Kalahandi’s Thuamul Rampur is located 75 kilometres from Bhawanipatna, the district headquarters. It is a region of great scenic beauty and biodiversity. Mountains (the Eastern Ghats) older than the Himalayas surround it and many rivers flow through its fertile plains and valleys. No wonder, it is called the ‘Kashmir of the East’ but I find the comparison unfair because every region has its uniqueness and distinct characteristics and Thuamul Rampur is no exception.
Solar Cooking? You must be Joking!
My husband Bappu and I went to a small village called Kerpai in that region, not as tourists but as solar cooking guides to help a small community of health workers use solar cookers. We also conducted training for teacher assistants and stayed in a health centre run by the Swasthya Swaraj Society, an NGO that works in community health and livelihood.
Scepticism was rife and questions arose when our new solar cooker was unpacked and placed in an open field for demonstration. ‘I had seen a solar cooker once and it never worked!’ a community member murmured and another one asked, ‘How can a solar cooker function in such cold places? Won’t it be too much work to use the solar cooker here?’
Ahem! Our reputation was at stake as we began the solar cooking demonstration but when the chicken curry got done and the groundnuts were roasted, the solar cooker became a hero. Curious onlookers gathered around it as if the cooker was an object from outer space and we noticed the first smiles play on the lips of the harmless sceptics and a change came over them. ”We’ll use the solar cooker everyday!” they promised and a happy celebration soon took place as we all relished the chicken curry and munched groundnuts during tea that evening. Phew! What a relief and what an experience!
Teaching without Teachers
The Swasthya Swaraj Society organised a training the following day which was attended by field animators and ‘shiksha saathis’. The latter were youngsters selected from the tribal community of the area to help children learn joyously in the absence of teachers at school. Why ‘absence’? Because teachers were either not employed by the government or simply refused to come and teach.
In these circumstances, Swasthya Swaraj which had been working in the health sector for several years decided to get involved in education. It was not an easy decision but the founder, Doctor Aquinas felt that healthcare without education had a limited impact and would not bring about palpable change in tribal health and well being. An education programme was therefore launched and we were invited to conduct a few trainings. An interesting but challenging journey began that would make us question at the way children learn or unlearn important concepts which we had previously taken for granted.
The region in and around the Kerpai village is remote and inhabited primarily by the Kondh adivasis who suffer from acute malnutrition and frequent infections. In these circumstances, getting children regularly to school and ensuring that they learn with eagerness and joy is not an easy task. The training focused on joyful teaching methodologies and the use of local resources to help children connect to their environment, lifestyles and culture.
What also made the trip worthwhile were the long nature walks and the peaceful village visits. The scenic beauty and the fresh unpolluted air filled us with happiness. We left Kerpai with a happy heart and a steely will to revisit this forgotten corner of Odisha where mountains emerge from the mist and winding roads lead to secret destinations.