Retired teachers educate tribal kids whose parents lost jobs in pandemic

Aurangabad: Even as the COVID-19 pandemic left Gond tribesmen in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad district unemployed, their children learned to read and write during the challenging period thanks to a group of retired teachers.

Despite the initial language barrier, more than 50 of these tribal children are now more than literate as part of the Make Them Smile project started by a group of professionals including doctors and teachers.

The children are also now participating in sporting activities and maintaining personal hygiene and discipline, project members told PTI.

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An education ministry official said the project is a good initiative to bring these Adivasi (tribal) children into the mainstream and identify their qualities and nurture them accordingly.

The Gond tribes have been living in a settlement in the Maliwada area for several decades, located near the Devgiri Fort in Aurangabad.

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The settlement includes nearly 150 people who used to make a living from the traditional business of selling roots and herbs from trees.

When the business failed, many of them chose to work as laborers. But they became unemployed during the pandemic, said Dr. Shreerang Deshpande, a local ophthalmologist working on the project.

“We served food packages during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and reached Maliwada. These tribesmen were so honest that they refused the ration and food packages they received a few days ago,” he said.

Deshpande said they also learned that the children of these tribes who were enrolled in schools could not even read and write and did not understand Marathi.

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“We have three retired teachers working with us to self-teach these children twice a week in their community,” he said.

Ujwala Nikalje, who retired as headmistress here, said that initially these children were unfamiliar with the basic activities in a school and could not even stand in line.

“We had to work on their basics by teaching them self-hygiene. It took two months to bring her closer to the books,” she said.

A girl in grade 6 couldn’t even read. But the teachers helped her, she said.

“Now they can understand Marathi and we can teach them well,” said Nikalje.

Lata Musale, another retired teacher who worked on the project, said language was a barrier to communicating with the children.

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“They were attracted to the food packages we gave them. We built a good bond and then gradually introduced the children to books and writing materials,” she says.

“After teaching her for about an hour, we let her do other creative activities. Some of them can now play kho kho and volleyball. We also built playgrounds for them,” she added.

BB Chavan, deputy director of education in Nashik, previously based in Aurangabad, said the project is a good initiative to bring these indigenous children into the mainstream by understanding their needs and background.

“As part of the initiative, these children are not only educated, but their qualities are identified and they are cared for accordingly,” he said.

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