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A Visit to Barefoot College - 2

By Matthieu Ricard on June 10, 2013

Tilonia 185It is 7pm in February 2013. In a little village in Rajasthan, we enter a small room in a house just bordering the village pond. The room is lit by two storm lamps, recharged during the day by solar panels. Approximately 30 girls ranging from 6 to14 years old, accompanied by 4 or 5 young boys are sitting against the walls on the earth-beaten ground. The Barefoot College, founded by Bunker Roy 40 years ago, has organized 110 night schools for poor farmers' children from the surrounding region of Tilonia. Each classroom holds five classes at the same time, taught by one teacher.

The teacher is barely older than the oldest the students. When the class begins there is a joyous uproar. The teacher puts on the ground a series of white cardboard cards on which syllables in Hindi are written. As soon as a student sees two syllables that can make a word, she rushes to pick up the cards, shows the others, and explains the meaning of the word. Sometimes more than one student gets up to pick up the same cards and laughing confusion ensues.

A long sentence is then written in a circle with the cards and the students must each take walk around the circle, reading the card. By groups of two, the girls then sing couplets about rain (rain is so scarce in Rajasthan that all pray for it to come), harvest, and farm animals, miming the topics as they sing while the others sing for the chorus. The evening continues with fun activities until 10pm, and the children are constantly engaged and jump on the opportunity to answer each question asked by the teacher. Their faces are animated without any sign of distraction or fatigue.

However, these girls are not like other young students. They have spent the day taking care of 1 or 2 cows or 4 or 5 goats.

Tilonia 234Sita is 14 years old. The teacher asks her how many liters of milk her cow produces each day. ‟Four,” replies Sita. ‟How many cows do you look after?” ‟Three.” ‟How many liters of milk every 15 days does that make?” Sita goes to the blackboard, which is made by village women at the Barefoot College, takes a piece of chalk (made by handicapped youths at the College) out of her pocket, and writes down the multiplication. Three other girls immediately join her, checking the numbers she writes down and whispering their advice. In these classrooms, students are not punished for helping one another when a teacher asks a question; it's considered a normal reaction. The entire learning procedure is carried out in the spirit of cooperation and is vividly linked to everyday life.

The night school children have also formed a ‟Children's Parliament” with 40 deputies, the majority of them girls. It is the only parliament in the world that operates all year long and meets once a month to discuss issues that affect the children's lives. In this way they become conscious of their rights and do not hesitate to raise the most delicate questions when certain children are victim of abuse. The children's parents take this very seriously and a delegation of parents assist (in silence) with the village leaders at the Parliament's deliberations. The children also campaign in the villages during election time, which is every two years, and in this way learn about the principles of democracy.

The Children's Parliament in Rajasthan turned out to be more efficient than expected and has significantly helped to improve the lives of children in the region. Bunker Roy explains how when the Parliament received a prize in Sweden, the Parliament Prime Minister, who is a thirteen year-old girl, met the Queen of Sweden. Impressed by the calm assurance of the girl in the midst of adult dignitaries, the Queen asked her, ‟How is it that you have such assurance?” to which the young village girl replied ‟I am Prime Minister, Your Majesty.”

The Barefoot College and our association, Karuna-Shechen, have developed an active partnership for solar electrification and rainwater harvesting programs in India and Nepal.