We have written before of Seva Mandir’s wonderful Residential Learning Camps, which give out-of-school rural children two months of intensive education three times a year. During a recent visit on one of the last days of term, I met three children, chatting with them through two of their teachers. All the children’s names have been changed for this blog.
Anant is a tall young man of around 13-14 years old – like several of these rural children, he’s not quite sure of his exact age. He comes from a village in Girwa block and this is his second Camp. Anant’s father is no longer alive so he lives with his mother, his older brother, his two younger sisters and his younger brother. His older brother, who works in a marble factory, looks after the family, and the younger three children go to school while their mother stays at home.
Anant did go to school at one time, but dropped out after his father died. He was sent to pick BT cotton across the state border in Gujarat for a while, then ended up washing dishes at a hotel in Udaipur for two months,
He really enjoys the Learning Camps and is particularly keen on maths. The chance to learn in groups of ten
with a kind and inspiring teacher is one all the children really value, and it is striking that if you ask them what they would like to be in later life, they all reply, ‘a teacher’. Perhaps it’s a silly question, but it is interesting to see how much these delightful children appreciate the gentleness of these men and women who treat them kindly and open up for them the wonders of reading, writing and doing sums.
Anant is in A grade, the highest grade of the Camp, and we see for ourselves the impressive sums the children do in class.
He loves cricket and is a keen fast bowler. He is also a very good dancer and when I first met him he was looking forward to performing at the Camp’s closing ceremony. There are about ten other children from his village at this Camp so he feels at home here.
Anant would very much like to attend a third Camp later this year if his mother agrees – and if the family can afford to let him go. The Camp is free, and provides board and lodging, books and school equipment as well as uniforms for all those attending, but the children are not earning money for their families while they are studying at the Camp so this can prove an obstacle.
This summer Anant will have a month off then he will work again until the next Camp. He would love to study more, but he wants to help his family and accepts that his income may be necessary to keep them going. There is very little chance of reading or studying while he is at work, unless he has a bit of time off in between washing dishes, when he might try to read a newspaper.
He will be sad to leave Camp at the end of his two months.
Jagdish is a small 12-year-old who comes from a rural village set amongst hills and rivers, quite a long way from Udaipur and the Camp. Jagdish’s parents are both dead so he lives with his uncle. He has a big sister and two younger ones. When he’s at home he looks after the goats, taking them off in search of pasture early in the morning, and bringing them back, with as much firewood as he can collect and carry, by dusk. He had never been to school but his uncle was persuaded by a Seva Mandir zonal worker to send him to the Learning Camp, which he loves.
Another A-grade student who has been promoted from C to A over his three Camps, Jagdish’s favourite activities are studying (particularly maths) and playing. He loves a game that involves throwing a ring over some upright posts. In the forthcoming closing ceremony Jagdish will take part in a little sketch where he will play the god Rama. He smiles modestly at the thought of impersonating one of the chief Hindu gods!
Jagdish will be sad to leave the Camp and he’s not particularly looking forward to returning to his life as a goatherd. As this is his third Camp, there is little prospect of his returning for a fourth. He would love to study more – he too would like to become a teacher – but is realistic that his family’s financial position makes this unlikely. He says, ‘When I’m at home I have no one to play with. That’s one of the things I like most about the Camp.’ For so many of these children whose family circumstances force them to work and shoulder family responsibilities at such an early age, the chance to be children for a while is one of the most precious things these Camps can offer.
Manju is a shy girl of 13-14. This is her third, so probably last, Camp and she’s in B grade. She too is an orphan and doesn’t go to school when at home. She has five brothers and four sisters, some of whom are married. As the youngest, Manju lives with her older sister and the sister’s husband in a rural area 150 km from Udaipur. She likes studying and when asked what she likes most about the Camp she says dancing, food and studies (perhaps in that order!).
It was a Seva Mandir zone worker who managed to persuade Manju’s sister to let her attend the Camps, but she knows that once she returns home she will have to go back to working in the fields, carrying heavy loads of earth and stones for Rs 100 (about £1) a day.
Manju is tearful at the prospect of leaving the Camp and returning home, where, she says, they are not kind to her. Her sister is alright, but the sister’s husband is not. She makes it clear that there is a certain amount of domestic violence and I fear for this attractive, rapidly maturing young woman back in a home where her sister may not be able to protect her from the harshness of life in a poor rural area.
The children are understandably shy and a little nervous about speaking to a stranger – all the more so as we have to communicate through their teachers to get over the language barrier. They return to their classes and we then visit them in situ, seeing how diligently they are working.
It has always been one of the most striking things about this Camp, the way the children, very polite when a visitor enters their classroom, demonstrate so clearly that they are well aware that this is a very precious chance to learn, perhaps the only chance they will get for the rest of their lives, and they are determined not to waste a minute of this opportunity. You can feel them sucking up all the learning they can get – something I have never experienced to this degree in any other school anywhere in the world.
A few days later we return for the Camp’s closing ceremony.
The three children’s eyes light up as I spot them, the two boys dressed up for roles in the various performances: Anant dressed in considerable finery for his dance act, and Jagdish as the god Rama.
Anant sits patiently through the other routines,
but when it comes to his turn to dance with a few of his companions he is a revelation! His teacher had said he was a delightful young man and a very good dancer, but nothing prepared me for his rhythmic moves and the way he commits totally to the dance in front of a few hundred children and adults.
He is clearly delighted with the applause and keen to have his photo taken at the end.
It takes me a while to spot Manju, sitting with other girls towards the back of the hall. She does not have a starring role in the celebrations.
After the ceremony it’s clear that, the show for outsiders over, it’s time for these children to party with their teachers.
No one is thinking (for now) of what it will be like to go home on the bus tomorrow.
All are determined to have one last afternoon and evening of fun. The music system starts up, the first children and teachers start dancing, and before long the courtyard is full of gyrating bodies.
As we leave, Manju comes out to say goodbye, wistful and shy as ever,
but keen for a last photo with her friends and me.
I am almost in tears as we leave. How I wish I could scoop up dozens of these children – so bright, so enthusiastic, so talented, such lovely individuals with so much potential – and give them a chance to get an education, to be children a little longer, and to fulfil their huge potential.
The Learning Camp gives these children something beyond riches – a chance to gain a basic grounding in Hindi and maths, and an introduction to some English, to the elementary notions of science, in a gentle, supportive and inspiring environment (a million miles away from the government schools, where, even if teachers turn up, there may be a hundred children to a teacher, very few learning materials, a great deal of learning by rote and frequent beatings). The hope of Seva Mandir and the inspirational teachers in the Camps is that the pupils will get enough of a basic education to give them a taste for it so that they can then be self-motivated if they manage to go to school once they return to their rural homes. This in turn means that they have a better chance of staying in school rather than dropping out.
While at Camp they also have regular health checks and lessons in hygiene, they receive a change of clothes and regular meals – the latter not something that can be taken for granted and which they all comment on. As much as anything, the Camps also give them a chance, for a few precious weeks, just to be children for a while.