Balasundar, Kannan and Dhanasekhar from Vellapalam village - back in school again
by Scharada Bail
August 2005 - Balasundar danced away to win the first prize at the ‘Children’s Mela’ held recently to celebrate the Independence Day of India. He performed blindfolded, but never once missed his step, or the beat! In Vellapalam (Tamil Nadu), a coastal fishing village close to Nagapattinam, Balasundar’s talent in art, music and dance, is visible to his friends, family and teachers. What makes this year’s Independence Day particularly special for this thirteen-year-old is that it marks his return to school after a year away from books and classroom, from classmates and games.
When his mother hurt her leg and found it difficult to manage the housework and small children, Balasundar was taken out of school to help in household chores such as cooking, caring for the babies, carrying water, cleaning fish and cutting vegetables.
Vellapalam is one of the fifty-three villages affected by the tsunami in December 2004, whose children are familiar with the hardships faced by the fishing community. Even before the disaster struck, their lives were often thrown into turmoil by illness and poverty. Balasundar, the eldest in his family, has a younger brother and five younger sisters. A sixth sister perished in the tsunami. When his mother hurt her leg and found it difficult to manage the housework and small children, Balasundar was taken out of school to help in household chores such as cooking, caring for the babies, carrying water, cleaning fish and cutting vegetables. His younger brother Dhanasekhar was taken out of school too, to accompany his father on the fishing boats.
Kannan, another thirteen-year-old who has also accompanied his father on the boats, reveals what this can be like, “At first you feel quite sick. Afterwards, it becomes easier. But the fiberglass boats are very hot. They really heat up under the sun…spending two or three days out at sea is hard. We feel thirsty, and hungry, but we went when we had to,” says Dhanasekhar, Balasundar’s brother.
Now housed in the temporary shelters provided by the government after their houses were destroyed by the tsunami, these three boys have returned to school and are enjoying being with their friends, happy to have lessons as well as games. Kannan and his parents were away in another village when the tsunami hit their homes in Vellapalam. When he returned home after the tsunami, “All was clay,” as he describes it. Slowly, the family began rebuilding their lives, but school was still not the highest priority. It was when the children used to play ‘Kabaddi’ in the open ground next to the village in the evenings, that they met ‘Sakthi Sir’ a facilitator from People’s Development Association, one of UNICEF’s partners in post-tsunami work in the region.
Inside Balasundar and Dhanasekhar's home
Sakthi Sir really explained what school was,” recalls Balasundar. “He would play Kabaddi with us, and always spoke in a jolly manner. He made us realise what we were missing by staying away from school.” Kannan agrees, “Coming back to school was a really good thing. Only in the beginning, the lessons were a little difficult, but the teachers took extra trouble over us. Now we are with the rest of the class. Sakthi Sir made us interested in school again.”
‘Sakthi’, whose real name is Sathyamurthy, is only one out of a few hundred young men and women working as facilitators among the affected coastal villages around Nagapattinam. These dedicated individuals inspire children and their families to help them return to school, and run evening ‘Child Development Centres’ where children relax with games, songs and snacks before being helped with studies and homework. They also help organise cultural activities and sports in schools, bringing relief to hard working teachers. All their efforts are designed to sustain children’s attendance in schools after enrollment, so that any ill effects of a break in studies can be overcome, and children who have dropped out can resume school as smoothly as possible.
“Coming back to school was a really good thing. Only in the beginning, the lessons were a little difficult, but the teachers took extra trouble over us."
At Serudhur village, close to the famous Vailankanni church, thirteen-year-old Venkatesan is also back in school after a year’s break during which he worked in an Ice Factory where ice is made to pack and preserve fish. “My father is old, and mother alone cannot cope with expenses,” he explains. “I worked in the factory for a year with my brother, earning about twenty to thirty rupees a day that I used to hand over to my mother.” What makes Venkatesan so special is that he was interested in returning to school on his own and approached Sumathi and Kalaiarasi, PDA facilitators, who helped him resume studies. Not only that, Venkatesan also helped other children like Praveen, Sivabalan, Jayamani and Arulkumar to come back to school. “His encouragement was very helpful in convincing them to return”, says Sumathi, the facilitator.
The enrollment campaign in tsunami-affected villages got underway after UNICEF held a series of co-ordination meetings with the government, district education officials, and NGOs. Fifty-six schools from seven tsunami- affected Blocks around Nagapattinam have been identified for enrollment work and UNICEF is working in association with its NGO partners. All the children who have benefited from this enrollment work are housed in temporary shelters.
After months spent away from their books and friends, all the Serudhur children – Suguna, Pradeep, Arulkumar, Balasubramaniam –agree, “School is the place to be in!”