Part of my Indian Experience tour through IDEX (Indian Development Exchange) was project work in local communities.
The first project was in the elephant village of Jaipur. Here, the males in the families work as mahouts, taking care of a total of 56 elephants. The animals are privately owned and the mahouts are paid a pittance to train them (€30 a month). The elephants are painted and jeweled and decked out in heavy, uncomfortable seating apparatus on the curve of their spine. This is so they can trudge up and down the Amber Fort giving rides to tourists, in the heat, all day every day. Females are used as opposed to bulls, as they are less aggressive and less likely to rebel. You may have read in my Elephant Sanctuary post how against animal tourism and elephant rides I am, so I was glad to have the opportunity to see how this tourism exploits or benefits local families. I also wanted to see how they can break this cycle and show the upcoming generation that there are other job opportunities for them if they receive an education.
The dusty village, comprised of small and modest government built concrete homes, was a warm and welcoming place. There is a small school that was recently set up and funded by IDEX. The local children who are enrolled are gorgeous, genuine and act like “real” kids in a way that Western children can’t in this day and age of over protection – shimmying up onto volunteers shoulders and hanging off tree branches. There’s no division between the sexes here as the feisty girls give as good as they get at play time.
At their morning assembly they showed off their minimal English skills by taking turns to introduce themselves; “My name is ___. My father’s name is ___. My elephant’s name is Rangoli/ Pinky. My favourite colour is green. I like school!” The teacher had a great rapport with the children and they obviously loved being at school. There was huge freedom, fun and mischief happening, yet he maintained good control and discipline. There is mostly rote learning happening here, lessons limited to English, Maths (text book and whiteboard) & P.E. as well as Urdu, as the families are predominantly Muslim.
A gang of us volunteers got to chip in and help as we could with either painting or teaching or both. As a qualified primary teacher with experience in E.A.L., I was quite prepared to get stuck into teaching and demonstrate some Western methods in an attempt to move away from rote learning. The class were all different levels and ages and I found it quite challenging but enjoyable. Some of the younger volunteers were definitely thrown into the deep end on day one and after a few minutes with a rowdy infants class (and no direction from teacher) decided to stick to the mural painting. The beautification project was quite trying given the low amount of supplies e.g. lacking appropriate paint brushes, limited range of colours etc. I thought perhaps Idex could hire villagers to paint, but was informed the families were not particularly interested in helping to paint; most likely too busy with their training, house work and young families. However, us volunteers did well, and the finished paintings were lovely.
As I was in India during March, the children were excited to take part in the Holi festival of colours and have me “play Holi” with them. Unfortunately, most of the other volunteers chose not to take part in this, fearing that the boisterous children would attack them with coloured powder. Pretty ridiculous. As it transpired, the Holi colours consisted of a single pack of red powder, bought by the teacher, set on a tray and gently smeared on my face by the childrens’ little hands. Turns out they didn’t even want to get powder on their own clothes! I found the effort, inclusion and generosity of the teacher to be incredibly touching, especially with the poor wage he receives. Another example was the mileage the pupils got from playing an egg and spoon race with two spoons and marbles, as the others cheered them on. To me, the powder was symbolic of their optimism, an acceptance of their lot and being content with what they have. Appreciating it even in an honest and refreshing way. There’s a charm and inspiration to be gotten from the pleasure the children get out of so little. It does make you question your privilege and what you need to be happy in this capitalist, rat race world.
I would recommend this project to any teachers on career break or student teachers that can invest a decent amount of time and energy, and contribute their skill set. I came away with many lovely memories and would certainly go back to that wonderful place in a heartbeat.