The 1st week of March was my last week in Pune. We did a few more clinical rotations, had a weekend trip to the beach and a day trip to Mahabaleshwar, a “hill station” (touristy cities in the hills where people go to escape the daily heat). Best of all, there was strawberry picking! which brought back memories of Wisconsin.
And then I was off to Assam, crossing almost all of India west to east. In Assam, I’ve been living in a small village called No.2 Parvatipur, where Mr. and Mrs. Warnekar, my aunt and uncle, have been working for 24 years. The community they work in is mostly made up of descendants of tea garden laborers who were brought to Assam to work on tea estates as slaves by the British. After India’s independence, they were treated as second-class citizens, had few land rights, and mostly carried on in slavery-like conditions. My uncle and aunt, having worked with an NGO in a neighboring state, decided to settle here and do what they could to empower the community. Over time, starting with adolescent literacy, they became more respected and involved in the village. Now, through their initiative working with the villagers, around the compound where they live is a temple, primary school, and community hall, with plans for a garden and children’s playground, and it is truly amazing.
I had wanted to come to this village and see their work for many years, and now that I’ve left after staying for a week, I can’t wait to go back! First of all, I fell in love with the kids here. There are around 250 children that go to the primary school, but there is also a group of 30 kids that basically live at the Warnekars, which is where we stayed. They go home after school at 2pm, but then come to the Warnekars in the evening for daily “camp”, sleep at their house and go home in the morning a few hours before school starts. We ended up spending a lot of time with these 4 to 14 year olds, and most of the pictures here are of kids from this motely crew. I was introduced to them on Sunday, which happened to be a huge occasion for the whole village. It was the Hindu festival of Shivaratri, which I had never heard of before, but apparently is a huge deal in the Northeastern states. Furthermore, the Warnekars had recently helped out with seven marriages, and the villagers were thanking them by arranging a feast at our place.
The next day it was back to work, and I taught several classes in the primary school, English and Math, doing so using Hindi. Later in the week, I also sat in on kindergarten classes. Watching 4 year olds scream out poems in Assamese (which I don’t understand) was really entertaining. The students were off their usual routine, because it was their Unit Test week for the semester, and they were also rehearsing for a spring recital. Added into that, one of the eight teachers couldn’t come to school for the whole week. So I filled in like a substitute teacher, going around the four classrooms, helping stamp and grade tests. Both the kids and I loved it- I skipped a day trip to a neighboring state so I could go to school instead!
In addition to popping in and out of the school, I spent time conducting surveys of villagers on the topics of education, nutrition, sanitation, among other things. I had a separate surveys- one for 10-13 year olds that attended school, and one for women of two villages. Many households are acutely impoverished, and talking to the people I met and getting an idea of their daily life was incredibly eye opening. To interview the women, I went to multiple houses with two other girls my age (one was a schoolteacher) and conversed with the women, often over cups of tea. For the kids, besides the interviews I conducted at school, I talked to kids from the camp group early in the morning before they went home.
One day, we went to the tea garden. This is a huge plantation, with its own housing, school, hospital, etc. for permanent employees. Lots of the villagers’ relatives and friends are tea garden workers, and some villagers are temporary workers there. April is one of the slowest months for plantation activity, so maybe that’s why no one was bothered by the cow roaming between the rows of tea bushes!
The only major trip I made during the week was spending an afternoon in Itanagar, the capital of the neighboring state Arunachal Pradesh. The Northeast states of India are relatively isolated from the rest of the country, and are an otherworld of culture and natural beauty. My favorite part of the trip was a stunning and serene Buddhist temple complex, (aka “goompa”, to my delight!)
On other days, once school was out, it was time to run to the river! It was actually more of a small stream because right now is the dry season, and we had lots of fun splashing in the shallows. But on Saturday, on account of exams being done, we celebrated in a grander manner. In the morning, we were all treated to a breakfast of poha made by aunt Alka and the older girls in giant woks outdoors. Later on, we went to the river prepared with bags of clothes, and found that a dam release had added to the water. We coasted down the current and had a giant waterfight!
Also on Saturday, my last day here, I toured the closest hospital, an MPHC, or mini primary health center. It seemed to do a pretty good job offering the most basic services. We also made social visits to the Warnekars’ friends in the village.
As we were roaming I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of new construction for making houses “pucca”, which means with concrete and not merely bamboo and tin. The Warnekars also want to make the school pucca, which I see as a huge necessity. Just this week, a storm blew the tin roof off the school’s office! The next day, a teacher told me that she had been worried not about the office but the school building – what if it had blown away? Here’s a picture of the kids and their teacher during a test. In order not to disturb them, I sneakily took the picture through a gap in the bamboo of the “wall” connecting two classrooms. I’m going to try to fundraise for the school building back home, and if you’re interested in donating please do let me know!
I really support what the Warnekars are doing and I think they are going about education and development the right way. I will definitely stay connected to the community and want to come back someday- and bring more people with me!
…and just now, I realized this blog post is dominated by pictures of girls. Here’s some of the boys, 20 feet in the air. When they realized I was taking a picture, 4 boys scampered up the tree within 5 minutes. I’m going to miss them all!