Retired Canadian Teacher Goes Back To School In India

As I leave Sheopur, a northern district of Madhya Pradesh (MP) behind, rushing to catch the 4:30 bus to Gwalior, a cloud of dust follows the autorickshaw. Though a six-hour bus ride through the MP jungle lies ahead, my heart and head are filled with the impressions of my last 10 days spent at the Kasturba Gandhi Ashram School for girls.

Along the roadside, five figures are walking silently in measured steps, straining under the heavy loads of firewood. One is a young girl and I catch a glimpse of her tilting her load forward until it touches the earth to rest for a few moments. It reminds me of easing the load of a canoe on portages in the Algonquin Park wilderness in Ontario, closer to my own home in Canada. Strange, how a simple gesture can echo similarity and disparity so completely. Maybe the young one is new at this work, not like the others; after all, she can’t be much older than 12 or 13 years. A load of wood carried for 12 kilometres will earn 80 to 90 rupees – a daily wage that is less than $2 Canadian. But without schooling, such hard labour is the path for young tribal village girls.

Retirement has led me to my own meandering path. Learning more about non-violent education through the Bhopal-based Ekta Parishad (People’s Forum) has brought me from Ottawa Valley to India. Rajagopal P.V. provides the leadership for this mass-based people’s organisation that is heavily involved in training and capacity-building of youth in rural areas. My husband, Paul, and I had attended a presentation by Rajagopal in Pembroke, Ontario, shortly after the Ekta Parishad’s 2007 Janadesh March from Gwalior to New Delhi. The organisation seeks to bring about change through Gandhian methods like ‘satyagraha’ and ‘padyatras’ throughout India.

Hearing him talk about mobilising 25,000 participants for justice and land rights in this moving event planted the seeds of our involvement. Paul’s four trips to India followed thereafter, while I continued working as a High School Visual Arts, Photography and World Religions teacher. I have had the privilege of working with youth engaged in Social Justice at our school, Bishop Smith C.H.S; while Paul, as researcher and writer, has been engaged in media work and advocacy in India.

Ekta Parishad has a long history of village work in western MP and I was curious to see how the focus on rights over land, water and forests of the disadvantaged communities links to the education of the ‘adivasi’ girl child. ‘Adivasi’ (tribal), identity refers to those who “define themselves by a kinship to an ancient lineage before they identify with a nation” These diverse communities are outside of the caste system and marginalised in modern Indian society.

When Rajagopal suggested I visit a tribal residential school, I felt an inner alarm. My students in Canada had participated in a commemorative art project (Project of Heart) that had raised awareness about the atrocities of the residential school system imposed by the Canadian government from the 1920s to the 1970s on the Inuit, Metis and First Nations peoples (aboriginal communities across Canada). The present Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada carries the victims’ experiences of physical, psychological and sexual abuse and neglect. Loss of culture, loss of language and loss of identity is a violation and a loss for all sides.

How does India honour diversity and struggle against caste that is entrenched socially and economically, I wondered. When I arrived at the school, housed in a large compound with trees, with an open uneven space in the centre in which the ‘open-air classrooms’ are situated, I felt reassured. Around the perimeter were several buildings – a meeting room for local leaders, grain storage area, a kitchen, dormitories, latrines and the administrator’s home. The compound was enclosed by a brick wall and had a clangy metal gate to keep most of the cows wandering about of the ‘classrooms’.

The school houses 100 girls from villages in the district of Morena. While the majority is Sahariya, there are a few Bhil and Bhilala students as well. Ekta Parishad’s reputation for supporting the tribals on land issues has built a firm foundation of confidence among the parents. In fact, Sahariya village leaders have a meeting space within the ashram so that contact is maintained. They are willing to send their daughters to the school because they know they are going to be cared for “as if they were in a family” and that their culture will be honoured.

The evenings brought village musicians, who played the drum and harmonium, duly joined by the watchman, Gangaram. The girls danced and sang – the older ones taught the youngsters the intricate hand movement of a shawl dance. I was reminded of the Golden Lake Pow Wow, and the beautiful regalia and swirling fringed shawls closer to home. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to connect the Aboriginal youth in Canada to their international sisters and brothers? Or in fact any Canadian youth?

All the girls at the Kasturba Gandhi Ashram School are dropouts from village schools that boast imaginary attendance, often so that the government food allotments will find their way to undeserving and probably empty pockets. Arriving at the age of 11 or 12, the government gives support for Grades 6, 7 and 8. The challenges include child marriage (several are married off by 14) and poverty – the girls earn meagre-but-desperately-needed wages for the family. The literacy rate in MP is 62 per cent, but it’s lower in Sheopur district – only 47 per cent. The literacy rate drops to 22 per cent among women, and a mere nine per cent among tribals in the district. The parents of the boarders at Kasturba Gandhi Ashram have never attended school, but have been able to ‘make their mark’. Ekta Parishad considers literacy a tool to liberation – understanding that an oral society can easily fall to exploitation by those who use the written word for their advantage. Including Gandhian values in the daily workings of the ashram is a move supported by staff and is evident in the caring atmosphere.

Our week together was spent in exchange and developing relationships through art lessons and teacher workshops to encourage co-operative learning (rather than learning by rote) and English language games. Interviews with the students were inspiring. Sukama, 13, has been at the school for three years. Her teachers are proud of her accomplishments and she is determined to become a doctor so that she can serve people in remote villages. When asked what the greatest barriers were in her schooling, she replied, “I could not write or read Hindi and I had never left my village. I am happy to be here. At home I would have to graze goats, here I can learn to read and write. The teachers are good.” Vinoda, 14, worries about her widowed mother, the sole support of six children. She wants to be a teacher and compliments her teachers at the ashram hoping that her education will help her family. When I asked her what she is proud of as a Sahariya, she smiled shyly, “We are a people that knows how to live with little and be satisfied.”

The Sahariyas of Sheopur are among the five primitive tribes in India. Access to education for their girls remains a challenge though Ekta activists have voiced the hope that one day there will be Sahariya graduate doctors and teachers. In time, Vinoda and Sukama could well be one.

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