It is nine in the morning at Kalligutta, a remote tribal settlement just outside the Kaundinya Wildlife Sanctuary, Andhra Pradesh. A group of colourfully dressed children with their school bags runs towards a thatched hut. Except for the mooing of stray cattle and the chirping of birds, their chatting is the only sound. Beyond the school stand the rocky hills and dense forests. The children enter the school, leave their bags and go about their duties. Some of them clean the place, while the others open two large metal boxes that contain all their school materials and set them up. The teacher is present, helping them, and soon they settle down to get ready for their morning chanting and singing. The mornings at the Sanctuary Schools of the Kaigal Centre begin with this joy of children coming together everyday. Five such primary schools are located in different tribal hamlets that lie on thefringes of the sanctuary.
A week for a child in the school incorporates activities such as yoga, games, art, clay and other craft work, singing and chanting in addition to reading, writing and numerical skills. The schools invite participation from the people of the community in activities related to health and hygiene, forest studies (where students go into the forests and study the bio-diversity), working on land (maintaining small flower and kitchen gardens around the schools and homes) and story telling. Adults and children thus get an opportunity to come together to share and value each other. The children’s nutritional needs are also met by the ample lunch available for them at school all through the year.
During our involvement with the forest conservation and livelihood programme with some of the elders of the tribal communities, they expressed the need for schools in the area. While they helped us in documenting the floral composition of the forests and collecting germplasm (seeds, cuttings, root suckers etc.) for the seed bank and forest nursery, ideas on reaching out to the children of the community were taking shape in us. The adults collected forest produce such as fruits, leaves, roots and honey and we helped in the value addition of some of this produce to generate income for them which later developed into the livelihood programme for the community. At the same time, the need to engage with the larger community in a meaningful way was beginning to emerge.
These tribal communities, who live just outside the forest boundary in small hamlets in conditions of abject poverty and malnutrition, remain untouched even today by the ‘progress’ and ‘development’ that modern society boasts of. The children in these hamlets help their parents graze livestock, gather fuel and take care of younger siblings apart from other ‘menial’ chores. The existing government schools are at least a few kilometres away from their homes and there is obvious discrimination against them. Children below six to eight years and girls above ten to twelve years of age usually do not go to school. It is not uncommon here, even today, to find twelve and thirteenyear- olds who have never been to a school!
These children seemed special. Having grown up in the forests, close to nature one can recognize in them and their parents a deep sense of dignity, strength of mind and calm; a quality of acceptance and innocence. They seem to be in touch with the earth and have an intuitive understanding of the beauty and complexity of the forests in which they live and on which they depend. Will a school education take away these qualities from the children? Will it change their perception of the forests and the natural world? Are we capable of creating the right kind of curriculum for them? How can the learning be made relevant and meaningful to their everyday life?
With innumerable questions and very few answers, it became important to first define some features for the Sanctuary Schools. To begin with, the school would need to nurture and build on the unique qualities and strengths in the children and help to build young individuals who are healthy, happy and responsible. It must take care not to alienate them from their homes 66 and the forests, but instead help them recognize the value of their culture, traditional knowledge and local ecology. The programme would need to be contextual, appropriate and provide them excellent literacy along with the capacity to earn a livelihood. It would have to help them grow into willing learners who can watch and question themselves. Would it be possible that this school environment could provide them the strength to face the rapidly changing industrial world from which they are alienated?
Is it possible to have such schools and create such programmes? Where would we get the teachers from? How would the schools be sustained? It was fairly clear at this point that the long-term sustenance of these schools would depend mainly on finding the right kind of adults and the willing participation of the community in sharing some of the responsibilities.
The task was getting harder. But we had already plunged into action. The Sanctuary Schools needed teachers who would be accepted by the communities. Such teachers needed to be comfortable working in remote places where the schools would be located. The teachers needed to be familiar with the communities and their ways, willing to accept the children without attaching any social stigma. They needed the strength to relate to the children with a sense of care and affection. As responsible adults, they would have to be open to questioning their own ways of thinking and working. They must be ready to learn and experiment with different approaches to teaching, be prepared to sustain the programme, and maybe even interested in pursuing their own higher education.
The challenge in working with teachers has been to understand their strengths and limitations, and provide them with opportunities to develop their skills and knowledge in different areas. It has also been an interesting challenge to provide them an arena that would open up new avenues to think, question and ponder.
What started as just a good idea on a rainy morning in a remote tribal settlement when a group of us were sitting in a crowded cow shed, has now taken the shape of five small schools. Although the initiative is still in its infancy, it has moved a long way, in spite of many difficulties and obstacles.
In three and a half years the schools have evolved to where they are today. The livelihood programme with the adults in the tribal hamlets is now linked to the schools and the profit made from the sale of products is shared with the schools. The community thus indirectly supports, to some extent, the running of the schools. The children learn a variety of craft work as a part of the school curriculum. Many of the things that they make are of marketable quality and this also contributes in a small way. Children with their teachers have initiated seed saving and forest nurseries in their schools and are actively involved in studying the forest. Every school has a committee with representatives from the community who take important responsibilities in the everyday functioning of the schools. All the teachers are pursuing their higher studies and two ofthem have completed their graduation this year.
The energy and momentum that the programme needs has been constantly sustained by the spontaneous and willing support of many people. Today we are what we are not just because of ourselves but also because of what the forest, the people and our friends have taught us.
As I sit beside the river in the forest at Kalligutta wondering how it has all been and how it is going to be, I am reminded of what I read some time ago:
There is no rushing a river. When you go there, you go at the pace of the water and that pace ties you into a flow that is older than life on this planet. Acceptance of that pace, even for a day, changes us, reminds us of other rhythms beyond the sound of our own heartbeats.- Jeff Rennicke