Community Building during Diwali: Hospitality and Kindness in South India

When I originally decided that I would both live and work on-site at my host organization, I knew that I would also be living in close proximity to the students. “Obviously,” I thought, “because it’s a boarding school.” But once I got to the school, I realized that my rose-colored conceptions of what living at a boarding school in India is really like, were very wrong.

From the short time I have been at the school, I’ve learned so much about each and every student – which meals they like, which classes they don’t – and have gotten to witness the drama that comes with growing up, multiplied by living in close proximity with classmates 24/7. The students stay the majority of the time on the school campus – occasionally some will go home for a weekend, or family will come for a visit. Most of the time, however, students stay on the 7-acre school campus. Which gives me a great opportunity to connect and spend time with them.

It has been important for me to remember that the school setting is not the only life these students live. At school they all eat the same food, wear the same uniform, have basically the same privileges and opportunities. Their home lives, however, are very different. All the students come from rural villages, but as I saw on Diwali, their lives are very different than at school. And thinking I know these kids just from what I see from them at school, regardless of the fact that they live there a large part of the year, would be a mistake.

For those of you from the U.S., like me, who had only a vague idea of what Diwali is, here’s a brief summary: Diwali, or the festival of lights, is celebrated throughout much of India with a five day festival coinciding with the Hindu New Year. The reason for celebrating on these days differs depending on the region and religion, but the main theme of celebrations generally focus on triumph of light over darkness, good over evil. Diwali celebrations often include decorating houses with candles and lights, and setting off fireworks in the evening after cleaning the house and sharing food with family.

My first Diwali in India was exhausting, overwhelming, and so much fun! The students all went home for a week-long break, and the other volunteers at the school and I were invited to come to their houses to celebrate. We left early the morning of Tuesday November 6th, returning 12 hours later after visiting 6 villages, over 20 homes, and setting off so many fireworks my ears were ringing for days after. It is so hard to put into words the experience we had, that I won’t even try. Below is a link to a video the volunteers made, showing the experience of our 2018  Diwali Tour. It gives a very small snippet into the celebration of the day, and the hospitality and kindness each family showed us. And seeing the kids in their homes, with their families, shows a more complete picture of them than I get simply being at school. 

Tessa grew up in Wisconsin and graduated with a degree in Political Science and minors in Environmental Studies and Economics from Luther College in Iowa. After studying sustainable international development at the University of Oslo International Summer School, she returned to Iowa to give back to her community by serving as a FoodCorps member and then as Youth Education Coordinator at a local non-profit. Tessa has spent five years in the Cedar Rapids community, working with youth aged preschool through high school to create a love of growing and eating healthy food. She has also worked with teachers in the school district to implement nutrition and garden lessons into the curriculum, reaching those students who learn best through alternate, hands-on activities. In her free time, Tessa is a voracious reader and loves experimenting with new vegan cooking recipes. She is excited to take her experiences of outdoor education into a new setting in southern India.

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