“चलो स्कूल चलें हम” (Lets all go to school) is a very common Hindi motivational adage in rural India schools. This phrase became very popular with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Right to Education) Programme of the Government of Indian that even a song “School Chale Ham” was created to publicize the importance of education. I decided to use this adage to describe my journey in setting up a school in rural India and how in this process I have revisited my school days where for me it is probably going to be “Lets go back to school”. This is no common school where children are admitted. But a school where mothers and grandmothers are curious to learn about the changes around them and how could they cope with a fast progressive world – both technologically and culturally; how could they learn about new developments and be able to influence their families and communities and how they could be role models for the many illiterate mothers and grandmothers in our country by leading the path towards a desired change.
In January 2017, my mentor at Manthan Kotri approached me on the possibility of starting a women’s school. Woooh and Ooops!!!! This was exactly my reaction when I heard this. Here, I was on a journey of understanding how communities in rural India live through the many development and environmental challenges and how sustenance and resilience have become a part of the culture in rural Rajasthan, and now I was given a new project and an entirely new idea. While I was struggling to convince my host organization on the importance of “impact assessments” and “evidences” (as this was my originally planned project) to showcase the enormous work they have done in the villages of Ajmer and Nagaur district, Rajasthan (though eventually I did manage to convince them 🙂 ), here I was asked to set-up a school in an area I had just started to understand. Nothing made sense to me at first – where do I start, what does the organization want to achieve, what was the objective the school and its long term impact and finally what about the sustainability and sustenance of the school after the completion of my Fellowship. I had to write a proposal, raise funds for a pilot school and look at ways of implementing it. Scribbles on pieces of paper during morning and evening walks at the talab (pond), discussions with the volunteers  who had experimented with concept in the pilot village and interactions with my colleagues from Manthan got me thinking on something but just not enough for me to start working the proposal. I tried Googling in to see if there would be any answers to my questions, but with no avail.
So finally on a cold January night, I went to meet the women from in the Reggar  community in village Nosal on the possibility of starting a full-fledged women’s school. And this is where I got all the answers to my questions. “हम बस संख्या और मार्गों को पढ़ना चाहते हैं; हम विभिन्न सरकारी योजनाओं और बैंक प्रक्रियाओं के बारे में सीखना चाहते है; हम गांव से परे चीजों के बारे में सीखना चाहते हैं” (We want to read bus numbers and routes; we want to learn more about different government schemes and bank processes; we want to learn about things beyond the village). That is it! Here is what I was looking for – this is not going to be a formalized school but an informal structure where besides basic literacy and numeracy diverse things that impact the lives of these mothers and grandmothers would be discussed through a newly developed curriculum and pedagogy. It would be a space for the women to discuss factors that impact their lives and bring about solution to initiate change. I eventually wrote the proposal and submitted it to the crowd funding site Ketto where we were able to raise Rs. 1.5 lakhs to start the pilot school in village Nosal. It was proposed that the school would revolve around six pillars of learning: political, economic, environmental, life skills, health, self and society. And in order to make it simple for the women to understand and grasp, we took the story of the roles of everyday women in a village (farmer, shepherd, labourer, artist, tailor, NREGA MET, shopkeeper, post lady, sarpanch, anganwadi lady, teacher, bank manager etc.) and through this we explain the six pillars and along with basic literacy and numeracy.
Like any project, the challenges were large and the stakes of success low as it involved coordination with many stakeholders. It also required constant motivation to bring the Manthan staff onto board with the idea. Since the school would be run by the community itself, it took us some time finding two college going girls who would be facilitators at the school, convince their parents and coax them to come to the Manthan campus for training sessions. Renting the house took enormous time, money transfers fell behind schedules, the curriculum was not entirely decided, motivating husbands was another challenge and who would take responsibility post my fellowship was the biggest question. All this gave me sleepless nights and by April 2017, frustrations were really high, as things were not going according to plan. It was only the women’s meetings that kept me motivated. Every time I went to the community the women would form a circle around me and ask “स्कूल कब शुरू हो रहा है”; “कृपया स्कूल शुरू करो हम जल्द ही नई चीजें सीखना चाहते हैं” (when is the school starting; please start the school soon as we want to learn new things soon)
The school finally opened in May 2017. And to see the women come every night for two hours with their school bags, books, slates, chalks and pencils is a beautiful feeling indeed.
Whenever I visit the school, there are a bunch of children surrounding the mothers and grandmothers and helping them with the curves and lines of the Devnagiri and Latin scripts. Our little helpers have been such an inspiration and I would like to recall one incident where one of the boys goes to get water for all the women and loudly acclaims, “You’ll continue studying and I will go and get you’ll water to drink”. For the children it is a proud moment as their mothers are making an attempt to read and write; for our young teachers it is an experience to pick up the skill of teaching and for the women it is attaining that level of confidence to make a positive change to their families and communities once they are empowered through literacy.
As I come towards the end of my Fellowship journey and try to reflect on the experiences and moments that made me smile, then the fun sessions with my some of my favorite women at the school will surely live throughout. Seeing the progress of the development of an idea into to something like such a school has given me an immense learning exposure. Learning from the community has been one of the biggest experiences and through this community space I have gained insight into three very important values: dedication, determination and endurance. The women through their determination and dedication to come to this school and their endurance to sit and learn new aspects in a fast changing world has allowed me to grow personally and professionally by just witnessing these three values. We are all on this learning journey of life and these women have shown that it is not too late to go back to school re-learn the already learned, sharing learning’s from each others and learning from the simple things of everyday life. My host organisation plans to start a few more schools in other villages in the area and I hope to see more women benefit from this learning initiative. So ‘चलो स्कूल चलें हम’ has not only been the setting up of a women’s school but a new learning experience for me (Let me go back to school, I should say) in starting grass root initiatives that matter most to the lives of rural India. It is never too late to go back to school for everyday is school and everyday is a learning experience.
 Pravah-ICS (International Citizen Service) volunteers had started this initiative, which is being taken up by Manthan as a larger project.
 The Reggars are a lower caste group in the caste hierarchy of Rajasthan and have traditionally been leather shoemakers though now they have branched out into various occupations due to the environmental, political, social and economic restrictions on the use of leather. Though many from the community have benefited economically due to migration to larger cities, they still face many social and political challenges within the villages resulting in marginalization and backwardness of the community. Thus it was decided that the school should be started within in this community for women.