Since Our Golden Hour began working to improve educational opportunities for children, three bilingual children’s books have been published in Marma and placed in schools. That these books use the native language is only part of Maung’s innovative solution – the stories in every book are the very stories that are passed down orally through generations, thus ensuring that children learn about their own culture in their own language.

Maung aims to eventually publish 72 such books for the children of Chittagong Hill Tracts. His project is ambitious, perhaps in part due to the urgency of the problem he is working to solve. Maung explains that as generations get older, “the language and culture are on the brink of extinction.” Without storybooks in their native language, the children in Chittagong Hill Tracts are losing touch with their own culture.

“These stories survive for hundreds of years because they are told and retold by many generations,” Maung says of the tales, which are in danger of being lost if they are not written down.

Upon first impression, Maung is calm and collected, but listen to him talk about his projects for any amount of time, and it is difficult not to share in his enthusiasm for this mission. His face lights up when sharing photos of the smiling children his organization is helping, and he readily recalls story after story of the impact the books have had on the communities.

Maung knows first-hand what these children are experiencing. As a child growing up in Chittagong Hill Tracts, he recalls eagerly anticipating each night when his grandmother read stories to him before bed. “My fondest memories from growing up were from when I discovered storybooks,” he says. He travels back to the region as often as he can, often carrying recently-published books with him and delivering them personally to the children.

Since he began working with Our Golden Hour, Maung has found that this work goes far deeper than just getting books in the hands of children. Storybooks also help children learn about new cultures, bridge generational gaps, teach moral and civic lessons, and instill an appreciation for diversity. “Diversity is not just good for one community – it’s an asset for all of humanity,” Maung says, insisting that these lessons can be cultivated in children early in life.

Another goal of publishing storybooks is to develop a love of learning, according to Maung. Once children learn to read, it becomes a gateway to many other subjects: math, science, culture, history, and other languages. Storybooks are a tool to enable children to take learning into their own hands.

Children at school in Chittagong Hill Tracts

Maung and his team at Our Golden Hour have been busy developing other initiatives as well, including an arts and education program. Most schools in Bangladesh have no arts program at all – which Maung recognizes as a barrier to children receiving valuable education. He has created various coloring books, again with characters and stories from the native culture, and encourages students to create their own story and share it with others. “This way, the story of ‘me’ becomes the story of ‘us,’” Maung explains.

Maung’s dedication makes it clear that no action is too small to make a difference – what started out as a goal to translate a few stories has now become a broader mission of using education to change these children’s lives.

Aside from the time he invests in Our Golden Hour, Maung is also a full-time doctoral student at Harvard, and recognizes that he may need help in achieving his ambitious goal. He has already enlisted HGSE students to help with various aspects of the organization, and is looking for others to help with social media, translating, design, and grant writing: “This work can’t be done alone,” he says.

Learn more about Our Golden Hour.

 

-Meghan Smith

    Contribute to the Harvard For Nepal online photo exhibit

    Harvard for Nepal is a university-wide initiative launched by the Harvard South Asia Institute that aims to unite Harvard in response to the earthquake that devastated Nepal in April 2015.

    In order to continue to bring attention to the country’s needs, SAI is building an online photo exhibit to document the reconstruction process. We invite Harvard affiliates (faculty, students, alums, staff, fellows) to submit photos taken while in Nepal.The Flickr album will become public once we have a sizable collection.

    Our hope is that this archive can grow throughout the reconstruction process and shed light on the important work that Harvard affiliates are conducting on the ground.

    You can submit photos directly to us by emailing Meghan Smith, meghansmith@fas.harvard.edu. Please include the location the photo was taken, your affiliation, and any other background information or story. Please also share photos on social media using the hashtag #HarvardforNepal.

    Nepal Research and Reconstruction Fund

      Spring semester’s most popular content

      As we wrap up another semester and enter summer, here is a look back at SAI’s most-viewed news articles from last semester:


      1. Spring 2015 South Asia courses at Harvard

      A list of the many courses Harvard offered in the spring 2015 semester related to South Asia, on topics including painting in India, religious violence, the informal sector in urban India, Buddhist ethics, religio-political movements in South Asia, and Islamic mysticism.

      2. SAI welcomes new members to its Advisory Council
      SAI announced that we have welcomed new members to the distinguished group who support our efforts to advance teaching and research on global issues related to South Asia.

       3. The Future of India’s Space Mission: Mars and Beyond
      Jaganath Sankaran, a SAI seminar speaker and research associate at the National Security Education Center at Los Alamos National Laboratories, discusses India’s succes in reaching Mars and the future of its space program.

      4. Lessons from and for Nepal
      A recap of the panel discussion in May in which faculty from Harvard, MIT, Tufts, and Brown shared lessons and recommendations on a wide variety of topics related to Nepal’s recovery.

      5. Exploring identity through South Asian poetry
      A recap of the Nineteenth India Poetry Reading session at Harvard, which featured poetry in a variety of South Asian languages on the them of ‘Identity.’

      6. Silencing India’s Daughter
      A recap of the screening and panel discussion hosted by SAI about the controversial documentary.

      7. Introducing Indian literature to a new generation
      An introduction to the Murty Classical Library of India, which will publish Indian classics translated into English.

      8. Addressing gender norms through education
      A recap of SAI’s workshop in Delhi, which aimed to bring together a group of partners representing government, researchers, non-government organizations, and academics to discuss the role of education for gender and sexual health.

      9. Kashmir’s women in wait
      An interview with filmmaker Nilosree Biswas, whose film depicts the extraordinary journey of Kashmiri women experiencing loss, separation, pain, anger, helplessness, faith, grit and determination amidst societal tragedies and circumstances.

      10. The City and South Asia
      The release of the SAI’s publication, which looks urban centers in South Asia with an interdisciplinary lens.

        SAI Year In Review 2014-15

         

        From the Director’s Letter:

        This year has seen unprecedented growth and new beginnings for the Harvard University South Asia Institute (SAI). Only two years into being formally elevated from an initiative to a university-wide research and academic institute, SAI has actively engaged over 500 regional stakeholders, and an equal number of faculty and students from Harvard’s twelve degree-granting schools, making it the hub of innovative programming, knowledge production, and research pertaining to a vast and complex region.

        Home to over a quarter of the world’s population, some of the most critical issues being debated on the global stage today find resonance in South Asia. As a result, the region is a laboratory for entrepreneurship, technological advancement, and cultural diversity.

        Click here to read the digital version of our Annual Report.