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Avo-cado surprise!

December 16, 2016


I’ve just been on my longest school visit ever, although it wasn’t a visit in the usual sense. This trip was to a small primary school in Mohali, northern India. I went there as a trustee of the UK charity that helped found it. If I was going to fundraise and advocate on its behalf, I wanted to understand more about Bright Sparks School. While I was there, I also did some sessions with the kids, using my own and other people’s books.

The children live in a shanty town called Mohali Colony. Their parents are mostly labourers or roadside fruit & veg sellers. The kids come to school in their (donated) blue uniforms, from ramshackle homes built on rough ground beside a sewage-tainted river. Their only clean water comes from standpipes in the street. Mostly, each family lives in one room.

The children speak a mixture of home languages: Punjabi, Hindi, other state languages, and English – this being the language they speak least confidently. I had taken some bi-lingual picture books with me, and they were even more useful than I imagined. One of them was ‘Handa’s Surprise’ by Eileen Browne (once a member of this writers’ group!) with dual texts in English/Punjabi, and English/Hindi. It’s a story of an African girl who sets out with seven fruits as a gift for her friend. On the way, various rascally animals steal the different fruits…

I read this book with all five classes in turn. With the younger ones, the teacher read the Punjabi or Hindi page first, and then I read the English. In the older classes, the children read the Indian languages and then learnt to read aloud the English with increasing confidence. All the classes enjoyed recalling the words for the eight animals and eight fruits featured in the story. Surreal scenes in my life now include the memory of standing in a room full of Punjabi kids, all chanting avo-caDO! avo-caDO! – this being a fruit and vocabulary item previously unknown to them all.

Before leaving, I offered to hold a whole-school session using this story. The older kids would do the readings in Hindi and Punjabi, and after, they would all sample and vote for their favourite fruit. The day before, I went to a wholesale fruit market in search of the now much anticipated avo-cados. Sadly, none were available. But later in the evening, my host family kindly took me across Chandigarh to a specialist shop where we could buy some. We also bought some other unusual vegetables to take home with us, like rocket and pak choi.

But, when I arrived at school the following day laden down with all the fruits, I found to my horror that the avocados were not there. Like Handa in the story, I had somehow lost them along the way. To everyone’s polite dismay, we had to use the ubiquitous kiwi fruit as a stand in!

help-with-shoes-img_4254While the staff were cutting up the fruit in the school kitchen, one of the younger boys appeared amongst us. Without being asked he just set about peeling and preparing the pineapple for everyone. His parents, of course, were fruit sellers. There were many times during my stay when I was struck by the sheer competence and can-do approach of these children. I saw older boys – again unprompted – helping younger children with their unfamiliar shoe-laces on sports day. The classrooms were often cleared of their wooden folding furniture, quickly and safely, by the kids themselves. On visits to their homes, I found them cooking family meals, doing the family wash by hand, sewing and cleaning and looking after siblings, all while their parents worked.
Of course, these are not necessarily the activities I think the children should be doing. Quite the reverse. One of the reasons for the very existence of Bright Sparks School is to give these kids a space in their lives where they can be children, learning and playing, and leaving those adult responsibilities aside. But, I was still impressed by the way in which kids from such precarious backgrounds shared the limited resources and cramped spaces in this little school, and supported each other with great good humour and only the occasional spat.

The avocados did turn up. I’d left them behind at the shop(!). They were sampled by everyone the day after I left. But apparently the favourite fruit was still the one voted for on the day of the readings and the fruit feast. And the winner was… mango. A fruit and a word with its origins in the nearby Himalayas. So no-one had any problem saying that!


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sunita Nahar permalink
    December 17, 2016 4:10 pm

    What a lovely trip. I lived in Kolkata as stringer for the BBC for two years and it is amazing how people, young and old, get by with so little and still smile.

  2. December 18, 2016 1:08 pm

    Lovely post!

  3. Alison Allen-Gray permalink
    December 23, 2016 1:10 am

    The children all look so happy and keen to discover. It’s very humbling, when they have so little, to hear of their positive outlook. All the best for the work you do, Marion, and thank you for the post.

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