Mariam Bibi of Birganj, Dinajpur
According to Mariam Bibi she was originally from Ghatail, a Mymensingh village. She came to Dinajpur with her father. She had always wanted to go to school, but her father said, “schools are for rich people, not for the likes of us". Besides her mother was often sick and she had to do most of the housework and cooking. Eventually she married a Dinajpur man, Shahjahan. He had never been to school either.
But one day Mariam Bibi heard a man shouting in the marketplace that everyone had the right to education not just the privileged few. She realised how much you had to struggle if you were illiterate, and thought her children wouldn’t suffer so much if they had this 'forbidden’ opportunity. She was determined to send at least her two boys to the local primary school. She had three daughters but couldn’t dream of sending them to school. The first boy went for a year, but the teachers didn’t spend any time with him and he hardly learnt anything. His father insisted that was enough, and took him with him to work. The second boy managed to stay for two years. But even after two years he had not learnt to read or do any sums so he gave up as well, and was glad to be out in the fields tending people's herds of cattle. Both boys soon joined work-gangs which went off for four months at a time.
Mariam Bibi was very disappointed and frustrated. Then one evening she was asked if she would like to find out how to teach herself to read and write. She said she didn’t believe it was possible, especially at her age, but would not mind trying. One afternoon the following week a score of village women sat under some trees and a friendly woman said she wasn't a teacher but she'd learned how to help people to teach themselves, and those who were willing to try could start straight away. She kept saying ' Nijera Shikhi, Nijera Shikhi " (let’s teach ourselves). Mariam Bibi joined the class and within six months she was able to write a letter. She wrote to her uncle in her original village, because she very much wanted to go back there but had no money to pay for the bus and ferry fare. She got a reply and was thrilled to bits - her first attempt at long-distance communication had worked! She carried the letter around the village and showed it to people with great pride. Then someone said, "I thought you said your village was in Mymensingh? It says Tangail District at the top here." Others said the village must have been moved, but then someone told her that the District boundaries had been changed and Ghatail was now in Tangail District. This made her even more interested in writing letters, and other people came to her and paid her a little for writing letters for them.
After a year she had read several books and realised that she had learned very well without having had to go to school. She knew her daughters would not be able to get good husbands and a better-off way of life so long as they were illiterate. So she got them to join the next Nijera Shikhi literacy class. There were other classes for young men too, and before long the two boys started learning again - this time very quickly.
Mariam Bibi has decided that no grandchild of hers will grow up illiterate. She only wishes that everyone had the same longing for literacy that she has.