For the last week we’ve been getting to know our way around the flagship campus of Agastya International Foundation, a foundation that aspires to enliven the curiosity and educational experience of underprivileged students. We’ve come to learn more about the approaches here and meet the children.
Arriving at Kuppam station, we hop off and into the vehicle sent by Agastya to meet us, our driver marvelling at our lack of luggage. We head through Kuppam, a bustling hotchpotch of square, flat roofed buildings in various states of construction full of colours, people and smells. Then out into the countryside for 15 km passing a couple of smaller villages over single track, tarmac roads, dry and dusty from the heat, to the campus that will be our home for the next two months.
Arriving on campus
It’s easy to forget the troops of children arriving at Agastya each day (often over 500 per day) often face severe poverty and social barriers to gaining a stimulating and meaningful education. They are bright as buttons, and full of questions, not to mention polite and impeccably behaved. That is of course, notwithstanding the mischievous spirit that children should have. We are regularly passed by crocodiles of unaccompanied but self-regulating, waving children beaming at us, on their way from one place to another. “Madam what’s your name?” And “Sir, where are you from?” have become regularly answered questions, usually multiple times for the same group. Mickey’s camera creates a good deal of curiosity and requests for pictures come thick and fast from visiting teachers and students alike. As overwhelming as the interest is I can’t begrudge such innocent curiosity and I find myself laughing along with them.
But, whilst it may be easy to forget the problem of poverty in the face of such happy shining faces, it is a barrier that is central to many of their lives. As was made abundantly clear to us one evening.
A visit to the village
It was approaching evening as we climbed into the van and drove to the Biodiscovery lab, near campus entrance to meet Chaya. She is my main contact on campus, and she, her husband Natesh and her son Poojith will facilitate our visit to a community centre tonight with translations and explanations. Agastya runs evening centres embedded within local villages. Many children miss out on school because their family cannot afford to lose their wage, with young children sometimes travelling as far as Bangalore to work. These evening centres then, provide an opportunity for them to catch up a little and ensure they are not totally left behind, as well as providing children a safe space in which to complete homework and have a positive educational experience.
We turn off the main road, itself barely more than a country lane by home standards, and wind through pitch black countryside towards the small cluster of houses. It’s small and simple but well-kept and welcoming, soft light spilling from some of the buildings lighting cows, chickens and other animals outside the houses. We pull up in front of the grill-windowed, glassless, single storied school to a shifting sea of small faces peering out at us, followed by a hushed bustle of bodies arranging. With Mickey still climbing out of the van, I walk through the doorway directly into the first room of the school. Forgetting to take my shoes off, this habit not yet triggered by a threshold as it is now, I stoop to remove them as around 30 children facing me in orderly lines break out into a song of welcome.
We’re ushered through into the second and last room of the school, the children approaching us one by one with gifts that they’d made for us and shyly telling us what it is and how it was made. We’re adorned with paper hats, garlands and the like as I began to notice my surroundings. It’s impossible not to be aware of them when they’re thrown into such stark contrast by the vivid life and energy of the children. The rooms are concrete boxes with a blackboard at either end. Devoid of furniture or indeed anything but the children and their instructors. Later when I enquire, I confirm what I’d already suspected – school lessons here would consist of the children sitting silent and cross-legged whilst the teacher speaks at them in 45 minute bursts.
One little boy shows me a drinking straw and sellotape model that demonstrates how waves work, another, a string-cup telephone. I joke that he’s calling the UK from India, causing a burst of pleasure over his face as he understands. He tells me that he had participated in a science fair at Agastya and that he wants to be a scientist when he grows up. The first boy shows me how to make a paper garland and I’m told that he is always asking for visitors to be brought. He hopes to learn from them what is possible from life. This is why we are here at this particular centre tonight.
The children recite a rhyme for us next with more gusto than I’d have thought possible, all actions exaggerated and the fun of it all evident in their actions. Then they stopped and looked expectantly at me. Mickey, as usual has managed to blend into the background taking pictures. So when the coordinator, Jayamma leans to me and whispers that she’d promised them I’d recite a rhyme for them, it looks like I’m on my own. I pluck one from the recesses of my mind giving thanks to my two young nieces who’ve trained me well (though not so well as it turns out!). I pause before bursting into a rendition of I’m a little teapot. Half way through I forgot the words but improvised adequately, finding it impossible to be self-conscious in front of these bright little sparks. We go through the unfamiliar words in a strange language a second time, line by line so that the children can sing it too and they seem to revel in the new song.
It’s nearly time to leave, when the boy who wants to be a scientist stands up and asks if we’d like to come back. I’ve never received such a warm welcome and I tell him so. I ask if they would like us to come back and he replied: “yes, because you were smiling when you walked in and you’re still smiling now, so you’ve brought happiness to us”.
Not an adult could have put his sentiment more graciously or eloquently. Over our time here, I’ve come to realise the importance of just showing up and showing interest, it gives the children a sense that they are worth something, that they are not forgotten.
Now, carried away in the moment, I wish him well in his dreams of becoming a scientist, genuinely but with little thought as to what I was wishing him to overcome. On walking out I speak quietly to Jayamma, she tells us how much happiness we’d brought by visiting and that she would arrange more visits if we were in agreement. I told her yes, we were very happy to, and that I hoped that by seeing that I could become a scientist that the little boy might be encouraged to follow his ambition. I began to say that if I could do it then anyone could. Mercifully, she stopped me with a sad look and a small, almost imperceptible shake of the head. I hope so too, she said, but poverty is big problem and his father is a drunkard. Her words were like a body blow and stopped me in my tracks.
Privilege of birth
I was raised with the mentality that the only barriers to your dreams are in your mind. If you work hard enough, and work smart enough then anything is possible. It’s carried me far, but not as far as the luck of my birth. It’s true that a fair few barriers reside in the mind. But it’s worth remembering that the world many of us reading this inhabit is not the world that much of the global community resides in. Some barriers are very real and are insurmountable for a small child with dreams. What priority do dreams take when the simple act of surviving takes all your time and energy?
As I sat in the van home I was grateful for the darkness to hide the tears rolling down my face. The following day I wasn’t so lucky when Jayamma announced to our daily meeting that I would speak of my experience. Taken unawares my tears again brimmed to the surface in front of the Agastya instructors – a group of relative strangers. After a few moments I got myself under control and said it had moved me greatly and I’d like to find out more to understand how we can be of help. As I stood up to leave Jayamma approached me and gave me a big, warm hug. “I’ll take you to many centres” she said fiercely, “you’ll spread so much happiness”. I laughed at the irony.
It is still deeply uncomfortable for me to cry in front of strangers but I wouldn’t change it. The challenges facing the children here are sad, and should be experienced as such. But whilst I am sad for the challenges that they face, I do not pity them. Pity is a demeaning thing and they are a world away from pathetic. Whatever they face and however they face it, they are people deserving of the same respect and dignity that we all are.
I arrived to the following day’s meeting, slightly apprehensively, expecting uncomfortable silence, stares and whispers. Instead I received warmth and acceptance, people who hadn’t previously spoke to me, said hello and asked if I’d had breakfast (a common enquiry in rural south India it turns out). I guess a little bit of humanity can go a long way. The children taught me that when they told me that our smiles were the best thing we could have brought with us.