Category Archives: Damon in India

The Faces I Didn’t See

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Today was my last day in Bhadohi. A car came to pick me up from where I was staying at 10:30. I tossed my bags into the car and said goodbye to the people who had been hosting me. I told them each how much I had enjoyed staying at their home and finally getting to meet them. (These are the men who started and have been running Barakat’s Qazipur School over the past several years.) In their parting words, each of them said to me in almost exactly the same language something like this: “If I have used any unkind words, I am sorry. Forgive anything I might have said to upset you. I hope we are able to have a good relationship in the future and you are always welcome here.”

The similarity of their words made me think that it must be something everyone says when they say goodbye here if there have been disagreements. So of course, I said the same thing back to them, in somewhat different words. We had been discussing some matters over the past two weeks of how to run the schools, and we have not always seen eye to eye. Yet every night we ate together and joked together and learned more about each other–I found it quite refreshing to be able to be expressing our different views relating to one matter without feeling like anyone was holding it against anyone else.

Then before the car took off, one of them said, “Have you said goodbye to the children and teachers at the school?” I hadn’t. I hadn’t even thought of it. How rude.

“No. I should do that,” I said. So Amzad, who speaks quite good English and has been running the school for the past three years hopped in the car and told the driver to go to the school, and step on it! (It was in Hindi, so I’m just guessing at exactly what he said.)

When we arrived at the school, classes were in session. I had hoped to catch everyone at their recess/lunch break so that I could address all the teachers and students at the same time. Instead I went into each of the seven classrooms and told them today was my last day in Bhadohi, I was heading back to the U.S., I had enjoyed meeting everyone and seeing how the school was being run. Finally I wished them all well for the year ahead and that I hoped I could come back at some point in the future.

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For the younger children, Amzad translated. For the older kids, who have been studying English for a couple years, he thought it would be fun to see if any of them could understand what I was saying and explain it to the rest of the class. So for grades 3-5 I spoke more slowly and tried to use more simple words. One girl in 5th grade was actually able to get most of my meaning, which surprised and delighted me. Sometimes, it’s easy to lose track of the purpose of learning or to see the signs that it’s happening. And here was a student just 11 years old who had probably never heard any native English speaker talk before, and she could pick up what I was saying because she had studied English in school. Cool!

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Another thing happened while I was in those classes saying goodbye. Speaking through a translator is a very different experience from speaking without one. You have to take breaks every few sentences for the person to translate. And that gives you time to reflect on what you want to say next, or to just space out if you already know what you’re going to say next. What I was saying was pretty simple, and I repeated it seven times, so I had plenty of time to look around the room at the children’s faces. As I was looking at them – some of their eyes fixed on Amzad as he was translating, some of them apparently captivated by me – I had a really weird feeling.

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I felt like I was seeing the kids for the first time. Really seeing them. I had spent several hours in our two schools over the course of the past three weeks interviewing teachers, interviewing parents, interviewing students, talking to administrators, surveying the facilities, taking pictures, videotaping, asking all the questions I could think of. But somehow in all that time I hadn’t really taken time to just look at the kids and think about them. Who are they? What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Who are their friends?

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It’s hard to explain how I was seeing them differently. All the rest of the time I had been so concerned with getting good pictures, or capturing the right moment on video, or trying to figure out the right question to get them to expose their true thoughts about going to school. I had been so focused on my objectives – my checklist of things I wanted to accomplish – that my mind was always there and not ever really processing what was in front of me.

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It was only when I was ready to leave and had completed the checklist that my brain was free to see what was in front of me. At that moment, I felt a sense of awe. A sense that this is an incredibly important thing we are doing – helping to expand what is possible for these little people in the future. And it made me want to do whatever I could to make sure they have everything they need to make good lives for themselves.

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Talking to Parents

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Mother of student

Yesterday I interviewed several parents at the Qazipur School. The purpose of these interviews is to find out what they think about the quality of education at the school, how we can make it better for their children, and their beliefs about education. I’m not sure what they think I want to talk to them about, but most of them have that look when someone asks to speak to them for a completely unknown reason. Their faces are completely slack. They look at me without smiling. It’s impossible to know, but I imagine they’re thinking, “What the heck could this guy possibly want to talk to me about?” If they are anything like me (which they may or may not be) they may start jumping to conclusions. My child’s done something wrong. I’ve said something offensive.

It’s hard for me to say what they’re really thinking. I’ve discovered that they have very little incentive to be completely honest with me and tell me too much. Look at it from their perspective: they are too poor to send their children to a school that charges admission and education is free at this school. They have no other option and they don’t want to say anything to screw it up. They may think there are some problems with the school – some things they wish worked better; they may even have some insightful suggestions for how we could make improvements.

                                                            

            School bus in Bhadohi

School bus in Bhadohi

But they have a lot to lose by being honest. I tell them that I’m not going to share what they say with anyone, that what they tell me won’t affect their child’s place in this school, and that I genuinely want to know how to make the school better for their kids. But what if that’s not true? And what if they tell me something and someone else finds out? Their child could be kicked out. It happens at free schools all the time. They’re reluctant to look a gift horse in the mouth and that’s exactly what I’m asking them to do.

The questions that they are open in answering are the ones relating to their beliefs about education. One question in particular has been interesting to hear people answer because everyone gives exactly the same response.

“Do you think education is equally important for girls and boys?”

Every single parent – both fathers and mothers – have said emphatically, “Yes.”

“Why?” I ask.

Their response usually sounds something like this. “In the past things were different, but now it is very important for girls to be educated as well. It is very important for them so that they can be married.”

I probe more. “Why does being educated help them get married?”

“It is the first thing a husband and his family will ask when they are looking for brides.” According to one of my translators two out of three marriages in India are arranged by the families of the spouses. “Without a high level of education, no one will marry a girl.”

This makes me wonder. At the beginning, they say that things have changed. It didn’t used to be this way, but now it is. It doesn’t seem like the right reason to educate a girl to me, but I guess it’s not as important why girls are being educated, as long as they are being educated. “What has changed?” I ask. “Why do people think it’s important to have an  educated wife when they didn’t before?”

Visiting parent's house

Visiting parent's house

“The husband’s family knows that if the wife has a good education, then she will make sure that all their children are well educated as well. She can teach them at home and check on their homework.” One man used himself as an example. “I am uneducated. This is because my parents were also uneducated. They didn’t understand the importance in sending me to school, so I never had a chance to learn. Now I am just a weaver, and there’s nothing else I can do. I don’t want to repeat the mistake my parents made. I want to send my children to school so that they can have a different life.”

It doesn’t completely answer my question of what has changed…but it alludes to it. It is definitely true that women who are educated tend to make sure their families are educated. Research shows this tendency isn’t nearly as strong with men. Even if they are educated, they may not make sure their children are educated. So I suppose that in the past generation, this idea has taken hold – even with uneducated people.

You can see it all around you. In Bhadohi, there are huge signs for schools all over. In Varanasi, the nearest big city, you can’t look in any direction without seeing a billboard for a school. Of course, those billboards are for people who can pay–with so much interest in education, schools have become a business.

    

Billboard for school in Bhadohi

Billboard for school in Bhadohi

While that’s great, it also worries me. There are no billboards for free schools. No one makes money on them. And the government-run schools are the bottom of the barrel. So the poor – who can’t afford to send their children to any of these schools on these thousands of billboards – are falling behind.

Sign for girls college

Sign for girls college

Morning Assembly

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I’ve been told by several people now that I should blog more often, so I’m going to try to do at least one a day for the my last week here. I can’t promise the same quality as the previous ones, but I’ll do my best.

Yesterday I went back to the Qazipur school to do some classroom observations. The school day starts at 8:00, and I wanted to be early so that I could video tape kids coming to school and their morning assembly, so I left my home-stay at 7:30.

 

A child I passed on the way to school

A child I passed on the way to school

 

It’s just a 10 minute walk to the school from where I am staying, but I had two wishes for these 10 minutes. The first was that it wouldn’t be too hot and that my shirt wouldn’t be totally sweat-soaked by the time I got there, which I guess was half granted. I was dripping sweat when I arrived and my shirt was just half-soaked. My second wish was that not too many people would be out yet. I’ve walked this route four times now, and each time I’ve had more people stare at me more intensely than ever in my life. And, having been a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve had a lot of people stare at me for a long time. Maybe I’m just not used to it anymore, but it kind of made me uncomfortable and sometimes you just want to feel like you fit in a little bit.

 

A house on the way to school

A house on the way to school

Another house on the way to school

Another house on the way to school

 

This second wish was granted. People wake up somewhat early here, but they seem to lounge around their home for a while, so I mostly saw children on their way to school. I tried to take some discreet pictures from my waist during the walk, but when people are staring at you, it’s hard to be discreet.

When I arrived I heard a ball of voices coming from the classrooms. I was worried I had been too late, but there were still children coming. Some by themselves. Some escorted by parents and siblings. They were all super cute in their little uniforms. Several of them said, “Good morning, sir,” as they passed me. Again, cute.

girls walking to their classrooms

At 8:00 on the dot, it was time for the morning assembly. It was amazing to see how efficiently all the kids made it out into the courtyard, and they seemed to do it on auto-pilot. I don’t know how these teachers get the kids to be so perfect all the time, but they do seem pretty consistently perfect. Later, one of the teachers left the LKG kids (5 year olds) by themselves for five minutes and only a couple even left their desks! The assembly seems to consist of a prayer and a blessing, and that’s about it.

 

Morning assembly being formed

Morning assembly being formed

Prayer at morning assembly

Prayer at morning assembly

 

So before I knew it, the kids filed their way back to their classrooms. Both when they came out of and returned to their classrooms, they put their hands on each others’ shoulders. As they returned, I noted how their movement resembled a handful of giant millipedes escaping to seek shelter in all different directions. When I have talked with the teachers about the students, they often talk about the fact that most of the children’s parents are uneducated and don’t know how to support the children in school. You wouldn’t guess it, watching their behavior. It seems like they know exactly how to behave for school – like it’s what they were born to do.

 

Upper Kindergarten classwork

Upper Kindergarten classwork

Damon in India: Where are the women?

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My girlfriend Kate pointed out yesterday as we were walking along a crowded street in Jodhpur that women are conspicuously absent. “Where are the women?” she asked me.

I assume they’re at home. I don’t know where else they’d be. The portrait you get from the street is that India’s population is 95 percent men and 5 percent women. I suppose it’s unfair to generalize this to all of India, since Kate and I have only been to a few cities in Rajasthan, but here’s what we’ve seen.

Men drive rickshaws and taxis. Men tend shops. Men do construction. Men do demolition. Men work on roads. Men tailor clothes. Men run hotels. Men run restaurants. Men make chairs. Tour guides are men. Guards are men. Policemen are men. Travel agents are men. What do women do?

Here’s what I have seen women doing. I saw a couple women working at the railway reservation station, a government run agency. In the thousands of motor vehicles I’ve seen now, I have seen about 10 scooters operated by women. I’ve seen some women sweeping the street in the morning – again, paid by the government. I have seen women in transit: walking on the street, in a vehicle, and on the train. I have heard that girls go to school, although nearly all of the children I’ve seen in school uniforms so far are boys. And a couple of the people we have bought hand-made souvenirs from have said that their wives made the items.

The men we, as tourists, encounter are so immersed in their public world of men that they seem to look past Kate. It is a rare occasion that anyone addresses her (which she is actually pretty happy about, considering how often people approach us for something). I am the one they look to first. “Sir, where would you like to go?” “Sir, what would you like for dinner?” “Sir, biscuits or some water?” Sir, sir, sir. The few times that anyone has addressed Kate, they even call her “sir”. As far as I can see as an outsider, public life in India is men’s domain. I can only guess what most women do: housework and teaching?

The question comes to my mind, what does it matter that women are so underrepresented in so many types of work? Is it important at all? I’m sure a book could be written about this, but I came up with some short answers. Yes, it is important. It only seems fair that women should be able to do the same work as men if they want to. Women have aspirations outside of family life just like men. I imagine many would like to be able to pursue them, although I’m sure some are happy with what they are doing already. But the point is to have the option to pursue what you want to pursue. That’s what seems important to me about not seeing women anywhere.

So how can women have more opportunity? Simple: education. Education can give women the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in these jobs, and the confidence they need to find them. It can give men the understanding that women should have the freedom to do what they want. Having this freedom will help everyone. When half the working-age people in a country (women) aren’t free to pursue careers, there’s a lot of untapped potential in that country. Whether because of nurture or nature, there are a lot of areas in which women are more skilled and talented than men. Restraining what jobs they can have wastes those talents. And personally, something feels very unbalanced about a world in which every direction you look you see swarms of men.

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Damon in India: A few more photos

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Damon attempted a horrifying task for many tourists and some men in general: shopping like the locals.
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Luckily, Damon survived.

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Stay tuned for more of Damon’s adventures! Just joining us? Catch up on what our executive director is up to as he travels through India by reading previous posts.

Damon in India: 15 Hours to India

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by Damon Luloff, Executive Director of Barakat

Our plane is taxiing across the airfield. It’s getting dark outside so there are already orange lights shining through the little windows on the sides of our plane. All I can hear are the low shirring of the engines and the yelps and babbles of young children. It seems like half the people on this flight are under five years old. Could they be as excited as I am about where we’re going?

I’m the executive director of Barakat, an organization based in Central Square, Cambridge. We run seven schools and over thirty literacy programs in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Our first school started in Pakistan in 1994. I’ve been working here almost two years and this is my first trip to see our programs first-hand. I am flying to India to check up on the two schools we run there. In a few hours I’ll be walking on Indian soil—to say I’m excited would not quite describe how I am feeling.

My mind is dizzy, like I’m watching clips of a movie that are out of order in super-fast forward. There are so many new experiences awaiting me in the month ahead and I wonder constantly about them. How will teachers greet me? What will happen to children’s eyes when I walk into their classrooms? How long will people hold handshakes? What gestures will parents make when discussing their children in school? What will stop signs look like? What kinds of jokes will people laugh at?

So many questions. I feel unable to think about a single one for more than two seconds before another enters my head. I don’t even know what to think about…I guess anticipation is not my forte.

Since I started working at Barakat two years ago, I’ve been promoting something I’ve never seen – our educational programs. I’ve told hundreds of people how public schools in Uttar Pradesh, India are so bad that most parents find it a waste of time; they would rather keep their kids at home where they can at least be useful and learn some trade applicable later in life. I’ve talked about how our home-based schools give over 800 girls in Afghanistan an opportunity they only dreamed of a few years ago – to be able to read and write. About how our teachers have gone door-to-door to hundreds of homes over the past 15 years, assuring conservative and reluctant parents that their daughters will not come into contact with boys outside of their families at our schools.

But I’ve never seen any of this first hand. I’m just retelling stories I’ve heard from our founder, Chris Walter and our program manager, Arti Pandey. Some days in the corner of our office, typing on my tiny laptop and squinting at my screen, I get exhausted—I wish I had a direct experience with children and parents in our schools to reflect on that would reinvigorate me and fill me with enthusiasm to keep my mind focused through the afternoon. All I can conjure up, though, are some cloudy visions of kids I’ve seen in Bollywood movies staring blankly at a chalkboard. I’m sure the classes are much more lively, but it’s hard for me to imagine.

So instead, my memory reverts to my time teaching in a high school in Guinea and working on community development projects in a refugee camp in Zambia. From these three years of experience, I can recall plenty of crystal-clear images of children and youth struggling to receive an education. I remember walking alongside a student to his home nearly 8 miles from school down a path he walked every day, just for the chance to go to college. I remember a circle of pre-school boys and girls literally jumping up and down, sitting in the shade of a tree and excitedly pointing at dogs, airplanes and mangoes in children’s books – building an enthusiasm for what a great feeling it is to learn something new. And I remember watching a friend of mine cry when he found out his high school scholarship wouldn’t be renewed. He’d have to work for two more years to save up enough to graduate.

While those stories give me renewed enthusiasm for the importance of education and the determination people have to learn new skills and ideas, it doesn’t perfectly translate. Afghanistan is different from Guinea and India from Zambia. The people living in these places all desire education, but the challenges and obstacles keeping them from realizing that dream are different.

I am now thirty minutes into a trip that will give me the chance to see those challenges first-hand. To see how they affect real people with real lives that seem like hazy outlines in the distance. These challenges will help me understand how Barakat makes a difference and who it makes a difference to.

I’m not sure what this trip will be like or how I’ll feel about it as it progresses. But I do know that it will be real and that when I return to crouch over my tiny laptop in the corner of my office in Central Square, I’ll be able to remember those real people. It will remind me that I have shaken their hands and heard their voices— that’ll be more than enough to get me through a few years worth of afternoons.