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A ROOM OF THEIR OWN: LIBRARY PROJECT GIVES CHILDREN OF INFORMAL WASTEPICKERS IN BENGALURU’S BANSHANKARI NEW WORLDS TO PONDER

By SOWMYA RAJARAM, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Updated: Jul 26, 2017, 02.36 PM IST

Just off the hustle and bustle of Banashankari Temple Ward and the metro station; in a nondescript lane around the corner, are colourful flowers and tall giraffes.

Offering them company are people such as Rani, who is afraid to go to school on the first day because she has no friends. Her pals – Shalini, Ajay and Jenny – are empathetic. After all, they’ve been there too. Together, they talk about how they will travel to school, and what they have to look forward to over there. Soon, everybody is chatting and laughing, and life on a boring Thursday evening seems considerably brighter.

Rani lives in a book and the giraffe is painted on the wall, but for the children of Buguri Community Library, they are real. So real, in fact, that despite the demands of school, vacations and practical challenges such as having to help the family fill and store water, they are here every evening, filling up a tiny 200sqft space with energy, enthusiasm, and the occasional notoriety too.

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Books and being

An initiative of Hasirusdala – an organisation that works for the welfare of informal wastepickers – Buguri Community Library is the first such initiative that came out of a desire to engage with the community in more sustainable ways. Since February 2017, programme coordinator Lakshmi Karunakaran, along with other volunteers and facilitators, has been conducting reading sessions with the children of about 200 families living in a slum. The idea, says Karunakaran, was to create a safe, non-academic space for children who crave just that. While Wednesday to Saturday is devoted to reading and storytelling, the space turns into an art activity centre on Sundays, where kids learn to paint, draw, and have even dabbled in theatre and beatboxing. The kids are aged between six and 16, and are divided into two groups.

They had lofty ideals to start with – it would be a space that influences children on a long term basis; a space where they would be exposed to a lot more than what they are exposed to on the streets; it would teach them how to think, speak, engage socially and so on. But the very first activity – painting the walls of this space – introduced a shift in their thinking, Karunakaran says. “Our first realisation was that, all our objectives aside, the kids were just happy to have a space. When we put out word that we were going to start a library, 20 kids came over on the first day. We just didn’t even have enough books! That’s when it hit me – they were just glad to have a space of their own. We decided to put all our agendas aside and let them just feel this,” she says.

Over 2,000 books – in Kannada, Tamil, Hindi and English – were raised from donors from across the world, including Goobe’s, the bookstore on Church Street, and publishers such as Tulika Books and Pratham books, among others.

Learn and grow

One of the first challenges they encountered was that many children couldn’t read (about 80 per cent in the younger group), while others were dropouts. While Karunakaran admits that they’re still working out ways to circumvent that (they might introduce a short-term reading fluency programme), they’ve dealt with it for now by becoming visual readers. This includes read aloud sessions and storytelling and discussion. They also open up the story – personalising and contextualising it to the conflict in the lives of the children, and asking them how they would react in a particular session.

A book of ghost stories for instance, led to a conversation on the existence of god, and from there to religion. Meanwhile, many non-readers are encouraged to pick up books and make their own stories, giving wing to their imagination. Karunakara cites the example of Lakshmi, who she describes as an “excellent” visual reader, who will go through five-10 books in one session; talking to the book and being dramatic. Volunteers work with specific children who seek additional mentoring. Vimala (15), for instance, likes to practise speaking in English. Stories are picked up depending on the dynamic of the class. For instance, to teach the kids about the concept of a community-led space, a volunteer read a story about planting a tree, around which a community grows. An art exercise followed that.

Lessons have been learnt along the way. For instance, the community has a huge issue with water, which has meant that attendance at the 10am Sunday sessions has dwindled. This, because Sunday morning is when the while family is roped in to fill up buckets. Attendance also fell during summer vacations, when the children were out of town, or, in many cases, forgot what day of the week it was, Karunakaran says with a laugh. “They know what day of the week it is when they have school, but forget during the vacations. In such cases, we’ve actually gone to the colony and called them,” she says. Another learning has been the need to adapt to their practical limitations. Giving the children lessons in cleanliness and asking them to shower regularly is pointless when they don’t even know what it is to have a running tap. Used to the structure of reward and punishment, the children are also taking time to understand the dynamics of this space – it can often be confusing and overwhelming. When a few kids misbehaved and tore up some books, for instance, they expected to be beaten up. Instead, they were kindly asked why they behaved the way they did. “We took a democratic vote and decided to cancel the membership of anyone who breaches the library’s rule of love towards each other and the books. That way, they learn to respect rules,” Karunakaran explains.

Looking ahead

Today, there have been subtle shifts. The kids clean up before coming to the library; the girls will pop in and come back after combing their hair. Older kids who can speak Hindi now translate for one of the volunteers, who doesn’t speak Kannada and Tamil. Then there is Vimala, who wasn’t inclined to help out at home (Karunakaran says her mother would complain that she would pretend to study and read all the time and was too lazy to help out at home) volunteers at the library. She even admitted as much in a presentation to DELL EMC (which sponsors the library), saying that she wouldn’t help out at home but after coming to the library, was “liking to help”. They are visible too. Dressed in a green salwar kameez, Vimala is a picture of polite confidence. Reading her favourite books – The Lion and the Chameleon, Swalpa Swalpa, among others – have enriched her vocabulary and helped her translate for others too. In fact, the book Word Festival, that she read at the library, was seminal in helping her put together a presentation on the meaning of festivals for a Social Science project at school. “I got 50 out of 50 for it,” she says, beaming.

In the background, Shalini and Ajay listen agape to the story of Rani, and tell the facilitators how they feel about school. Their eyes sparkle with curiosity and mischief. After all, children are children – they deserve a room of their own.

This article was first published on The Bangalore Mirror.

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