Majuli: the Assamese river island where a Marathi boy started a unique school
The island goes underwater each year and everything is built again
- Suraj Ujjwala Shankar
More than anything, one is struck by the dawn, which is an hour early here. It is a new experience for a person travelling towards East for the first time. Absence of a mountain early gives a clear and fluid sky. If you are not a farmer, there is not much you can do at this hour other than listen to distant echoes of several motor engines roaring.
It took me a while to reach here. After a night’s bus journey via road from Guwahati to Jorhat, it takes an hour of boat journey on Brahmaputra till Majuli Island. Majuli is a district now. From Garmur town to school the road is mixture of asphalt and clay. It was difficult to differentiate whether it is your vehicle or the dust which carried you here. On your way, you can get a glimpse of the Subansari River which flows nearby.
Contrary to the afternoon, everything at this hour is drenched with dew. Light showers are often around mid-March. One can hear rustling sounds from the hostel which stands at one corner of campus. In a moment one by one all children appear on the main ground. Some were still half asleep; some were leaning over each other. Once the teacher in-charge checked everyone’s presence then they started for a morning run. It seemed like a fun run, as after coming back everyone was charged up. The same who were half asleep were now falling down giggling. Following this was a short warm up session. All of this was happening around 5 am.
The Hummingbird. The name comes from a bird found in this region. Majuli is a flood affected island which is surrounded by Bramhaputra waters. Flood is one thing which has constantly questioned the existence of communities on this island. Bipin Dhane, founder and principal of The Hummingbird is an alumini of IIT Kharagpur, on one of his visit to island, he decided to quit his job and devote his self here. Bipin hails from Satara district of Maharashtra. He gives credit of this work to his family for the support and villagers of Kulamua to trust him. Now Bipin is a known name across whole Majuli island. Children loves him, whole school gets ready whenever he is returning from a long trip. Another whole day goes in visiting villagers.
Around 4 years ago in 2016, the place where the school now was just a patch of land with lot of trees. It resembles the settlements pattern on Majuli island. It feels like group of houses have been thrown at corners of big sized football fields. It took combined effort of villagers of 19 villages for school to stand up. Now The Hummingbird functions under aegis of Ayang Trust, headed by the Bipin himself. It is non-profit, non-governmental organisation. It works on education, health-care and livelihood.
Around afternoon on our first day at school, all children gathered around their open classroom and were having discussion on couple of topics. When inquired about what is going on, a 24 year young teacher Bolin replied that our children know democracy. It had me by surprise.
The same day in the evening, there was a weekly conference which iscompulsory for every child to attend. Children ranged from 5 to 14 years old. As it is a residential school, all important decisions about and around the school were to be taken here; someone escaped their morning duty, someone faked illness to avoid morning run, someone was mischievous on Friday’s film hour or one of computer in lab is not working etc. Everyone gets a chance to speak here and decisions are implemented from the very next morning.
Interestingly, this framework is not rigid. A collective decision on this Saturday can go completely against what was decided on last Saturday. There is a situational exercise performed by everyone.
We stand at time where we are surrounded by numerous debates and analogies on abstract concept of democracy. And here, around 2000 kms away from the capital, on a flood affected island, school children have practical understanding of how democracy works. Rather than pushing around rigid rulebooks, school offers autonomy to their children.
Importance of this autonomy lies in sense of belonging that trusts them with responsibility. From morning sweeping to filling up water across all water pots in campus, everything is smooth and synchronised. Manifestation of their rights in their own ways does not create burden of tasks.
One can’t deny that ‘The humming bird’ as a school and as a residential hostel is a unique experience. Around 260 children from 26 villages attend this school regularly, out of which 15 villages are severely flood affected. 70 children are residential. For admission, there is a nominal fee. Those parents who can’t afford the fee, help in school activities for three-four days or a week in a month. It forms two motives, one being they get to observe their child learn in the same space and second, their contributions creates a strong bond with the school environment. The Panchayat of the respective village decides on the fee concession of individual. While doing so they make sure that the one, who really deserves, get the chance.
Anyone who has enough knowledge about anything is treated with respect here. Class subjects and class lectures have an alluring pattern. When it’s agriculture hour, you will find the whole class buzzing in the school farm around the person who looks after agriculture. From the Kulamua village comes a person with disability, his expertise is bamboo work. He brings all the essential apparatus with him. One can spot this class at different hours, different locations, different students but it looks the same. Everyone is intensely shaping the bamboo and trying to turn it into prescribed form.
The Kulamua village is the heart of functioning for The Humming bird. Most of the staff and co-workers come from Kulamua. For teachers, it is mandatory to know the 'Mising' language. No one here is ashamed of learning; neither teachers nor students. There is a healthy notion around learning. Even child speaks fluently in English. When asked about this impact, principal Bipin sir said that there are no mistakes when it comes to language. What we try to do is not make them guilty about their mistakes. Children get good amount of exposure due to constant visitors from all across India. Visitors are expected to be part of the flow. Without participation one can only romanticize the surrounding and not experience it.
We as humans, take quite a pride in our achievements and degrees or acquired skill sets. It makes us forget that one learns through constant absorption. Every struggle demands us to be a saviour of some kind; ‘The Humming bird’ treats this superior connotation with humbleness. It is not necessary that you are always giver, on most occasions you realise that it is better to step down and participate.
Children learn well in a surrounding which makes them feel comfortable. Here, a child’s day is equivalent to a year of play therapy sessions for someone from the city. It sums up the case about where mental well-being lies. Once the school gets over, everyone runs towards the hostels, as the rush hour is about to begin. They all emerge in their respective attires. One group would be reciting Tabla and Harmonium at the open bamboo class. One group would be performing Kung Fu drills under observation of another Kulamua villager, who is well trained in it. Beyond this, on another ground a football coach will be guiding group of children on with their football studs. It would be the most happening time of the day.
Children need to opt one of these choices. Youngest ones will be part of everything, wherever they please. Some will help in the kitchen baideo to collect essentials from the school farm and some will just roam around collecting wild berries from the ground.
In his famous ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ Paule Freire argues that the oppressed people can regain their humanity in the struggle for liberation only if the struggle is led by the oppressed. It is relevant here, but with some redefinition. Our image of struggle has been always been extreme or of a violent nature. And we consider oppression of only one kind, which is on humans by humans. Here, lack of development, neglect from the state apparatus has led to formation of struggle which is humble towards its efforts and motives for one to live a respectful life. Strong community bond turns it into a whole hearted effort. Education should make one capable of inculcating their indigenous knowledge with the dynamic changes in the way one lives.
The Humming bird stands different from many of school surrounded by us. A school’s universe plays major role in its steady growth. People from the Mising community are affectionate. They are decedents of Adi tribe from Arunachal. In short time everyone will get to know you. It makes one stay here for a while. Everyone eats together; it’s like a huge family with every character. You are constantly surrounded by their musings in Mising tribe language. Once in a while some child will try to make you understand their conversation. Makes one think what if they had access to same learning place until regular flood gulps down your school every year.
Everything goes under water and once water goes down, it is built again. It took more than three years to make the school it is today. The school has expanded little by little. The name of the standard 1st, is ‘Kung Fu Panda’, and 4th goes by name ‘Shiroi lily’.
Where do we find efforts to make education more relatable with their consciousness? It is performing as a centre for catering developmental needs in the region. Social change covers a large canvas. Unless women and children are not only part but agents of respective changes, there is no real upliftment. The Hummingbird assures one that there is way forward for lot of our incapabilities towards bringing impact.