There are 108 solar bridge schools in India. While they have little to do with the way conventional schools are conceptualised, they are nevertheless much closer to the everyday lives of the pupils who have to work during the day. Almost 3,500 children from the lower classes learn what they need for s self-determined life in these schools. One such pupil is Saroj.
If you ask Saroj what mathematics is, she will tell you maths is the amount of hay that her cow eats, or the number of logs she needs to heat water for tea. If you ask her what biology is, she will tell you how she keeps her cow in good health and which herbs the goats should be eating. And right away you realise how the knowledge acquired by the nine-year-old Saroj in her school is closely connected to her real life, and how far away from this life every kind of formal education would be. For what should Saroj – this child from the Indian village of Chhir – do with second-degree-equations or genetics, when all she wants to be is a shepherdess? At least for now?
When Saroj sets off this morning, like every morning, with the cow and the calf, she is later than usual – she had to finish her maths homework first. Her father has already left for his brick mason job, her brother Vinod has taken the bus to school, and her older sisters Pinky and Poonam, 17 and 19 years old, are out in the fields plucking Mung beans, their hair tucked into headscarves. Chhir was almost deserted as Saroj took the animals to the river.
Saroj’s home is a tiny village in the state of Rajasthan in India. Even to this day, the people who live there are called Untouchables, which denotes the lowest social rank within the Indian caste-system. They live a poor and exhausting life of field work and cattle breeding. During the day, almost all the children of the village work as cattle drovers. They are also responsible for getting water, making chapatis, and feeding the animals. They do not have time to go to school – at least not to a public school where classes take place during the day.
Saroj goes to a solar solar bridge school, a solar bridge school. There are 108 solar bridge schools in India, most of them in far-off villages such as Chhir. In India, the concept of solar bridge schools is associated with a humane and dignified education, different from that of a conventional school but quite close to the everyday life and reality of the pupils. There are almost 3,500 children from poor backgrounds learning in these solar bridge schools what they need to know for a life of self-determination, six days a week, the whole year through. Coming from families that have to live on less than one U.S. Dollar per day, brought up by parents who themselves have had little to no academic education at all, these children represent around 60 percent of all Indian children living in a rural environment.
Saroj’s school lies on the outskirts of Chhir; where a few big trees give shadow to the water buffaloes during the day. Once, the building had been a public school. However, it was abandoned long ago and only a blackboard with the weekly menu written on it remains as a reminder of the origin of the building. There are no chairs; all the children sit, learn and write on the floor. In a western country, nobody would expect their children to go to such a school. On one hand. But on the other hand, why not. After all, these solar bridge schools are institutions where children are allowed lots of possibilities with fewer obligations, and where the content of the curriculum bears a direct link to their everyday life. Furthermore, the solar bridge school pupils determine everything themselves. Grassroots democracy is part of the educational concept. Hence, the pupils from three solar bridge schools at a time choose representatives for a parliament, with all the positions that you would find in a federal state parliament: from the prime minister to the minister of education, to the speaker and the other ministers. This parliament is responsible for the administration of the schools. It has the power to dismiss and to hire teachers. It can give recommendations for the curriculum. Every minister has the right to visit all the schools and to evaluate them.
Saroj is small for her age. She is shy and quickly intimidated. She then pulls her head between her shoulders and her big eyes become even bigger. When asked a question, she first looks at her father, Ram, then at her mother, Prem, and it is only after they say, “Come on, Saroj, you have been asked a question, are you not brave enough to answer?”, that she stretches her body and, with all the fair dignity of her tender age, give answers to questions that escape the perception of the western mind.
The fact that this child goes to school in the evening after a long day of work could trigger pity. Yet, Saroj herself does not evoke this feeling even once. “Do you enjoy herding the cattle?” we ask her, and she nods with great enthusiasm. “Does it bother you that you have to work?” She considers the question, bites her thumbnail. Then she says she dislikes carrying water, because it is heavy, and baking chapatis, because it is boring, but looking after the animals is nice. And school? Would she prefer going to school during the day? There, she vehemently shakes her head. Why not? “Because my friends are in the solar bridge school.”
Saroj has a bag for her school supplies that her sister has sewn for her. There are four notebooks inside, one for each subject: Hindi, English, mathematics and biology. The notebooks, the pencils and the books are given to the children for free. Hindi is Saroj’s favourite subject. “Because we learn poems and we sing songs.” Mathematics is her least favourite subject – as it is for so many girls all over the world.
Saroj spends seven hours each day herding her animals. Some of her friends are responsible for ten or more water buffaloes or drive gigantic herds of goats. After having worked with the animals, there is domestic work to do, followed by a supper made of dhal and rice, vegetables and chapatis. Only then is Saroj free. It is already 6:30 p.m. and she leaves for school. At her side: Sonu, Priyanka and Monica – her friends. When she is asked why she likes them so much, Saroj replies that Sonu is always laughing and Monica comes up with amazing ideas for new plays. And Priyanka and Saroj were almost brought up together because her parents are migrant workers and rarely at home.
The solar bridge school concept’s origin is the Barefoot Movement, an educational campaign aimed at helping the poorest of the poor. The first of its institutions was built forty years ago in Tilonia, a village about half an hour away from Chhir: the Barefoot-College for mostly illiterate people. The Indian Sanjit “Bunker” Roy is the founder of this concept. When he began to work with the Untouchables, he got insulted and called a communist because of his ideas of equality and fraternity. People accused him of supporting child labour, of approving children not going to public schools. However, Roy did not let himself be misled. “Children who grow up in the countryside, where people are poor, have to work. This is a given, we cannot change this. What we can do is give them knowledge that will allow them to feed themselves later in their lives and prevent them from moving to the slum areas of the cities”, he says to this very day.
For Saroj and the other children, the solar bridge schools are not only an educational institution but a place where they can play before the classes begin. Saroj always carries a piece of chalk in her bag. She draws squares on the floor with it to play hopscotch, a children’s game. Sonu likes to play games where the children pass on the baton, and Monica knows how to twist threads around her fingers in a way that they form little works of art. Kishan Kanwa, the teacher, is rarely in a hurry to start the class. She was elected from the village community and the children, followed by three months of training to become a teacher. There is no school bell urging the children to start. At the beginning of class, around 7 p.m. the magical evening light shines on the children, quickly followed by deep darkness. Kishan Kanwa sets up two solar lamps – one for the group of the small ones, the six to eight year olds, and one for the older children, the nine to twelve year olds. There are five class levels in the solar bridge school. Passing them means acquiring the targeted basic education. A few stray dogs run around and one girl has brought her baby brother and rocks him in her arms. Each class starts with a chanted prayer. In the lessons, the children learn how to read and to write. In biology, cattle and goat diseases are part of the curriculum, as well as ways to cure them.
At the beginning of the Barefoot Movement, Bunker Roy experienced how education inspired those benefiting from it to leave the villages. Rural depopulation is a major issue in India already. Wandering through Chhir, you see a great number of children, many elderly people, but hardly any young adults. In fact, their dreams of a better life quickly dissipate in the cities, but returning to the village would mean to admit their failure. Thus, they stay in Jaipur, in Delhi, in Mumbai. Without work or future. The solar bridge schools are no training ground for the next generation of elite cadres. They are merely a stepping stone out of the deepest misery. Girls in particular develop a sense of self-worth there, and learn to sustain their position. More than half of the kids were later accepted in public schools, says Bunker Roy, and they would indeed be sent there.
Now, another bridge school has been added to the lot, in a little village called Singla. Children who do not succeed in qualifying for a public school after having visited a solar bridge school are taught there during one year to fill up their knowledge gap. This bridge school is also a boarding school, so that the children of migrant workers can benefit from the opportunity of education as well.
Saroj’s siblings all managed to go to a public school after the solar bridge school, and obtained their degrees there. For the people living in the countryside, it is not self-evident that Saroj’s father Ram sends all his children to school, the girls included. As a matter of fact, Ram has been a solar bridge school pupil himself. Thirty-five years ago, he was one of the first ones in his village. He learned how to read and basic mathematics. That’s why he is able to work as a brick layer today.
However, Saroj has to stay home every time there is a lot to deal with, and she has rarely time to do her homework in addition to her daily work. Notwithstanding his daughter’s protests, the father insists on “responsibilities first”. In a few years though, after Saroj has finished the four educational years at the solar bridge school, he wants to send her to a public school. “Saroj needs role models. She only wants to become a shepherd because she does not know anything else.”
Towards 9 p.m. the smallest children get tired and go home. About an hour later, as the batteries of the solar lamps die out, and teacher Kishan Kanwa says her concluding prayer, heaven has already lit its lamps – the night sky is a-glitter with all its stars. Saroj yawns into her Hindi schoolbook. Just this afternoon, she had said that she was often too tired to go to school, but that she went nonetheless. “Because the others are going as well.” When she comes home, Ram is smoking his evening cigarette while Prem is mending the holes in the jute bags that will be used for harvesting the Mung beans, and her sisters are sewing their bags – all in the single room of the house. Saroj crawls into the home-made wooden bed beside her brother Vinod. The bed is in the courtyard, where a chilly night breeze is blowing. She will sleep for eight hours. Then, she will wake up in the dark, go to fetch water and leave with the animals. Tomorrow like any other day.
Reynu joined WomenNow from the beginning on. She loves writing and combines this with her love for India, the country her parents emigrated from to the United States looking for a better life and opportunities. Studying litterature and journalism helped laid the foundation for her writing skills. She is into badminton and an avid runner. Her dream is to live between New York and Mumbai.