On the shoulders of giants – III

This article appeared in AID News, 18 November 1998.

On the shoulders of giants – III

[the first two parts appeared in AID News under the title “On the
Shoulders of a Humble Giant I and II” in the interests of timeliness, I
will wrap up this trip report. The complete report is available on the AID

Schools were about to close for Dasara in the village of Gudem, near
Chintapalli, in the hills along the Andhra/Orissa border. The school-going
children of Gudem (all whom we met did go to school) went to two different
schools, one private and one public. The public school had already begun
Dasara holidays, but the kids took us to see it anyway. I asked them,
“what time do you leave for school?” They gave different times, because
they didn’t really know. So I asked, “How long does it take you to get to
school?” A kid answered, “as long as we want!” He explained, “sometimes
we come on this route and play near that stream for a while along the way.
Sometimes we come through the woods, but no matter which way we come or how
long we play we still get here in time to play in the yard until the bell
rings. It was the typical 2 room government school building for classes
1-5. A few kms away was a private school which some of the others attended.
The next day we took a break from the herbal medicine workshops and did
some language exercises with the kids. Sitting under a huge tree, I
suggested that we made up a story by each person adding a sentence. This
didn’t work well because they decided to tell a story they all knew rather
than making one up as they went along. Then I asked them all to write about
something that happened to them. No one could think of anything to write.
They all stared at me. So I said, if I leave you will all start talking to
each other — I want you to write the very same things on paper that you
would say to each other. So I left and came back. I asked them to bring
their slates in pairs so that each kid could read what another had written.
This went well. I made the kids read exactly what was written though they
were tempted to spontaneously correct the spelling and grammar. Then the
writer was naturally motivated to rewrite the sentence until it was
perfect. Suddenly a girl presented her slate with perfectly grammatical and
complex sentences. I asked her where she got it from — it was her lesson
in her book. I told everyone I was interested in what THEY had to say and
not some book by someone whose ”mukku moham“ (face and nose!) I had never
even seen. Then we had another round and I asked everyone to write things
that had happened in their village or in their house or anywhere. Again
this took a while to digest. The first pair of kids came to me with
sentences copied from the newspaper. I said, ”do I care what happened in
Hyderabad or Visakhapatnam? I want to know what is going on in Gudem!“ One
kid wrote that last night they had rented a video for the common TV room
and everyone watched the movie Sivayya.  So I held his up as an example
of local news. Another kid wrote about the Naxalite encounter of 2 weeks
ago in which someone had died. So I said, ”don’t only write when people
die. The newspapers will write about it when people die. We want news of
what is going on every day, not just when the police show up or people blow
up a building.” Another kid came and wrote that nothing had happened in
her house yesterday. Yet another fine example. Aruna who had written the
perfect paragraphs before, came to me again with yet another perfect
paragraph, though this time it was original. She had very formally written
that it was very nice to have me come and teach them, etc.

When it got dark we had to move. Nani, one of the more precocious boys
suggested we take over the common TV room. This was the only TV of the
village and was viewed every night. Nani found someone to unlock the room
for us and furthermore reported to me that he told him that we would be
studying there so no TV tonight. By this point, Brit, the young woman from
Norway who had also come for the herbal medicine workshop joined us and we
divided the class into sections. Incidentally there was a young pair of
children who sat through the whole day repeatedly writng the alphabet and
showing it to me proudly. One girl was barely 3 and had enormous pigtails
and simply wrote all the Telugu vowels, a smattering of consonants, and
then the English alphabet up to J and showed it to me each time. These
young ones I turned over to Brit.

For the others, I asked what all they grew in Gudem. They listed more than
a dozen things. I told them the English names for all of these (they wanted
to know). Nani, the precocious one, went to the Telugu medium school but
was picking up English on his own. Then I gave them some essay topics and
made them write paragraphs on each one. When Nani was done I helped him to
translate his into English. We decided to start a local newspaper. Nani and
Aruna volutneered immediately to be editors. I asked them, if you grow all
these things in Gudem,then how come no one ever eats any of it? Nani
replied, “nAKu adE ardham kAvaTam lEdu!” (that’s just what I can’t figure

Nani said that they would stay in the TV room until late night and that we
should give them some “homework” while we went to eat dinner. The kids
were uniformly melodramatic regarding their devotion to studies. We managed
to pack them off to sleep around 9:30, with promises to start again early
the next morning. The two editors were the first to show up at the hut
where we stayed. Ravi was putting freshly ground gorintaku on my fingers
while I gave the reporters their assignments. Then Ravi took all the kids
back to the big tree and started rehearsing the literacy skit that
AID-Maryland volunteers had put on for India Beckons. There were a few
improvisations, but it was basically the same plot until suddenly Nani came
up with a second part entirely on his own (with input from his friends but
not from us). We practiced and at the end of the herbal medicine workshop
we presented it to the whole group.

At the end of the week, the kids all took our address and gave us theirs.
They promised to keep studying and writing. We have in fact gotten a few
articles from them by mail. We are planning to try out a correspondence
course with them till the next time we can go to that village.

From there it was back to the main BCT villages. Kiran’s aunt Ms. C. Seeta,
who works in educational administration for the Dallas Public School System
was there consulting for the educational programs of BCT. We also met Mr.
Nageswara Rao, who assists Ms. Susila K with the disability program (which
AID supported) — he took us to 3 villages and we met the disabled children
and adults and saw what facilities and traiing BCT was providing. We were
very impressed with the entire program. Nageswara Rao knows the name of
every disabled person in all 40 of BCT villages, he also knows what
disability he/she has, and what is the current status. They have about 6
volunteers, each in charge of a number of villages which they visit on
average every other day. They train the parents/siblings in caring for the
children and using the theraputic devices — walkers, shape-blocks, etc and
the effect of their training really shows. All of the parents were very
confidently using the materials and had great faith in their children.

Mr. Kishtayya, a journalist who had just joined BCT as co-ordinator of
training for NFE (non formal education) centers took us to see NFE centers
around Yelamanchili. As much as possible they are trying to convert night
NFE centers to morning NFE centers and then morning NFE centers to schools,
by gradually increasing the parents’ faith in schooling. These were all day
centers, operating between 6 am and 9 am. Among them, one was excellent.
Unlike the other teachers, this one did not quickly straighten out her
students when she saw us coming. Kishtayya asked why the kids were
shirtless. She laughed saying, “School starts at 6 am — they just wake up
and come!” We found that the slates were in poor condition — apparently
it was a new model slate meant to last longer and purchased en masse by BCT
for all the school programs. However the kids who still had old slates
reverted to them (even if they were warped and cracked) and the kids with
the new slates struggled to make the chalk stick to the surface. We
discussed the possibility of providing new slates with Mr. Kishtayya and
Ms. Sita, who promised to send us a proposal soon.

With Mr. Suryanarayana, the director of community programs (women’s groups
and savings/loan programs) who has been with BCT for 8 years, we got to
meet women in a few villages. There were heavy rains while we were there so
our chances were limited but it was good to see women gathering and
discussing issues. We had a very interesting talk on the dowry issue.
Though they began by saying, “what can we do, we have no choice but to
give dowry if we want our daughters to have a life of their own” but
admitted that they did take dowry for their sons as well. They presented
the problem as if it was a vicious cycle — they had to give so they had to
take. Butall admitted that life would be better for all if there were no
dowry. Especially for girls, who faced a terrible dilemma when it came to
studies — on the one hand, higher studies should make them more
independent, but in reality in only meant that they would have to give more
dowry so they stopped. Stories surfaced on all the subtle ways the groom’s
side would demand the dowry. From inside a male voice shouted, “not all
men are like that.” It was the grandson of Ademma, the woman on whose
porch we were sitting. We called him outside. The women disputed his
statement with more examples so he said, “well I agree that many men are
like that but not all.” So Ademma said, name one who isn’t. He said, “I
wont’ take dowry.” We were all pleased. Ademma said, “rAsivamanu!” (make
him give it to you in writing). So I handed him a paper and pen and he
wrote that under no circumstances would he take dowry, and signed it with
his name and address. We asked him if he could get ten of his friends to do
the same. We shall see.

Of course, we knew that the issue is by no means limited to the villages
but is rampant at all education and income levels, and is in fact a global
issue. We are thinking of starting a pledge drive among Indians both in
India and abroad with a simple statement, “I will neither give nor take
dowry for myself or anyone else.” People generally agreed that both givers
and takers knew the difference between a gift and a demand.

In addition to the NFE program, BCT is running 5 schools on an experimental
basis. These are called Gram Kalyan schools and they are entirely under the
administration of the Village Education Committees formed in each village.
In that sense BCT does not run them but facilitates them — gives them
space to meet on BCT grounds, and provides other services at the request of
the village education committee. We attended one meeting of the Gram Kalyan
schools. Children also came to the meeting. From each of the five vilages,
the children were asked what was covered in each subject in the past (week
or month — can’t remember the frequency) and whether the associated
village activiites of Shram Dan and evening bhajan meetings were going on
well. Afterwards the teachers reported and there was time for anyone else
— parents, etc to bring up any matters. We felt the meeting was very well
run, giving equal opportunity for all voices — teachers, students, parents
& community. In one village 4 girls were upset because their teacher
had been changed without notice and they preferred the previous teacher.
They refused lunch. Ms. Seeta listened to them but correctly told them that
it was a matter for the village committee and they should talk to them. We
did not learn the outcome of this. Probably the new teacher will have to
modify his style but will remain in that village. It is not easy for them
to get teachers in any of these villages.

In addition to these schools, BCT itself runs a residential school in
Haripuram. Admission is very tough — based on both merit and need. Along
with academic studies they have an hour of “skill” every day. They rotate
among the caraka (spinning), woodshop, tailoring unit, and maybe some
others. Although decent housing is provided for teachers it is also
difficult for them to get teachers to stay there, and there is a lot of
turnover. We met the newly joined Telugu teacher — a retired man who
seemed to be service oriented.

Before we knew it it was time to go. We spent the final day of Dasara with
Dr Parameswarao’s family in Vizag and caught the Konark Express the same

Aravinda and Ravi


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