No American visiting India for the first time really knows what to expect. The India that one visualises from the descriptions of travel websites, friends, and relatives is one of stark contrasts between clean and polluted, modernity and tradition, rich and poor.
So, before I came to India, I didn’t know what to expect. My name is Ajay and I am an Indian-American high school student on his first visit to India. On this trip, I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to join the Akshara Foundation on visits to the villages of Mundargi and Kushtagi in north Karnataka.
The rides to the villages were long and bumpy on roads that varied in levels of maintenance. For much of the ride, I had my left hand firmly grasped around the ceiling handles of our SUV and my eyes glued to the window, seeing life in a rural area for the first time.
The countryside can be very beautiful. Agricultural fields cover the sandy landscape with green crops and bright yellow carpets of sunflowers. These fields seem to stretch forever, only briefly interrupted by the villages they sustain.
The villages have their own beauty, with the vivid colours painted on the walls of homes and local shops. Buildings are constructed into small, but pleasant and reliable, structures from the materials readily available, such as wood and mud brick, showing the resourcefulness of these poor communities.
The members of these communities were warm and welcoming to us, opening their home to us in an instant. I’ve never been a big tea or coffee drinker – I’m fairly energetic on my own, without caffeine but by the end of the two days I was in rural Karnataka, I was converted.
Everywhere we went, either tea or coffee was generously offered (and how can you pass up South Indian coffee?). The beverages not only literally warmed my mouth (I think I actually burned my tongue on the first day – helpful tip: when drinking a hot liquid, don’t keep it in your mouth in hopes of it somehow cooling down), but also, metaphorically, my heart; despite their daily struggle for food and water, these villagers offered me tea/coffee and biscuits without hesitation.
However, these same villagers, the parents of the children we visited in local schools, did not seem to understand the full importance of their children’s education. During their house visits, Akshara conferences with the parents about the importance of education and convinces families of why they should be involved in their children’s education.
When basic necessities are scarce, it is understandable that parents can find it difficult to prioritise homework over harvesting. But a good education is a necessity. Certainly not of the immediacy of food or clean water for basic survival, but education is a necessary investment we make today to ensure that these children do not have to worry about things, like food shortages, in the future.
In the United States, parents are, unfortunately, also often distanced from their children’s education. Some parents work too much to be able to find time to monitor their child’s learning. Others simply can’t be bothered. Either way, the effects on the child’s education are the same: the parents’ lack of involvement is an impediment.
While in both America and India, parental involvement is generally directly correlated to income level, the difference is that in America, the trade off is rarely – if ever – between survival and education. Americans, in general, have more than enough to survive.
The young students in Mundargi and Kushtagi dream of becoming teachers, doctors, engineers – not farmers or labourers that struggle to get by. This is why it is important not only for the students to have an education available to them in school, but also for the parents to support their children’s quest to build a better life for themselves and, eventually, the villages they come from.
And this is why Akshara’s work is so essential. By building relationships with the communities in which they work, Akshara is able to make meaningful change at the deepest, most fundamental, levels. They invest time and effort into providing an education to children today, and changing attitudes and mindsets to ensure the next generation will have an education tomorrow.
– Ajay Dayal