Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Half-way around the world and back –Motin and Me

By Renu Seth, Program Head - Second Chance Program 

The story of Motin begins in Chichbod, a sleepy village of not more than 1200 people. There is one government primary school in there up to Standard Class V. The upper primary school is more than three kilometers away. The land holdings are small and like majority of people in this tribal belt in Chhattigarh, Motin’s parents too work as daily wage earners on bigger farms. Motin was married at the age of seventeen, and after seven difficult years, she had to come back to her parents after an unsuccessful marriage.  She worked in the fields to contribute economically to the family, feeling conscious about not being an extra burden to the family. It was a hard life.

In 2013, when Motin was 27 years old, she got to know of Pratham’s Open School of Education initiative. She heard about the Second Chance program through the Pratham tutors and faculty and also through the head woman of her village. She could hardly believe that someone like her could get the chance to study again after a gap of twelve years. With much apprehension she enrolled herself and even convinced two other girls to join the program with her. The class was three kilometers away so the three of them going together to study would put the families at ease. Along with studying, Motin also convinced her parents she would work as much as she could in the fields. Motin studied hard to pass her Class X exams and  topped the Chhattisgarh Open School Board results. Her friends passed too, and this led to a Pratham Centre opening in her own village. In the past two years, 30 girls from Chichbod along with other girls, have also completed their secondary education.

After a year, Motin got back to studies once more, this time on her own. She felt she had the confidence and the competence to go for the Class XII board exam. And again, her determination and hard work paid off – she completed her senior secondary education Class XII with good marks. Motin now lives in Raipur and is a Hostel Warden at the Pratham Arora Centre for Education (PACE) Health Care  unit for training bedside assistants.

It was this story of courage, hope and hard work that led to Motin being picked to go to the United States to visit different cities and talk to Pratham supporters (current and potential) about her life and challenges.

It was sometime in August 2016, when we spoke to Motin Bai, and her family for consent and began the preparation for her documents for the visit to the US, in October 2016. Time passed quickly. It was almost the end of September. Motin’s passport got somehow delayed, and without passport details, visa interview appointments could not be taken. We needed to leave India by October 7, 2016, to be in time for planned events in the US.  With fingers crossed, we took each day at a time. Somehow everything fell in place in the last few days. The passport arrived and  Motin’s visa got approved on October 5. 

Accompanied by a colleague from PACE Chhattisgarh, Motin had stepped out of Chhattisgarh for the first time in her life. Mumbai was the first city she set foot in, outside the state of Chhattisgarh. In Mumbai, after her visa was approved, Motin prepared for her travel. Usha Tai took her shopping and helped her to get a whole new wardrobe, shoes and her travel kit. She also met people at Pratham office and their support helped her for many things before she left for the US. Everything was a first for her, in every way “Pratham”. Motin was in awe of the city and its pace – her preparation for the travel and rides through Mumbai city using the Sea Link Bridge, were amazing experiences for her. I vividly remember our meeting in the guest house at Kurla. We were meeting after a year, with many phone calls in between. We gave each other a high five; yes – the trip was finally becoming real. We were getting on a trip together. Motin and I checked out the map of USA and marked the cities we would be visiting – saw images of the cities online, just a teeny weeny beginning to our travels ahead. Motin wrote the names of these cities and kept repeating their names, to say them correctly!

First time ever on a plane, Motin enjoyed the flight to Washington DC, our first stop in the US. She kept looking out of the window. She readily took up the suggestion to thank the pilot and the flight attendants for a great flight experience. Motin wrote a couple of sentences in English in her notebook, practiced while we were still airborne. As we disembarked she said “Thank you” to the crew.
We were both amazed at how our travel had been planned. We were picked up in every city; all arrangements made in advance. Our boarding passes came to us magically at the right time every stop we made. We were indeed very privileged; our travel and meetings had been managed to the last micro detail by team Pratham USA.

 Motin was at ease, throughout the trip, taking every experience as it came, be it the weather, the people, the homes, the language, the new environment. She was like a sponge absorbing everything that came her way, in each city, with every exposure hungry for more. From city to city, conversations with others helped in opening up, her interactions becoming deeper. She shared her own experiences and also stories of other students, who studied with her as well as those in subsequent years. She talked of younger girls, married women, women who were encouraged and girls who implored the alumni of POSE to come to their homes and convince their parents to allow them a “second chance “to get back into the mainstream. 

Motin shared about the Foundation Course, as she was asked questions on how she could re- connect with studies after a gap of twelve years. She talked of the methods of learning and could share her experience of learning at a Pratham class. She talked of economic independence, of education bringing respect, changing family attitudes and acceptance, and also of how the community’s view of girls and education changed as a result of her own example. She asked friends at Pratham USA to keep up their faith, in giving drop out girls a chance to study again.  She talked of how her life has changed because of education and how she can contribute not only to the family but to so much more.
Motin spoke of her life story in a clear though quivering voice; many moist eyes to be wiped, many many cheers for her courage and girt. The details of her bouncing back from being a social reject, the hardships of her parents in making ends meet, her apprehensions about her decision to go back to studies after twelve years and the feeling of self-worth…. All of this brought out responses of surprise, curiosity and incredulity among listeners. Motin’s sharing was often followed by more intensive conversations about how she changed her own circumstances and life chances. The more people asked, the more they understood, and the closer they got to see the whys and hows of the Second Chance Program. Motin brought out the real challenges for school dropouts, and what it takes to bring them back to mainstream education. Motin’s words reinforced the value that girls and women place on continuing and completing their education. Her experiences also underlined the need for Pratham to continue to work in this space.  Motin often shared that she was representing thousands of girls in the country, who fight small and big battles for completing even secondary education.

Adaptation and integration into an absolutely new environment can be difficult and unnerving. But such things come easily to Motin. For example, once she figured out how people greet and thank one another, she took to wishing everyone she met, be it flight attendants, bus and cab drivers, passersby’s, on the street or at the store! She enjoyed this great feeling of transcending all barriers and making a ‘connection’. Motin went beyond her barriers with ease, with her small greetings and her warm smile!  

Everywhere we went, we met the extended Pratham family - gracious and welcoming hosts and families, people who opened their hearths and homes to us. As our hosts would get to know Motin, they would do so much to help her feel at ease. For example, they encouraged Motin to speak to her family on phone so she could tell them about her trip. If she did not feel like having minestrone soup or ravioli, in a few moments aloo parathas would come out of the freezer and be heated so that Motin could have a good and familiar meal. Once when Motin was offered a fruit and cheese platter, she was quick to say that ‘cheese tastes like candle wax”. That settled the point and she wasn’t bothered again!!  While Indian meals were always available for Motin, at many places she was cajoled to try out Thai, Mexican, Italian and even the American Burger though spiced up with Indian chutney. Other than Thai food, Motin enjoyed experimenting with new dishes. Having pumpkin bread with hot chocolate at a coffee shop, sitting around with the locals and enjoying her mid-day snack was a good experience too!

In the evenings we attended small get together at homes; and also larger gatherings in a more formal setting. It was excellent to be able to speak Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi with many people and help them through Motin’s eyes see programs in action. Meeting brilliant and inspiring people - Pratham friends and supporters, old and new, young professionals and experienced experts – these were meetings that Motin and I enjoyed immensely. Everyone encouraged her to go on and take further strides in life. Many shared experiences of their own lives (Indians in America) of how relentless hard work pays off; how to make things work for you by sheer desire and much effort, making your wish, your iccha comes true. These were messages that Motin picked up and carried back with her.

As each day ended and we went through our itinerary for the next day, our conversations were a reflection of the day’s interactions – the people we met – what did they get to know from us and what were our take-aways.  We were constantly analysing issues and questions that people were asking us. We realized early in the trip, that there was an interest to know what the Second Chance Program is all about, how it works, and we were repeatedly asked how such a program could be scaled up, like other Pratham programs. Conversations of the day often made Motin go back and write about the day’s experience in her diary, she would ask more about the people we met, what they were doing and their association with Pratham. These conversations helped Motin to think harder about the past, the present and the future – for herself and for others like her. Today, she feels strongly that she wants to stay connected with the Second Chance Program and help more girls get back to education, and enable them to change their lives.

Motin’s story is a story of one person’s learning becoming a community’s learning. With more than 30 girls completing Class X in her village, the District Collector has appointed Motin as the youth ambassador for Education for Girls.  These announcements in the local newspapers have made Motin a local celebrity in her village, hamare gaon me hamare charche hone lage hain, she says with a shy smile. Collectively with POSE alumni Motin plans to advocate for an upper primary school in her own village. She wishes to continue her education, through distance education as she wishes to continue her work at PACE and become a great team member for vocational training. The opportunity to see monuments and famous buildings in Washington were exciting for Motin, she wished to capture every moment in her phone camera – clicking pictures and selfies at various places, a tourist in the true spirit! The Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Capitol Hill, standing outside the White House and the Lincoln Memorial gave Motin glimpses into the history of America. Together we read and discussed the writings on the wall in the monuments. Often she nodded her head in agreement, when the messages appealed to her.  The expanse of the country never failed to surprise her, to see people of so many states and countries living together in this land of opportunity. We hardly hear people using the horn in their vehicles.  Why don’t we see people walking on the roads? Why do older children move out of their parent’s homes? How do the airports run so smoothly? What kind of engineering would have gone in making these stately buildings? People stand in a queue and wait for their turn !! Questions and exclamations that Motin asked all the time!
Walking around in New York City was exhilarating. By now Motin could identify tourists; these were the people who were walking and looking up. The locals were those who were looking down and walking ahead briskly to reach their destinations!!

The tall buildings in the down town areas, the lovely houses in the suburbs thrilled her, as did the Halloween decorations put up at many stores and homes.  The Halloween spirit was everywhere. Motin was amused to see so much pumpkin (kaddu) in stores and in front of houses. She was delighted to see a squirrel actually nibble into a pumpkin. 

 In the heart of Chicago, we saw super structures and open air theatres at the Millennium Park, with public art and the open-air Pritzker pavilion. Our images were reflected in the Cloud Gate (popularly known as the Bean). This exposure to modern art, amidst the railway yard and high rises of Chicago, is another experience that will not be forgotten. We both thoroughly enjoyed the fall foliage, in this month, as the leaves on the trees of many placeshad turned bright yellow, orange and so many hues of red.   Bubbly and excited, Motin would exclaim – “Beautiful!! Can I please have a picture taken here!’

We remembered each and every person that we met from the first day of the trip till the last. We thought about our interactions, visits, exchanges and learning. We boarded the plane back to Mumbai knowing fully that our actual journey has just begun!

In just this month, and right in front of my eyes, Motin has grown in so many ways. The rich experiences of visiting interesting places and meeting amazing people will remain with us for a life time. She is definitely more aware, confident, and articulate in what she has to say! I know Motin will relish sharing her experiences in her family and her friends, in her village and with her colleagues at Pratham and PACE. I wish Motin the very best for her further studies.

We landed back in Mumbai, the night before Diwali, Mumbai airport was decorated and lit up for Diwali, the festive spirit was welcoming home. Soon we reached our respective homes in two different states, promising to meet soon.

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