Students from tribal areas

Twelve children from Wayanad/Mitraniketan

This article is also present in a German version  and in a Danish version  

A report by Niels-Henrik Mengel Andreassen and Benedicte Mengel (photo) – Spring 2013

Over the years you have heard a lot about “development projects”, “courses” and “educational programmes” in connection with Mitraniketan, but very little about the individual school children. Who are they? Where do they come from? What do we know about their lives? Every day we meet them at morning assembly or on their way to class.

We (i.e. my wife Benedicte and I) wanted to know more about these pupils. To achieve this we wanted to get into contact with some of the school children at Mitraniketan, and having done so we had plans to visit the place where they come from – the district of Wayanad in the northern part of Kerala. In Wayanad we wanted to visit the members of their families, and finally on our return to Mitraniketan we wished to speak with the children once more. Our intention was to work with only 4-5 pupils – but whoops – to our surprise 12 school children aged 7-15 showed up.

At a meeting in Asha´s office we explained to them what exactly we had in mind. Then we took a photo of each of them. Maybe the school children were not quite aware of our intentions at first, but they really liked being photographed and they very much enjoyed the attention they received.

With the blessings and the assistance from the school we went on our journey. The school had supplied us with the name of Mitraniketan´s representative in the district of Wayanad. It took us 16 hours by train and bus until we arrived at the town of Mananthavady in Wayanad. During our long trip it occurred to us that this was the very same distance the pupils – little ones as well as older ones – had to travel, when they left their village on the mountain slopes of Wayanad to go to Mitraniketan.

From the outset we were convinced that our project was completely sound (but maybe a little naive). But it proved to be more difficult than expected.

Our first problem was how to find the family members of our twelve school children. And where could we find an interpreter? What about the authorities? We knew that they don´t like unannounced visits from strangers to the tribal areas. And what about security? (There are problems with alcohol and the area is being infiltrated by Maoists, called Naxalites, who uncompromisingly fight for tribal rights).

We were afraid that our project might end up like just another sightseeing-tour, but finally all our problems were solved one by one. Mostly thanks to Reghu´s enormous efforts. (He pulled the strings back at the school). Also Shaji, the representative of the school on the spot offered his assistance.

The next morning we were ready to go to the area near Kalpetta by jeep, accompanied by Shaji. At Kalpetta we left the main road and went to a village to pick up Rajan. Rajan is a social worker who is employed by the authorities as a contact between the tribal community and the outside world. Unfortunately, he had a very limited command of the English language.

On a winding road our jeep climbed up the well-wooded mountain slope. Finally the ”road” ended and we had to get off the jeep and walk for some distance through an area with tall trees, coffee bushes and pepper, until we reached the first house, a grey concrete building situated in the scrub. In an open yard next to the building there was a small open-air kitchen.

The chattering of birds and the noise of babbling water was heard, but otherwise there was complete silence. Then a tree with big white flowers near a place of worship attracted our attention. While we were resting Rajan went into the scrub / forest, following a winding path.
When after a while he returned, he was accompanied by an elderly woman who looked fearfully at us strangers. We told her why we had come and she welcomed us, and after we had shown her a photo of her grandchild tears rolled down her cheeks. We could nok speak with her, but we did our utmost to show her that we wished her well.

We succeeded in meeting all the family members, and we asked them to hold the picture of their child or grandchild so we could take a photo of them with this picture.

We explained to them that we wanted to show the photo to their children back at Mitraniketan. Everywhere we were met with great hospitality and curiosity. We asked questions and tried to speak to them, but the language problems proved to be difficult to overcome. After this visit to Wayanad we are left with the impression of some very friendly people living on a mountain slope in an exceedingly beautiful area. On our return to the school a meeting was arranged at Sethu´s office where we wanted to show our photos from Wayanad.

Before we started our photo-show, we could feel the excitement and the pupils´ great expectations – it was almost like a film première.

The children were overjoyed to see the photos of their family members and the pictures of their district on our little computer.

A link between their home and the school had been established, and we were at the very centre of their joy, as we formed a bridge between them and their loved ones back home. After the “première” the computer had to be switched on countless times for the pupils to see the photos once more, and they all laughed and pointed at the pictures and discussed every little detail. In fact we were surprised to find that they never seemed to lose interest in the photos. (We so much wished we had been able to understand what they were saying in Malayalam).

We had gained at lot of background knowledge and with that in mind our next step was to interview the children. Mr Prem, the librarian of Mitraniketan, agreed to act as an interpreter, and at the library we interviewed 2 or 3 school children at a time, while we were offering them soft drinks to make them feel comfortable.

During these interviews it was extremely important to avoid any of the misunderstandings that easily might occur when the communication has to pass through so many filters. We tried hard to bridge the language gap and the social, cultural and age gap between us, but it proved to be rather difficult to interview the school children in a relaxed manner. They were no doubt positive and helpful, but also very shy and completely unaccustomed to speaking at length about their thoughts and their feelings.

To conclude our project we invited the school children on an outing to the Zoo in Trivandrum. Afterwards we had lunch at a restaurant and finally we visited a playground. We also took many photos at this outing, and afterwards we showed the photos to the children. Again they were quite enthusiastic about this. At our last meeting at Sethu´s office some of them made a speech, in which they thanked us sincerely for the interest we had shown in their lives and their district.

Although our project did not quite turn out the way we had expected, we nevertheless feel that the process itself has been very rewarding for the group of pupils and for us . It has been a great experience for us to get to know this group of school children more closely and to get an impression of their background and their district. By and large we can conclude that the school children, the big ones as well as the little ones, have had an exciting experience.

But what about all the other school children who were not chosen? We would have liked to include all of them, but as Mrs Sethu said, “Such is life. You can´t help everybody, but remember you have given 12 school children a great experience, which they will never forget”.

Interviews with the school children

As mentioned above we interviewed the school children after our visit to the district of Wayanad. However, their answers were quite identical, so I´ll limit myself to reporting 4 adapted interviews, which are based on the school children´s answers to a variety of questions.

Visakh (boy)
My name is Visakh. I am 15 years old and am in the 8th form.

When I think of my village I can hear the temple bell ringing early in the morning. I can hear my mother´s voice outside and the sound of water, when she washes our clothes. My mother works at home, and my father works for other people as a farm labourer. We have a little piece of land, where we grow bananas and coffee, and we also own some coco palms.

I remember vividly the day, when I had to leave the village to travel to Mitraniketan. We had to go by bus. Till then I had been to another school and was about to start in the 2nd form. I cried a lot on the journey I remember, and it was a long journey.

I am happy to be able to study at Mitraniketan , but I am not so good at getting my homework done. I like drawing and playing football and my friends mean a lot to me. When I have finished the 10th form at this school, I want to go home to Wayanad to get a job and protect my father and mother. I dream of becoming a lorry driver. That is cool. And maybe one day I will send my own children to Mitraniketan.

Vineeth (boy)
My name is Vineeth and I am 12 years old.

I am in the 6th form. All of my family live together in one house, grandfather, grandmother, uncle – all of them. My father is dead. I don´t know how. My mother works in the field for other people. She works a lot.

Our family has a piece of land, where we grow coffee, bananas and we have some coco palms. Early in the morning, when I am lying in my bed and grandmother and grandfather have got up, I can hear the birds singing and mother speaking. I love to play cricket and watch TV at home, but at 10 o´clock p.m. I go to bed.

I came to Mitraniketan when I was in the 1st form, and I cried a lot on the journey, and I still sometimes miss my family, especially my mother. By the way, my mother has also been here at the school, and Syam, my little brother is in the 3rd form. Here I have many friends. In my spare time I like to make drawings. Or I play and wash my clothes. Sometimes there is a power failure at the boys´ hostel. Then I cannot make my homework. It doesn´t matter so much. When I have finished school, I will return to Wayanad, and then I would like to become an autorickshaw driver.

Salini (girl)
My name is Salini and I am 10 years old. My father and my mother are caretakers, they look after a house for some rich people, who do not live there all the time. We have a dog and some chickens.

I was very happy when I went to school at Mitraniketan in the 1st form, because I have no brothers or sisters. Here I have many playmates. When I grow up, I would like to study Malayalam and eventually become a teacher. My favourite dish is dosa.

Malini (girl)
My name is Malini and I am 10 years old. My father as well a my mother are farm labourers and work for other people. My brother is still in school.

When I think of Wayanad, I see my family before me, I hear the birds singing and the sounds of voices from TV. Once I saw a tiger. I played with a friend outside the village and there we suddenly saw a tiger. It appeared from the forest in the distance. We got a bit afraid, but then it disappeared.

I came to Mitraniketan in the 1st form. I went by bus. I think it was an exciting journey, and I was pleased to go to school. Here I have a lot of friends, and I like to use the computer. Maybe I can become a computer teacher one day. I miss my mother and father, my brother and grandmother sometimes.

Although I really like being here at Mitraniketan with my little sister, Amritha, I think that when in due course I get a child that is old enough to go to school, I will keep it at home in Wayanad.

Concluding remarks

Our modest project has convinced us that the school children are doing fine at Mitraniketan, although they are far away from home, and despite the fact that only a few of them are able to break the cycle of poverty .
The main object of the school is of course to offer education, but in addition to that the school children get an opportunity for play and friendship. They do not have an easy life, but it is important to stress that the school supplies ample room for a secure and peaceful childhood.

When finally they leave school their prospects in the outside world are far better after all than if they had stayed at home in their village on the mountain slope.

Niels-Henrik Mengel Andreassen and Benedicte Mengel (photo), in May 2013

We should like to express our gratitude to Reghu, Asha, Sethu, Prem, Shaji and Rajan for their help and support. We are especially grateful to Rolf Erbst for his translation of the Danish text into English and German.

Two of the twelve children

Two of the twelve children

Malini, Salini, Visakh, Usha, Reeja, Neethu, Syam, Amitha, Neethu, Vineeth, Anitha and Jibin.