A Transformative Experience Teaching, Farming and Traveling With ANKURI
This summer, thanks to generous funding, I accepted an internship with ANKURI, a NGO in north India fostering economic empowerment for local women and pushing education and farming initiatives. My job was teaching English in local village schools in Dehradun and in ANKURI’s own Literacy Center. I would spend my mornings constructing the day’s lesson plans and in the early afternoon, I would teach at the government intercollege. I worked with various groups, but I spent most of my time with the youngest kids, often working in small sections with those needing the most basic, foundational work. With barely any Hindi, it was challenging at times to communicate instructions or explain grammatical concepts like nouns and adjectives, but it pushed me to take new approaches to linguistic knowledge I’d been taking for granted. We often ended class with singing an English song like the Jackson 5’s “ABC” or John Denver’s “Take Me Home (Country Roads).” After lunch, I would take a quick breather before running the Literacy Center. This program was supplementary to their regular classes and therefore was more informal and fun. In addition to giving mini-lessons on topics such as the solar system, continents of the world, and the science behind airplane flight, I spent a lot of time just hanging out and getting to know the kids. The evening staple was going down into the village to play football (soccer for us Americans) or badminton with the kids to build relationships in the community outside of the classroom. Along with the meals, this was something I looked forward to everyday, something that transcended age and language barriers.
Our organization also had a campsite farther up in the mountains in a village called Rikholi, where I was one of the first ANKURI interns to teach. Going in blind, I had to adapt as I met the kids there and assessed their English comprehension levels. Again, I had the younger group, which somehow gained new faces every day and featured wide gaps in age and skill level. The children at this school were much shyer than those back in Dehradun and took more time to warm up – matching games were essential in this effort. As we were essentially starting from scratch, we focused on basic phonics and vowels, which isn’t easy to make enticing for two hours every day. Working a variety of settings and age groups, I learned to be very flexible and recognize when it’s time for a break or games. Selfishly, my favorite part of my Rikholi experience was staying overnight there; its intimacy to the stunning natural beauty all around us, from waterfalls to cloudy valleys to lush jungle, was soothing and rejuvenating.
Outside of education work, I contributed in other ways. I spent time every week in the gardens at Thikana, our main home, and Rikholi, weeding and harvesting vegetables, which we used in our meals. I became familiar with okra, bitter gourd, yam leaves, green beans, chilies, and more. It’s pretty satisfying to pick something you’ve never heard of and then eat it for lunch a couple hours later. We also experimented with mushroom farming, in hopes of passing on the technique to village women, as it is particularly lucrative relative to the required investment. We soaked hay in fungicide, laid it out to dry, added mushroom spawn, then bagged it with air holes and hung it vertically in a closed room to fruit in a few weeks. I also wrote a few articles detailing my excursions for the NGO to use for outreach.
I was fortunate enough to have many opportunities to explore and experience the surrounding area through several trips. We spent a couple days at “The Goat Village,” where we relaxed without electricity and climbed Nag Tibba, a nearby peak. A couple of other interns and I later went on a trek to the Valley of Flowers, a majestic place that has been referred to as “the jewel of the Himalayas.” It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life, home to rushing rivers, enormous peaks, glaciers, and a sea of flowers. On this trip, we also climbed up to Sri Hemkund Sahib, a Sikh holy site sitting at 4300 meters. It was a killer hike, but we cooled off (and froze) by ceremonially dunking in the lake nestled on top next to the temple. Another weekend was spent at Rishikesh, the city closest to the source of the Ganga, a holy river for Hindus in which we bathed, an incredible experience. The capstone of our sightseeing was a north India tour to Agra, Jaipur, and Delhi, where we saw all the major tourist attractions, such as the Taj Mahal (of course) and the Amber Fort.
As my first international trip, this summer internship was very transformative for me. While I realized that I do not feel particularly attracted to a career in teaching, the world experience was invaluable, especially as an anthropology major. Working with children in schools provided me a window into the sociocultural framework these kids grow up in. Consequently, I acquired a lot of perspective on American cultural norms and societal standards and on my own global and personal privilege. I greatly expanded my understanding of north India’s diverse cultural make-up, from foods to religions, and its rich history. My image of India and southeast Asia in general is now much more nuanced. Since most of my time was passed in rural settings, I saw how grandiose nature and everyday life are seamlessly intertwined for many peoples. During this process, I noticed many parallels to my coursework and it added dimension to my time there and to my ongoing studies. For example, India’s postcolonial history and previous system of social stratification is highly reminiscent of South Africa and its struggles after the fall of apartheid, a topic I’ve focused on in the past. Conversations with Indian citizens about these sociopolitical issues were a priceless resource and could provide me with future direction in my studies. The process of globalization is no longer just a section in my introductory course, but a shockingly ubiquitous presence, as I saw Coca-Cola and Pepsi logos battling for turf everywhere, even on temples and holy sites. My time in India enforced my studies and brought them to life in a fascinating and intellectually energizing way.