By Maria Wirth
Maria Wirth travels to Kechla village in Odisha to appraise a boarding school for tribal children
What do you want to do when you are grown up?” It was a foolish question, and I realized it as soon as I had asked it. I was squatting with two tribal boys, about 11 years old, at 6 o’clock in the morning around a fire that they were tending. They were heating the bathwater for the few guests in the guesthouse of their boarding school. The boys looked somewhat at a loss regarding my question. Then one of them replied, “I do whatever there is to do.”
It was a great answer. There was no desire to do anything specific or even worse, become something specific. Nobody had put any idea into his head that he should become an engineer or a doctor. Whatever there is to be done, he would do.
The boarding school, managed by Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Delhi Branch, is located in a stunning place in the isolated tribal belt of Odisha. Undulating hills and vast water bodies of the Kolab dam surround the school. For long, I had not seen stars sparkling so brightly. The nights were still, only with some drum beats wafting across from some hutment once at midnight. Yet during the day, the children at play were as boisterous as anywhere in the world.
Some 10 years ago, Pranjal Jauhar, the grandson of the founder of the Delhi Branch of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Surendranath Jauhar, had visited this far-off place. He loved it and wanted to educate the children of those five hamlets which together constitute the village Kechla in Koraput district.
In 2008, he started the school with 20 three to five-year-olds in the first batch. Every year he took in a new batch into boarding and by now, there are some 140 children, the oldest of which are about 12 years of age.
An American devotee of Sri Aurobindo, whose daughter had died of cancer, donated rupees one crore for education in her memory. Several buildings came up with this money, and meanwhile, the place includes classrooms, a hostel, guesthouse, ashram building, basketball court, playground for the small kids, cowshed, and an orchard of varied types of fruit trees and flower and vegetable garden. Nearby on the lake, a ferry is anchored, and boys use it as a springboard to practice somersaults into the water. The older boarders – boys and girls – know how to swim. Pranjal has taught them.
Pranjal has put his heart into this project, and knows all the children by name. He spends two weeks of every month with them, the other half of the month he spends in Delhi, being the chairman of Mother’s International School, one of the best-rated schools in Delhi. Once a year, senior students from Mother’s International come to Kechla to teach the kids there in free progress style with lots of encouragement, apart from regular teachers who stay in the school.
The atmosphere is unique. It is more like a modern gurukul. The children help run the place, clean their rooms, help the Delhi students carry their luggage or make fire early morning for the bathwater of the guests. The curriculum for studies is flexible, yet a time table gives structure. Sports, including daring stunts and games, play a big role, as well as music and dance. Even how to perform a hawan with the appropriate mantras, was taught to the kids by a dedicated Sanskrit teacher. Once a month and on special occasions, they perform a hawan.
Pranjal wants to give those tribal children a chance to join the mainstream and have the same opportunities as students from good schools. Right from the time when they join the school, they are spoken to only in English and Hindi, and naturally, the older children speak both languages well. Even among themselves they are encouraged to talk in Hindi or English, not in the tribal dialect of Oriya, which their parents speak.
This is nothing unusual in India, where in some English medium schools students are even fined when they are caught talking in their mother tongue. The reason is that in today’s India, English is still the language which helps to come up in life.
Yet from my (German) point of view I consider it as a loss for children when they are pushed too early into English thinking at the cost of their mother tongue. Though the kids from Kechla are sent home once a week for an afternoon and also learn Oriya as a subject, they may become outsiders in their village, as the familiar language, including its typical regional expressions, is the strongest glue in a community.
The language issue is, however, a problem all over India. The question is how to educate children so that they feel at home everywhere in the country and yet are well connected to their regional roots. The great regional diversity is India’s strength. It needs to be preserved. Each part of this huge land has something special to offer.
Tribal communities, too, have something to offer. This became evident lately at the Indian Science Congress in 2012 when two illiterate tribals from this very district were honoured. Their traditional, over 3000-year-old knowledge is precious and helps to conserve the genes, seeds, grains and water – in an area that is recognised as one among the world’s 20 “globally important agricultural heritage systems”. The children of Kechla are still young. But later, they could become a link, provided they are not cut off from their background. To keep the connection intact, teachers could encourage the students to involve the elders of their village in truly worthwhile ‘projects’, for example in documenting agricultural methods, or in mapping special features in the tribal mindset or comparing religious practices. It would not only keep the connection, but also make them proud of their background. And it gives valuable insider knowledge which would be highly preferable to the “expert” opinion of Western ethnologists, who love to trample insensitively into tribal villages.
It will be interesting to watch the children develop and how they handle the disparity between the modern lifestyle to which they are exposed, for example through the Delhi students of Mother’s International School, and the traditional, simple, poor lifestyle of their families. A lot depends on the teachers. “We need committed people who are ready to work with the children in this isolated place,” I was told.
The place is indeed isolated. But if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be so beautiful.
About the author
Maria Wirth is a German national who came to India for a holiday and never left, drawn to this country’s devotion to the Divine.
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