Sunday, January 26, 2014

Deeper Learning....What I learnt from a local village school in Zambia

Last week, I started a new course on moodle. The topic:  "Deeper Learning".
Our first task was to reflect upon an instance in our lives when deeper learning had taken place. I was surprised when my thoughts immediately veered to a time in my past, which, I fervently hoped I would forget.  Due to an unstable political climate, many expatriates where leaving Zambia. At that time, I used to go to an established school in Lusaka. We usually carpooled as the distance was killing. Eventually, the car pooling stopped. And with it, my life came to an abrupt halt.

My parents decided I was to go to the local village school, Chongwe Primary. Many a times I had driven past the run down building. The fresh coat of white paint over the uneven mud walls failed to hide the dilapidated condition of the school. The rusty metal roof seemed to be hurriedly draped over the walls. They banged and rattled in hollow merriment as the strong winds blew. The broken windows added to this abandoned look. It was here where I spent what seemed like two excruciating years of my life. And yet, why did I think of this place when I was asked to think of deeper learning?

The classes were small and dingy. Wooden desks were lined in rows and faced weather-beaten black boards. Within these walls what happened was not good. My maths teacher would occasionally come in drunk. I would often get flogged for getting the answers wrong in my science class. But what happened outside these walls most certainly changed my life.

Of course, what made it fairly bearable for me was the fact that I did not have many white or Asian friends. I was  very much at ease with my Zambian neighbours. While my white friends ate their diner at 5 pm and went to bed at 6 pm and bored me with their many rules, my Asian friends always seemed to be studying. So I found myself spending many fun-filled, carefree hours with the Zambian kids.  They taught me how to light a fire with dry sticks and grass, hunt for winged ants which they would fry and eat with considerable enjoyment;  search for herbs in the forests to make a dish called " Relish";  play for hours with old batteries and coca cola bottle tops. I ate my dinner with them, a huge family of around twelve, from one plate! The Fisher prize toys and the dolls which my parents occasionally bought me (when they suffered from a rare, albeit heartfelt bout of guilt) would lie untouched in their boxes.

At school, we had to work. Manual labour. Every afternoon. We scrubbed the floors of the classroom and waxed them till they shone so brilliantly you could clearly see yourself sweating, grinning back at you .

The toilets had to be cleaned. I remember filling buckets of water and cleansing the filthy washrooms with a broom until they sparkled.

At times, we had to go to the fields to plant cotton. Long strips of land were assigned to every child. We would jostle and quibble over the hoes. The smaller the metal blade, the easier it was to disturb the dry, hard , unyielding ground. I remember digging for what seemed like hours under the hot African sun. At times, my friends would take pity on their little Asian friend, and do my strip along with theirs! When the time came for harvesting, I remember what a miracle it was to feel the soft white cotton within the palms of my callused hands. I always had calluses on my hands!

The worst job was to prepare manure for the school garden. We had to walk for miles till we came to a field full of tall grass, browned and hardened by the relentless sun. The sickles were too big, too sharp for me. But more scary was the grass itself. The sharp blades would slice into your skin if you were not careful. Like a sharp knife into a pot of softened butter. We had to cut as much as we could, bundle them, then throw them over our shoulders and carry them back to school. During these days, my hands were sore and bloody. Mum would quietly put dettol on them, while dad waited by the side, band-aid in hand.

I often complained to my parents about how hard the work was. They listened but did nothing to alleviate my misery. I couldn't understand why they were so heartless. When I called up mum again while writing this post, and asked her why, she said we had no choice. I had to fit into their lives, their culture. I had to understand that labour was part of their lives. Life not easy. By working at such an early age, I learnt not to shy away from hard work. I learnt to scrub, dig, wash, polish, walk for miles, cut grass till my hands bled. I learnt to tolerate the hot sun on the back of my neck and appreciate the cool breeze as it eased my discomfort. I would not have learnt this in my other school.

For this learning, I am grateful. Today, whenever I feel overwhelmed, or bogged down with life's inevitable challenges, I seem to find, most of the time, an inner reserve of strength, along with a stoic attitude which help me ride these moments with equanimity.


  1. Wow ! Super blog. Lucid description. Your blog will inspire your students, not to shirk hard work and adversity in early years , is a good teacher of life.

  2. Hello Ms Naini Singh ... Your post is enlightening . In the olden days all the royal prince's were sent to the forest to learn from a yogi ( Master ) . They were taught about Literacy, vedas , politics, ethics. Morals , Governance,Martial Arts, Physical fitness , Mental sharpness , Emotional Equanimity , Spiritual strength etc plus they were made to face the hardships of living in a forest, Cleaning the ashram , gathering wood , water , food & doing all kinds of work . This made them ready to face all the challenges of life with great courage & faith in themselves . Thus they became great kings capable of moral governance . Now as a parent & a teacher we have to impart this to our children who don't face the realities & challenges of life . The children should always be taught " I CAN " Positive Attitude ... Because the BELIEFS you hold in the beginning of the journey define the journey ... So as a teacher or as a parent what are the BELIEFS that you are instilling in the child ...
    Are you imparting " You Can " or " You Cannot " ... It is not that any child is not intelligent as all children are born intelligent and born as winners , It is how we handle the child , is our handling positive or negative ... Education can be a " PAIN " or " PLEASURE "
    depending on how we impart education to the child ... I am using a simple metaphor to explain this , Education can be forced like , Forcibly stuffing a full raw pineapple into the mouth of the child , this will cut & tear the mouth of the child and the child will perceive education as a PAIN " or " Education can be gently , clearly , consciously , efficiently , Methodologically imparted to the child like giving neatly sliced pineapple's dipped in honey without the thorns .
    " EVERY CHILD IS BRILLIANT & A BORN WINNER " What really matters is how we bring up the child and how we TEACH THE CHILD ...
    " It does not matter what you have , What really matters is what you do with what you have"
    Arun Dev ( Father of Sky Rose IV A )

  3. wow,amazing your blog will not just inspire your students but thier parents & every individual who reads it.i feel blessed to have u as a role model for my son ayman & hope that he learns much more from u


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