It’s been a therapeutic few months in this village of ours. A therapy for all the wounded souls of the difficult times.
And this is, indeed, the darkest of times – the time of extreme capitalism, extreme violence and communalism, and extreme centralization of power. You either come out of it as the oppressor finding refuge in possessions and privilege, only to suffocate yourself in your own power; or you become the oppressed fatalistically accepting your powerlessness. You are a victim of a bigger puzzle either way. But what does an alternative learning space in a far-away village have to do with all of it, one may ask. The answer to that is: everything. This may come as a surprise (although it really really shouldn’t), but the sole purpose of education was to enable learners question the world more politically and more critically than ever. We have been taught to think and act otherwise by the mainstream system of education, because schooling the society in a way it is schooled now helps the oppressors. So, if you are constructing a learning space, and you are calling it an alternative to something you know for certain is disempowering, then the core purpose of the space should be to empower the powerless. And as Paulo Freire puts it, you as an educator in that space have a duty of not being neutral, rather to be deeply political (in the broader sense of the term as having to do with the power relationships).
In Rakkar, in the ecosystem that we have created for the young learners of the village, we have been living just that. We have exponentially evolved as a collective since the time of the last article on this blog. Long story short: I found a house in the middle of the village with a space dedicated to children, moved in, gained a home out of that house, and in the host was found a friend who has been a partner in my adventures ever since. We almost started living together with about fifteen kids from the neighborhood, and the madness followed.
Learnings in Leavings, and the Man who Showed it to Us:
Bachhon Ka Avishkar, and the Power of Emerging Ideas:
Three months have passed, and we now have a laboratory of young makers creating everything from water filters to electric generator, all out of trash items. They call this activity of theirs as “Bachhon Ka Avishkar”, meaning the inventions of the children. It never stops at that but, they always look for bigger goals to work for through this activity of theirs. In March, we were climbing trees, and realized it would be far more exciting to live on a tree branch as the land looked kind of boring from up there. So they immediately wanted to build a tree house: and it wasn’t just an epiphany! No, they came back, got divided into teams: teams for design, painting, documentation, collecting materials, and so on. The design team started training themselves with design tutorials from the Internet, the documentation team would update their progress on their GitHub repository, and so on. This is exactly what I meant when on the last article I talked about finding a bridge between computers and their every day lives. Never for a moment they thought learning to use the Internet for this group project was a foreign task, because they knew exactly why they were using the machine. Empowerment often means just that, to be able to choose for yourself what you think is necessary. A computer, in these circumstances, does not remain an alien of a machine that you should learn because someone is instructing you to do so; but becomes a tool you choose to use in order to make your work easier. It becomes a friend who helps, a friend you learn from, and eventually, a friend you are not afraid of challenging.
It is interesting to see how they really saw their positions as users of the Internet. And so when they wanted a website of their own they knew exactly why they thought it was necessary, and it was pretty straightforward: हम रक्कड़ के बच्चे कूड़े कचड़े से खिलौने बनाते हैं, हमें जानकारी देना चाहिए (we are the kids of Rakkar, we collect all the trash from the neighborhood, and make toys out of them; we should inform the world about our cause). This is an amazing gift children are born with, they are strangely capable of always articulating complicated things in the most simplest ways possible. They really know their ways to tame the few words they are familiar with. All you have to do is to communicate with them in the most genuine way you know of communication, and they’ll take care of the rest. When Finnu, 13, started to design the website on a whiteboard, we never for a moment questioned his ability to do it. I asked him whether he would be interested in making a website, in the same spontaneous way they ask me if I would like to join them in their work in the fields. It’s really simple, actually: I wouldn’t know how to cut the wheat from the fields, he wouldn’t immediately know how to make an web application, but we believed we could both learn if we helped each other through the process of learning. The task of a learning space is to construct that belief in the participating minds. To make things seem easier than they actually are does not always mean to delude a learner, sometimes it also means that it is now my responsibility as a mentor to make computing seem as easy and as organic to you as gardening.
The set of wireframes Finnu created in a few hours was pure perfection: he spelled website as “wepside”, but he did create what engineering students don’t learn to create until they are stabbed with a college project. Unlike college students desperately trying to maintain grades, Finnu’s motivation to make it happen was to express his powerful idea of creating a platform that would serve the purpose of the collective he was a part of. He did really think about the requirements of the collective: from keeping a donate button, to storing all the necessary data about the dogs of Rakkar (such as, their birthdays, who all they have bitten, and so on), he had many ideas for his creation to become most useful to a bigger cause he felt very passionately about.
We now have a website and a YouTube channel that all the kids have put much thoughts into: they upload little demonstrations of the toys they create and discuss the science behind those creations. One incident that is totally worth sharing in this context, is how they dealt with maintaining anonymity on their website. They are now kind of aware of the userbase of the Internet, but only kind of. They are aware of a vast set of people out there who are also users of the Internet but their way of using it is different from the way they themselves have been using it. So they wouldn’t trust this world full of strangers just like that. They didn’t want their names to be publicly posted as authors on the website. But it turned out that even if you find a way to hide the author names, it is not too hard to find out the author-page if you really know your way. So, Vicky looked at the error message we ran into, and suggested that we should instead just have a common account that we would all have the access to, and that way we would be able to protect the identities with another layer of anonymity.
Stories We are Made of, and The Pedagogy of Hard Fun
Shyam, 14, is slightly older than the other kids at our place, he is also slightly more informed than the others. He knows about ISIS. He also seemed to believe that all Pakistanis were terrorists and hence should all die and disappear. I asked him what made him think so and whether he ever met a Pakistani in his life. He said, no, and then added that he did not even know where Pakistan was in the world map. So we looked at that first, and somehow ended up looking at Pakistani coins. He really liked a coin he found out through google image search, so he wanted to make it. We agreed on making it with cardboard and silver colored paper. This ended up being a strangely powerful exercise, because after he was done, he looked at this little creation of his with genuine contentment and pure appreciation. I jokingly remarked: so you at least like something of the nation that you so passionately hate.
His feelings toward it was conflicted, I could sense. So we started looking up more stories, looked at beautiful structures from the land of Pakistan, listened to Ghazals, started reading literature from the time of partition, and so on. It was almost evening when it was time for him to leave. His eyes seemed lost: they were not lost in confusion anymore but it seemed like they were wandering in the streets of a foreign country that suddenly also seemed strangely familiar. Then after a while they were back, he looked straight at me with those eyes which now resembled a person who just discovered something very precious. “दीदी”, he said, “एक भारतीय फ़ौजी का दुःख दर्द, बॉर्डर के उसपार का एक पाकिस्तानी फ़ौजी से अच्छा कौन समझता है, है ना?” (Didi, who knows more about the despair of an Indian soldier, than the Pakistani soldier across the border sharing the same despair as that of his supposed enemy on the other side?) I did not know the answer to it, or maybe I could see that he was not expecting an answer from me at all. He further exclaimed, “मतलब वह दोनों तो soulmates हैं!” (So that means, they are basically soulmates!). Months later, he now really wants to learn Urdu simply because he finds it beautiful.
And that, right there, is pathetically lacking from our system (social and education). It takes endless empathy to provide security, and legitimate security, to the vulnerable. We all deserve a land where it shall be okay to fail, it shall be a moment of appreciation when someone confesses their weakness, and a hug will be offered to every individual who feels ashamed of a wrong that was committed by oneself.
Ours is not a playhouse for kids, it’s not an easy place. We have been doing this activity, and living this life as a collective for three continuous months without a gap of even a day. It is very, very intense an engagement. It’s also fun. It’s fun in spite of being very very hard. When Seymour Papert coined the term “Hard Fun” he also talked about being devoted to finding kinds of work that will harness the passion of the learner to the hard work needed to master difficult material and acquire habits of self-discipline.
On that note, ours is also a very focused and very carefully structured participation. But on the other hand, this place is only as hard as the participants would want to make it, only as ordered as the children would want it to be. Because you are choosing it, all of it, even the order with which you are controlling your own chaos. And that’s empowering. A severe engagement of 180 days also means, all of them, also made the same choice of bringing this order in their chaotic little lives everyday. They could have left. Our doors have remained as open to the ones who would want to leave as it was to the ones who wished to come. But they didn’t leave. They never missed a day also. Because unlike everywhere else, here, they had the freedom to choose.
Abstract as a Luxury, and other Learnings
They also always came back because they knew what exactly they were coming back to. Or maybe they never really left the activity for the last few months, and I don’t think they are going to leave anytime soon. They were not coming back to an “alternative learning space”, no, they came back to all the trash they so passionately collected, they came back to the activity of transforming all things discarded into their wonderful inventions. There was not a single chance for any abstraction to take anything away from this simple reality of theirs: we are the kids of Rakkar; we make toys from trash.
Abstract is a kind of reality that we have the privilege to indulge in perhaps. For our villagers, however, it is too much of a luxury; it’s not that they are incapable of perceiving an abstract idea in their own ways, but they would not want to do it at all. Their reality never had a place for luxuries, and it is incredibly unfair to demand one from them. But they have complete rights to know where exactly they are sending their children off to, they all have great potential to participate in that activity themselves – but the parents for whom it is of endless privilege to be able to send their kids to a school, an “alternative learning space” means nothing useful. And then you spend six sentences to explain the meaning and importance of an “alternative learning space” in a language you are comfortable communicating in, but before even knowing, you would be losing a potential collaborator just because you sounded too distant. Not just it’s a loss, it is also terribly unfair. As Ivan Illich puts it, “If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you.”
In fact, the way of functioning in a village you have to some extent invaded with your ideas should be very consciously subtle. My present efforts are to make the activities sufficiently more significant than my own presence in it. One way of approaching it is to subtly transfer the power I hold as a primary operator of this activity to the larger community. And that cannot just happen verbally. If sustaining this activity is a concern then I believe that it also a part of our responsibility to make the villagers feel like an equal participant in this adventure of ours, and the immediate community of villagers would feel empowered enough to sustain it on its own with occasional support from outsiders like us. So every afternoon, we started going to shops, streets, public places, and often to people’s houses – used the trash items they provide us with to make everything that inspires us as makers, from hand puppets to electric generators.
The idea was never to create a learning space just, but it has been more about constructing an ecosystem for learners. An ecosystem that does not reduce the value of the learners to their immediate identities, and moreover empowers them to question everything including the ecosystem itself. We had an exhibition recently at the community hall in the village. It was the brightest day I can remember from the recent past – almost fifty children from all over the village came and they all looked like sunshine. I remember looking at their eyes. They were all overflowing with such genuine happiness, that it pained. It pained because it reminded me of millions of other children of this world who deserved no less, but we failed them, we failed them as humans, silenced them before they even learned to speak. What is more concerning is, that we have imposed on them our own authoritarian ways of seeing the world. We teach them history of human struggle as fairytales, making sure that they never feel inspired to live a life of commitment to a cause bigger than their own survival. We teach them Geography as law, so that when the Government decides to redraw the entire geography of our country – with no regards whatsoever to communities, the wildlife, or the farmers concerned – not a word of dissent shall be spoken. We teach them Science as Religion, we teach them always to worship the superior, barring them from questioning the same. We just teach them.
But let’s not. Let’s not be teachers to silenced students anymore. Let’s lose our power as the ultimate authority of knowledge, it would only humanize us. And let’s imagine an ecosystem where – we are all learners, regardless of our age, class, gender, race, and caste – committed to a life with purpose beyond our own selfish survival and a life of questioning the world as we learn from it.
In Rakkar, that has been our commitment.
Names of the characters mentioned in this article are used fictitiously in order to respect the privacy of the people involved.