This Independence Day, Astha Agarwal asks us to join her in bringing the joy of learning to thousands of our illiterate brothers and sisters in India
Sixty-six years after Independence, we celebrate India’s countless successes and the tremendous progress we have made since 1947. India has, needless to say, produced some of the most brilliant minds our world has ever seen, has risen to become the nation with the tenth-highest GDP, and has earned a status as one of the new economic superpowers of the globe.
Yet an astonishing one in four Indians are illiterate today.
As we celebrate our nation’s progress today, we must realize what still remains to be done. As Indians around the world, we have both the privilege and the responsibility of lifting nearly one-fourth of our brothers and sisters in India out of the darkness that is illiteracy.
For the last four years, I have volunteered as a Youth Coordinator for the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, an international non-profit organization that opens one-teacher schools to educate children in poverty-stricken rural and tribal India, with the vision that one dollar a day will educate a whole village of students for a year. Today, there are 51,474 Ekal schools in villages all over India, educating 1,482,326 children and counting.
As a youth volunteer, I have made speeches about Ekal at Indian community events in the U.S., and I have organized a Walk for Literacy for New England families to get together and raise awareness about this noble cause. Although I have heard an incredible amount over the years about Ekal’s efforts in bringing education and self-sufficiency to rural Indian villages, my experience visiting two Ekal Vidyalayas in India last summer has had a life-changing impact on me and has driven me to work harder to bring literacy to my illiterate brothers and sisters.
On Tuesday, July 10, 2012, I visited two Ekal Vidyalaya schools in the villages of Gandharpara and Boyermari, near Kolkata, West Bengal, India.
As we drove into the village of Boyermari, the women of the village welcomed us by playing the shankh and showered us with flowers. I walked into the Ekal Vidyalaya, and was introduced to the students of the school. The children welcomed us most graciously with an aarti and told me their names, grade level, how long they have been attending the Vidyalaya, and how regularly they attend school.
They touched my heart most deeply with the beautiful kavitas and bhajans they shared with me. I watched my new friends solve multiplication problems, and write their names in both Bengali and English. Although I cannot speak Bengali, I felt that in the hour or so that I spent in the Vidyalaya, a bond so strong – surpassing all language barriers – had formed between me and all the students that I did not want to leave their school at all. And so after some heartfelt good-byes and eating mithai together, I promised my new friends that I will return to visit them on my next trip to India – ‘Aabaar aashbo’.
The next leg of my Ekal yathra was in the Gandharpara Vidyalaya. I was overwhelmed by the love and hospitality that everyone at the Vidyalaya gave me. They brought some daab for me to drink, fresh out of a coconut! A few of the schoolboys performed Surya Namaskar, and a little girl performed songs and poems from school, for us. A couple students wrote their names in Bengali and English, and others told me what they know about India! They even knew who Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is! As the students danced, sang, and wrote, I watched in fascination the plethora of talent that all the students of the school possessed. A few of the girls from the neighborhood took me for a walk, and showed me around Gandharpara. They told me about their siblings and families, their home, the subjects they study in their Vidyalaya, and their future plans after school. I told them about my school’s timings, the subjects I study, my family and my hobbies. I am grateful to have found such dear friends in Gandharpara and I cannot express how thankful I am to them for making my visit there all the more special.
After my visit to the Vidyalayas, we enjoyed a splendid homemade lunch. The hospitality and love that our wonderful hosts prepared and served us lunch with made it the most memorable meal I have ever had.
In the time I spent with them, I saw the etiquette and the knowledge that so many of my brothers and sisters in Boyermari and Gandharpara had worked hard to gain, despite having minimal resources. They motivated me to work harder towards my own education, inspiring me with their perseverance.
Some of them even shared their future hopes and aspirations with me! One boy wanted to be an engineer, another girl a doctor. Yet another student dreamed of being a teacher, following in the legacy of Ekal Vidyalaya. I know that with the support of their teacher, their parents, the Ekal organization, and most importantly their own inner drive to study, each one of their dreams will definitely become a reality.
I can say this confidently because I have felt the profound impact that the students of the Boyermari and Gandharpara Ekal Vidyalaya have had on me: in the hour or so that I was with them, they not only made me more determined to persevere in my own academic career, but motivated me to step up my efforts in bringing an Ekal education to other Indian children. It is my duty to do everything I can to bring the opportunities that I take for granted, to my brothers and sisters in India who have the very same right to an education that I do.
About Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation
The Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation is a charitable, non-profit organization dedicated to the cause of eradicating illiteracy from India’s rural and tribal belt. While the organization was registered as a charitable trust in 1999, its mission is rooted in the ideas and foundation laid by Swami Vivekananda over a century ago. The aim of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, which means “one-teacher school,” lies in opening such schools for illiterate children in remote and tribal villages across India at the cost of only one U.S. dollar (50 rupees) per day to educate a class of thirty to forty children. Ekal’s mission was propagated in large part by early efforts in 1986 at establishing the concept of one-teacher schooling for early tribes in the dense forests of Jharkhand. In addition to academics, an Ekal Vidyalaya schooling aims to educate students in three main areas — healthcare education, development education, and empowerment education — aiming to provide students with the resources to become self-reliant and prepared to give back to their village in the future. Today, the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation supports 51,925 schools educating 1,495,404 students and counting, across India. In the last several years, Ekal has been joined by countless non-government organizations in its efforts to open one-teacher schools across India, for whom it serves as an umbrella organization. In addition to Ekal India, Ekal volunteers support the movement through fundraising as part of Ekal chapters all over the globe, namely sixteen chapters in various regions of the United States as well as chapters in Australia, Canada, Dubai, Hong Kong, Muscat, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Together, the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of India and America are working towards a goal of raising funds to open 100,000 one-teacher, informal schools for illiterate children across India by 2015. As Swami Vivekanada said, “If the poor boy cannot come to education, education must go to him.” More information can be found on http://www.ekal.org/ regarding details on specific Ekal schools operating in India, visiting a school, volunteering or making a contribution, Ekal’s annual events, etc.