Notes from a Field Trip

In June, I went on a trip to rural, ‘interior’ villages in Chhotaudepur district of Gujarat with Bhasha’s Vasantshala teachers. The purpose of the trip was to meet former Vasantshala students or people from their community to find out how they were doing. The Vasantshala is a residential, non-formal school operated by Bhasha for students from tribal families, who largely migrate for work. This trip, usually taken after final exams and before the start of the new school year, helps Bhasha learn about its impact – including the extent that their students attend government or other formal schools after attending Vasantshala.

Around 8:30am, I met the Vasantshala staff and a volunteer from a German organization at Limeri Bazar, the main market. We traveled on two motorbikes during a heat wave, with temperatures rising to 106°F /42°C. I thought our first stop would be breakfast. When we pulled into a parking lot, I looked around for a samosa stand. We got off the bikes and walked up to a white building.

Inside, there were two large cells with white bars. We were in a jail. I’m pretty sure my mouth fell open. The cell labeled mahila (women) was being used to store boxes and other materials. It turned out that this was not an alumni visit. A family member of a friend was in jail. The exchange with jail personnel was calm and easygoing, though one could sense the tension and worry of the 8-10 men locked in the cell. The volunteer and I waited until we had left the building to ask what happened. Someone had used the family member’s 4-wheeler (car), without his knowledge, to transport alcohol. This is illegal in Gujarat. He would have to wait in jail for a few days while a judge made a ruling. There was optimism that he would be released and cleared, and concern about his health during that time since he had high blood pressure.

There was work to do, so we kept going. After a distance traveling together, our party split up into two groups so that we could cover more villages. Two of the teachers and I traveled to villages on the border between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. We stopped for directions along the way, and would continue to do so throughout the day. I attempted to locate the village on my phone but had no reception. By the time we got to the first village, Ambala, the sun was shining brightly in a blue sky. There was a wide hill on one side, homes made of thatch, brick and bamboo, and fields in every direction. We stopped at a house and were given small green mangoes that we peeled by hand. They were tart but had a good flavor. We walked past a woman making matkas, clay vessels for storing water. She had a perfectly shaped stone for molding the clay. I was not able to follow conversations except for a few recognized words or phrases. After asking around to various people, the teachers found a former student who had left Vasantshala in 2014. He had not attended formal school afterwards and was working as a driver now. He looked happy and a little amazed to see his former teachers.

Ambala village
Ambala village. Photo by Lina Khan

We visited another village called Diyavant. Some of the students the teachers were trying to reach were no longer there. I took a seat on a charpai, a cot with a cotton woven net. A woman pushed straw closer to tethered white oxen, and their long tongues lapped up the straw. Eventually, the teachers found a 13-year-old boy who had also left Vasantshala in 2014 and was now enrolled in 7th grade at a government school. He couldn’t seem to contain a huge smile during the visit. His mother had beautiful, warm eyes and a friendly smile, features her son shared. She had an upside-down triangle tattoo on her chin, which I later learned is a marker of one’s jati, or community and caste. The student’s grandmother stood nearby. She was tall and wore a heavy, decorated silver band on her ankle. I would guess that she was his paternal grandmother. I wondered what decision-making and other dynamics were like between his mother and grandmother. Children from within and outside the household gathered around, and the teachers may have signed up a few new students for the school year. We snacked on dhebra, round discs made with corn flour and spices. I poured water into my mouth from a communal silver cup and managed not to spill too much on my pants.

On my way to the outhouse, I stopped to fix my sandal with my foot behind my back. I felt something cool and wet in my palm and turned around yelling. I found a young water buffalo standing in the shade. It must have poked its snout into my hand. I laughed a little too loudly. Its big brown eyes were watching me, and I wondered what it was thinking.

Water buffalo and tree
Water buffaloes and a gnarled tree in a village in Chhotaudepur. Photo by Lina Khan

On the way out of the village, we stopped at a store next to the road and took seats inside, next to sewing machine tables. Strips of chips and chana in metallic packaging were strung behind us. One of the teachers asked a girl who looked about 9 or 10 years old and a younger boy who were in the room to call someone. The boy passed through a curtain to an adjoining room, and eventually a man with a t-shirt pulled over a lungi came in and greeted us. He sat down and provided whatever updates he knew about former Vasantshala students we hadn’t been able to meet in person. One of the teachers jotted it down in a notebook. The teacher pulled his red baseball cap backwards so he could see. He reminded me of someone from Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I wondered how the shop owner knew these students. After about ten minutes, we got back on the bike. The black leather seat was scorching, even though we had been in the shop for a short time.

Crops in a village in Chhotaudepur. Photo by Lina Khan

We stopped at the house of a local artist between villages. I had done none of the navigating, driving, student-searching or talking, yet I was wiped out. I fell asleep in a chair on the front porch until I was handed a glass of cold soda. I revived a bit and asked about an unfinished painting leaning against the wall of the house. The artist explained that he planned to fill in the leaves of the tree and the facial features of the dancers outlined below, and their clothing. In a sea of dusty crops, we stopped at another house for directions, and a man gave us water, though he didn’t know us. He waited until we had rested for a few minutes before asking us what we were doing. The teachers explained that they taught at a local school for Adivasi children in Tejgadh and were following up with past students. He nodded, and smiled.

After stopping at a few more villages, we made our way to the village of Moti Sadhli and to the home of a current Vasantshala student and her old brother, who also used to attend Vasantshala. The house was on the edge of immense fields of corn and other crops, and it was shaded and relatively cooler than outside. We had a delicious meal of green sprouted mung beans in a stew, a red chili chutney, makai (corn) roti baked thin, and rice. The older brother had married recently, and he and his wife served us water and chaas (buttermilk) along with second helpings of the food. They laughed when I said that both my Hindi and Gujarati were kharaab (bad). Jewel-colored cut-outs and decorations from their wedding still hung from the ceiling. I later watched his mother apply a new layer of fresh mud on the outside porch. In a crouching position, she scraped her wrist through the mud in a half circle motion in columns and worked steadily until she finished at the doorway of the house. Her son and daughter-in-law looked young, maybe late teens. The Gujarati legal age for marriage for males is 21, for females 18. I suspected her son had married before 21 and wondered why. I later learned that after Vasantshala he had attended the area government school for several years and stopped at grade 10, not having passed the exams.

We waited for the second Vasantshala team to meet us there, but we hadn’t been able to reach them for hours and decided to meet them in the district’s downtown area. Before we left, we drank chai. The former student and recent groom poured my cup out onto the saucer for me, and I laughed as I attempted to lap up the hot chai the way the others were. I tried to say it tasted good in Gujarati, but used Bangla for the main verb. He gave me a funny look and corrected the word I got wrong (I told him I didn’t know Gujarati!). A Vasantshala teacher corrected my entire sentence and I joined in the others’ laughter when I repeated after him: “Chai pivanu maja laage che.”

A few days later, I sat with the teachers to record their updates into my excel spreadsheet of Vasantshala’s current and past students. I asked about the staff’s friend’s family member; since it was the weekend, his case would not be decided until the following week. When I entered the information for the student we had met in Ambala, I remembered his surprised smile when he shook his teacher’s hand, and I remembered the dhebra snacks when I updated the information about the boy in Diayavant. I was a little stunned when I recorded information for a girl that the second Vasantshala field team had learned about. She had passed away. Sickle cell anemia was the suspected cause. I couldn’t believe she had died at such a young age and that her teachers would outlive her.

As we made our way through the updates, I wondered which ones came from other community members’ reports. Some of the students had been visited in the past, and the teachers were following up to see how they were doing after having enrolled in formal schooling. Some of the students were working in agriculture and migrating, others had married and had one or two children, and others had passed their 10th grade exams. Since they teach at a residential school, the staff play the role of teachers and parents for most of the year. They made these field visits in one of the hottest months (before the rains started), phone reception was poor and maps didn’t pick up the village locations, students could not always be found, and they continued to learn what they could. They also kept up relationships with members of communities spread out across the district. It was becoming clear to me that school performance was not the only fact worth knowing about these students. Marriage was not the ultimate goal, either. I can’t say I know how to define achievement for these students. This is perhaps why one of the teachers had once noted her ultimate aim, that Vasantshala students become confident and independent in whatever they do. I don’t know how to measure that (yet). But it seems closer to something meaningful.

Lina is excited to join Bhasha in its efforts to advance the goals of tribal communities, including helping educate kids in a nurturing environment and prepare them for a bright future. She is looking forward to meeting children, parents, and everyone else in her community, and using her limited Bengali to begin learning other Indian languages. Prior to the fellowship, Lina assessed federal programs in international trade, security, and environmental restoration for the Government Accountability Office, and supported monitoring and evaluation of democracy assistance programs for the National Democratic Institute. She has also volunteered with kids education programs in Washington, DC and with a water pipeline project with Engineers Without Borders in Cameroon.

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