A skeptical community. A school falling down. One man’s mission to convince his village that a new school could result in much more than classroom walls—and how WE Villages found its latest community in Rajasthan, India.
By Katie Hewitt
The building is a blue beacon on a pale horizon. Perched in the dusty foothills of Rajasthan’s Aravalli Mountains, Bhilo ki Barind primary school is a landmark on the main road, its campus rising up over a bend that Bhura Lal Balai often followed to do his errands in town. From a distance, he could see the sprawling grounds and fresh paint.
Who built that!? he wondered. I need to find them.
Bhura, a 53-year-old farmer, thought of the crumbling school in his own village of Kalinjar several kilometres away. As a child, he attended class there until Grade 4. “After that, I needed to help my family earn money for food,” he says. Even back then, it was safer for students to sit outside during the rainy season, the structure itself being more hazardous than the elements. Only patchwork fixes have been made since. The porous bricks have endured decades of monsoon rains. Students are enrolled but don’t attend regularly, and even if they did, they wouldn’t fit. There are four classrooms for 200 kids in Grades 1 to 10.
Bhura asked around Barind, and learned that WE Villages rebuilt the school on the horizon in 2013. Bhura had never heard of WE. But up close, he saw concrete floors, spacious rooms with large windows, flush toilets and faucets with running water. And he resolved to get all of this for his own village.
“I called all the community members,” Bhura says of his first meeting with local elders and leaders. “I told them about WE. I said we should welcome them here.”
Bhura then set out to find the team behind the blue building.
An unlikely ally
When WE Villages started working in India in 2008, courtships were always instigated by the local WE team, who travelled from village to village, assessing needs and knocking on doors. It was a slow process. Here, people are wary of non-profits promising change that never comes, pledging to erect buildings that are never built. The WE Villages team needed to establish trust, form partnerships and gain community buy-in. But in the case of Kalinjar, it was the unlikely ally Bhura who made the first move. WE’s reputation preceded.
Bhura, who’s lived in Kalinjar his whole life, doesn’t have children of his own. Why would a childless, middle-aged farmer lobby for a new school?
“I was born a farmer,” he says, speaking Mewari through a translator. “Everything is dependent on the land. If rain is good, we will have good crops, but nothing is certain. The people here are very poor.”
Thinking of his two nephews, their children and a more promising academic future, Bhura was also worried about empty bellies. After some research, he found that WE not only built the school in Barind, but worked with the farmers to more than double their crop yield. His mission became about much more than building a blue school.
Bhura still needed to convince the others. And WE needed a proper introduction to Kalinjar.
Risk versus reward: A campaign against skeptics
Prospective WE Villages partners are first assessed for population, needs and opportunities. Kalinjar village is over 800 people, enough that multiple families will benefit from the five pillars that make up the WE Villages work —education, food security, clean water, health and opportunity. Most of Kalinjar is Tribal, the lowest rung on a social ladder that stunts economic mobility. Tribals exist outside of an already strict caste system. These are indigenous populations, systemically marginalized with poor land offerings, limited job prospects and little access to formal education. Nearly everyone here is a small-hold farmer, dependent on a climate of harsh dry spells punctuated by monsoon rains. Food is always scarce, especially in the dry season; Bhura and his neighbours, also farmers, can only grow one crop at a time. It’s either corn or wheat, both low in protein.
The needs here are great, but so is the potential. With proper planting techniques, the high-protein crop soy will thrive in the local soil. Hydrological assessments conducted by WE show that village wells are shallow, but viable for rehabilitation. With the well rehab, agricultural training and seed distribution that WE will facilitate, Bhura’s crop yields could more than double—just like the farmers one village over in Barind . There’s even the possibility of a surplus to sell at the local market.
Some of Bhura’s neighbours were skeptical of the partnership, but Bhura was hopeful. “I told the other farmers to have faith,” Bhura says. “In other villages, WE gave new seeds and new foods.” And, he said, they built the school on the hill.
So WE met with the community’s parents and other elders. The sentiment? Come and build your school. If you really plan to start, why not tomorrow? Where others had left only failure, it was almost a dare. Permits alone can take months. It was an impossible request.
WE agreed construction on a brand new classroom could start once parents agreed to send their children to school. Parents had to promise the new classrooms would be filled, even before breaking ground.
Securing return on investment
Bremraj Bhil, 62, is recently retired from a job in education. He was a school administrator for 18 years. Now he sits on Kalinjar’s school management committee and does odd jobs around campus; WE tapped him to do parent outreach. WE works closely with each of its partner communities around the world on mobilization, buy-in and shared ownership of projects. Parents, for instance, are more likely to take advice from a trusted friend than an outside organization.
Most parents want their kids to get an education, Bremraj says, “But there are many obstacles.”
Kesar Devi Bhil is a mom of three boys, all under age five. She lives near the school, but if her situation doesn’t improve, her sons won’t attend when they’re older. Kesar once raised goats for milk, but was forced to sell the herd after “an emergency.” Her husband had taken on debt that needed paying off. With her youngest just 12 months old, Kesar can’t leave home for labour work either (the most common way to earn cash). So she stays at home, with no income. Her husband, a farmer, does masonry work while their fields sit barren. Only a handful of Kalinjar’s farmers are currently growing enough food to feed their families.
Her sister-in-law Sushila Devi Bhil has three goats, and isn’t any better off.
The local breed is small and sinewy. Sushila’s three mature goats produce one litre of milk per day combined, only enough to feed their offspring. There is no milk left for her four children, let alone a surplus to sell.
“I need to take them for grazing and for water and I am not getting anything in return,” she says.
The goats are more trouble than they’re worth. But the women are hopeful.
Breaking the cycle of poverty
Kesar and Sushila were recently selected as the first participants in Kalinjar’s opportunity program, a WE Villages initiative that, in India, means better livestock, which leads to better income and ultimately keeps children in class. It’s microeconomics—an investment in women to boost their family’s standing.
The sisters-in-law, along with a group of other women, will each receive five selectively bred goats and the training to rear them. Nicknamed “supergoats,” these are the high-achieving cousins of the local breed. Supergoats grow faster, produce more milk and more offspring—one goat produces one litre per day, and pregnant females usually give birth to twins. The milk surplus and the offspring can be sold. This has been tried and tested throughout WE Villages communities in India. The Kalinjar women wanted in.
WE employs a local vet, Raju Singh, to accompany the women on their goat-buying trip. The group plans to make the journey to a breeder in a nearby city soon.
The animal husbandry program is also the launch point for WE’s health outreach and education awareness, reaching the same women who rear the goats. Smokeless chullahs , stoves with chimneys, are offered as an alternative to the traditional model—one burner over an open fire in a small room without ventilation. Children are highly vulnerable to respiratory illness from air pollutants, as are their mothers, who are the ones cooking all day. Stomach issues are also common here. The new chullahs are stoves with two burners. Women are able to boil water on the stove before drinking, a purification process that limits waterborne illness and diarrheal disease, a leading cause of death for children under the age of five.
One classroom at a time
Headmaster Rajeev Tiwari has been stationed at Kalinjar Secondary School for eight months, arriving just a few months into WE’s partnership. In India, education posts are assigned by the government, so teachers often leave their own families to teach kids in faraway cities. Rajeev left his wife and two young sons in a relatively affluent district near Delhi for the Rajasthan desert. He’d never been to the state where WE works, because of its high rates of poverty and child marriage, poor access to nutrition, and low groundwater levels.
On his first day at the school, Rajeev says, he took photos of the classrooms and texted them to his friends and family back home, hoping the cracks in the concrete would elicit sympathy: “Look where I have come!” he lamented.
Now, Rajeev stands proudly over the foundation on his campus, channels carved in the ground that look like a hedge maze made of dirt, as the first stages of construction begin. WE will build new classrooms, a kitchen, a storeroom and separate toilets for boys and girls with running water. The first two classrooms are set to be finished this year.
Bremraj will ensure they are full. He convinced everyone in his hamlet to send their kids to school well before construction began.
WE will also run an agricultural training program for Bhura and the other farmers, and host regular health programming for whole families. Kesar and Sushila will breed their goats and recruit other women to the program.
Bhura is now well-known in the region—no doubt the villagers are looking to him, as first recruiter, to see the project through. He has strong confidence in the partnership, and in its outcome.
“If you have faith, it will help you come out of poverty.”