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


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