December 10, 2004 :
After almost four years of working with Biju and her team virtually over phone and emails, I was finally on my way to meet them and experience their work. Tamalpur is roughly 80 kms from Guwahati and can be reached via Rangiya by car in 2-3 hours. The Tamalpur Bhutan road runs through the army cantonment area and soldiers could be seen stationed every 1/2 km on the roadside, looking out towards the fields. The Putimari river snakes across and shows ample evidence of having experinced the monsoon rage just a few months back. Asha Darshan's office is on the highway itself, opposite the Tamalpur High School.
Biju was waiting for me and after settling down over a cup of tea, we started with taking stock of what was happening to our balwadis. Biju had informed me earlier that in some places, new anganwadis were coming up next to our schools. One purpose of my visit was to talk to teachers and parents in such areas and explore possibilites of consolidating them, so that Asha could safely pull out of them without impacting the lives of the kids.
I asked Biju how the anganwadis recruit teachers and was told that the Child Development Project Office (next door to Asha Darshan's office) accepts applications and conducts interviews. I asked her if our schools’ teachers in the overlapping areas could apply for jobs in the anganwadis. Biju was not completely sure, but mentioned something about their policy of not recruiting girls. We'll need to clarify this from the Block Dev officer. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet him due to time constraints.
Since I had a car, we figured we'd tackle the schools in the remote areas where previous Asha volunteers were unable to go. These schools were around 17-20 kms from the highway and the roads were basically paved with rocks. I could well see why even cycling on these roads was a challenge - Biju mentioned that a trip to these schools was a day long affair on a cycle. So my flights of cycling fantasy through the beautiful countryside had to take a reality check.
We visited four schools, of which we were able to see only one in action (i.e. with kids present), largely because we were unable to reach them beween 9am-12:30pm.
In the backdrop of the school are the most breathtakingly beautiful blue hills, forming the border between India and Bhutan. Fields of mustard and paddy surround this one lone thatched roof structure. Looking around, it's difficult to believe that this beauty and peace could co-exist previously so easily with bombings and encounters.
We reached the school at 12:30 pm, missing the children by a few minutes. The primary school and our pre-primary school share this space. The primary classes are conducted inside the room and the pre-primary classes are conducted under the huge shady tree next to it. There are plans to add another room for the pre-primary classes, although on a beautiful day like this, it seems like a shame to coop the kids inside. The children are from Santhali and Bodo families. Since they had left, we decided to follow them to their homes.
The first family we met had 4 children (2 of them going to the school). Father studied upto 9th class, mother hadn't gone to school. They appeared to be converted Christians, from the sign of the Cross on their front entrance. They weave baskets and make roughly Rs. 200/week when business is good. When asked if they would continue to send their children to school by paying Rs. 5-10/month, the father nodded. He said he was satisfied with the school. I asked them if they received free medical treatment in case of sickness and they said yes.
Next door was a family with 7 children. Same profession and income range. I was surprised to learn that all children were vaccinated.
While we were meandering through these homes, the primary school teacher Bhodra Monta joined us. Since venture schools are community initiated efforts, I asked him if he was paid a salary. He said that he has not received any since he started. When asked about the sources of income in his family, he said his father and elder sister work. Later our teacher informed us that he takes tutions in the neighboring villages and returns as late as 8-9 pm in the night - a significant struggle in these militancy affected surroundings with no street lights. This is a typical showcase of the determination with which such teachers continue to plow for decades without being paid, in the hopes that the school will become recognized by the govt eventually.
Next we went to our teachers' homes, since I wanted to see the teaching materials they had acquired as part of their training with Vikramshila. Manjula is a Bodo and stays in a beautiful mud home surrounded by tall bamboo groves and palm trees. We pored over the flash cards and charts she stored meticulously inside her trunk, as there was no storage facility in the school itself. There were Bodo story books we had ordered from NBT last year. She showed us kits used for counting and developing motor skills. I asked her what proficiency levels they targeted for the kids. Children up to 6 years old were able to count upto 10, but not write them. They could recognize the assamese barnamala, but again were not expected to be able to write them. Those up to 8 years old can read and write words like aam, kodhaal, gaajor, etc, which combine the akshar and matras.
One significant achievement in most villages in which Asha Darshan schools exist is that all children in the village go to school. All the schools I visited seemed to have dropouts only because of dire economic circumstances and not because of lack of schools. Even in such cases, the dropouts were fairly minimal between primary and middle schools.
I was amazed at the cleanliness in the village and the wide variety of plants in each home. Biju told me that during the rains, one of the internal roads was destroyed by water logging, so she mobilized all the SHG women in the village along with her team and they repaved the road with mud – all in a day’s work.
After visiting the second teacher's home, we drove on to the next school. All along, there was clear evidence of flood damage with eroded river banks and rubble covered dry river beds. Entire bridges had been washed away and were reconstructed recently. Even inside these villages, I could see soldiers patrolling the fields. Biju told me of cases of regular encounters between the army and terrorists in this area. One of her acquaintances had witnessed a lineup of terrorists who were shot by the army in the fields. But now the situation had taken a turn with large-scale surrenders and the peace process was being established.
As I mentioned earlier, this is the model school in our project. Today was a special day of sorts for the school - a meeting with the villagers had been organized to discuss adding class 5 to this primary school. Also, they were curious to meet the "Baideo" from America. As soon as we entered, Biju was miffed to see very few women in the meeting and let them know this sternly. Art work by children and Nareshji himself, adorned the walls of the room. The villagers discussed how much bamboo and other raw materials was needed to add an extra room to the school and who would contribute, including labor. The teachers encouraged them to speak out their concerns to us. They started by acknowledging our efforts to revive the school (all credit goes to Nareshji for that). A belligerent chap got up and claimed his 5 seconds of fame, pointing out that this year they were helping put up a room for class 5, but next year would be difficult. The rest of the crowd seemed to take this fairly passively. Some school kids were assembled in the centre to sing a few devotional songs. A little boy's wail erupted from the opposite end of the room and Nareshji hurriedly scooped him in his arms to take him out.
Next, I was asked to say "a few words". My amateurish and rusty command over Bengali became a lifeboat, being similar enough to Assamese. I spoke about Asha's origins in the American universities and our focus on education. Specifically I emphasized that Asha does not want to create its own schools but instead enable each child to go to a school. I did not need to stress on community involvement - it was apparent in the turnout for the meeting. I did add in somewhat laymen's terms that the true purpose of education is to empower people to question everything around them, including the struggles they face in their everyday lives. Our schools should attempt to incorporate this in our curriculum as a thought process for the children at an early age.
After the meeting, I asked Nareshji how he planned to start class 5. He said he'd need an extra teacher. Textbooks were available for free from SSA. Currently they conduct all classes from pre-primary to class 4 simultaneously and the teachers go to these classes by rotation. I asked him whether he had considered running the school in two shifts, a practice fairly prevalent in Kolkata schools. He said he would think about it.
This was the second year this school had conducted exams. Nareshji showed me the meticulously prepared exam papers as well as the answer sheets of the students. (I brought back photocopied samples of the exam papers with me to show to our chapter volunteers.) The content seemed detailed and well structured. An exam schedule was put up on the wall. He showed me displays of carpentry and clay toys made by the children. The teaching materials were similar to the ones I saw in the Panbari school. In addition, Nareshji had some home-grown extras - legos and puzzles - a clear indication of his personal drive.
All through our stay in this school, there was this cute drunk gramps who kept hovering in the background and making feeble attempts to approach us and was firmly warded off by the teachers, lending some hilarious moments for everyone around.
Kauli (chandanpur) :
The next day we set out for two schools in yet another remote location. Chandanpur has an anganwadi and primary school, in addition to our pre-primary school. It caters primarily to kids from Santhal families.
When we reached there, the class was in progress. In addition, some villagers were building a makeshift bridge over a "nallah" using bamboo sticks, leaves and mud.
Here’s Sabita, frozen at a wrong, hurried moment in front of the school. J
The children were handed individual jobs (montessori style) and the teachers were moving around them. Children as young as three year olds were present, overawed by strangers and the Hershey's kisses we handed out freely. I tried some math play with the kids, asking them to count the number of chocolates in my hand, adding and subtracting single digit numbers. I was able to elicit answers only from the older kids (some appeared 8-9 years old).
To break the ice, I handed my camera to them and showed them how to click pictures. The lucky ones went back to their seats with puffed up chests and beaming smiles.
Some villagers had collected outside to meet the "baideo from America", including the neighboring anganwadi teacher, Melbina Mormu. I started chatting with them about their means of income. One villager looked at me with a deadpan expression on his face and said "main bekaar hoon" (I am unemployed). Flustered, I asked the others what they did. They said that although everyone worked in the fields, this year was particularly bad because the floods destroyed the crops. A few men went to Guwahati to ply rickshaws, but most men in the village just sat idle throughout the day doing nothing. After the floods receded, water was not easy to come by. The naalas flowing from the Bhutan border don't reach this village. Listening to their plight was a frustrating as well as overwhelming experience for me, since I couldn't think of how I could apply my engineering problem solving skills from a binary world to help them correct this situation. I asked Biju if there were any SHGs in this village. She said she'd look into it. One of her assistants, Shefali is from this area too, which should make it easier to establish some SHGs and monitor them regularly.
Next, Melbina came forward and put a request. She asked if we could start a meal program in our pre-primary school. She said that these kids are enrolled in both the Asha school and the anganwadi where she teaches, because her school distributes rice and dal rations to them every 15 days. I wanted to first understand if the existing system was threatened by any official legalities, to which she acknowledged that this dual enrollment was perfectly okay. Also, it seemed to me that implementing a meal scheme in our school would not be without hurdles, with tightly strapped resources in Biju's team. The logistics of buying supplies and distributing them regularly would be beyond her team's capacity. Another interesting aspect that surfaced was that the anganwadi was around 1/2 km away from our school. When I asked what prevented our kids from going to the anganwadi, the teachers felt that it was "far" for the kids to walk to. It is not easy establishing comfort levels with such distances, because in the next school we visited, the primary school students had migrated to a middle school 3 kms away without much apparent fuss. I suspect what is probably happening is that the meal program in the anganwadi is a life source for the unemployed families in this area, which is why they send so many little kids to both schools . (I saw a larger skew towards 3 year olds in our school; also exact ages are difficult to establish in such areas). These kids then get to troop down to the anganwadi once every 15 days for the meal program and on this day, the 1/2 km distance doesn't count as "far".
In this situation, I think we should consider keeping our school intact, if only to protect this marginalised community's interests. Again, we gave our little spiel on Asha's mission like we did in the previous school and departed.
An amazing view to drink into everyday on your way to school… Road leads left to the school, about 100 m away from this point.
We reached the school at 1pm, again a few minutes after school closing time. This village gets its name from the high concentration of Nagas migrating from Nagaland.
Here the anganwadi and primary school building is on the right, next to our school's building. Our school was originally a Khadi centre. We could see 5 looms lying idle inside the classroom. We sent word to the teachers that we'd like to meet them.
Urmila was a striking looking young Bodo girl with bright eyes, belying a struggle with a nagging stomach tumor. Here she’s flanked by Biju on the left and Shefali on the right. Since she spoke only Bodo and very limited Assamese, we had to communicate through Biju's limited command over Bodo. We discussed the possibility of merging our school with the anganwadi and asked her if she would be okay with working with them. She was quite cool with the idea, since the teachers in both schools interacted regularly and adopted similar teaching methods (apparently the anganwadi teachers had similar training). We would however have to talk with the ICDS (and not the CDPO) office regarding this consolidation effort, since it came under their jurisdiction. We need to investigate if class size will be an issue and if they will take in our teachers. Both sides get paid approx Rs 1000/month. Biju said she'd follow up.
In the meantime, the second teacher Lakshmi joined and I asked her how the two of them split the class among themselves. She said both of them conduct classes separately as well as together. Stumbling over the language barrier, we figured the dropout rates here were minimal too.
While we were chatting with the teachers, the gram pradhan ("gaon bhura") and a stooge ambled in. He explained that their village was affected by the floods too. Normally a family can reap 250 "maan" paddy every year, but this year it has been less than 150. During the floods, parents carried their children on their shoulders together with supplies to leave them across the other side of the river with other families to be able to give their middle school exams. On the light side, he started talking about a local community enforced prohibition of sorts with tremendous pride - "if anyone is caught selling a bottle of liquor in our village, he is immediately fined Rs 500. If he is caught selling a second bottle, he is banished from our village." Then, quite sweetly, he added that he himself buys it from elsewhere and drinks it sometimes.
Biju has two SHGs here and our teachers are included in them. Biju urged them to start weaving on the looms and she would help them sell it in the nearby market. As we took our leave of this village, we passed a group of men huddled together, smoking ganja. Somehow it all seemed to blend in with the entire backdrop of the hills, dry fields, a weak stream rippling under our feet, the school buildings and the pineapple fields next to it.
Getting back home….
It was close to 3 pm and I needed to get back to Guwahati in reasonable time. The driver stoically held on to the steering wheel, the tin cannister bumping over the potholes on the unpaved roads. The car's axle groaned excruciatingly on one pothole and the driver leapt out of the car to investigate the damage. He came back beaming - "Koi baat nahin, gaadi ko aaram ka dhaka lagaa hai" (Never mind, the car just had a "comfortable" knock).
A little down the road, it narrowed down close to almost an arm's length and we debated on swinging our luck forward or retracing back and taking an alternative route. We chose the second option.
A few kms and some potholes later, the road led to a makeshift bridge formed from three simple metal planks, which was never planned with a vehicle in mind. The alternative was to drive down next to the bridge, across the stream flowing under it.
Shefali walked through the stream to ensure there were no plants under the water and loose soil for the tires to get stuck and then a heave-ho later, the car was driving across it. Somewhere on our way back, we came across another stream on the path with eroded banks on both sides. The driver spent a good 5 minutes driving through the stream looking for an exit point on the bank, with four women screaming over his head, pointing fingers at four different directions. He later reminded me of his exceptionally cool composure which got everyone out intact, including the car.
Taking my leave of Biju's team was hard - this veritable army of determined women packing so much pluck in their little frames has mobilized entire communities in a large area by their doggedness to change the lives of these insurgency ridden people. From being labeled as CIA informers to flirting with arrest and character slander for reporting crime – this is all part of a regular day’s work for them. The emotional burnout levels can be mind numbing, but you come out of them either to quit the game completely or jump in with fiercer determination. I saw only the latter in every one of them. Living together under the Asha Darshan roof, they all share their daily tasks of cooking, cleaning, pumping out endless bucket loads of water by hand from the well, their joys and sorrows from homes far yet not very far away…. And then at the break of dawn, the rebels march out with their jholas and bikes, ready to fight battle. Feels so right and true…
Adding to Shriram’s inputs :
Shriram’s visit in April 04 had brought out some significant issues with our focus on this project, chiefly the timings of the balwadis and shifting our efforts from balwadis to primary schools. The schools I visited were all running from 9:00AM to 12:30 PM, unlike some others which he observed running late in the day. I need to confirm from Biju that the timings have been fixed for all the other schools.
We need to evaluate our focus from balwadis to primary schools more closely. A whole lot depends on the bandwidth available to Biju’s team to do this. Biju is trying to identify more people to add to her team, but finding girls who will live AND work with her team is not easy – an absolute requirement at her side to be able to sustain work schedules in her group. Primary schools do exist in all these areas – venture or govt run. A consistent impression that I came back with was that all these communities are very clear about educating their kids (girls and boys alike) and will part with an arm or leg if required to send them to school. Our intervention would be more effective in helping them sustain economically and fostering a learning environment that is tailored to their lives. I am also toying with the idea of asking Vikramshila to expand it’s teachers’ training activities in the North East through Asha Darshan, with a specific emphasis on primary schools itself.
Jennifer Liang of ANT (http://www.theant.org) and a trustee of Asha Darshan sat down with Biju and me a few days later to discuss these issues. She concurs that there are many other issues requiring attention in these areas, than education, like health and income-generation activities. Our efforts to help AID and Asha Darshan come together would bring more tangible impact and hopefully help add impetus to education indirectly through such community efforts. But till this comes about, Asha needs to support them fully. Jennifer also offered to conduct capacity building training modules for them, similar to one she conducts annually for ANT (I was lucky to experience this for a short while in the TAGS ashram that evening). Considering the pressures they are constantly surrounded by day and night, it is crucial to have a few days earmarked to get away from it all at a different place and sit back to analyze how things can be done differently. It also helps recharge their minds and get back to work with more enthusiasm. To that effect, we at Asha should try to loosen up our budget strings on a need-basis when time vs work output judgement calls are made. If a group had consistently demonstrated its integrity and effectiveness, we really should let the train chug along at it own momentum, rather than slowing it down with careful, albeit slow, processes at our end.
I get henna’ed….
On my second morning at Asha Darshan, Sabita and Biju enthusiastically brought out a plate of mehendi paste to apply it on my nails. I kinda demured, reacting from years of resisting to our silly (or so I thought) wiles as Indian women. But they had a trump card ready for me – even Shriram had happily fallen prey to this bit of pampering on his visit, so how could I refuse?! Biju sealed the deal with the cheeky line – "Mehendi rang layegi sookh jaane ke baad, tumhari yaad aayegi dur jaane ke baad!" (The colors of the henna deepen after it dries, just like memories of you haunt (?) after you go away.)