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The stars that welcomed me into Tilonia were so close I felt they were looking back at me. Had I watched their warmth slowly waft into my eyes, I might have seen a glimpse of what Tilonia held for me in the three days I was to spend there.
Barefoot College, which was started by Bunker Roy in 1972, has done exemplary work in generating solar energy, propagating its use, and training people from disadvantaged communities in India and other parts of the world to benefit from this alternative energy source.
My favourite part of the first day was meeting Maangi bai. She has never been to school, but trains young girls to use computers.
Maangi bai knows hardly any English, but has taught herself to use the English keyboard. A cardboard chart by her side shows the correspondences between the Devanagari (Hindi) alphabet and the English characters. Maangi bai also trains women from poor African countries to use the computer. The African women know a bit of English; Maangi bai speaks only Hindi and Marwari, but she has taught herself to use the computer. Here too one discerns a wonderful synergy. The African women pick up computer skills; Maangi bai picks up a bit of English. When spoken language seems a hurdle, Maangi bai simply uses her finger to point out where the cursor should be moved using the mouse.
I also enjoyed the kabaad-se-jugaad section very much. So ingenious! Shapes of numbers and letters of the alphabet cut out from discarded slippers. Boxes, toothpaste tubes, and other things that are usually chucked into the trash of urban households were being shaped into toys for night schools and village crèches. Torn files and folders being refashioned into dustbins. Old newspapers being recycled into eco-friendly bags. Scrap cloth from the handicrafts unit being used to make attractive covers for notepads.
At the wood work section, I saw this interesting balance/weighing scale with a stand in the middle, and digits from 1 to 10 on either side. On one side, a metal ring was placed on number 10. On the other side, one could try varying combinations of numbers that would add up to 10. For example: 4+6, 5+5, 3+7, etc. If the chosen numbers did not add up to 10, the scale would tilt to one side, and not be balanced. This can be used as a learning aid in schools, especially to teach addition of numbers. The teacher need not be physically present around the student at all times; the student can check for himself if he/she has added correctly or not. While I found myself getting interested in much of what was happening at Barefoot College, I wished to explore more in the area of education, particularly their night school programme.
First, we visited a balwadi at Mordi Khurd village, where children between the ages of one to five learn about health and hygiene, sing songs, play games, participate in physical exercises, and spend time doing whatever else they like, under the supervision of a teacher identified from within the community and trained by Barefoot College.
Our next stop was a school in Naanan village, where we came across another bunch of girls busy with their sewing machines. There we met Salma who has previously been Health Minister in the Children’s Parliament, an initiative that grew out of the night school programme, aiming to introduce children to the electoral process and allowing them to experience democracy in a real, alive manner through collective decision-making and accountability. The members of this Parliament are elected by the night school children from among themselves. Salma shares how members of Parliament make visits to schools in other areas, take notes about things that need improvement, give warnings to irregular teachers, and share their observations from visits in meetings with other members. The evening was spent with children at Singla where the education office of Barefoot College operates from. They’ve been enrolled for a six-month residential ‘bridge course’ meant for children who left school after Standard 1 or 2, but are now keen on getting back to studies. A special set of books produced for the night schools (integrating art, math, language, and environmental studies) shared space with bilingual books from Tulika Publishers and simple stories from Pratham Books.Our last stop for the day was a night school at Thal village, the most memorable experience of my visit to Barefoot College. This is one of around 150 night schools run by Barefoot College in the numerous villages of Rajasthan. It starts at 6 pm and ends at 9 pm. Most of the children who come here are girls, since boys do get the chance to go to day schools. Rameshwarji asks the children to tell me what they do during the day. Some spend their day grazing goats, sheep or cows. Others have to chase away peacocks that threaten to disturb their crop. Yet others, especially girls, stay home to take care of younger siblings. It was amazing to see their energy and enthusiasm at the end of the day. The night holds a special meaning in their lives. It is when the solar lanterns in their little room spread light on the wall, and the ground they sit on. A time for them to sit with children their own age, when laughter passes around quite playfully, unstressed by the chores that tomorrow will bring. I am reminded of the stars that welcomed me into Tilonia. I can see them again in these eyes.