The ride took three hours, two hours on a highway and another hour on back roads full of potholes where slabs of asphalt had washed away during the last monsoon. The volunteers and staff of Gabriel Project Mumbai were travelling to a boarding home for tribal girls nestled in the quaint but impoverished hillside village of Dolkhamb 30km away from the Sharpur area, north of Mumbai. The home is run by our fantastic grass-roots partner NGO, Reach Education Action Programme (REAP) www.reapchild.org that promotes literacy for marginalized children in India. Sister Catherine looks after the 40 girls, teaching them to read and write, offering nutritious meals and instructing the girls with empowering life skills. Girls come from remote tribal villages around the area to receive an education and live in a warm environment.
We had come to the boarding home to teach fun English classes and to better understand the issues pertaining to tribal village children living vast distances from schools. Over the last two months the GPM volunteers have been working with children living in urban slums and this was a great opportunity to appreciate the unique challenges facing marginalized village-tribal children. The home’s staff pointed out some upsetting facts: If the girls do not come to the boarding home they are looking at a grim future which includes early marriages (at 12-15 yrs of age), no education and a life of menial work. On the whole, health and nutrition of some tribal girls is poor. Sometimes the girls are married off simply because there is a lack of food. Sometimes they are married off to men 10 years older than them based on a financial payment to the girls’ family….and on and on. A lot is riding on the girls’ success at the boarding school. And from what we saw, there are some room for optimism. After completing their studies at the boarding home the girls leave with knowledge, skills and strong motivation to continue their education. Studies in health and hygiene help the girls overall health and wellbeing. They become empowered, self confident and attain skills that serve them well for the rest of their lives.
When the boarding school was established seven years ago, it was difficult for REAP director Fr Trevor Miranda to convince tribal families to enroll their children. As girls living in remote villages, they were considered more useful servicing the home – cleaning, cooking and working the fields. What eventually convinced some parents was when they noticed how the girls’ time at REAP helped them develop into well mannered, knowledgeable and confident young women. In fact, parents began to urge REAP to open a boarding school for tribal boys. Twenty boys now attend the nearby boys group home and learn together with the girls.
We received a sweet welcome from the girls aged 10-16 (5th to 11th grade) and following introductions all around, we ate lunch together. The children were polite, helpful and tidy, and cleaned up after the meal. Moreover, their Hindi/Marathi literacy level was high and they had a solid knowledge of Math, Science and English. Sister Catherine emphasized her desire that the boarding home become the children’s home – that is, their second home far away from their villages. It was not long before we felt like we had indeed entered a loving family unit. It was obvious to all that the girls were friends and shared a strong love for each other. When the younger group of girls came into the home in the middle of our first lesson, the older girls raised their heads with warm smiles. The younger girls ran over to them, some squeezing hands and all happy to be sitting next to their ‘sisters’.
The GPM volunteers and staff taught English through group games of hangman, memory, and English songs. The children displayed some jaw-dropping abilities in memory, which seemed so incongruent with their contexts, yet reminded us about the awesome potential here. The children also put on impromptu plays and very impressive popular Bollywood-style dancing. We tried to join in but they were far more talented than us. We came with candies for the children and the idea that we had a lot to teach them but we left knowing that they really gave us so much more…