June 08, 2018

The 'little teacher': boy aged 11 whose motivational speeches give hope to poor students

The internet sensation is only 11 years old

Photo credit: Hammad Safi / Twitter

Hammad Safi is already studying at university in Pakistan, where his talks are hugely popular on YouTube and paint a positive picture of his country. 

Several hundred Pakistani university students sit enraptured as Hammad Safi lectures them on the merits of bettering their diction by watching Barack Obama speeches on YouTube.

The elegantly-dressed motivational speaker is something of an internet sensation in Pakistan and regularly draws large crowds. 

But it's not just because of his infectious enthusiasm and engaging smile. It's also because he's only 11 years old.

Safi speaks into his wireless microphone, his hand gestures practised and his confidence unwavering before the attention of his elders at the University of Spoken English (USECS) in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

The pint-sized motivational coach is already an online star with his own YouTube channel and 145,000 subscribers. Some videos have been viewed millions of times.

Some of his advice may sound hackneyed: "every second is a challenge," he says in one video. "Failure is the basis of success." But his audiences don't seem to mind.

I believe that bringing revolution is not possible as long as latest standards of education are not met. I believe that if our entire system is restructured, in which teaching computer skills is mandatory, Pakistan will soon become a world leader in providing the best education to youth.

Hammad Safii

Bilal Khan, a political science student twice Safi's age who came to listen to his speech, said the boy wonder had had a profound effect on him.

"A few months ago I was really disappointed with life... I was (thinking) about suicide, because there are no jobs and no success in life," he told AFP.

"Then I saw a movie of Hammad Safi. I thought, if an 11-year-old child can do anything, why can't I?"

Online comments also shower him with praise.

"People love him because he's just talking, he's a hit every time," says Samiullah Waqil, one of his former English teachers. 

Safi's youth and precociousness seem to form part of the enchantment. But he is also seen as presenting a positive image of Pakistan, one that resonates powerfully with his listeners.

The motivational coach is already an online star with his own YouTube channel and 145,000 subscribers

Photo credit: Hammad Safi / Twitter

Discussing Allama Iqbal, a renowned poet widely regarded as having inspired the movement to create Pakistan, Safi says: "If he had not been there, I or anyone else would surely be cleaning the toilet in the house of an Englishman."

At USECS, the faculty see him as a "nanha professor", or little teacher; a protege who could go on to great things one day - though what, exactly, they are looking for from him remains undefined. 

Safi was studying at a traditional school but also taking English classes at USECS, where he was quickly noticed for his "phenomenal self-confidence", says director Ammer Sohail. 

Shortly afterwards, he left his school to be full-time at USECS, continuing his English studies and embarking on his motivational career.

The university, made up largely of working-class students, now has Safi offer motivational lectures each week, in addition to his growing internet fanbase. 

I don’t get bored, I enjoy it a lot. There are so many students. I teach them, I give them lectures, I have a lot of fun. Behind my success is my teachers’ hands, their hard work.

Hammad Safii

His "job", says Sohail, is to encourage the poorer students, "to give them hope, so that they break their glass ceiling" in a country with glaring education inequality, where more than 40% of the population is illiterate, according to UN data.

"We want it to spread this education awareness to the whole country," he says emphatically.

Safi's father, a wealthy 48-year-old businessman from Peshawar named Abdul Rehman Khan, agrees.

"He is not on ordinary child," he explains. "People have seen something in him. I have myself seen abilities in him. That's why I have appointed special teachers for him. I want him to become a special leader.

"I'm very proud... For his abilities, for his intelligence, he is God-gifted."

Safi repeats the sentiment, though sometimes he gives the impression of doing so by rote. 

I want to give this message to the world that we are not terrorists and I am the proof of that. We have talent in our country, we have everything, we only need to work hard.

Hammad Safii

"I am an inspiration, not only for Pakistan, but for the world. I inspire the entire universe," he tells AFP, without blinking. He sometimes studies "10 to 12 hours in a row," according to his professors.

But Bakht Zaman, a professor at Peshawar University, who attended a lecture later shared widely on YouTube, worries.

"Where's the child in him? He's gone, because he thinks above his age," he says.

"This talented child is a good motivational coach" but "he lacks intellectual depth," he notes. "He can become what they want to do with him, but it will take time."

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