Toranmal is a hill station nestled in the Satpura range of Nandurbar, which is the last district in North Maharashtra. Thewell-knownresort has benefited from development, which has yet to reach the surrounding adivasi villages in these hills. There are many small hamlets, but no paved roads to get to them – let alone electricity or tap water. The area has no health care centres, and no internet connectivity. It was in just such a place that Sandip Mhamane and I started a unique school, under a tree.
I am from Nandurbar, which is an adivasi area, mainly. If you want to become a good teacher here, you must be fluent in the local language. I did not know the adivasi languages at all, but many years ago my father hadsaid to me, ‘Silly fellow! If an ox working in the field can understand human language, why won’t one man understand another man’s language?’ As it turned out, he was right.
All children understand the language of love. If you want to win their trust, you need to mix with the community to which they belong and learn to speak their language. And you cannot do this kind of work in isolation – you need other teachers to work along with you. I found such a companion in young Sandip Mhamane.
It was Republic Day, 26 January 2016. After the ceremony of flag-hoisting at the Central School where we then worked, rather than head home,we thought we would see if we could find any out-of-school students in the villages. There being no motor able road, we decided to walk to the settlements. The paths were full of potholes and, it being a hilly area, we often had to climb up and descend steep slopes. Of course, we were habituated to this. Besides, I am familiar with Pawri and Nahali, two of the languages spoken by adivasi communities here.
En route, we met Himtadada, a local man who informed us that there were many children in the villages around who had never been to school. And sure enough, we came across 15 or 20 children of them playing in a valley, a little further on. We made friends with a little girl called Kawta, and through her we met children Jadu, Jyotish, Gildar, Gulsing, Chuttya, Kuwa, and others.
These children knew no Marathi. They could speak only Pawri or Nahali. When we asked their guardians why the children did not go to school, they said, ‘There is no school nearby. The Central School in Toranmal is very far, and you have to go through the jungle to reach it. There are wild animals there. Generations of us have lived and died this way. These children haven’t ever seen a school.’
We empathised with them, and understood the problems. The villagers had neither vehicles nor roads. That was when we decided that if their children couldn’t go to school, we would bring the school to them –we would start a school in the “jungle” itself. This was how our “school under the tree” came into being.
But it was a very difficult task to make the parents and guardians, who themselves had no concept of what schooling was all about, understand and appreciate the need to send their children to school. Sandip and I did our best to explain that education was the only way out of the kind of hard lives they were living. Surely they didn’t want their children to go through the same hardships? We kept reassuring them that we would look after the children, and that the school would be very close to their homes. Gradually, we won their trust, and our school without walls started under a leafy mango tree in the Vindevpada settlement.
The students had no uniforms or school bags, no books or slates. There were no tables or chairs for us teachers. There was absolutely nothing formal about our school. We would sit on the ground with the students, and give them basic lessons through songs and stories. Initially, we used leaves, fruit, sticks, seeds, stones and so on to teach them numbers, addition and subtraction. In the same way, we introduced them to the letters of the alphabet of Marathi while chatting with them in their own language.
Soon, as many as 122 children, who hadn’t even known what a school was, were attending this school without walls. Around this time, a series of workshops on ‘Life skills through Drama’ were held in Toranmal. These were conducted by Swaroop Sampat with help from MAA (Maharashtra Academic Authority). In these workshops, teachers learned how to get shy and timid students to open up, how to get them interested in studies, how to help them gain in confidence, how to make learning enjoyable. This training proved tremendously useful to us while teaching our students in Vindevpada.
I wrote a post about this unique school on Facebook, and we got a fantastic response. People were very generous with their help and encouragement. Some gave us toys, others sent books, writing materials, even food. Students ought never to be scared of their teachers. If the teacher is more like a friend, studies don’t remain a mere chore but can become a thing of joy – for both, student as well as teacher.
Here’s an example. Josha and Surti, an adivasi couple, used to work close to the school. Their seven- year-old son Rohit had a squint. When we realised that he never came to school, we made a home visit– and were appalled to find Rohit busy serving water and snacks, to customers who were drinking and gambling, in one of the several liquor bars in their village.
We spoke to his parents of how it was wrong to make Rohit work at such a young age, and in such an unsuitable environment. It turned out that they were reluctant to send him to school because of his squint. They were not sure if he would be able to study, and were afraid that other students would tease him. We decided to do what we could to make Rohit want to attend school.
One day, Rohit was at the water pump next tothe school, when we were singing songs in class. Sandip and I were singing Kishore Kumar’s ‘Cheel cheel chillake kajri sunaay, dhum dhum kauaa bhi dholak bajaay’ (‘The eagle yell-yells a tune, /dhum-dhum the crow bangs the drum’) and the children were chorusing ‘Arey wah wah, arey wah wah!’(‘Oh wow!’). There was much laughter and clapping. The students were enjoying themselves. Rohit, without thinking about it, sang along with the others. But when I asked him to join the class, he ran off.
I talked to the students and explained Rohit’s problem to them. I told them that he was just like them, and he too wanted to sing with them and study. Rohit would often watch us. One day we walked up close to his house and began singing. Rohit came out, and smiled on seeing us. Sandip went up to him and asked, ‘Would you like to come to school?’He just nodded, and has been regularly attending school ever since. Nobody teases him. In fact, he is our star singer. His parents, too, are happy with his progress in school.
I am glad that Principal Secretary of MAA Nand Kumar took note of our efforts. He complimented us on our dedication and all the hard work we had put in, working in adverse conditions and without any facilities. Prachi Sathe, Special Work Officer under Education Minister Vinod Tawde, visited our Vindevpada school in February 2018, along with members of the Samata team of MAA.
They acknowledged our initiativein getting children who had not even heard of schoolto attend school regularly. Nand Kumar gave instructions that all these students were to be accommodated in a special residential school in Toranmal.
Although we were highly lauded for our work, I don’t think we did anything extraordinary. Teaching these children has given us immense pleasure. These first-time first-generation learners can now write their own names. Their laughter, the little treats they bring for us especially from the jungle, their struggles to study and move ahead – these are precious things, hard to express in words.
Our youngfledglings are ready to take flight. We have enrolled 65 students in international school of Toranmal. They could go on to the best of schools anywhere, there is nothing to hold them back now. Sandip and I will continue our work, because many more out-of-school children in remote areas of Nandurbar are waiting for us.
Writer: Dadabhai Pimpale, Central School, Toranmal, Nandurbar District
Translation & Editing: samata.shiksha team