My time in Rajhoon has flown by and how. I have gained a completely new perspective and appreciation for everyone who has contributed to this experience. Words cannot do justice to everything I learnt and felt during my internship but I have attempted to summarize my experience below.
My host family – I was lucky to be given opportunity of staying with a local family. I was definitely apprehensive about how my host family would treat me since I was the first volunteer to ever go to this village. The villagers weren’t used to having outsiders live and participate in their community so I thought I would have to try hard to integrate myself. Thankfully I was proved wrong. My host family was incredibly welcoming. My host mother Sunitaji treated me like her own daughter! My family consisted of Sunitaji ‘s two sons Ayush (age 15) and Nilesh (age 20) and her in-laws whom I called Dadaji and Dadiji (grandmother and grandfather). Ayush was very excited to have an older sister who could help him with his homework and explore the region with him. Whether it was daily chai-and-gossip sessions with Sunitaji, hearing Dadaji’s army experiences, being overfed by Dadiji or evening chess with Ayush – this family felt like my own.
My students – Despite all the problems with how the school functions and how little they have, the children were little bundles of happiness and excitement. They used to welcome me at the gate, jumping on me as soon as I reached school. Most of these students were used to their teachers shouting at them and caning them so they were shocked when I told them I would do neither. The girls were definitely more mischievous than the boys. They would be the ones screaming in class, running around and pulling each other’s hair while the boys sat quietly and paid attention. Even though the children often disrupted the class, it was also refreshing to see how excited they were to learn. One of my favorite students was Payal. She has a speech impairment that prevents her from talking but that doesn’t stop her from grabbing the chalk from my hand, marching up to the board and carefully writing out the alphabet. She is the first child to drag me into school in the morning, and the last child waving at the gate when I leave. She, just like all the other students, made my one month of teaching worth all the effort.
My day – My day began with breakfast with my host mother. We used to sit in the courtyard and have tea with some roti and vegetables every morning. After getting ready (which included a freezing bath with one bucket of water), I would walk downhill through the fields to get to school. This walk took me around 15 minutes during which I would often meet villagers, children and a lot of cows. Once in school, I would teach each class for 45 minutes. During their lunch break, the children would drag me into the courtyard and teach me local village games which I had never played before. I would head back to the house for lunch, rest for an hour and then start my 3 hours-long evening classes. These classes were held in a shed the NGO had converted into a small computer room. It had three computers and a blackboard. Children between the ages of 3 and 20 from both Rajhoon and neighboring villages used to come learn art, craft, English, computers and dance. Most of these children came from low-income families who had no access to any of the above. The excitement on the children’s faces when they opened a new pack of crayons or better still, a box of markers, was heart warming. Class would be followed by evening tea and chatting with the village women who would come to the house to see me. The day would end with routine game of chess with Ayush and then dinner. I would spend the last few hours before I slept preparing a lesson plan for the next day and catching up on some reading. My days were long and tiring but without a doubt some of the most fulfilling ones I’ve had.
I have taken extremely long to write this blog post because I find it impossible to put into words how incredible my experience was. When I started out on this project, I was apprehensive. While the NGO has worked in bigger towns in the region, this was the first time they were in a remote village. Since I was the first volunteer in Rajhoon, I was worried about how the villagers would accept me, how I would overcome the language barrier and whether I would manage to teach the children well. But all my fears disappeared a few days into my stay. I learnt so much about how to teach children of varied academic levels in the same classroom, how to be patient and understanding with the children and most importantly, how to be happy with what you have. I have traveled to so many cities around the country but I felt like this was the first time I truly saw what India is all about. The lack of technology and phone network gave me the chance to really soak up the village experience. Instead of sitting on my phone or laptop in my free time, I was visiting temples and attending local events like the ‘mela’ – a huge fair of rides, food, toys and clothes stalls. I have met so many inspiring people during my stay in Rajhoon. It has been an unforgettable few weeks of teaching, learning and loving.
That being said, it still hurts to see how flawed the Indian education system is. I have grown up reading about thousands of children in India being denied not just their right to education but their right to good quality education. But when you see it first hand, it hits you much harder. Every child in the country deserves to be educated well. One month of teaching may not have made a huge difference but I hope it’s a start. I wish I could have stayed longer, and I hope that I can go back to the village some time in the future. I encourage everyone who can use the opportunity Brandeis gives its students through the Brandeis-India Fellowship to make a difference in India. I can say with certainty that I come away from this volunteering experience having gained far more than I can ever hope to give back to the children and families of Rajhoon.