Published: 23rd June 2020
This IIT grad quit his cushy job abroad to start a school for tribal children in Assam's Majuli
Bipin Dhane, an IIT Kharagpur graduate, quit his job in Singapore to contribute towards the education sector. He set up the Hummingbird School in Assam's Majuli island to teach Mising tribe children
Before coming to Majuli, an island in the Brahmaputra River in Assam, Bipin Dhane was working in Singapore, after completing his graduation and postgraduation in Ocean Engineering from IIT Kharagpur in 2013. However, life definitely had some other plans for this IIT graduate who originally hails from Satara, Maharashtra. "I was really frustrated with my job. Even when I was in college I had thought I would later do something in the social sector. With a lot of family pressure and other responsibilities, I decided to work for a few years," says the 30-year-old.
Cut to 2015, Bipin mustered the courage to quit his job and fast forward to January 2017, he set up The Hummingbird School, a co-educational institution, meant for the children from the indigenous Mising tribal community residing in the remote Kulamu village on the island of Majuli. "I quit my job in October 2015 but didn't know where to go. One of my friends was already working in Majuli, so I asked her if there is something for me. She was working in a school and she needed someone to come and teach there. So I said I would love to volunteer. I taught Mathematics and Science for a year at the school in Majuli. Soon after that, colleagues in the school then brought me to this remote village called Kulamu where there were no pucca roads, health facility or a functional school. It was like someone took me 50 years into the past," recalls Bipin.
He says that the villagers there knew he was a teacher and they requested him to open a school there. "I couldn't say no but I didn't have enough money. That's how it all began. I told them about my financial situation but they were eager and asked me to guide them. The villagers said they would help with the school. The villagers donated land, bamboo, and other raw materials and we built a school in just three months. In January 2017, the school officially began conducting classes. We had to travel from village to village to gather children initially," he explains. In its early days, the Hummingbird School began with just 70 students. Currently, the school has 240 students coming from 25-30 villages, of which 70 live in a hostel, which is a temporary structure Bipin and the villagers have built for children to reside in.
What curriculum do they follow?
The school doesn't follow a specific curriculum as they are not affiliated to any board yet. "We have adapted it from NCERT, Assam's state board, we have selected some from Homi J Bhabha and we are also trying to develop our own as this is not a regular school but meant specifically for tribal children. We are looking at how we can develop a curriculum around the Mising Tribe, in their context so that these children can relate and get to know their roots. We aren’t trying to churn out doctors or engineers but helping these children stay more connected to their origins. We have students until Class 6. Initially, we had started till Class 3 then every year they got promoted and we kept adding higher classes," adds Bipin. The school is looking to get affiliated to the Assam state board SEBA or the Cambridge Board, which is also an option if the children want to pursue something different from regular classes, says Bipin. The school has local teachers and a lot of volunteers who come from across Assam to teach the children.
In addition to basic language and computer skills, the school imparts basic life skills and takes classes on agriculture and tackling natural disasters such as floods. Twice every week, children have to attend classes on integrated farming practices, where they engage with farmers and learn about their staple crops and how to grow them. From these sessions, students learn basic plant biology, and more importantly, understand where they get their food from. "We are trying to revive the old traditions as the knowledge that already comes from the tribe's history should not be lost. Women here know weaving traditionally, we also have weaving machines for children who want to learn those age-old techniques. They know more than us actually but we try to teach them how to preserve it," adds Bipin.
Floods are an occasional phenomenon here so the school has also included how to tackle natural disasters in their curriculum. "Other than the regular lessons we also teach bamboo crafting, folk music, dance and agriculture. There are also classes on traditional means of coping with natural disasters. They have knowledge of how to survive floods but the other part of it is sanitation, during and after, we have classes on that and waterborne diseases and what they can do to stay safe," says Bipin.
Reconnecting to their origins
The Mising language that the tribe speaks did not have a script and so they adopted the Roman script. Books are not available in their script, thus the school conducts Mising language classes in addition to everything else. "Early childhood classes are in their own language or in Assamese as we have some students from there. Then we move on to English. Our philosophy is that the child should first be well-versed in their mother tongue, then learn English. Until Class 5, Mising language classes are conducted," reveals Bipin.
The school is also developing an exclusive book about the history of the Mising tribe for the children. "We found that many young people do not know about their origins, roots or the tribe's history. Being a school where we are trying to revive the connection it only makes sense that we do something like this. We conducted a lot of research to know more about their history. Currently, we are looking forward to having designers on board for this book," adds the educator.
How does the Hummingbird school sustain itself?
When they started, the school charged Rs 250 per month — nominal fees from families who could pay or whatever the parents could afford to give. "There are families who do not own even land as the father might have passed away. Among the tribal community when the male head of the family dies the wife doesn't get to keep the land. That was all the more reason to educate the children of those families so that they can fend for themselves and do something even better to sustain themselves. We sponsored the education of some children. About 120 children are sponsored, they study here free of cost. About 70 of them stay in the hostel — children who do not have their parents or only have a single parent, do not have the means to study elsewhere, who stay far away across the river and can't travel every day etc," says Bipin.
Looking at how the entire community participated in the construction of the school, the parents of students whose tuition fees are waived off come to school twice or thrice a month and contribute through their services — farm work, construction repair, building a temporary structure, bring vegetables for food and more. "Besides growing their own food, all staff and local villagers help with the construction and repairs of the school. They contribute a lot in different ways," adds Bipin.
Speaking about how they manage with limited funds and that it is getting challenging with every passing day, Bipin explains, "We get sponsorships from a few organisations, we have been managing until now, but during COVID-19, some of them are not able to continue providing us with the funds. We are looking for individual sponsors who can sponsor at least one child's education which comes to around Rs 1000 or a bit more a month. Currently, the school is closed due to the pandemic so we are trying to make use of the time to look for more sponsors to help us," adds Bipin.
Help make schools more student-friendly
"During the second year of our inception, we saw that several other villagers, parents from nearby villages also came to us asking to set up similar kind of schools in those areas. We had to say no as we could hardly sustain this one school, which led to us making the decision to set this Hummingbird School as a model school — practices we develop, teaching methods etc can be then taken to government schools and private ones too in the state," adds Bipin. This led to setting up the Ayang Trust in November 2017 — Ayang means 'love' in the Mising language. Through this organisation, Bipin and his team work with government schools and low-budget private schools to help them adapt to new methods, inculcate a systemic change in the schools that will last. "Whatever we learn from Hummingbird comes to use there," says Bipin.
While working with the students at the Hummingbird School, Bipin and his team of six colleagues felt the need to further extend their work with the community, and that's how they founded the trust. Ayang is currently working to transform around 50 other government schools and low-budget private schools in Assam. "We work on teacher training, teacher-student relationships, school atmosphere — transforming schools into more welcoming, efficient, children-friendly spaces. We also have our storytellers who visit and conduct sessions and we set up libraries in the schools," concludes Bipin.
Encouraging eco-tourism: Majuli is a tourist hotspot, many people come to visit every year, but they mostly stay near the centre of the island and rarely visit the villages. These places have their own beauty and culture that can be experienced by tourists from time to time. "What we have in mind is to attract more tourists, we have also created a lot of homestay facilities where they can come and experience — eat tribal food, watch their folk dances, music, go fishing — whatever amount is raised can be put into the betterment of the school, some goes to the local village bodies to use for the development of the village. However, after the pandemic, we do not know what will happen," adds Bipin.
- Some of the school structures like the kitchen, dining area, hostel are temporary. During the rainy season and floods, it gets difficult to sustain, so they plan to develop a proper permanent structure.
- Developing their own curriculum from the local context based on the culture, origins of the tribe.
- With Ayang Trust, they are looking at working with more schools. "We conducted a few surveys in the further remote areas of Majuli where the villages are self-sufficient but education is up to the mark, in future, we would like to work in such villages," says Bipin.
- To work at the state level, the team is in talks with the Assam government as to how they can use the methods learnt here at Hummingbird School in other educational institutes.
- They also want people from other institutes, even colleges to come to the Hummingbird School and take in how things are taught here and spread the word.
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