iGrasp | What I Took From Volunteering In Madurai

As a once-upon-a-time employee within the development sector, a part of me has become accustomed to the grim realities not only as they exist but also manifest themselves in the lives of people stripped by access to resources that can alleviate their plight. This accustoming, thankfully, has come neither at the cost of desensitizing me nor at the risk of leaving me hyper-reactive! If anything, every brush and encounter – however direct or indirect the grounds on which it occurs may be – leaves me questioning and sometimes, altering the course of my own journey; the journey I take for granted.

Children at Manitham in Manamadurai, Tamil Nadu
I had the opportunity of meeting this group of students twice over the four weeks and was rather taken aback when one of them walked up to me and said, "Elita Ma'am!". He'd remembered my name!

Travelling with a difference
In the blistering summer of April 2016 – 16 full months after I had quit my job as a development sector professional of five and half years – I, along with another friend, arrived in Manamadurai to volunteer our time with a non-profit whose co-founder has been an acquaintance and a friend.

Manitham (Tamil for ‘being humane’) was started in the Manamadurai block of Tamil Nadu’s Sivagangai district in 2005 - long long before its (almost) English namesake in the metropolitan city of Mumbai became a catchphrase and fashion statement. For the uninitiated, Manamadurai is a mere 50 kilometres away from the temple town of Madurai.
Started by Mr. Vanarajan - a social worker who is also district in charge for Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) and south zone organizer for Campaign Against Child Trafficking (CACT) as well as a recipient of the 92Y Ford Fellowship - with the single minded focus of ensuring ease of access to quality education for students from communities marginalised because of their caste, Manitham was registered as a Trust.  

De-jargonising the jargon
Whether or not, one is familiar with the word ‘marginalised’, it helps to understand what it implies under these specific circumstances. Children, who ought to be in school and at the very least getting an education and enjoying the carefree life, are the softest of targets for cheap, easy labour as well as victims of trafficking.
Now given the manner in which the mainstream controls and directs the discourse on social development in this country (or anywhere else on the planet which is not a First World country), it’s becoming a norm to
(i) treat issues such as child labour and child trafficking as being commonplace, and
(ii) consider them as emanating from issues of population and poverty!
The elephant in the room, however, is that ‘caste’ or ethnicity dictates entitlements and dis-entitlements. And education which was meant to serve as an equaliser is one such entitlement that not everybody is entitled to.

Children at Manitham in Manamadurai, Tamil Nadu
These students left the most indelible mark on me and here's why -- children from a community known for being street circus performers. For generations, this community has remained nomadic and gypsy-like in their way of living; travelling to places where 'work' beckoned them!

Today, they're a settled community but not one that's accepted and integrated into the 'mainstream'. For a community that has to struggle for daily wage by doing the oddest of odd jobs, education is no more alien to them that walking the tightrope would be for me. And yet these are kids who are now attending schools and making sense of academics with great difficulty. Because among many other things, language is their biggest barrier.

Yes, language! This is a community that inherently speaks a language that's a fusion of Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Oriya and Tamil! That's a language they've evolved of their own from generations of staying nomadic. Now imagine the plight of these children further accentuated by socio-economic barriers!

Children at Manitham in Manamadurai, Tamil Nadu
Children at Manitham in Manamadurai, Tamil Nadu

From stories of how students at government run schools are made to wear colour coded bands on their wrists indicating the caste they belonged to, to being exposed to the concept of ‘Sumangali Thittam’ (where Sumangali means married girl and Thittam means scheme) - a form of child labour and soft trafficking where young girls are sent to cotton mills as laborers for a contract period of three to five years in return for which she (or rather her family) is promised a lump sum amount towards dowry for her marriage – it does not even begin to cover the range of issues I’ve personally heard and read about during my four weeks as a volunteer.

It is against this backdrop that the work of Manitham is nothing short of a crusade for students – many of whom are first generation learners. (And it’s 2016, for heaven’s sake!)

Manitham’s Child Resource Centre program is an after school support program aimed at ensuring that every child achieves basic competencies in Language (Tamil and English), Math and Science. Its core focus is to improve the learning outcomes by providing individual attention for every child. This is achieved by grooming mentors from within the community who are responsible for the end-to-end operationalization of their respective centres.
With its humble beginning of just 5 such centres in 5 villages, Manitham runs 15 CRC centres in the most backward villages of the Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu today reaching out to over 600 students annually.
It all seemed like an excellent model on paper to read about. It wasn’t something completely new to me either – I had through my own work in the past come across such models. The questions almost always arose around implementation and effectiveness; questions almost always posed by donors (whether from First World countries or not).

Children at Manitham in Manamadurai, Tamil Nadu
Children at Manitham in Manamadurai, Tamil Nadu

Manitham's mentors at their weekly training meeting
Manitham's mentors at their weekly training meeting

That world the way I experienced it
And so we spent some of our time visiting these centres and interacting with all the stakeholders involved – the students, the mentors, the parents of the students and a few of the community leaders and representatives. And here is what I saw:
We got interesting perspectives from parents of students in every village we were able to visit in the Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu where Manitham works. Most of them were relieved that there was someone ensuring that their kids were studying and doing it right. Theirs was a generation that wasn't fortunate enough. They wished there was a Child Resource Centre while they were students... . Consequently, they're left to eke a living as daily wage labourers - which is something they wish to write off for their children's future! P.S.: I've spent 4 weeks volunteering my time at an NGO in Madurai. These are glimpses from interactions and insights I've had #madurai #tamilnadu #india # nonprofit #notforprofit #ngo #volunteer #voluntourism #education #literacy #childrights #children #school #parents #caste #makeadifference #dogood #inspiration #instagood #instamood #storiesofindia #_soi #igramming_india #whyiloiter #HaveFeetWillTravel
A photo posted by Elita (@nomadicthunker) on

What from here?
Change is constant and change is also slow – especially when it’s attempting to rewrite how things have come to be without being antagonistic about it even in the least way possible.

And there is a role for everyone to play. Truth be told, in spite of my background I didn’t structure how I’d spend my time at Manitham. I knew I wanted to contribute positively – though I was aware of how much I could truly effect in 4 weeks. So I did what I could do best – I helped out in documenting concise documents on the CRC itself: its goal, the operating model, its results along with measurable indicators for arriving at those results and an outline for documenting its success stories as caselets!

I fell short in terms of what more I could have done because yes, language was a huge barrier for someone like me who cannot speak and read a word of Tamil. But if you are reading this post and are fluent in the language, Manitham is looking out for volunteers, interns and full time/part time roles to fill for Communication and Fund Raising. And you don’t even have to go base yourself out of Manamadurai. You can stay put right where you are and still contribute. The scope is immense not just in terms of what the organization needs but even in terms of what you could gain from the collaboration.
To know more drop an email to Mr. Vanarajan at trust.manitham@gmail.com or vanarajan.bs@gmail.com.

As for me, in spite of my language barrier (I still speak nor understand any Tamil), I had the opportunity to connect with my environs that in turn helped me reconnect with myself and my journey in a wholesome way!

N.B.: This isn’t about ‘caste’ as we are made to read about in the newspapers or led on to understand about through manifestos fished out days before any election (never to be looked at again until another 5 years later). Because ‘caste’ is not going to go away with some legislation – we know how far that’s gotten us. This is about re-examining the different ways in which we perpetuate differences ourselves – in the way we interact with people. The people who could be peers at university or our workplace or someone who is tasked with the job of cleaning up after us – whether in our own homes, restaurants or even out on the streets or the person you’ve just met but already made an impression of because you’ve glanced at their last name.
It’s easier to get carried away by politics of hate – whichever side of the argument you sit on right now. Rethink, re-examine and look beyond the obvious grey!

There's more to what I saw and learnt from. Here are glimpses from the potter village in Manamadurai. These aren't just pots; from the same mud and the same kiln comes the Ghatam: a percussion instrument used in the Carnatic music of South India. Manamadurai ghatams have special tonal quality.

The Ghatams of Manamadurai | Tamil Nadu
The Ghatams of Manamadurai | Tamil Nadu

That's what a visit to the potters' village in Manamadurai looked like. It was wonderful to hear that potters here have been mobilised into a cooperative which gives them a guaranteed wage along with the security of belonging to a collective, rather than going at it alone P.S.: I've spent 4 weeks volunteering my time at an NGO in Madurai. These are glimpses from interactions and insights I've had #madurai #tamilnadu #india #potter #pottery #pot #village #cooperative #federation #ruralindia #rural #storiesofindia #_soi #indiaphotosociety #lonelyplanetindia #travelstoke #travelgram #instatravel #nikonphotography #whyiloiter #HaveFeetWillTravel
A video posted by Elita (@nomadicthunker) on

P.S.: I know you don't like annoying pop-ups. So if you like the posts you see on my blog, you could also Subscribe to HaveFeetWillTravel by Email and receive newer ones directly to your inbox! 

P.P.S.: For opportunities to collaborate on projects such as these and to work with me, click here

Labels: , , , , , ,