In the remote areas of Jharkhand state, eastern India, the Santali people live a fearful and unsettled existence. They frequently face the threat of exploitation.
‘They are straightforward and proud people, yet they cannot understand that human beings can lie and cheat each other to acquire and accumulate wealth,’ explains Father Thomas Kavalakatt, director of Christian Aid partner Sona Santal Samaj Samiti (SSSS).
Land, culture and heritage
For many years, the Santalis - the largest adivasi (tribal) community in India - have lived off the land.
With little knowledge of how wider Indian society works, they are at a huge disadvantage when interacting with individuals and companies seeking to profit from the area’s abundant riches, including timber, mineral deposits and labour.
If they want to keep their land and preserve their culture and heritage, they need to be clear on their rights and how to ensure others respect them.
Santal children pray during assembly at Anthony Murmu Memorial school.
Discrimination and exploitation
‘We want the next generation to say “we are in no way less than others”’, explains Father Thomas.
He is clear; access to a quality education system will help adivasi communities and future generations to protect themselves from discrimination and exploitation.
With our support, SSSS and the community have therefore established 13 primary and secondary schools in the area. And with 52 teachers, they can reach 2,400 tribal children.
‘Ten years ago there was barely one literate person in the villages. Now we have an educated generation.'
Rights to land
Alongside literacy and numeracy classes, children learn about the laws enshrined in India’s constitution to protect and strengthen adivasis’ rights to land, their culture and traditional systems of local self-rule.
Government schools are present in some of the villages but according to Theresa Murmu, a local teacher, they perform badly.
The teachers don’t show up and are not held to account. Also, the national curriculum and text books are designed for children in cities, where language, cultural values and history are different.
An educated generation
Moreover, for Theresa Murmu, a Santali education is not about passing exams, but passing on a way of life.
She could easily earn more money elsewhere, but it’s her desire to see her students flourish - and grow into the next generation of Santali leaders - that fulfils her.
‘I am teaching to see that my people get on, I consider that a part of my life’s purpose,’ says Theresa.
Father Thomas could not be more proud: ‘When we see children in school, then college, or with a job - when we see how much their sense of self-worth and belief in themselves has grown, that is our achievement.'
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