Published: 23rd October 2019
How a Geography lesson led to rural kids in Rajasthan experiencing Kerala's coastline
The minds behind the SMILE Exchange Programme speak about how they took rural kids from Rajasthan to Kerala, having raised funds through a partner programme with a college in Malappuram
If we didn't take them for granted, we would be alert to the luxuries that our lives are steeped in. It wasn't self-realisation that woke Hridya Syamala Jairam to this truth, but quite literally the words out of the mouths of babes. Hridya works with Manthan Kotri, an organisation that works to empower the marginalised and excluded communities in 60 villages of the districts of Ajmer and Nagaur in Rajasthan through social, economical, political and environmental changes.
One regular day, she was teaching a bunch of eighth graders a Basic Geography class. She went from ocean to ocean, describing their most important features when one child raise her hand and innocently asked the question, "What does an ocean look like?" Having been born and raised in Kerala for most her life, this was quite a revelation for Hridya. Her students had not even had the opportunity to see half of the things they were learning about. Most of the students in their school came from families so poor that they were not able to step outside of their village even once in their lives.
"I was determined to do something about it," says Hridya, "It felt like a crucial gap in their learning process. I was so bothered by the fact that they could not go where they dreamed to go that I felt this urgency to bring these things to them. I spoke to friends I knew across the country and back home to come up with any way to bridge this distance. At the time, as I faced these students, the only thing I could muster was to say, let's go to my home in Kerala, the ocean is just 5 kilometres away. The next day, the students came back with permission to travel with me!" she laughs.
Although her words were in jest, Muneer Hussain from Sullamussalam Science College (SSC) in Malappuram helped bring them to reality. Hridya says, "We made it our dream project. We wanted to hold the hands of these little children and walk with them to the ocean side." The teachers in SSC were interested in sending their students outside Kerala and encourage them to understand the realities of other states in the country. Thus the Mantha-Sullamussalam Integration programme was established and it was dubbed the SMILE Exchange Programme.
In February, a team of students from SSC visited Manthan in the first phase of the project. They announced to the children that in a matter of months, they would be travelling to Kerala where they could play in the ocean to their hearts' content. The students began preparing themselves in the days that followed, bursting with excitement. Their parents, who had also never stepped outside of Rajasthan were worried about the distance. One girl even refused to travel because she had never spent a day away from her mother.
All that soon worked itself out.
Ashna Rathour is almost as enthusiastic as her students as she remembers the train journey from Rajasthan to Kerala. They caught the train on October 27 and set foot in the state on October 29. Ashna, an intern at Manthan who accompanied the children says, "The train journey was the beginning of their learning experience. Most of the girls had never travelled by train before. They were even surprised that it had a working toilet and flowing water! They had never seen mountains or rivers before. When we passed by Gujarat and saw the first river, a student pointed to it and said, 'Look ma'am, a big pond!' For them, everything was a bigger version of the world they knew."
The students were received in Kochi with an array of flowers and they couldn't stop blushing at the grand gesture. Each of them were given a pen and notebook to write each day's experiences down. After endless hours of playing to their heart's content in the ocean and collecting all the seashells they could lay their eyes on, they would reach back very late in the nights. On one of their last days in Kerala, Ashna heard complete silence in the rooms of the children. Surprised by the uncharacteristic dullness, she decided to investigate. All of the girls were writing down what they had seen that day. When they were asked to sleep and finish writing the next day, they begged for some more time saying, "But if we sleep, we'll forget all that we saw!"
Hridya assures us that the children had a trip they could never forget.