How a Norwegian doctor brings Diwali every night to an urban slum in India

By Makena Naegele, Global Growth Intern at Shikhya

Upon calling Biswajit, co-founder of the digital learning technology, Shikhya, I am instantly transported from my quiet dorm at New York University’s campus in Shanghai, China to a bustling urban slum in Bhubaneswar, Odisha where Shikhya runs the Daya Development Center (DDC) via What’sApp video call. This is a slum without access to running water, where 50% of the kids are malnourished, and education is a foreign word. Introducing Shikhya to DDC two months ago is already revolutionizing the community by providing the children in the community with easy access to a quality conceptualized education through its’ digital learning technology.

Anna with her daughter

Biswajit hands the phone over to Dr. Anna Basiston who is CEO of the Center. I was expecting to see a native Indian woman but immediately am greeted by a blonde ray of light. Her smile glows through the screen and I watch as a child, her daughter, hangs like a monkey around her neck. A bunch of kids swarm around her and she has to go outside to speak with me. Clearly, she is loved here.

I inquire about her Indian/European accent right away and she tells me that she is originally from Norway. She was first introduced to the slum of Bhubaneswar through her husband Amar, an IT/developer from India. She knew in her heart that she had to come back after becoming a certified doctor at Oslo University in Norway and did just that, 7 years after completing the MD program. She had “no doubt coming back” and when I ask why, she states very matter-of-factly with a smile because “it is very purposeful here.”

Anna, Amar and the extended family

She explains to me the center runs with the help of 5 teachers who facilitate the digital lessons and two groups of 15 students who range in age from 4–16 years. With a 1:6 teacher-student ratio, teachers truly get to focus on each individual child. Anna states that “Customary public education in India is one teacher to every 50+ students”. It’s no surprise then that children often fail classes and the elder students the two main national exams. She explains how “these kids lose motivation to learn” as a result and give up, unaware that it is not them but their circumstances: large classrooms, poor teachers, and overall quality of education that is prohibiting them from receiving the proper education that they deserve.

Female empowerment is a key area of focus at DAYA

When I ask of Shikhya’s impact in the slum, Anna claims that Shikhya has made “such a huge influence with few resources. It’s motivating.” For example, she explains to me that for many of the girls who are attending DDC, it is their first time having access to an education. A completely “revolutionary concept,” Anna says, “[unfortunately], many of them are not aware of their own rights.” Anna highlights female empowerment as one of the center’s key areas of focus and how incredible it is to see young girls finally getting the education they deserve.

Anna plans to grow the center to an undisclosed thousands of uneducated children in the slum and is currently focused on outsourcing more high quality teachers. Amar affirms this focus to scale but like Anna stresses the strong need to grow while still maintaining the high quality of learning at the center and “making sure there is enough resources”- this includes tablets which cost just $25 dollars each, food, and teachers.

Without high quality teachers and a growing class, students will relapse back into losing the motivation to learn. Children need the technology just as much as they need human care and encouragement. Biswajit is well aware and makes the point that to anybody who reads Anna’s story and feels inspired to do the same, to jump right in; “If Anna can do it, so can you.”.

The slums of India hardly compare to a developed country like Norway. Anna gave up a life of comfort to a life that is unexpected. Initially, she knew nothing about the culture, language, and general way of life. Yet when I spoke with her, I felt like she had been there for years; she can speak Odia (the language spoken in her adopted land), has a plethora of children whose lives have changed dramatically for the better because of her action, and has adapted to life in Bhubaneswar to a point where she is truly at peace and happier than she could ever be in Norway. Each day may bring new challenge in Bhubaneswar but Anna is fueled by this invincible hope and purpose that allows her to overcome.

I’ll end with a gentle reminder: it is easy to get trapped in our bubbles. We often neglect to see the harsh reality facing other parts of the world. It’s time to remove the shield and be vulnerable. We can all make a positive impact and connect with others despite differences in religion, life experience, language, and culture. It may be uncomfortable but it is the necessary thing to do. Theodore Roosevelt said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

*Side note: DDC doesn’t only provide educational learning through technology, it helps that Anna is dually a certified doctor, DDC provides free health checkups to the children in the Saradapali/Ghatikia slum areas in Bhubaneswar. Fifty percent of the children in the slum are malnourished, so Daya provides meals to the 10th graders that stay the whole day, typically rice and lentils as Amar, Anna’s husband, points out; snacks are also provided to the younger children that are there for just a couple of hours.

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