I don’t know where to begin. I have been visiting Tiljala SHED for 5 years and thought I couldn’t be surprised by anything. Yesterday I was invited to attend school. Local children from the Park Circus Railway Squatters (mostly the children of ragpickers) attend our community centre 5 days a week. This group attends government schools in the afternoon so their supplementary/remedial classes are in the morning. Well – I assumed this was mostly a babysitting exercise. Games, songs and a safe place whilst parents are working. But no.
It was a Bengali lesson when I arrived. 26 children lined up according to their school class. The year ones at the front and 5s at the back. Mehnaz the teacher, a girl from the community herself and a qualified teacher, was handling all groups at once. Letter recognition for the year 1s and 2s up to full story telling for the 5s. Every child engaged and working. This is skilled teaching and she was clearly fully in command. We had a short interlude for Jane to do some English with the children – colours, numbers, days of the week, months of the year, greetings – they knew it all. And then showed off their English with some songs/actions. Maths followed. Older kids doing proper arithmetic whilst the little ones were forming numbers in both English and Bengali (humbling). An engaging discussion with the children about water – and not wasting it. None of them lives in a home with running water: every drop needs to be collected from a standpipe the other side of the railway which only flows twice a day. Then they discussed plastic waste and how to avoid single-use plastic (whilst I hastily decanted the sweets I had bought them from an incriminating plastic bag to my virtue-signalling Waitrose nylon pocket bag). I did wonder how they squared all this with the fact that their family incomes mostly derive from the collection, sorting and sale of discarded single-use plastic, but if it did come up I wasn’t aware. Then it was time to go – off to proper school (where class sizes can be over 100).
Very moved by the whole experience. Tiljala SHED calls itself grassroots – and now I really know what this means. The founders and staff are of this community. Those who do manage to survive this very traditional community’s pressure to marry (for the girls) and drop out to work (for the boys) are committed to helping more to access opportunity through education.
Exercises and meditation before going off to proper school.
When the morning session finishes, Mehnaz doesn’t slope off for a much-deserved rest before the next session: she visits the homes of the children who haven’t attended in the morning. She wants to check all is OK and encourage them to come along tomorrow. And she earns Rs5000 (just over £50) a month for this. With the various groups in the afternoon, 122 children pass through this centre every single weekday. Tiljala SHED runs 5 such centres, all of them in the most deprived parts of central Kolkata, populated by the ultra-poor, rag pickers living in illegal shelters. Homeless really.
Funds are desperately needed to keep this vital programme running. Please message me if you are in Kolkata and can help. In UK/US/EU/Aus you can donate online. Rs1000/USD15 a month keeps a child in education (and more).
Mehnaz teaches bengali.