Bharti teaching other children of her age as Soniya her teacher looks on
By Kulsum Mustafa
Jamalpur (District Lalitpur, Uttar Pradesh): The dusty, steep narrow path leads to a rectangular raised enclosure covered by a thatched roof. The floor is plastered with clay and the walls are built on columns of tree trunks. It is 4 p.m. in the afternoon. Around 40 odd children between 4 to 7 years are seated on the floor, totally engrossed in a picture story that their energetic teenage volunteer teacher, Sonia, is reading out to them.
All of them were nearly our age. They would block our way, snatch away our chalk and slate and pass uncomplimentary remarks - Chandrapal, on his higher caste tormentors.The school, run by young teenage children of the village, was started because the village kids who are from a socially excluded group were denied access to the lone primary school, in the adjoining village. The villagers chose this novel method of giving their children the power of education by setting up their own school in the village.
Today this school in Sahariya hamlet has 30 households and a population of around 350 and stands as a shining example of what true grit in the face of adversity, firm resolve and community participation can achieve.
Sahariya tribes earn their livelihood by breaking stones or agricultural labour and fall in the Scheduled Tribe category. When they decided to settle in Jamalpur, they enrolled their children at the only primary school, about one and a half kilometer away from their hamlet. On their way to school, each day the children had to pass the village inhabited by the so-called “higher caste”. The sight of these kids every morning was taken as “inauspicious” by the villagers. Initially they themselves tried to shoo away the kids, failing which they used their children to harass these kids and frighten them away.
“Sometime the children would take away our slates, sometime our chalk. They also passed remarks and ridiculed us,” is how Chandrapal describes his tormentors.
Children have learnt alphabets
Frightened, the kids slowly started dropping out. That is when Sahariya elders woke up and decided to do something to salvage the hopeless situation. With the help of Saarthi Foundation, a UNICEF-funded NGO that is working in Lalitpur, they set up their own informal school in the local Panchayat community centre. Young teenagers of the village, who are students themselves, volunteered to teach.
“We decided to hold classes in the evening as this would give us time to finish our own studies and household chores. Also, some of the kids who accompany their parents to work would be back and hence not miss this opportunity,” said Sevkunwar, one of the volunteers.
If any teacher is held up with some work, bright pupils like Bharati and Laxmi, who are just about five years, often double up as temporary teachers!
If you happen to be near Sahariya hamlet any evening just stop by. You can chat with the children or maybe have a word with the proud mothers sitting just a bit away, silently watching their children getting empowered. As Kharkoin points at her daughter sitting in the classroom and says: “My daughter can write her name in English,” you cannot miss the twinkle in her tired eyes.
These innocent Sahariya kids have not only been saved from falling into the clutches of illiteracy, but at this tender age have also learnt how to cross the hurdles of discrimination.