Perched on the slopes of a valley in the Himalayan Ranges, you will hear, beyond the gushing waterfall and the chirping of the birds, the singsong recitation of the English alphabets, the monotones of a school bell along with shrieks and laughter of a hundred odd voices.
7 am Mussoorie, 3rd July 2014
The roller coaster ride was just beginning. The road shrinks and the Jeep carrying our party starts descending. The sinking feeling in my stomach grows as the road snakes downwards. A huge convex mirror beckons us to the next U curve but our approach is contested by another bus. As the two vehicles converge in the mirror I brace myself to fall off the cliff.
Soon fear fades away as I look beyond the inches of the road we travel on, into the panorama that lays ahead.
Outside, fields full of summer’s bounty pass by. Eventually ancient trees give way to sprawling farms, a waterfall comes into view and gives rise to a valley below. As I remain entranced by the valley’s beauty the Jeep comes to a halt. The driver, as though in response to my yearning look, motions me out. As I watch the Jeep drive past, GEMS materialises before me.
First of the year
Having travelled for more than 3 days, even the sight of the school brought no reprieve from the overwhelming feeling of being lost. The enormous structure gave no hint of the fact that its run by donations alone. The mountain complemented it so well that it felt like it was a natural extension to the school beyond its terrace. So it wasn't until I saw the familiar face of Lori did I feel at home and realise that I was about to be a part of something far bigger than I ever imagined.
The school had reopened on that day. So there was little time for introductions as the teachers and volunteers eagerly went to their respective classes to collect the summer assignments. I helped one of the volunteers Katie do so. Each one in the class had made a pocket book from chart paper before the holidays with her in order to write diary entries in it during the holidays. I spent the rest of the school day aiding kids who had difficulty writing their diary entries in English.
All the teachers and volunteers were called for a meeting after school by Lori and her husband Kunwar in the staff room. The meeting was called upon to felicitate two of their teachers Neelum and Varender who had been selected to go to England as part of the teacher exchange program with their partner school Oldfield Brow.
The School and its history
GEMS houses 230 students all hailing from Jaunpur villages. Just like a jeweller who gives his gems their facets, shelter and light to produce a dizzying spectacle this school provided its children food, shelter and education for free in order to make them shine. Just 3 years ago, it was no more than a cowshed in a village called Sainji. Its dramatic rise can only be understood when viewed in the context of its history.
Sainji lies one hundred kilometres northeast of Dehradun in the Himalayan foothills of the Indian province of Uttarakhand. In the style of medieval villages, it is organized around a large central square. Facing the square is Chauhan Nivas, the bungalow of the Chauhan family, once the great landowners of those parts. An archway to one side leads to an array of closely clustered houses with red-tile roofs. Narrow stone irrigation canals run down the hillside to the river below irrigating a stairway of farms along the way.
For centuries, the village folk of Sainji cultivated the field in the terraced valley below, walking four or five kilometres down the mountain in the morning. Life was hard. As the sky turned to sinister hues of red, life in the village would come to a standstill transfixed by the thought of those yet to appear. Epidemics such as measles, dysentery, and tuberculosis, wild animals, recurrent landslides and floods claimed lives of villagers and their livestock and destroyed the village’s food supply. This history of calamities left the village folk desperately poor and without much hope of economic betterment.
In 1980's, Kunwar returned to Sainji after having completed his Bachelor of Commerce from Delhi University under his Uncle’s tutelage. Kunwar built roads and organized immunization and health education programs. He encouraged the villagers to practice better farming techniques. He facilitated the delivery of piped water to the village to prevent water borne diseases. The village came to life. Instead of making the long daily trek by foot to Mussoorie to sell their milk, the villagers loaded their milk onto one jeep and sold it. Schools and temples were built. Small shops and bakeries and restaurants opened along the road. Most households had electricity, toilets, piped water and proper sewage.
The good times didn't last long. The teachers union of the government school gained strength and won the fight to not have to live in the villages. With no superintendents willing to travel to the schools in the hill areas to inspect the situation, it was not long before the teachers’ attendance began to slide, school hours to be shortened, and the quality of education to falter and it might well have remained so if Lori had not appeared.
Lori Chauhan is a Canadian and had been coming to India for ten years before settling there permanently. She first arrived in 1998 as part of a field school. During that six week stay, she developed a concern for the many children she saw working in informal industries or who were living on the streets. A year later she returned with some friends to learn more about the plight of underprivileged children. She and her friends established a NGO in Canada called, ‘Children Go to School’ whose mission was to ensure education for all children. Over the course of the year she and her cohorts raised enough funds to start a school in a slum area of Gurgoan, outside of New Delhi. While in India, Lori continued to educate herself about children and poverty, and visited many industries employing children, such as the brick kilns, carpet and silk weaving industries, bangle factories, etc. Every summer for four years she traveled back to India to learn more about the plight of children, and to oversee the progress of the school initiative, which by the end of four years offered education to 50 children and employed two teachers. When she began her masters’ degree she decided it was necessary to gain a better understanding of why so many children opted to live on the streets, rather than remain with their parents. Hence, for six months she volunteered with the Salaam Baalak Trust Organization for Street Children in Delhi and every day interacted with the street children living at the New Delhi Railway station, and at Hanuman Mandir. Her MA thesis was later published in 2005, entitled ‘Voices From the Street: An Ethnography of India’s Street Children’. It was from this body of research that Lori’s interest in the lives of village children grew. She questioned, ‘why and how so many children from the villages could have the courage or the need to abandon their families and leave home, especially when some were as young as six years of age when they fled.’ It seemed to her that an investigation into the lives and family relationships within the village context was warranted. In 2006 she returned to India to begin her language training at the Landour Language School in Mussoorie for her PhD, and to search for an appropriate village to conduct her study. It did not take long. After visiting many of the Jaunpur villages in the region with a local Medical NGO, she quickly decided that given the poverty and harsh living conditions of the villages in Jaunpur, this was the most appropriate area to carry out the study. In the fall of 2007 she moved to the village of Kolti.
It was about this time that they met. They were married in June of 2008, and together they have created a NGO called the Garhwal Organization for Uplifting the Needy, GOUN (meaning ‘village’). Their organization tries to provide opportunities for villagers to improve their lives. To date they have created a doll making project that provides young women with extra income so they can purchase extra school supplies, personal items or even resources for single mothers to support their young children. They are in the process of developing a soap making project as a means to create jobs for local youth in the village. However, their biggest and most ambitious project to date has been the development of the ‘Garhwal English Medium School’.
When children come to us from government schools, we often find that many have not received any instruction. Some children in class four do not realize that they have ten fingers on their hands. They may be able to recite the multiplication tables, but they do not know what multiplication means. The same can be seen in the other subjects. So we have always taken a one-on-one approach with these children, offering them individual tutoring from the teachers, and encouraging the other children to ‘buddy up’ with the one who is struggling. This has never been difficult, as our children are always willing to help others who need it – it seems it is inbred in them – a part of the culture. It is this aspect, this part of our children’s character that gives us strength to carry on when things are difficult.
To say that things got difficult would be an understatement. The NGO which built the school for them eventually decided to take over all its operations even though it had agreed previously to keep Lori and Kunwar at the helm. This is how Lori describes the scenes that followed
“What happened Auntie?”, asked Sudesh. I told them I and Mamma (their affectionate name for Kunwar) would no longer be running the school, that they foundation people would be running it from now on. They stared back in silence. Then I tried reassuring them that everything would be fine, that this was their opportunity to get a really fine education, to realize their dreams, that maybe these people could manage this better than Kunwar and I. The children didn’t say anything, but they followed me wherever I went, even into my office when I went to get my things. They stared, 50 children in my office, another 100 outside my window – staring, and then one said, ‘No Auntie, please don’t go.’ Do you know how hard it is to hold it together when children are behaving in this way? I kept telling them over and over that they would be fine and that we were not going anywhere, that we would still be in Sainji, living next door to some of our children. But that was not enough for our children.
Eventually the matter went to court and the school was awarded back to Lori and Kunwar. With every success comes further challenges and the challenges of providing for 230 children are quite enormous for 2 people with no sizable income to talk of. With the help of the time and money of various individuals GEMS continues to grow a standard more with every passing year. Currently, there are classes until 8th standard in the school. Now, Lori and Kunwar strive to bring hands on experience for the kids by establishing a proper computer and science lab. During my stay I helped them set up some science experiments.
My visit coincided with the final days of a 4 month long visit of two other volunteers from England James and Katie. James and I once had an argument about why the kids in school selectively addressed him as ‘Brother’. He claimed that this was because he was not Indian and hence the kids refrained from addressing him in a much more respectful fashion as ‘Sir’ as they did the other teachers. As we walked past a group of kids, this distinction came to light in the way they addressed him and me. Immediately James asked the group to explain why they did so. They told him it was because he was their friend.
The purpose of my brief visit to the school was to interact with the many people responsible for the school’s existence. In the 3 weeks of my stay I found instead that the school touched the lives of all the people I met. GEMS is an embodiment of the spirit of the children that inspired Lori. Just before James left with Katie in a bus he asked a shopkeeper near the bus stand ‘Are you Supriya’s father?’. The man just watched dumbfounded as James departed without waiting for his response. I dont know whether GEMS is a great school but it definitely has made the world a better place with the relationships it has forged among the community around it.