I will start by apologizing for the delay in writing this post! It has been a very busy couple weeks, and I was trying to do as much as possible before leaving Mankundu.
While we were in Darjeeling, the pavement was finished at the Lalkuthi tutorial. It was just in time, because the next week the rains started and the area in front of the school would have been a complete mud pit. They are still in the process of building a roof to cover the yard. The original plan for how to connect the roof with the existing building was vetoed by the mason, so they will redesign it and start in the next few days. Unfortunately the workers removed part of the roof before finding out about the delay, so the tutorial will be closed until it is finished. I’m glad I was able to see the progress of the pavement and the finished product, but am disappointed that I couldn’t see the roof finished. I told the other volunteers to send me pictures when it is done.
The microcredit program had their biannual function to reward the members who have saved the most over the past two years. The one who saved the most won the grand prize (an electric kettle), and each woman who deposited money at least 8 times per year received a plate. It was amazing to see how many people participate in this program. It’s one thing to see the numbers on a computer screen and know that there are over 1100 accounts (and new ones every day), but to actually see them all together in one place gives gives a whole new perspective on the number.
I learned a lot about the history of the NGO and projects from Tapas, the director. He took me to the slum where he started his work and introduced me to some of the people who supported him early on. The NGO struggled a lot with the local government in the beginning, because while they wanted to stay politically neutral, they needed the support of the municipality in order to do things like adding electricity and sewage lines.
The story which I found the most outrageous was about the beginning of this first slum project. As is typical in India, the government expected bribes and that Tapas give government employees positions of power within the NGO. He refused, which caused them to try to turn the community against him. They told the people in the slums that Tapas would turn them Christian and sell their daughters. The fact that many of them believed these stories and that they did not seem unrealistic is testament to how many dangers these people face. Eventually, after he did only good things for the community for years, they came around.
My favorite part of going to the slums with Tapas was when he introduced me to a man who was probably in his mid-20s and had been one of their first sponsored students at the tutorial, which was started 17 years ago. He came from a very poor slum family, and his parents worked as day laborers to put food on the table. They had no education and without the help of Human Wave, this boy would have had no prospects for the future either. He was chosen to be sponsored because of his dedication and interest in learning. Now he works at a pharmacy in Kolkata, and hopes that one day his children can become doctors. While these stories are not the norm, it is amazing to see the potential of education to break the cycle of poverty, which is so hard to escape otherwise.
I also had the chance to see two of the other tutorials last week, which I had not visited yet. Comparing the four that I went to, there is a clear progression based on how many years Human Wave has been working there. The earliest project has a paved pathway, electricity, sewage lines, and water taps every few houses, and the houses are almost all brick and cement. The newest is simple bamboo huts with tarps for roofs, dirt floors, and no infrastructure. Human Wave is just beginning construction of a school building there. By visiting multiple slums at different stages of development, I was able to get a better understanding of the work that Human Wave has done.
My final week in Mankundu, Human Wave’s English medium school reopened after their summer holidays. I spent a few days teaching there in order to learn more about the school system. Even though this is a private school, it is not so different from the government schools. There is a lower teacher-to-student ratio than at the public schools, and it is taught almost entirely in English. It reminded me much more of my idea of what schools in the US were like 100 years ago than it did of my experience in the American school system. The teachers rely much more heavily on punishment than reward, hitting desks with rulers, shouting, and making kids sit in the front corner and hold their ears if they misbehave. Most of the teaching is done by rote and repetition. I think this is out of necessity, because there are not enough teachers to explain everything to each child or to give them the individual attention that they need. I can definitely see why students need outside tutoring in order to keep up. The kids are adorable, but I was mostly working in the nursery and kindergarten classes so they were too young to know very much English, which made it difficult for me to talk with them.
The theory behind the NGO starting this school was that the tuition gained from it could support the other projects in the slums, but so far it is taking more money than it makes. It was only opened 6 years ago, beginning with a preschool class, so currently it goes up to 4th grade. They plan to expand to 8th grade, but finding the capital to fund expansion without the maximum number of enrollees is proving difficult. The school is in the process of building a new floor because currently multiple grades share some of the classrooms. Hopefully once they find the funds to finish the new floor and expand their enrollment, it can fulfill its initial purpose.
The rains finally started in West Bengal last week! The temperature dropped to where it was comfortable enough to be outside during the day, which was a fantastic change. The rain brought with it more mosquitos, but that was a small price to pay for the relief from the heat. I had expected the humidity to drop too, but the opposite was true if anything. Rather than a sauna, it now feels like being inside a greenhouse. A little too warm, and much too damp. Definitely a welcome change from the heat of the previous weeks, though!
One of my friends from the architecture school at U of M was studying in Mumbai for spring term, and when they finished there he came to meet me in Mankundu. Because of the break in temperature, we decided to go into Kolkata for a day to sightsee. I had been in the city a couple times before, but we had only done any real sightseeing at night after things cooled off a bit. It was great to have the chance to properly see the famous Victoria Memorial, Howrah Bridge, and other sites. On Saturday he and I left to start our travels. I am currently writing this from Varanasi, where we are staying with Talia, another SiSA fellow!
Friday was my last day at the tutorial, and the teachers organized a celebration. They had me sit in front and presented me with flowers, then the kids took turns singing, dancing, and reciting poetry. Tapas came and gave a speech about how great it was to have me there and how much they will miss me. It was all very sweet, and made me even more sad to leave. (Photos to come!)
Saying goodbye to my NGO was definitely the hardest thing that I have done this trip. In only six weeks, I formed very strong bonds with my host family and fellow volunteers, as well as many of the children and local people. Leaving a place that you have grown attached to without knowing whether you will ever return is a strange feeling. It is something I had never experienced before, since I have lived in Ann Arbor my whole life. My family moved once when I was six, but only to a different house within the same neighborhood. I sincerely hope that I will someday return to India, both to visit Mankundu and to explore more of India, but there is no guarantee that it will be possible. Leaving made me more grateful than ever for having been given this amazing opportunity.
Before I go getting any more sentimental, I must remember that while my volunteer work is done, my trip is not complete! I have two more weeks ahead of me, in which which I will see Varanasi, Agra, Amritsar, Dharamshala, Chandigarh, and Delhi. It will be a fast and busy time, but hopefully I still have more great experiences to come!