A school for children of the Baiga tribe in Chhattisgarh

Driving down to Samerth’s Balmitra in rural, or rather, tribal, Chhatisgarh, all kinds of thoughts plagued my mind. Would the children be able to understand what I was saying? What made the founders set up a school so far off? How did they even learn about the tribals living here and their lifestyles? What made them spend so much time and effort to reach this far-flung place?

Because Samerth’s Balmitra, which is their school for tribal children, is truly far-flung. Located in the district of Kawardha, approximately 180 kms from the city of Raipur, it takes a good 4 hours to drive down (from Raipur). It goes without saying then that it is surrounded by lush greenery and hills.

I learnt during the drive that the school serves children of the Baiga tribe. A Wikipedia search will tell you that the Baiga community is totally dependent on the jungle. Tattooing is also an integral part of their lifestyle They do not interact even with other tribals and believe in a hand-to-mouth existence. Their neither try to access education nor eat outside their community nor associate with others. Living in their own cut off world on the outskirts of the forest, I knew I would be looked upon as a foreigner by them. Though I did not expect the children to cry at the sight of me and be so full of shyness and fear!

Their teacher, Phulgahna Maravi thus acted as my translator. As we had gone to a nearby town to Baigatola of Bairakh panchayat, she was well-versed in Hindi. Infact, she only became fluent in Chhattisgarhi when she started teaching at the Balmitra in 2012. In her own words, “I learnt Chhattisgarhi from the children themselves as they learnt Hindi from me.”

When I asked parents what they would like their school-going children to grow up to be, they replied, “We haven’t really thought about it.” They went on to say, “We are very happy that this school has come up. We never went to school but are thankful that our children are getting a chance at education.” While I was initially disappointed with the answer, I realised that this was an apt response for parents of first generation learners.

It also made total sense when their team told me that “It may look like the tribal people do not have much and so lead terrible lives; but they actually lead quite happy lives. They do not worry about the future. This makes them share their days’ find from the forest – be it fruits, berries or leaves – with each other.” As we chatted, my 12th standard Sociology lessons started coming back to me.  Like how tribal economies are cashless economies; tribes lives more on barter than money. Their ability to live on less keeps them happy with forest supplies. This is why they have not strived to get educated nor for any amenities of the modern world.

However, this kind of a lifestyle becomes a problem when diseases like Malaria or a natural calamity hit. They are just not prepared for it. By helping them with an education, Samerth is taking baby steps in helping them live a more balanced life. Samerth’s intervention is in the form of a pre-primary center (Balmitra) as well as a support center (for older kids going to the nearby Government school).

The house of one of the tribal women in the village served as the Balmitra. Being centrally located, it was an easy-to-walk distance for all the kids.

During my conversation with the parents, I couldn’t help but ask them if given the chance, would they like to move to the city? The unanimous response was a firm no!

Just as I was about to leave, a few of the kids got over their shyness and decided that they wanted to show me their typical tribal dance. Done by balancing oneself on sticks, the skill is developed only after much practise. Another bunch of kids decided to sing a song for me.  I found it quite amusing that some parents were reprimanding their children for being shy. How typical!

As we walked 2 kilometers back to our car, I couldn’t help thinking about what one of them had said when I asked about the tattoos on her arms and leg – “When you die, only your body goes up. So how will God know we are from the Baiga tribe?” No matter our physical differences, our beliefs are truly the same; as are our dreams and hopes for our children!

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