If we look at development work as the business of changing attitudes, then attitudes to learning must change a great deal in almost every continent in the world today (with the possible exception of Antarctica). One has only to read the newspapers of any country in the world to hear of growing xenophobia, widespread fearmongering, environmental destruction and climate catastrophes. The American psychiatrist Karl Menninger often said: Attitudes are more important than facts. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung said the same thing in different words. It depends on how we look at things and not how they are in themselves. The Indian philosopher and mystic, Sri Aurobindo said: What is of first importance is not the religious or non-religious character of the work done, but the inner attitude in which it is done.
My wife and I chose to begin our (self) development work in a tiny village near Chennai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. We were there to learn and not to teach. My wife, who has worked as a teacher in international schools around the world all her professional life, began her interaction by learning a few Tamil words and phrases from village children who had expected her to spout knowledge and teach them English or mathematics. To their delight, they became teachers themselves from the very first day. They planted saplings, choosing the trees they wanted to have growing in the compound. They planted the ubiquitous banyan tree, in whose shade a few decades hence, generations of school children might seek shelter. They planted the arasu maram, the tree of kings it’s called in Tamil, under whose pointed leaves a latter-day Gautama Buddha might find enlightenment. At the end of the day’s lessons, instead of guiding us to the bus-stop, they showed us around their village and introduced us to their parents. We learned a lot throughout our five-week involvement here, and came to know a number of interesting local people. A politician, who I might have once dismissed as a party hack; this one might be key to helping the seven thousand people who live in his rural community preserve the intact ecosystem that exists in the area. A real estate developer, a truly modest man, who is interested in promoting rural youth education. He puts his money where his mouth is, by sharing a couple of acres of land to the project and getting sponsors for some of the forthcoming school building constructions. The entire venture is the brainchild of a retired college professor, an eminent Tamil scholar, who has already helped hundreds of, and several generations of, disadvantaged urban school kids in Chennai (Madras) by setting up five after-school learning centers at various points in the city. This venture with four acres of land around a container, is his first rural learning center. We are honored to be a part of this enterprise and look forward to spending several months a year here. On this initial visit, we commute every day from the city to the village by motor-bike. On our next visit, we hope to stay in a small thatch-roofed hut right next to the school.
On day one of the school, activities were inaugurated by planting trees. We learned so much from the villagers. We started by weeding the grounds. A creeper growing wild at the foot of the palmyra tree (Borassus flabellifer: more on that in a subsequent post) is about to be ripped out of the earth as a weed. Renuka stops me. This is a medicinal plant, she says, and tells me the name in Tamil. It’s leaves can be ground into a paste and used for arthritis or bodily aches and pains.
A number of saplings were taken to the empty site that had been marked out with a wire fence and stone posts. A container stood there, the first class-room. Fees should be modest and affordable, but the school should not be free. The people in the village tend to be cynical, and rightly so, about free gifts. They’ve been receiving freebies from politicians for a couple of generations; politicians who tend to look at them as vote banks. So it was decided to charge the students a fee of 50 rupees per month for the privilege of attending (around 75 Eurocents, yes cents, per month at today’s exchange rates). That’s all it costs to educate a child. That, and an enormous amount of goodwill. And goodwill there is aplenty. We have more than a dozen willing volunteer helpers. There’s Chakkaravarthy, who’s given up his job as an engineer at a multinational to become a technical help to the school and several other ventures started by his uncle. There’s Sukumar, who has been working with disadvantaged children for over a decade. He comes alive when he is with the kids, and never gets tired of interacting with them. Looking at him, one sees a picture of the right man in the right place doing what he loves. And what of us? We are on a steep learning curve, and the children have much to teach us. And the more they teach, the more they will learn.
The school is just a container, but learning is happening all the same. The Global Partnership for Education estimates that it costs on average US$ 1.18 per day to educate a child in low and middle income developing countries. This is a small sum, but multiplied by millions of children, several billions are needed annually. Unfortunately, influential people lobby their governments for fighter planes so they can bomb the hell out of their enemies from a safe altitude. Each of these warplanes costs more than the entire school education of several million children. Fortunately now, this village model shows that learning can take place even without a schoolroom and with far less than surmised by the Global Partnership for Education.
If a modern urbanite, Indian or foreign, were to visit the village today, they might see an ‘underdeveloped’ community. Access roads are poor, electricity is intermittent, and the children learn by rote in public schools staffed by teachers who insist on mindless discipline to the detriment of knowledge acquisition. What we see here is something quite different. We see children hungry to learn, living in a vibrant ecosystem that is intact and flourishing. This is rich farmland. Judging by the abundant birdlife (black drongos, Alexandrine parakeets, green parrots, greater coucal, hoopoes, bulbuls, swifts, spoonbills, several varieties of water birds, mynahs, weaver birds, francolin and several others), nature and man coexist comfortably here. Presumably there are poisonous snakes, scorpions, centipedes and rats in this paradise although we did not see any on our visit. We look forward to spending a lot more time in this village ‘undeveloping ourselves’ before we begin to teach. Or perhaps we have nothing to teach and everything to learn; about how not to confuse development with economic advancement. I fear the world has suffered enough from the latter.