Three Children at Seva Mandir’s Residential Learning Camp

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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.

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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.

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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,

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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.

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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.

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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.

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As we leave, Manju comes out to say goodbye, wistful and shy as ever,

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but keen for a last photo with her friends and me.

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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.

Sunday at Kaya

At the end of our last blog, we indicated that we hoped to return to Seva Mandir’s Residential Learning Camp at Kaya for some extracurricular activities.  Thanks to Vikas, who made the arrangements, and Prem, who accompanied us, and the wonderful staff at the camp (to all of whom, many thanks), we were able to do this last Sunday for singing and cricket!  Sir Neville Cardus would have been proud of us!

As we walked into the Camp we could hear lusty singing.  The children were in their respective classrooms singing cheerily.  When we were last there, it was the first day of this two-month camp and most of the children had just arrived for their first taste of education in this boarding environment far from their remote rural villages, parents, siblings and everything familiar.  I had been amazed and very touched that day to hear so many of the children singing in their classrooms, always led by one child who would sing each line before it was repeated by the others.  These were traditional songs and I wondered how much comfort the children were deriving from repeating these familiar tunes in this strange new environment.  So I certainly knew they could sing before I planned Sunday’s sessions.

On this visit, I spent a few minutes in the office finding laminated sheets to use as props for the songs I planned to teach the children, and then worked out that, with 197 children in the camp, it would perhaps be best to take four groups of roughly 50 – somewhat daunting, but there was no question of leaving anyone out.


We walked out to the open area in front of the camp buildings to find all 197 children, already in the four groups, sitting on the ground, with attendant teachers and an air of expectancy.  The first group assembled in a circle and I began the session by introducing myself and asking a few of the children their names.  We then started on the first song, ‘Heads and shoulders, knees and toes’, complete with actions.


Much amusement, particularly as we speeded up,


bobbing up and down touching knees and toes, and as we pointed to ears and eyes and mouth and nose!

Projecting so I could teach 50 children a song they didn’t know, in the open air, was a challenge for a voice that was seriously out of practice and I wondered how I would be faring by the fourth group.

Each group resolutely stuck to the call and response mode, although I had hoped to get them singing along with me, so we had to adapt this song, and the others, to fit this pattern, repeating each line after I had sung it once.

Next up was the ABC song


and I distributed A4 sized letters of the alphabet for every other child to hold up (feeling like a heel each time I passed over one child and gave a letter to the next – groups of 26 would be much easier!).


I was very impressed by the confidence with which they could recite the alphabet in English.  Not many English children could say the Hindi alphabet, that’s for sure!  Indeed I can’t!


The most popular song by far was ‘Five Little Monkeys’.  Whether it was the humour of the song itself, the fun of pretending to be ‘Mama’ on the phone to the doctor, or the doctor intoning pompously ‘No more jumping on the bed’ – or perhaps the ridiculous spectacle of me pretending to be a young monkey jumping on a bed and then falling off – who knows!  But they loved it, and were quick to supply the number of monkeys remaining on the bed each time one had fallen off and bumped his head!

The last song I had chosen, ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ was the least successful, despite actions like clapping hands, stamping feet and turning around.  Note to self: must find a few more songs that work better in the call and response mode.  The clapping/stamping/turning bar in this song threw the rhythm as the children repeated each line as soon as I had finished the three bars of words.  Still, it bothered me but not them!

I was exhausted after the first group – only another 150 children to go!  Will I have any voice at all for the last 50?

As I glanced round the children in a circle round me there were some who were painfully shy, some a little puzzled, some on a little cloud of their own, most eager to engage.  Without exception they were well behaved, friendly, welcoming, smiling.  And they sang their hearts out, even though they clearly didn’t understand every word they were singing.  They could certainly teach a few English choirs a thing or two about singing lustily and projecting!!

They unanimously clapped at the end of each session and chanted ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’.  I reflected, not for the first time, how different these children are from some one meets in the classrooms of middle-class Europe.  Absolutely no ‘attitude’, just a sense that they are here to soak up every drop of learning they can find as it may well be their only chance to have any kind of education.

I’m sure I learned far more than they did – and now I must work on a better selection of simple action songs and voice projection!

As Felicia moved on to the second group, John, with the help of some very keen members of staff, divided the first group into two cricket teams!  The stumps were set up and the captains tossed.  It soon became apparent, however, that some lusty bows risked disrupting Felicia’s second singing group, so the cricketers moved down to a larger area where there was a volleyball net which was soon taken down to accommodate the match.  Peace and safety for the singers!

On the newly established cricket pitch, the game was soon underway.  With 25 or so a side, it was a little challenging keeping track of the batting order and ensuring that all the children got into the game, but whilst some were keen to bat and bowl, others were happy to field or just observe.


Whilst a number had clearly played before and displayed good technique,


some of the bowling actions were slightly suspect albeit that accuracy was good, particularly one girl who had clearly honed the art by throwing stones – which she threatened to do with some vigour when, as the afternoon wore on, attention spans waned and one of the boys ‘stole’ the ball from her as she was preparing to bowl another over.  Much placating ensued and the match resumed.

With such good bowling, the most frequent call was ‘well bowled’ which the children echoed with great voice (the singing session had obviously been of lasting value); but there were a number of ‘good shots’ not least when some of the older boys and particularly the staff connected with a ‘length ball’ and dispatched it over the wall into the trees and long grass.  We had bought two bats and three practice balls which was just as well since, although there was a set of stumps and a couple of bats at the Camp, there were no balls.  It was easy to see why!  Nevertheless, on this occasion, with 25 fielders aside, a host of boys would leap over the wall to search for the ball, whereupon, John cried out ‘lost ball’, also voluminously repeated by batters and fielders alike, followed by ‘new ball’ when, pending the return of the search party, one of the spares was produced.


The batsmen were not offered the opportunity to inspect the new ball in accordance with ICC regulations, but this did not appear to be an impediment to the next lusty blow and ‘lost ball’.

On a few occasions, when a batter was bowled when not ready or some other injustice had occurred, the diplomatic call was ‘no-ball’, the left arm held out horizontally and reprieve granted.  Little did I realise how important the call of ‘no-ball’ would be for the outcome of another match, of which more later.

When the second group left Felicia and presented themselves on the cricket ground, the staff judiciously proposed a girls v girls match.  The skills were excellent and the contest keen.


Staff and pupils participated.


In the later sessions, breakaway leagues were established in true Kerry Packer fashion


and the ground soon resembled the Maidan in Mumbai, the home of India’s greatest, where multiple matches are played.  May be there was a young Sachin here too.

I was asked to bat and took guard as if at Brook, before doing a little gardening to the pitch, much to the amusement of these more rustic cricketers.  The first ball was glided to fine leg in the style of the great Ranjitsinhji and a comfortable single taken, whereupon my batting partner showed great disdain for singles and either swished and missed or swished and connected to send the search party back into frenzied activity.


In any event, at the declaration, I was one not out having faced one ball.  That makes two undefeated innings in India, the other being at Samode a few years ago where I had to ask the camel behind the bowler’s arm to lie down and the locals, having seen my forward defensive, compared me to Dravid – is there any greater compliment?

My bowling (15th change) was a tad less successful – more work for the search party and little boys, unprompted for once, shouting ‘lost ball’, ‘new ball’.


With the final match drawing to a close, it was time to head back up for some tea, here spicy chai which hit the spot.  After chatting with the staff, we took our leave, waving furiously to the children.



That evening, we resumed our watching of the Bollywood film (with much singing and dancing along the way), Lagaan, the splendid story of a cricket match played in the time of the British Raj between the garrison side, led by its cold-hearted and mean captain, and a team of local farmers and villagers coached, initially covertly, by the lovely sister of the mean captain. The match is a challenge thrown down by the head of the garrison who has capriciously doubled the annual tax, Lagaan, to be paid by the locals notwithstanding that there has been no monsoon rain for two years and the fields are parched.  The challenge is to defeat the army side in a cricket match in which case the tax will be cancelled for the whole area for three years; defeat, on the other hand will lead to a ruinous trebling of the tax.  Much to the horror and consternation of the locals, the hero and skipper of the local team, Bhuvan, a courageous and honest young man adored by the prettiest girl in the village (and later by the lovely sister, who sees the potential injustice of a one-sided match and offers her advice to the home team), accepts the challenge and three months of training and preparation ensue.

Unlikely volunteers step forward to join the team.  An untouchable with a withered arm, for example, proves to be a Chandrasekhar, and spins the ball viciously, taking valuable wickets.  However, nothwithstanding his crafty bowling, the British amass 325 runs and the innings of the local team, after an encouraging start, collapses.  Enter the last batsman to join Bhuvan with many runs still needed.  It comes down to the last ball with 4 runs to win and Bhuvan, who now has a century, at the non-striker’s end.  His determined and loyal batting partner realises that the fate of the entire area is on his shoulders as he swings at the ball only for it to be fielded inside the boundary as the batsmen cross for a mere single.  Despair! But, as Bhuvan, head drooping, squats down at the striker’s end and the army side celebrate, the camera pans to the umpire standing, arm outstretched: “no-ball”.  Reprieve!  One last ball and Bhuvan on strike.  The mean captain exhorts his opening bowler to do the business.  He steams in, delivers and Bhavan swings, connects and the ball sails high towards the boundary.  The mean captain tracks back, eyes fixed on the ball and, spurred on by his team, catches it – but, yes, you guessed, he has stepped over boundary!  The locals have won. Bhuvan is embraced by his adoring girl, lifted high by the community and declared a true hero.  The garrison is shut down, the mean captain posted to deepest, darkest Africa and the lovely sister, having embraced Bhuvan’s adoring now wife-to-be, climbs back into her carriage, heartbroken, to start the journey back to England where she never marries.  Oh, and the heavens open as the monsoon blows in to irrigate the arid fields.

How important was that “no-ball”!

For those of you who have lasted the distance: Sir Neville Cardus was the renowned cricket correspondent of the Manchester Guardian and also its chief music critic whose writings on cricket have been published in book form, for example Cardus on Cricket and A Fourth Innings with Cardus – no cricket library should be without them; Ranjitsinhji, the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, was one of the great pre-first world war batsmen who played for England; and Chandrasekhar, a cricketer who overcame polio and turned his disability to great advantage to become one of India’s most successful bowlers.  Kerry Packer was an Australian.  Ah yes, the second Ashes Test starts today!

Visiting Girwa

Sharing the beauty of southern Rajasthan intensifies the pleasure.  We were particularly privileged to be able to undertake a field trip to Girwa with Somerset and Emily on their recent visit.  Girwa is a beautiful rural area south of Udaipur in which Seva Mandir works closely with local communities on a number of vital projects including watershed, seed banks, pre-school day centres for small children and bridge schools for older children for whom there is no local government school.  Setting off bright and early, we were accompanied by two colleagues from Seva Mandir, Aarti and Chandra, and joined along the way by locally based members of the team.

Having turned off the main road, we were soon climbing up to about 400 meters and surveying the hills and valleys.


Evidence of the watershed projects was all around and the benefits in terms of improved agriculture clear to see.


We met local people who were proud of their countryside and welcoming.


After a few stops to examine watershed projects which stop the rain water running off the hillsides causing soil erosion, and channel it for use by the farmers, our hosts explained apologetically that, in order to visit a pre-school day centre, Balwadi, and school, Shiksha Kendra, we would have to walk for a few kilometres.  But we were delighted.  The air was fresh and the sun warm but not scorching.


Whilst Em had been to India before, this was Somerset’s first trip.  Seeing a camel asleep outside the Balwadi emphasised the distance from the City.  Inside the small hut, the children were seated on the ground singing.  They were bemused to see a group of strange looking guests


and one burst into uncontrollable tears.  It was explained that the little girl was concerned that we might take her away.  There was a doubtless a story here but we did not probe.  The young teacher consoled the little one and calm returned.


The Balwadis provide pre-school support for children up to the age of five.  They learn basic skills to prepare them for school and receive nutritional meals and immunization. With the small children cared for in the Balwadi, mothers are free to work, typically in the fields, and elder siblings are themselves able to attend school.

Outside, two women sat in their front yard where chillis dried in the sunshine.


We thanked our gracious hosts and moved on around the hillside


to find the Shiksha Kendra where the children, all together in one room, were reciting verse.  We were invited inside.  One of the senior girls was asked to recite a poem and did so with confidence.


The pupils then played a game.  One of them was chosen to be the detective and went outside while the class picked one of the remaining youngsters to be ‘it’.  The detective then returned and was allowed two guesses to find the right classmate.  This was done by the detective walking around the class which was seated in a circle on the ground


with the person who was ‘it’ leading some rhythmical finger clicking.  The detective had to observe carefully to try to work out who was leading the game.  No questions permitted.  After an initial unsuccessful attempt, the detective correctly identified the senior girl who had recited the poem.  How he knew we will never know, save that we suspected that the class might have selected her more often than not.  We said our goodbyes and took our leave to head back to the vehicle past homes


and fields


Time was running short and we did not visit the seed bank on this occasion but pressed on to Seva Mandir’s residential learning camp on the route back to Udaipur.  The residential leaning camp is one of our favourite places.  Built in the countryside, it is home to a hundred or so children from different rural communities who would otherwise receive no education, either because there is no functioning government school in their locality or because their impoverished parents send them to work in the fields, typically over the state border in Gujarat for the cotton harvests.  The residential camps are therefore held outside the harvest periods and last eight weeks.  The children may attend three camps in a year and are taught basic literacy and numeracy skills to equip them for formal education if the opportunity arises.

We arrived on the first day of this particular camp.  Most of the children had arrived but some were still expected.  The day was devoted to noting their details and measuring them for the two sets of clothing which are provided by Seva Mandir.  While they waited, the new pupils were encouraged to demonstrate their existing skill levels by drawing, which they did with great care and attention.

For many of the children, this was their first trip away from home.  Nevertheless, the smiles abounded at the prospect of learning.


We hope to return on a Sunday to help out with extra-curricular activities including some basic language work in English and sports.

We took our leave as the children went for a well-earned lunch cooked on the premises and headed back to Udaipur.

A wonderful morning!