Spending three months tucked away in the middle of the Himalayas interning with 17000 ft Foundation was truly one of the best summers I’ve had so far. Other than having the opportunity to travel around Ladakh and reach out to children at many remote schools, I was also getting to be in the company of new friends every few weeks and became so close to the family that I stayed with, while I was in Leh, that I feel like I can call them my own now. Having spent this time away from what I’m used to really helped me understand how much of a struggle it is for the people in remote parts of my own country to live in and learn to love the mountains they grew up in.
While working with 17000 ft, I got to visit 6 different schools around Ladakh in Anley, Tsaga, Chumathang, Fotoksar, Lingshed and in Igoo. When the 17000 ft Team goes to a certain block in Ladakh, they visit the schools where the Foundation has setup libraries, check up on the playground and/or infrastructure that has been donated to them so that we know how responsive the students/teachers are to the program and whether or not the school needs any specific aid.
The first few schools that I got to visit were during a monitoring visit to Nyoma Block. At Govt. Middle School – Anley Khaldo, for the first time, I got to see the kind of work that is done on a monitoring visit. Other than checking up on the amenities that they have provided to the school, the team also does a Reading Program with the students using the books from the 17000 ft Library to encourage the children to read more.
The day started off with us reaching the school right before their morning assembly. When I saw all the students line up and march on towards the main ground, their discipline and energy level really took me aback. It was extremely heartwarming to see how devoted to their prayers the children were, literally screaming them out with so much passion and emotion.
In retrospect, I remember how much of a difficulty it was for the teachers to even get us to stand straight and listen to them during our morning assemblies when I was at school. Their respect for their teachers and their eagerness to learn whatever anyone had to offer them was remarkable. We spent the whole day at this school and got to interact with the students and teachers.
At first, I felt that reading out to the little children in both English and Hindi was quite hard because I could tell they didn’t understand me. The older children had a better grasp of the languages so it was easier to get through to them, but I found teaching the younger ones were more challenging. Govt. Middle School, Tsaga was a lot more remote than the previous school that I visited so there were fewer children at this one.
Once again, the teachers were very gracious towards us and the students were all looking forward to the activity we had planned out for them. We read to them about the solar system, which was a lot of fun! They wrote a few sentences about what they had learnt and then we made a chart for them to put up in their classroom.
At both schools in Anley and Tsaga, I got to meet the Head of their respective Village Education Committees. The VEC Head is a representative of the community who takes a keen interest in what is happening at the school when it comes to education and providing facilities for the students.
Each of them spoke to us about the ups and downs of trying to promote education in their areas. They expressed to us how the children really enjoy learning from the books that have been provided for them in the 17000 ft Library and that they read them while they are at school, but are resistant to take them back home because they feel that they will get damaged. As a result, they weren’t reading the books themselves and only reading them while in class.
Another issue that they brought up with us was how teachers keep leaving. Very few of them are able to cope with the remoteness of these schools and would naturally much rather be closer to their families or working in Leh, the capital city of Ladakh. Once the students get used to the teacher, the teacher leaves or gets transferred which breaks the sense of continuity in their classes. They also spoke to us about how the students are very eager to learn and they study hard while in school, but they tend to forget what they have learnt because they have a long period in the winter where there is no school due to the harsh weather.
These students are made to study in four languages right from when they start school – English, Hindi, Bodhi and Urdu. Each of these languages has a completely different script. The only language out of all of these that they speak on a regular basis is their mother tongue, Bodhi. When they go home, most of their parents are illiterate so they cannot help with their homework. Yet, their entire curriculum is in a very high level of English. Can you imagine what that must feel like? It’s only natural that they forget what they have learnt. Very few of them are able to cope up with the amount that they have to learn, so the pass rate in these regions is low.
The point of introducing the 17000 ft Libraries at these schools is to show these children that learning can be fun as well. The books are divided into different levels so the child can pick them up according to what they are comfortable with reading. Starting them off with fun picture books with very few words, the point is to get their attention and want them to read more.
Gradually once they start enjoying the books, they move on to the higher levels that have novels and fiction. The third and last school that I visited in Nyoma Block was Govt. High School, Chumathang. This school was a lot bigger and the students were much more comfortable speaking in both English and Hindi. The activity we conducted at this school was very special for me because I got to teach them something that I am very passionate about – marine life.
They had a book about sharks in their library, and when I asked the group if they had read it, they all said no. Having never been close to an ocean before, the concept of creatures like sharks even existing was very foreign for them. Once we got past understanding how sharks breathe, what they eat and their reproductive cycle, we focused on the different types of sharks.
We talked about how not all sharks are vicious even though most of them appear to be so. They were very excited to learn about the Whale Shark that delivers their babies like humans do unlike other sharks that lay eggs. Each of them chose their favourite shark and wrote 10 facts about them, which we made into a flip chart and put up on their classroom wall. Since they all had their crayons and drawing books out, by the end of the class we had some great illustrations of purple sharks and fluorescent green ones!
When I was not doing fieldwork, I was based in the Head Office in Leh where the team monitors the proper functioning of the Libraries setup by the NGO at over 100 remote schools in Ladakh and organizes trips for the volunteers coming in. I also got to be a part of two group projects during my internship. This project is called TeamUp@17000ft where a group of people come to Ladakh and visit one particular remote school where they all work as a team to help create a better learning atmosphere for its students.
The first team that came in to volunteer with 17000 ft this summer was a group of students from The Shri Ram School, Moulsari in Gurgaon. This happens to be the same school that I went to so since they were all my juniors, I thought it was going to be quite strange at first to be made one of their facilitators. When it hit me that it’s been a while since I graduated from school and that I’m a good 6-7 years their senior, I eased up a bit because they had no clue who I was and vice-versa!
This trip was quite challenging for me because it was the first time I was put in charge of a group of teenagers for a long period of time and I genuinely didn’t know what to expect. They turned out to be a really great bunch though, which was a relief! It was the first time any of them were spending this much time in a remote area so starting from the moody weather to the dry-pit toilets; they had a lot to get used to.
With them, I got to spend 4 days volunteering at Govt. Middle School, Fotoksar. The people of Fotoksar all pooled in and built this school for their children that is about 30 minutes away from the main village. The students get to go home during the weekends, but spent the whole week in school so that they could focus on their studies. This way, they can get all the help they need from their teachers before and after school hours.
Since this was the first time I was visiting a weekly boarding school, I got to see how the students spend their whole day from morning till evening. They were up bright and early at 6:30 am so that they could get some studying done before their classes started. Their morning assembly wasn’t till 9 am so they had some time after studying to get freshened up and ready for school. During this time, I’d see little girls sitting in a line and plaiting one another’s hair into neat braids, giggling and chatting.
My favourite part was how helpful the older students were towards their juniors; they looked after the younger ones as if they were their own siblings, which was so nice to see! We had planned out the activities in such a way that each of the volunteers got to be a part of everything. The team built the school a playground from scratch- from the assembling, to digging, to cementing – which took a lot of hard work and dedication. They read storybooks out to the students from the 17000 ft Library, which they later had to make into a fun activity that the students could put up in their morning assembly – like a puppet show, song and dance or skit.
Seeing the look on these children’s faces while they presented their respective activities, and the amount of effort they put in to remember whatever they had been taught to the best of their ability, brightened up my whole day.
The team also conducted general/health surveys with the villagers and students so that they got an understanding of how the people in this village live on a daily basis. They went from door to door and visited the people so they got to see what their homes look like and taste their local tea and snacks. Ever smiling, always ready to help and so agile – the hospitality of the local people completely overwhelmed all of us.
Lastly, the team taught the students how to play football using fun exercises and games. This was an initiative that they brought about on their own because they felt that interacting with the students through a sport might be an easier way to bridge the gap besides the other activities. The students were very enthusiastic and quite a handful! On the last day of our stay, the students were divided into teams and played a proper football game with referees, jerseys, a scoreboard and the prizes. With their parents and teachers as spectators, everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
I honestly felt that there was a tremendous impact on the students at these remote villages when children their own age or just a couple of years older reach out to them. Not only did both groups of students get to interact with new friends, but they also get to learn new perspectives of life, observe their daily activities and share their insights with one another.
Coming from developed cities, volunteering with the little kids in Fotoksar gave them an idea of how different the lives of students in remote areas of India are to theirs. A life without any Mobile Phone network, Television or Internet privileges for just 10 days managed to change their perspective of how fortunate they are and I hope it pushes them to want to help build the aspirations of these rural children.
The second group project that I got to be a part of was in collaboration with an organization called Operation Groundswell. This group of people had come to India from Canada and USA for a month with the purpose of understanding our culture and working with children at the same time. Before coming to Ladakh, they spent some time with a NGO in Manali as well. This team spent their time volunteering with 17000 ft at Centralized Residential School, Lingshed.
For me, this visit was the most impactful. Other than the challenging trek to this school, which is about a 26 km journey away from a motorable road, this was the first real time I got to understand the way people live in such desolate areas. Fotoksar was also remote, but it certainly wasn’t as far away from the world I was used to as Lingshed was. After trekking for hours, when you turn into the valley where this village is, you can’t help but stop and just stare.
We camped at a ground walking distance from the school so that we would be close by. The volunteers did a similar run at this school as well where they read to students and did activities with them in class based on the books, the team set up a playground and also ventured out into the village where they went from house to house conducting surveys.
The team also helped setup a fully functional Library at this school. They already had an existing one that was not kept in a good shape, so we categorized the books according to their level of difficulty and brightened up the room to encourage the children to want to read. As they all stayed in the hostel, we got to interact with them a lot more after their classes got over. We had taken a case of Lego from Leh that was a big hit with the children!
We also had a Sport’s Day for the students where they competed with each other in good spirit according to their classes. Games like the three-legged race, obstacle course and tug of war really got their adrenaline pumping and all of us had a great time! A few of us taught subjects at the school as well. Two of the volunteers spent some time with the younger ones teaching them nursery rhymes. My favourite of the lot was the improvisation of – “If you’re happy and you know it, say Jai Ho!”
While teaching the students English, Hindi and History, I realized how hard a teacher’s job really is. Getting the children to pay attention and motivating them to be confident to speak in class was not an easy task. The standard of their books was also extremely hard and since their basics were poor, I understood why it was so hard for them to keep up with the pace at which they were being taught.
Fundamentals like grammar and spelling were not being given importance to, so I tried starting from there. Using drawings and images to explain a topic and taking them out of the classroom to learn a new lesson managed to grab their interest and get them to listen. Oddly enough, these were both teaching techniques that I learnt from my teachers when I was at school. Just like the first team introduced their own element of playing football with the students at Fotoksar, these guys had planned to interact with the students in Lingshed through theatre.
Since there was a language barrier for this group, theatre really helped them bond with the kids since they were mostly responding in actions and sounds. Each of the volunteers had a group of children who they worked with every day. At the end of the week, each group had practiced a local folk tale and performed it in front of their parents and teachers on the last day.
The theatre workshop was getting such a great response from the students that the teachers were also dying to be a part of the activities. So we encouraged the parents and teachers to put up a show of their own! They put up a skit on the last day following the performances done by the children that was done in Ladakhi (Bodhi). The play was done in good humour where the teachers dressed up as the kids and showed the students how they behave when they are in school or at home.
The parents played the parents role as well as the teacher’s roles. The last day we spent with them was very special to all of us. Other than the plays that they put up, the younger children also performed the nursery rhymes that the team had taught them, which was such an adorable gesture. The children also put up a fabulous cultural show for us where we got to see their traditional dance and attire. When the parents and teachers started dancing, they got us to join in as well!
The starry nights and sheer solitude of Lingshed convinced me that beautiful places like this actually exist, and however remote they are, people still live in these regions surviving without electricity, warm water and connectivity. Also, not having that many distractions like constantly accessing the Internet or being on the phone made us all connect at a more human level. We spent so much time together as a team working with the children at the school and planning out what to do with them that I feel like the bonds we made during this trip aren’t going to fade very easily. However far away we are from each other now, this trip will always be something that will bring us together.
Towards the end of my internship I spent a few days at Govt. High School, Igoo with two other members of the 17000 ft Team. Other than the regular reading and art activities that we do, since Independence Day was around the corner, we got to help the students prepare for an Inter-School Skit Competition which was a lot of fun! We divided them into four small groups and gave them each a song to learn. Each of the groups also had one patriotic leader – Mahatma Gandhi, Rani of Jhansi, Subhash Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh – who had to come up and recite one of their iconic sayings.
Trying to get the students to pronounce the words in our patriotic songs correctly was the first task we had at hand. “Ram” was being said as “Rum” so we kept telling them to say the “aaa” part out loud, which naturally ended up in utter chaos! Thankfully, we had a few days to go through the routine and the students were very determined to get their respective roles right. Once they learnt their songs, we had to decide on a costume for each of them.
The group wore their uniform with sashes around them in either green, orange or white with matching Chacha Nehru caps according to the colour they had – other than the leaders who were all dressed in character. With Subhash Chandra Bose in his dapper Army uniform, Bhagat Singh’s iconic turban, Gandhi’s khaadi attire and Rani of Jhansi with her sword and baby on her back, their final show went off really well!
Looking back at the schools I volunteered at, there are so many things I have learnt and seen that I have brought back with me forever. Each of these schools were so unique in their own way, perched away in isolated places with the most kind-hearted people one could imagine. Ladakh in general left that impression on me. The people are so simple and the landscape is one that can be stared at for hours and hours as it is constantly changing.
The unity of the students and their hunger to learn were two things that really stood out for me. Their compassion for one another and respect for their teachers has definitely made me want to come back and visit their schools in the future.
On an ending note, I just want to express how grateful I am to the Directors of 17000 ft Foundation – Sujata and Sandeep Sahu for letting me do this. They’re the only reason I got to spend these few months the way I did and I’m so glad to have gotten this opportunity. To the rest of the team that I worked with at different points of my internship – Kunzes, Sonam, PT, Tani, Spalzom, Palmo, Nurboo, Otsal, Mala Ma’am, Delek, Galdan, Tsering, Jigmet, Nana, Myra, Pragnya and Harshita – each of you mean a lot to me in your own way and I am so happy I got to spend this time with you.