1

Thank You Odisha

I have been pushing this post for 5 months now. When I got home from Odisha, there was so much to do as I had come home after a year.Then, Anand and I got busy – first with the  planning and then with the actual travelling- discovering India where we traveled more than 30 different towns and cities.
Yesterday, 1st of April, I saw that it was Utkala Dibasa or Odisha day , it brought back fond memories of the most incredible year in my life. Just as I was reminiscing , I got a call from one of the students to share the news of his admission to a really good school. I just had to write this post.
What a year it was!
There are too many people who made this year the perfect one it was.
Anand was supportive of my decision to go to Odisha and lived all by himself in far off Chicagoland. Both our parents were cool with the  whole idea, and Swat who was suddenly not going to have her hangout buddies made her peace with it too.
SBI Youth for India showed me a path I wouldn’t have dared to take, had it not been for their sound platform and backing.
In Oct 2014, thirteen of us fellows landed in Gram Vikas in Odisha. These guys made me feel like I was back in Suratkal hostel again. Throughout the year, although in different villages, we somehow managed to meet often and built a strong bond.
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The 13 madcaps who went to Gram Vikas

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Nino and Mansi – Created magic in Koinpur and around

My work through the year was in the Gram Vikas school in Kankia village.

The school! What do I say?. As one of the visitors who made just a short visit to the school during my stay said ‘I was here just for 3 days, but I have received more warmth and love than ever before in my life’. The students are gifted and ever-loving. The teachers are selfless and work tirelessly.
Sharing an excerpt from the Abstract of my project report to give you an idea about these children.
‘Bhabani can fix anything you give him. Jasman can build stuff like an engineer. Tilak’s curiosity will leave you speechless. Salim is silent yet brilliant and wants to be a scientist. Sibani is a Kho-Kho champion and also tops her class. Rajesh is ever curious about astronauts and space. Akash loves to read English story books. Biswanath can solve the Rubik’s cube like a pro. Santi wants to be a mechanical engineer. Ten year old Manini plays chess and can beat adults effortlessly. Jyoti and Sana are weightlifting champs winning yeat after year.
The capability of these delightfully talented tribal children , most of them first-generation-learners shocked me beyond belief when I met them. I was lucky enough to spend a year with them. Here’s a brief report of how I spent my fellowship at the Gram Vikas Residential School trying to help these wonderful curious minds get a better platform and exposure, through new and innovative methods of teaching, which opens up an exciting world of learning for them. Today, I hope I leave behind students and teachers who are digitally equipped to embrace the new India, also having cultivated the hunger to learn more every single day. The teachers are excited to take this forward in the years to come.’
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If you’re happy happy happy ….

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Bhima Sabar, the first student studying to be a doctor from Gram Vikas school

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Sushant, class 9 giving a haircut to Srikrishna as his favourite Ananta watches on

I had a great time living with these bright minds, teaching them something and learning so much more from them.

I thoroughly enjoyed my everyday- be it fun with English with the 3rd graders, teaching computers to the teachers and students, making ppts with the headmistress , dancing in the hostel with the girls, watching all the kids perform in the cultural evenings, teaching the students or teachers to make the Va, Sha or Za sounds(Odia doesnt have these sounds-  – finally gave up deciding their accent was cute ), randomly being announced as chief guest on the mic when the actual chief guest bails and making speeches in my broken Odia, learning Odia from the kids, watching animation movies with the kids, watching kids express themselves fearlessly in Kalpanadham(Creative center established by the efforts of Shalini), watching the kids being amazed by various videos which became a part of their e-learning routine, being able to finally make tutorial videos effortlessly in Odia,  eating bhajjis made from freshly harvested veggies in Mili’s backyard, conversations with Joe Sir(founder of Gram Vikas ) which always made me think and gave me new perspective, banter with Jyoti, watching movies with Omm, night outs with the fellows, singing sessions with our rockstars Sid and Nino or chatting non-stop with my roomie Arati and Mili!

 

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Learning through action songs

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Photo : Pranab Kumar Aich/ UN in India

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Learning Math could be fun too!

 

For the first time in my life, work seemed so pleasurable – day in and day out. Not a single day did I feel ‘ Omg what have I gotten into?’. And this wouldn’t have been the same had I not stayed in the school. Having these kids around you all the time really pumps your energy up! If I had just stayed in a village where people are super busy during the day, I doubt I would have enjoyed myself as much.

The enthusiasm and energy with which every festival and every event was celebrated was mindboggling. Pretty much all of the 500 students and all teachers got involved in some way or the other- prep for dance and music programmes, making a really big clay idol if its a Hindu festival, decorating the entire school, fetching bamboo and building the stage, helping with the cooking , cleaning – well, sooo many things! And then the actual celebration- complete with song , dance, feast, bhajans – whatever the occasion demanded. The high school kids would take complete leadership and ownership and even spend some sleepless nights so that its all set to perfection, the younger ones would do smaller jobs like collect leaves and flowers for decoration.
Children building the stage

Children building the stage from scratch

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The entire set up including the big Ganesha idol was made from scratch by the students

 

My parents who were worried about me living in a far off village were more than just relieved when they visited – they loved the place and the kids!
Whenever I needed any help for my work , I did not even have to look beyond friends and family – all of you supported me. Be it with the sets of books for the libraries, English teaching material, the Math kits for all the Gram Vikas schools, the headphones for the knowledge center, printing the hand-illustrated computer books(made by the kids) and tutorial videos, the generous supplies for art in Kalpanadham, ideas for the knowledge center ( which finally went to on to be a super success) or board games for the hostels- I always had support.
Odia folk on twitter especially were also very supportive – getting a laptop from a stranger (all the way in Chennai) who was looking to help, was icing on the cake and the laptop is being used by teachers regularly now.
Thank you Akshara foundation, IDEK, Pratham books, Amar chitra katha, Genki English and so many others whose teaching material we used successfully in school.
Thank you Seshi mama, Suman, Supriya, Nagamani, Girish, Nirmal, Anisha, Stallone, Anjali, Sandesh, Nihar, BbsrBuzz, Anand, Swat, Reeja, Khyati, Ramya, Raghu, Navu, Appa, Amma, Swat, Anand for helping and supporting through the year.
Thank you Mili, Arati, Geeta di, Urmila di, Jyoti, Joe Sir, all the students and teachers and so many more people.
Thank you Srikrishna, Mansi , Nino, Varun, Shalini, PV, Sanjay, Mrigs, Sid, Souvik for all the good times.
Thank you Geeta ma’am, Shuvajit and Sadaf for running the YFI programme so diligently and passionately!
Sincere apologies, I know I am missing some names
More than anybody else I think I have to thank Mili , younger than me – but behaved like my mommy taking care of me, ensuring I had my meals and being there for me always.
Mili

Mili.

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The kids who made the computer book

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Watching videos in the knowledge center

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Cover page by Jasman, Class V made using MS Paint

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Cover page by Hrushi, Class V made using MS Paint

Like the happiness quotient wasn’t high enough , to add to it,  Odisha is such a beautiful place!

The Gram Vikas campus was so beautiful , the hills around the school made it just perfect.

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Paddy fields next to the school

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What a location for a playground eh?

The sky was so different and beautiful every single day – I could never pick a favourite!
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Lake on Gram Vikas campus

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A house in the heritage art village of Raghurajpura- a must visit in Odisha

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Simply cannot miss – the original Rasagulla at Pahala – DIVINE

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Looking back, the year spent in Odisha has definitely been more than just a life changing experience for me, and I am not saying it just like that. I am short of words to describe what it means to me. It has changed my perspectives in so many ways and taught me so much ; as clichéd as it may sound – It did really teach me to appreciate life and the small joys it has to offer.
I just want to say – THANK YOU ODISHA.
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PS: Apologies for repetition of pics in the blog as the laptop which had all my pics is currently gone for repair and I can’t access them 😦
12

How I Learnt Unlearnt Relearnt

Since I had not written for so long, I was wondering what I must blog about… I finally decided to write about some truly ‘Learn-Unlearn-Relearn’ moments that I have experienced here.

Not so long ago, I was completely against the caste based reservation system that exists in our education and government system. Like many others, I argued that it works against the merit system and thought that one shouldn’t be given any opportunity unless he deserves it by virtue of his merit.

When I went to B school, Azhar Khan our economics professor always tried to convince us on why the reservation system was necessary – ‘As these people were oppressed by the society for a long time, they are not on the same platform as others, It would take years for them to be brought on to a level playing field with others.’ I always argued against it, at least in my head and was never convinced.

Now that I am living amidst tribal children who hail from small villages in the hills and jungles, I truly appreciate the opportunity that this reservation system gives them. The school that I work with currently has more than 95% tribal children. What’s so different about them you may ask?  Here’s what :

Most of them are first generation learners – their parents never went to school.
To make things worse, their parents do not know the benefits of education and have other problems to worry about.
They hail from villages which are not easily accessible.
They hail from villages which mostly do not have functioning schools- either there is no school or no teacher or teacher is no good.
They hail from villages which have no healthcare.

As I am writing this, I remembered Bhima who is a student from our school currently studying medicine. It is a matter of huge pride for him, for his village and our school. He was a topper in class X in our school, but wouldn’t have made it to the medical college had it not been for the reservation for Scheduled tribes. The hardworking and sharp boy that he is, I am sure he will make a great doctor, one day.

From our school, the number of students who go on to study post class XII is not many, there are many barriers – lack of family support, money, language barrier (most UG courses are in English), lack of awareness, lack of interest even! So, when the few determined and hardworking students who want to go ahead and study- completely self motivated, imagine a situation that they are not able to because of their low income or not meeting the extraordinarily high cut off marks?

The Class X results are out today, I will soon know how our students have fared. I am expecting a couple of them to cross 85% which is a very big deal! These boys want to study in a good school in Bhubaneswar, but will they get a seat with their marks? I truly hope so.

My point is this, had they been in an urban school, they would have probably scored 95%+ like the toppers there these days do. But with the kind of exposure, the school and the teachers they had, this is the best they could have done.

These students who gave their exams in Feb this year came back to school to learn computers. The school received a donation of 10 computers and the lab was functional starting March and these students did not get the opportunity to benefit from it while in school. They came back to school, during their holidays when the rest of the children their age were just rejoicing having completed class X board exams – only because they were highly motivated to learn. Our infants in the cities today are born with tablets in their hand, parents can’t even imagine feeding their babies without their favourite videos from youtube and these sixteen year olds were just happy to touch a keyboard for 20 odd days!

There is a boy in class VI who told me he has to walk 50 kms from the nearest motor-able road to reach his village. He takes two days to walk to his village, (most of it a steep uphill climb) after the bus drops him off on the nearest road. Can you imagine how inaccessible his village is? And we expect him to be able to be just like you and me?

My biggest learning here is that:

Children everywhere have the same potential; it’s just the opportunities and platforms that are different.

Wouldn’t it be unfair if a child has to continue to suffer just like his forefathers who were denied equal opportunities? The reservation in education system for these children has the right intentions; you may argue that it’s highly misused, that these children wont be able to cope with the tough courses, that politicians use it for vote bank politics, meritorious students lose out etc.
The problems that are to be tackled are far more complex. The reality of the situation is that unless we are able to bring the education experience of these children on par with the urban system, until they get the same opportunities as the privileged, we cannot talk about doing away with reservation.

Also read post by a fellow-fellow Shriya Rangarajan who shares her thoughts and experience on the same topic.

Girls of class VII - super smart and eager to learn

Girls of class VII – super smart and eager to learn

Children excitedly playing with Taka who was visiting from Switzerland

Children excitedly playing with Taka who was visiting from Switzerland

3

Kemiti Achanti?

One of the fears I had before coming to Odisha was about dealing with the language barrier. “How would I be able to work with people if I cannot speak their language?” I thought. The YFI team consoled us that the NGO folks would help us interact with the communities. I still wasn’t convinced. Tanay , a friend who is from Odisha had even offered to teach me Odia in exchange for authentic south Indian lunch, But I found no time to do it before leaving Bangalore. 😦

Once I got here, I realized that most people in the rural regions here do not understand or speak Hindi. In a typical hamlet, there could be 2-3 people, who might understand and speak Hindi because they migrate to other states periodically for work and pick up some Hindi. However, most people speak only Odia.

One option for working with the community was to work with interpreters – those villagers who could speak Hindi. Of course, there was a fear of not even knowing how much would be lost in translation. And what about that personal connection we wanted to establish with people?

In the school, the story was the same; a few kids in class, who probably watched more TV, knew a bit of Hindi and helped translate. English, of course, was almost out of question as I have mentioned in my earlier posts.
Soon, I started picking up some Odia by listening to people around me. Also, while teaching at the school, I would speak in English/Hindi and the kids in turn would tell me the Odia translation. The learning process was still slow.

Then I saw that Mansi, Ninoshka and Varun – three awesome fellow-fellows, who work in another school of Gram Vikas, had started learning to read and write Odia. Whoa!

I could barely manage to speak and understand tikke tikke Odia (little little Odia), while these kids (ok all 20 somethings are kids are according to me 🙂 ) were easily managing reading, writing and speaking Odia! I was astounded and really proud of them. They even coolly gave speeches at the school and the village communities in Odia!

Mansi writing Odia

Mansi writing Odia


My writing

My writing

Mansi's writing

Mansi’s writing

And what do you know, I was all inspired to learn to read and write Odia myself.
I borrowed a book from a Class III student at school and started learning to write. I can now manage to read and write a bit. I hope to be able to speak fluently in the near future.

There is always joy in learning a new language. Sometimes it’s an unconscious process, like how you just pick up the language your neighbours speak – Swat speaks fluent Marathi and Konkani and I can manage to speak a bit and understand most of it. Some other times though, when time is less and it’s a necessity, you have to make an effort to learn it. I guess an HR job wasn’t attractive enough for me to learn Dutch while in Amsterdam; but being able to interact comfortably with the kids here definitely is a huge incentive to learn Odia.

And Odia is such a beautiful language!
I love how proper Sanskrit words are part of the colloquial vocabulary. Imagine using kintu for but, asuvidha for problem, vartaman for now. I only remember listening to such words in the Ramayan or Mahabharat TV serials. I feel scholarly when I use such words.

A lot of the vocabulary is also similar to Hindi, the Aa sound becomes o or aw. Like Ghar is pronounced Ghawro, Rama as Rawmo. I was quite amused when I realised Ponda Babu is actually Panda and not Ponda! So if you know any Odia person with Panda as surname call him Ponda next time you meet him 🙂

I’m loving every bit of it.

Until next time. Asuchi.

Kemiti Achanti (pronounced Achonti) is How are you ?
Asuchi is used while saying bye- similar to Bartheeni in Kannada or Poyittu Varein in Tamil

3

Nourishing India’s tribal children

Children at Narasingpur village who do not use toilets :(

Children at Narasingpur village who do not use toilets 😦

I was at a two day conclave on Nourishing India’s tribal children, at Bhubaneswar last week. It was jointly organised by Union Tribal Affairs Ministry, Odisha Government and UNICEF.

I am no expert on the topic. In fact, I know very little. So it was an interesting experience for me to learn of different perspectives. Everybody had their own way of looking at it – the government, the NGOs, UNICEF, the media and the frontline workers working directly with these people.

The statistics on malnutrition in tribal children were quite shocking! Every second child is stunted, and the bulk of them are severely stunted.

There were many NGOs talking about the efforts they were making in providing supplementary nutrition through nutrition rehab centers, running crèches for children of working mothers, one-full-meal schemes etc.—all very successful in significantly reducing the malnutrition rates in these regions.

What caught my attention were some sane minds who spoke about understanding why these children were malnourished rather than just feeding them with nutrition supplements.

It is naïve for us to think that these people don’t know how to take care of their nutrition needs. These are people who traditionally lived on forest produce and indigenous crops that they grew. Now we’ve taken away their rights to the same forests and also taught them to grow crops that would fetch them money, but not nutrition. They do not realise that their food now no longer has any nutrition.

Even if some of them are indeed consuming nutritious food, but are living in poor sanitation conditions, what goes in is what comes out – as is. Poor hygiene behaviour causes diarrhoea and other water borne diseases making sure no nutrition is absorbed by the body. Ensuring proper water and sanitation becomes more important, rather than providing nutrition supplements in such cases.

What surprised us the most were many voices saying tribal people are difficult to work with. On the contrary, from what Gram Vikas has experienced , they are one of the most cohesive societies and easy to engage with. The problem is that nobody is even reaching them to work with them (apart from a few NGOs here and there).

Accessibility IS a big issue.

These regions have poor health and sanitation facilities, little or no education facilities –only because they are not easily accessible. We have teachers and doctors appointed to these villages drawing government salaries and sitting comfortably at home or engaging in private practices because they do not want to go to these remote regions. I don’t think we can blame them either. What would be the motivating factor for someone to go serve in these regions that are almost totally cut off? Solving the accessibility issue is of prime importance and an urgent need.

I also learnt that budget is not a constraint. There are hundreds of crores of Rupees allocated to Tribal Development that get spent somewhere else or don’t get spent at all (!) finally, because even those who supposedly want to do ‘development’ do not even want to go to these remote regions.

The much mentioned word at the conclave was ‘convergence’- of the different ministries, of the different stakeholders, NGOs etc. Malnutrition as an issue cannot be tackled in isolation. Issues of accessibility, forest rights, health, food security, livelihood, water and sanitation have to be addressed too.

There were many passionate panel discussions, talks, conclusions and recommendations coming out of the conclave. Everybody agreed that there is undoubtedly much to be done.
I am not sure such conclaves lead to anything more than recommendations, which may or may not be looked at.

All I can say is that I came out of the conclave with a better understanding of the plight of the tribal child, who is playing far away in the hills, completely oblivious of the fact that he is being discussed so passionately by thousands of minds.

3

The Classroom Conundrum

Happy Class IV kids

Happy Class IV kids

It has been a while since I blogged. The reason is this. Everyday, I go to school –  I learn, understand or realize something new. I come back and pen it down. The very next day, my thoughts about the same thing change completely and I am in a totally new direction of thinking!

I write in this post one such example.

So, I am teaching spoken English in the Gram Vikas school at Kankia village. I started this after I saw that the kids here could read and write in English but couldn’t speak or understand a word when spoken to. However, I am in constant dilemma wondering why it’s important for these tribal kids to be able to speak English. A language is just a medium of communication and learning Odia or their tribal dialect should be enough. I felt that I was considering doing something totally useless and trying to drag them into ‘mainstream’ without putting any thought into it. I wrote about it.

Soon, I meet an ex student of the school – Bhima Sabar who is currently pursuing MBBS(a post about him later) – the only student from this school so far who has started studying medicine. When I called him to check if I could meet him, I was struggling with broken Odia and Hindi, and to my surprise, he said he would be more comfortable speaking English. Even Class X kids in our school who have decently tough lessons in their English text book cannot manage beyond a What is your name or How are you?  and this guy here was conversing in very good English!

I later learnt that his MBBS course is completely in English and luckily he managed to learn some English in college (XI and XII) before MBBS since he went to a college where speaking English was mandatory.

He says if he hadn’t done that, he really would have struggled with his medical course.

I came back home and deleted my previous post.

I realized that just like Skill based training like masonry or tailoring gives people opportunities that they didn’t have earlier, learning English could also open up avenues for them which they didn’t already have.

I am not saying the confusion in my mind is resolved, but am glad there is truly some unlearning, learning, relearning everyday and the cycle goes on.