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 not 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.
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”.