Untouchable Education, within reach

Eight-year-old Guddi (of my post ‘Come my house?’), and her cousins Laxmi (ten) and Maya (eight) belong to the Dalit (formerly, Untouchable) community, i.e. outside, (and beneath) the Hindu caste hierarchy.

I have had much contact with their families over the past six months. They are desperately poor, and have little means of alleviating their poverty: Laxmi has nine brothers and sisters, her father and eldest teenage-brothers suffer from alcoholism (which is common amongst Dalits), and not one member of the family has regular employment. Her brothers earn some money, here and there, carrying heavy stones for other peoples’ building projects and repairs, or gathering and burning communal rubbish. What is not spent on alcohol is spent – ironically enough – on hospital treatment of her father’s serious liver condition. When Maya was diagnosed with malaria, her family was unable to pay for the treatment.


Yet these three young girls have – in their different ways – great potential. Life has not crushed them absolutely.

Here is a bit about them, and why their future’s may be brighter:


As I mentioned above (and relate in greater length in a previous post) Maya got malaria in September, my first month in Setrawa. My fellow volunteer, Helen, and I took her to hospital, where we paid for the necessary injections. Having never been to hospital before, it was a traumatic experience for her, and she did not come to the Sambhali school for several months afterwards: though our intervention might well have saved her life, it had lost us her trust. Formerly silent and withdrawn, she withdrew completely.

I had given up hope of seeing any more than the briefest glimpses of Maya around the village, when one day, mid-November, Laxmi and Guddi burst into the room Helen and I share, announcing “Maya is come! Maya is come!” Sure enough Maya came tentatively into our room, sat on the floor and half-smiled, shyly. In the days that followed she came to school regularly to draw, paint and make animals out of play-dough – though she refused (and still refuses) to join Guddi and Laxmi in their English class (about which, see below). I haven’t insisted on her participation, for fear of driving her away again, but I hope she will join when she feels ready.

Maya remains shy around strangers, but now sometimes talks to Helen and me, and smiles. Some days she is positively cheeky, echoing my English (“Quiet!”, “OK?”, “Understand?”) then running off! On a recent school outing to the beautiful temple gardens at Tiweri, she played happily with the other girls, showing little sign of her former reclusiveness. I cannot say that the Sambhali school is solely responsible for this (sometimes-subtle, sometimes-remarkable) change in Maya – indeed I still don‘t know what is. Yet Sambhali has provided a space in which her new-found confidence can grow, where she can be a running, jumping, shouting little girl, away from the worries of home.

Guddi and Laxmi

Sprightly and outgoing, Guddi is the pupil all volunteers here fall in love with: her charisma and cheeky charm are irresistible. She is the girl visitors from my boss Govind’s tour groups remember: she is first to greet them – “Hello, what is your name? My name is Guddi!” – and last to leave them, running through the dust of their departing bus, waving frantically.

Guddi is naturally bright and eager to learn. Soon after the inception of Sambhali, she approched the then volunteer one day in the marketplace, and mimed writing on her palm, asking to join the school. As a traditionally-outcast Dalit, she was unsure whether she could attend; when she found out she could, she promptly signed up all the females in her extended family and became the school’s most frequent pupil.

Laxmi is somewhat quieter and more complex than her popular cousin. She craves attention (and, I suspect, parental love), and swings drastically from one mood to another in an attempt to get it. Despite being two years older, Laxmi stood – for the first year of the Sambhali school’s existence, at least – self-consciously in Guddi’s shadow.

In September, I set up an afternoon English class especially for Guddi, Laxmi and Maya, which takes place while my evening pupils attend the village schools. These classes were initially exhausting: they seemed fruitless and I felt disheartened. Guddi was easily distracted, her gaze drifting to the colourful posters on the classroom walls or the (suddenly fascinating) cows outside. Laxmi was worse: not just difficult to engage, but difficult to control. She would often refuse to hold her pencil, and instead lie on the ground, kicking her legs and shouting at me in Marwari (the local language).

Never having been to school, neither Guddi nor Laxmi knew how to sit still and listen; never having had any sustained, adult attempt to engage their attention, neither girl knew how to concentrate.

With this in mind, I decided to postpone teaching them the alphabet for a while. We instead spent the hour clapping rhythms, singing series of notes, drawing shapes, and joining-the-dots. It was Laxmi who responded best to the energy I was putting into the classes, to the attention I was giving them, and it was she who came most often.

After a slow three weeks of confidence-building, I began to introduce English letters (Laxmi had not learned these from volunteers as well as Guddi had, during Sambhali’s first year- this being its second). At first, in the afternoons when it was just the two of us, I held my hand over Laxmi’s, allowing her to feel the shape of each letter. Soon she was tracing over my pencil letters in bright colours; next she was writing them out, by herself, over and over again. Some days were better than others, but after a further month, Laxmi was usually able to focus on her book, without shouting or walking off, for 45 minutes. She seemed happier – laughing and smiling more often – and was, I think, beginning to trust me. It was amazing to see!


In December, Laxmi, Guddi and I started reading. We began by sounding-out the letters of words they already knew: C-A-T, M-A-T, H-A-T, then composed a short dictionary of easy words (A: apple, ant, cat; B: bat, bus, etc.). As before, it was Laxmi who attended most regularly, and who made fastest progress.

Early in the New Year, my mum sent me Jolly Phonics, a textbook designed to teach young children to read and write (apparently the Edinburgh Academy Junior School teachers swear by it). With Jolly Phonics, children are taught the 42 ‘sounds’ of English (so including, for example, EE and AI), and not merely its 26 alphabet letters. As they acquire these sounds, they become able to sound-out (read) and build (write) words for themselves. They start by learning the easiest, most common sounds in English (A, S, T, P) and gradually work up to the harder ones (TH, SH, CH). Jolly Phonics encourages active learning: the book includes worksheets (with a variety of exercises and games), which aim to be engaging and fun.

Guddi and Laxmi do the Jolly Phonics exercises together: I’ve found this provokes a mutually-helpful spirit of competition between them. Laxmi’s reading is better than Guddi’s, but Guddi’s desire to win (i.e. to read the word/ match the word to the picture/ join the alphabet-dots first) is greater. Laxmi is now calmer and (usually) less moody during our classes (reassured by her superior knowledge), and Guddi is more competitive and therefore more focussed.

Laxmi now feels confident reading three- and four-letter words that use the easiest 20 or so ‘sounds’ of English (Guddi slightly fewer), and can write down these words after they have been spoken slowly. It is unlikely that they will be able to recognise all 42 sounds (or, therefore, to read and write words using those letters) by the time I leave the project in March – but the foundations are there.


The Future…

Helen and I have decided to sponsor Guddi, Laxmi and Maya to attend he private Saraswati School in Setrawa, through the Sambhali Trust’s ‘Literacy Programme’. They will start at the beginning of the new school year, this July.

We have arranged for them to have private tuition in Hindi, English and Maths with a teacher from the school, for an hour a day, 6 days a week, until then. (I know them well enough to know that increasing their sense of their own prepared-ness and confidence, will increase the liklihood of them actually attending, and learning at the school.)

Guddi, Laxmi and Maya will all start in the first of the eight classes. Their progress will be assessed after 3 months, when they will be given the opportunity to move into a higher class, with children nearer their own ages.

Village schools (even the private ones) in Rajasthan are far from perfect (see my post ‘On Teaching’). But any school is better than no school (and there is, of course, a limit to the education relatively short-term, non-Hindi-speaking Sambhali volunteers can provide).

I hope formal education will – as well as encouraging in the girls a sense of self-worth and belonging – open out new social and, eventually, occupational possibilities for them.

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on February 20, 2009.

One Response to “Untouchable Education, within reach”

  1. […] Education: a postscript I related, in an earlier post, the changes in the three Dalit girls, Guddi, Laxmi and Maya over the time I knew them. I wrote of […]

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