Over January 2018 I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in 40K Globe, rolling out 40K Plus, an education program in the rural village of Harohalli, in Karnataka, South India.
Each day we would wake up at a time ranging from 6-8am, have breakfast and go to our morning meeting which was at 8:33 sharp. Why 8:33? Beats me. We would have to state our mental, physical and bowel status on a scale of 1-5. 5 being the optimum for mental and physical health, and 3 being a healthy stool. The best you could be was a 5, 5, 3. One memorable morning, someone ran past (most likely, to the toilet) screaming 5, 5, 1! 5, 5, 1!
The group meeting was taken seriously, and the three times I was late (by a few minutes or less), resulted in punishments ranging from washing my team’s dishes to giving all the Group Leaders and Team Leaders a kiss on the cheek at the final dinner. Pretty bad, but not as bad as someone who had to wash the dishes of the whole cohort or the people who had to wash their team’s shirts.
Speaking of shirts, we were only given one 40K Globe Shirt, and were expected to wear it at all 40K related activities. Given only one shirt for the whole week. In India. We quickly learned to wear an expendable shirt inside, or wash it in time for it to dry, or be faced with the feeling of getting an upsetting smelly hug each day.
Washing was to be done in buckets with soap whether it be our bodies or clothes. Toilet paper was not to be flushed, rather thrown away in the rubbish bin, leading to a fearful few seconds of your foot hovering over the bin pedal, unhappily anticipating what you’ll see inside. The taps in the bathroom sink slowly stopped working, with one tap gone per week. This taught us to wait before the bucket was full before stripping off or soaping up. Our beds were a prison mattress of pure granite, haloed by mosquito netting. It wasn’t the most glamourous of set ups, but it sure was fun. Late night intense conversations, games of mafia, snacking and banter every night, before passing out by 11pm from happy exhaustion.
The whole cohort stayed in what was essentially a dorm. Each morning we went to work with our respective teams. Our team travelled one and a half hours on a bus to the village. Our bus rides were with another team ‘The Kingfishers,” and it was a real highlight. Games, riddles and singalongs were a daily staple.
There was a beautiful cat at our accommodation. There were three dogs too. The first one, Cancer Dog had a large tumour on its side, lay diseased and sick on its favourite patch of dirt outside the dining hall. The other one, Scaredy Dog was completely afraid of people and would run away the second you came near it. And the last one Friendly Dog, also flinched when you went to pat it, but after determining your hand was not a stick, it stood happily while you rained down pats. But Julie, better known as Snowball de Beauvoir, due to her penchant for feminist literature, was our favourite.
She was ginger and gorgeous and we were absolutely shattered to find out during our last days there she had been mauled to death by two of the dogs. Scaredy Dog had started it and Friendly Dog joined in, whipped in a frenzy of teeth, snarling and hatred until there was very little of recognisable left of our precious girl.
Our overall purpose was to set up a classroom and hire a teacher from the rural village, that would be trained and monitored by staff in Bangalore, so the program could go on uninterrupted when we left. Each day we went into the village to promote 40K through community engagement.
Our main tasks for the month, looked roughly like this.
Week 1 – Find a venue/facilitator
Week 2 – Finalise venue/facilitator
Week 3 – Set up the classroom
Week 4 – Opening ceremony
It wasn’t the work that was hard, more the environment. It took us a week to figure out that we would get more done by splitting up and wandering around the village than it would to be huddled together, following instructions on a booklet. We eventually got in the swing of things and were very successful in hitting our targets.
Our facilitator (teacher) Mala was very beautiful, kind, sweet and funny. An intelligent person and not at all a pushover (an important quality in managing 25 rowdy kids). Her daughter was our favourite in the village (not that we told the kids we had favourites).
I was the one who asked her if she wanted to be our facilitator. The idea struck me when I saw how interested she was in what we were doing and realising she was educated and her English was pretty good. I consider that moment to be one of my two triumphs.
I felt at home in Harohalli.
It could be quite a harsh environment, alleviated by the endless cups of coffee offered by smiling people. There were an endless stream of goats, sheep, cows and chickens, the children were happy, the parents were proud, and everyone was curious about us.
The villagers were unforgettable. There was a raisin like grandma who worked at the Panchayat’s (local government) office was laughed at us with her red, toothy smile, stained from too much beetle nut and slapped us on the back as she ran upstairs with chairs and tables without breaking a sweat.
The local government school was beautiful, kids in starchy pressed uniforms, girls with braids and ribbons, boys with tucked in shirts and polished shoes. The oldest of them, took your hand and helped you with whatever you needed as the rest of the kids trailed behind you, laughing and joking, playing with spinning tops. Government school teachers hardworking and cheerful. One lady Poornima, with impeccable English and a rapier wit, travelled one and a half hours each day from Bangalore to teach.
Each time we were invited into a house, we were humbled a little more by the immediate and unthinking warmth from people. We even got invited to a random wedding!
The kids were lovely but demanding. It was like being a celebrity. So much attention, affection and demands to play games with them. It was exhausting and days where you didn’t feel like seeing anyone, when you felt like having a Sprite in a glass bottle and sitting around without speaking, you were inundated with children shouting for your attention. I felt like Justin Bieber. If it was more than a month, who knows I might have peed in a bucket. Except, in rural India, that wouldn’t really be a problem.
Individual v Team
We were efficient but at times our dynamic was strained. Sometimes, the groupthink of a team lends itself to being wary of new ideas. Sometimes it was a clash of personalities, sometimes it was an unfamiliarity with cultural norms in India which led to strange and incongruous statements.
Here are some remarks that struck me as very odd particularly in the context of rural India.
In regards to painting the classroom:
“We don’t want it to be too colourful.”
“Not purple. Purple is too feminine.”
In regards to giving chocolates to kids:
“We don’t want to give the kids anything, it might make them dependent on us.”
“We don’t want to be seen as charity.”
“They might have allergies.”
In regards to the community meeting:
“We must be on time, or it’ll reflect poorly on us”
“We said 5 o’clock, where is everyone?”
“We shouldn’t be too noisy, we don’t want to disturb the neighbours.”
The worst moment culminated when we were painting our classroom. We had decided on sunflowers for our feature wall. I had painted a big red butterfly in oil paint and another of my group mates came in and I felt like I was kid caught drawing a penis on the blackboard.
“Did we say butterflies?”
“Vam, we said no butterflies.”
And with that I was made to paint over my butterfly, brave red buried under passive aggressive blue.
But that moment was quickly remedied by everyone’s kindness and enthusiasm for our project and we ended up doing something we all were very proud of.
Thanks to everyone’s efforts, we successfully:
- Set up our classroom on time with all its resources
- Enrolled 50 kids (the maximum target), with about 20 on the waiting list
- Successfully promoted and engaged the community and created a buzz around 40K
- Created a beautiful and safe learning environment that the whole community could be proud of
Our opening ceremony was chaotic, starting with two ribbon cuttings (because why not?)
We managed to settle everyone down on the rooftop of our building, in the evening sunset, kicking the ceremony off with two children singing a bhajan. Everyone gave speeches, we handed out 40K Plus T-shirts, chai, biscuits and finally explained to the parents in detail the way the classes operated.
Mala’s speech was inspiring.
Our first lesson was an unbelievable success.
We were on hand to make sure Mala was alright, but after a few shaky moments, she was in the zone. The confidence, the energy, the stern commands of “galte madh bedi” (translation: no more ruckus or you’ll be sorry) and her obvious love and enthusiasm for the job made us all a little weepy. We as a group shared that moment, and all our trifling conflicts wandered away like an errant goat.
The initial strain and tension in our group was resolved, we had put in all our efforts, and things couldn’t have gone better. We may have had different opinions and personalities, but we all had the same passion.
My final personal triumph was my suggestion, cited by one of the 40K staff to be her highlight of the program. During our weekly pitches I suggested we ‘level’ or test the facilitators, find a way to track their progress throughout the program. As most of the facilitators are women, it can provide data on female empowerment and education, attracting opportunities for further philanthropy.
I was told by a team member before the pitch not to say my idea, rather just mention it in feedback. Regardless of their good intentions, I was not going to make that mistake again. I refused to paint over my butterfly a second time. Sometimes it takes being in a team to remember the worth of your individuality.
Global Short Programs Student