tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Children of the Hills and the English Conversation Club

"We come from the hills, sir." This is how the children explain it to me; how they name their place, as though a simple tilt of my head up from the horizon will answer everything I need to know about them.

Perhaps it does. These children I visit everyday are adivasi--'tribals' in the local English vernacular--aboriginal inhabitants of India. And yes, they live in the hills, in the forests, in tiny village clusters and hamlets. Unassimilated, passed by, on the margins... these are the hills.

They are my children, or so it is said in the parlance of the office. ("Mister-richard, you go to see your children now?") Each afternoon at half past four, I sit with thirty-four adivasi teenagers and facilitate an English conversation class--or club, as I prefer to call it.

It is summer vacation, and the children of the hilly villages have just completed the tenth grade. They spend the school year here, in special hostels, in Mandiapalli village just outside of Berhampur in the Indian state of Orissa. In fact, they've spent most of their lives here. Their villages are less than 100km away but take at least a day to get to, by bus and then by foot, up into the hills. There are no schools there, certainly not English-medium schools. They spend ten months in school, go home for two weeks, and then come back for summer courses, such as Mister-richard's (impromptu) English Conversation Club, where we hang out and tell jokes, swap fable for local fable, and compare and contrast Canada with India on any number of topics.

About ten years ago, the organization I work with here, PREM, helped establish a model school to give adivasi children the opportunities that few of their community ever have. These fifteen-year-olds were among the inaugural class. Their illiterate parents back in the hills had the courage and foresight to sign them up when PREM visited to explain about the school. It probably wasn't easy; a lot of tribal children go to work at young ages in the family business--usually millet cultivation combined with forest-produce gathering and some handicrafts or trades--especially if their fathers are away in other parts of India as migrant labourers. Child marriage is still common, which precludes long-term education.

Today these children read, write and speak Hindi, English and Oriya, in addition to their tribal languages. They have algebra and chemistry and computer science and just what you'd expect a teenager to have in school. After classes they cook and eat with each other, maintain the hostel together, go hiking and play cricket and fly kites. They are thirty-four among three million adivasi children in Orissa alone, and they know this. They are carefree when they should be, but also driven; in class I can hear it and feel it in what we talk about. These children know what opportunity is, and what it isn't. They also speak the language of rights, of values, of justice, and of hope: university, autonomy, community, development, progress, future...

I can't have these conversations with just anyone here. Like all teachers, I am the lucky one.

Last Friday, the students were on pins and needles (an expression Mister-richard taught them). They awaited the results of the annual year-end school examinations, their final cumulative grade point for the year. In the second-floor common room of the hostel, home to the English Conversation Club, no one could concentrate on the activities or games or jokes (in fact, more than a few skipped out on the meeting altogether). To the relief of all, the hostel ward finally got the email in the late afternoon and posted the list on the tackboard outside the kitchen.

Two of my students scored over 90%, apparently a ludicrously high score around here. One of them, a girl called S., feted her success by offering sweets to her classmates, as is the tradition here. (When it's your special day, you provide the treats, not the other way around.)

The other, a short, brick-built lad called J., took the news in typical teenage stride: with a shrug of the shoulders and a cock of the head, which absolutely could not conceal his smile and beaming pride. Some of the other children queued up for the hostel phone to call their families. But J.'s family will have to wait a while to hear the news of his success. In his village in the hills, just over the horizon, there are no phone lines and no mobile phone services.

The hills may not seem so far, but J. and his classmates have come a very long way. I hope their future is as bright as their faces.

NB: The children in the photograph are not my English students but others I've visited. I haven't brought my camera to class yet. This photograph was taken with the children's expressed consent.


Gina Grone said...

Wow, sounds great! Keep up the good work!

Kalli said...

great post. i can really imagine you in that room with the excited kids.

Sheila said...

Great to be doing such rewarding work, keep it up. If you've not read it you might like to read Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea

Isabel said...

What a fantastic experience! It must put a smile on your face every day.

backpackadventures said...

good for you dude,
Will you get a chance to visit the villages?