Jamil Ahmed

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1992
This description of Jamil Ahmed's work was prepared when Jamil Ahmed was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992 .


Jamil Ahmed, a theater activist, seeks, through children’s games and simple theater performance, to help poor working children realize that their lives can be creative and meaningful, that the world is changeable, and that human beings are the ones who change it.

The New Idea

An individual can be a contributor to society only when the individual has the conviction that he or she can be a player. This belief cannot be taught or preached; it must be felt through experience.

Jamil uses the skills he has learned in two decades of innovative theater work to help children who have been given little reason to feel they control anything to experience that they indeed can see, think about, and express their views of their world. The sense that they can take the next step to change the world follows quickly.

Taking these superficially tough but often privately shaken children and walking them through this profound change is not easy. Jamil’s contribution is the methodology he has developed; it enables him and those he is training to work this transformation.

The Problem

More and more rural children are suddenly moving to Dhaka and Bangladesh’s other cities. Burgeoning slums, growing violence, spreading drug abuse, and a host of risks confront their lack of emotional security and pose a very real threat from the adult world.

These children are potentially creative and full of energy, but not knowing how to channel these traits, they all too often live aimlessly. They lack adult guidance or the healthy educational and recreational opportunities necessary to create social awareness and self disciplined responsibility. Children’s organizations have made an attempt to deal with these problems, but the task is great. Although illegal, child labor is prevalent in Bangladesh. The country needs cheap labor. Most families are poor and there is no organized welfare system. Sweatshop work wilts the children's spirit. Other work, such as garbage picking, is dangerous and without the benefit of outside support. Many jobs are worse than demeaning; many children become victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Most efforts of children’s organizations, although benevolent, are often patronizing and adult centered. It is the adult world that decides what is best for the child—a working child who has already learned how to earn his or her own living. A distinctly “adult” child, who has not had the privilege of facing the world in innocence for long. There are not many organizations that focus on the need to develop the child's creativity or address the social system in which the children must survive.

The Strategy

Jamil’s methodology is based on Paulo Friere’s philosophy of education as a process of liberation. It is centered on dialogue in which the children and the facilitator may play each other’s role. In this method, both parties seek to “name the world” through open ended dialogue. Both parties unlearn in their efforts to learn anew.

Jamil uses indigenous games, riddles, and rhymes popular among children to make it easy for the children to relax. During the exercise, he seeks to create a tangible experience of abstract concepts. The children and facilitator communicate and work together not only through verbal language, but by acting out, singing, and movement. Theater helps on all these dimensions: It creates a magical laboratory that allows improvisation and role playing, based on problems and aspirations that demystify social forces and begin to defy concrete solutions. Children can act out in theatrical terms how it is possible to take charge of their own lives.

In this way, Jamil envisions taking the theater and making its effect direct. No longer will the success depend on an audience of observers or a product but on the achievements of the process.

There is no lecture: just the child, his or her peers, and the environment. In this way, the child begins to grapple with his or her problems and seek solutions with the conviction that the world is changeable. When the process is firmly established, improvised performances will be given by the children for the adults of their neighborhood in an attempt to project the children’s perception of the world, to create greater social awareness, and to establish a dialogue within the community.

As Jamil’s work progresses, he plans to hold training sessions with other children's organizations and workshops on his methodology, hoping to encourage its spread. Gradually he hopes to create a network of street children's groups. He has already begun working with a number of interns, giving them ongoing service training. In the future, Jamil hopes that some of the children who have benefited from his work will, in turn, become facilitators themselves.

The Person

Jamil's motivation and activism stem from a childhood he remembers as oppressive. Growing up in Dhaka city, Jamil found schooling, family life, and the world around him narrow and difficult.

As he searched for fuller meaning in life, he was suddenly thrown into the Liberation War in 1971 as a freedom fighter. The violence of the war left such a deep scar inside him that in the years that followed, he found the values cherished by his father’s generation false. As he continued to search, Jamil found that Jean Paul Sartre and the philosophy of existentialism voiced his principles on life: “an individual creates meaning for himself through action.”

By chance, in 1974, Jamil came in touch with an amateur theater group. Theater appeared not only creative but also meaningful, since the group worked out of a deep seated conviction that its action could generate positive social action. In the years that followed, Jamil received a scholarship to study at a drama school in Delhi. The director of the school, a renowned theater practitioner of India, patiently guided Jamil with his many challenging ideas.

Jamil has been working as a theater activist for the last seventeen years. His set, light, and design techniques as well as his training workshops and directing approach have influenced theater in Bangladesh considerably. He has also conducted performance research on the indigenous theater of Bengal, and applied a new model of “Theater for Development” in health and related issues of social awareness among rural Bangladeshi women. He has also taught in Dhaka University's theater department.

Jamil has now committed one hundred percent of his time to applying everything he has learned in life and in theater to helping the children who have had least opportunity to learn that they can be players in life.