A noted politician whose dream was to eradicate poverty and advance the economic development of India founded Benares Hindu University (BHU) in 1917. I can sense excitement at the grand entrance to the campus university that has an international reputation for excellence and is home to twenty thousand students. Bicycles, scooters and motorbikes are clustered outside ornate gates and inside crowds of students stroll along pedestrian-only streets. Some groups are all-girls wearing striking salwar kameez or saris, some are all-boys in jeans and colourful t-shirts, and a few students are in pairs. They’re all carrying books and have their eyes glued to i-pads, i-pods and cell phones, tweeting, texting and whatever while talking to the others in their group at the same time. This is a busy place. (It’s curious. In this ancient City of Light and Temples I feel like the ancient one on the BHU campus. I’m just carrying an old bag and, oh dear, I’m wearing a boring blouse and tatty trousers.)
On the main square is one of nine Hindu temples on campus, New Vishwanath, with a huge sculpture of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts and nature. I love the story of Saraswati and the Saraswati mantra, a Hindu holy song that says, “Remove my mental inertia.” The buzz of hope all around is energizing and I see a glimmer of possibility that this generation of students will be able to tackle the environmental issues.
Later our van steels down a small lane that looks impossible to drive. We squeeze by a few water buffalo, dodge scooters and the ever-present garbage (although in this part of town it’s neatly piled at what looks to be a strategic point for pick up.) I’m surprised. “Streets are clean enough in this part of town” I note. “So there’s hope. An auspicious sign.”
Our driver jumps out of the van runs, down the alley and speaks with a pedestrian before beckoning us to follow him by foot. This time I don’t even have to watch where I step. A painted wooden sign, “World Literacy Canada,” hangs on a picturesque white heritage building at the confluence of the River Ganges and the River Assi. Through the windows I can see the Ganges but the Assi alongside it is dry, a victim of a changing environment.
“Welcome to World Literacy. Welcome to Varanasi,” a hearty voice calls out. “Come in, come we’re expecting you.”
A vivacious young Canadian volunteer bounds toward us and we shake hands before she leads us through an atrium brightly painted with children’s drawings and stories in Hindi script. I like this place already. Stacks of tin trunks line the wall. “Those boxes you’re looking at are filled with special books for our mobile libraries,” our volunteer tells us in a proud voice. “We send them out to communities when they request them.”
Around the atrium are small classrooms bursting with cheerful four and five year old children drawing, reading out loud, and singing. One group sings a special song they have learned for us–the ABC’s in English. Painted on the wall outside their classroom I read the words of one of the most enlightened politicians of all time. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. Mahatma Ghandi.”
My eyes are tearing now. This is the place I needed to see. It radiates energy and hope.
The mood of optimism carries on in a lively meeting we have with four local staff persons, three volunteers who are graduates of the World Literacy functional literacy program and three other volunteers, Canahttps://nancymhayes.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/img_2880.jpgdian students on an exchange program. We talk about new initiatives and plans for the future. We visit workshops training women to be more self-sufficient. One group of women is learning to sew and market their work, and another is learning the work of beauticians.
“Literacy is more than reading and writing,” the director says with excitement as he walks us around rooms filled with sun, laughter and women chatting over the whir of sewing machines. “You can see what’s happening here. Learning to read gives women belief in the process of learning. It helps them believe in themselves, that they can make changes in their own lives and the lives of others.” He pauses before he adds emphatically. “These women send their children to school now. Before they didn’t understand why they should. Now they know. They’re confident and proud.” Then he pauses. “Even their husbands are proud now. When we first started the program here the men objected. They thought women should stay home even though their children didn’t have enough to eat. Now that their wives can bring home money they see the whole family is better off.”
The World Literacy programs in Varanasi are so successful that they are on the cusp of being self-sustaining. Other communities are asking for programs so plans are being made to move the classrooms and workshops to another area.
In Varanasi, the City of Light, City of Temples and City of Learning, statistics may tell me one story but the story of thriving self-confidence and enthusiasm is more exciting. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next twenty years.
Please share your experiences with education programs, and in particular literacy programs … we learn from each other.