Written by Pranav Singhania
Poverty, the plague of humanity, millions living the life me and you can barely imagine. A few hours without electricity and we start losing it, a few hours without running water and we start losing it but for some, this is the way of life. It’s a rather complex problem with no easy sustainable solution, with sustainable being the key word. We’ve all heard the phrase, “give a person a fish, you feed them for a day, teach a person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime” and that’s exactly why it is a harder problem to tackle. Education, in my opinion, is the fundamental enabler to breaking out of this vicious cycle. It gives them a fighting chance at opportunities and a potential ticket to a respectable life. And when I heard about buildOn’s mission, it was a perfect match.
The process begins with fundraising for building a school via personal connections, events and other creative ideas. The cost of building a school ranges from 30K USD to 40K USD based on the location in the world. The chosen countries are among the poorest in the world, with a per capita earning capacity of less than $2 a day. The NGO works with the government of the country, the local administration and the community itself to ensure its sustenance. They do so by getting an agreement from the government and from the community that the teachers will be paid salaries under all circumstances. If the government is unable to pay (which is highly probable due to political instability in these regions), the village agrees to pool in the salary for the teacher(s). The raised funds are used to procure raw material, some skilled labour, the initial setup cost and other administrative expenses.
Post successfully raising the funds, the team gets an opportunity to experience the first week of school building alongside the community which is called a trek. We decided to work for the 620 people in the remote village of Yeradi in Senegal, Africa. Out of the 620, 197 (108 girls) were children who would benefit from the school. There was a school in a nearby village but it would take them hours to travel by foot and eventually most of these kids would drop out, especially girls. The whole experience was a great reflection of our privilege.
The biggest takeaway for me was the genuine happiness among the people of Yeradi.
The smile on their faces, the laughter, them breaking into a song and dancing randomly, it all felt just so raw and pure.
It wasn’t just the purity of their happiness but rather its presence despite them not having/owning much (at least from our perspective). If you’re reading this you probably have the basic necessities and are well sorted. And here were people with half-baked homes, limited water, no electricity, uncomfortable temperatures, lack of “entertainment” as we understand it, peppered with the struggles of making their ends meet, EVERY SINGLE DAY. Yet, we are the ones complaining louder about our lives while they just, dance it away. They welcomed us like royals, on their horses, putting up traditional performances and teaching us their ways.
Each day was divided into three parts
The morning hours were primarily at the work site, digging, shovelling, minting bricks, fixing up rebars, carrying around the materials and more. Having sat in front of my laptop throughout my adulthood days and suddenly doing all this physical work under 40°C+ with the sun beating down was undoubtedly back-breaking. But at the same time so liberating to not be staring into a screen for once. The body was crumpled and aching by the end of the first day, but it was the kind of pain you low-key enjoy, like the one after a good gym session. We were prompted by the trek leaders to constantly drink water, with the expectation of drinking at least 4L of water by the afternoon. The lunch hits different after all that work, my mom would finally be happy with my portion sizes I guess!
The afternoon hours were spent trying to understand the community’s culture, understanding what’s normal in their eyes and sharing about our lives with them. They showed us the entire process of how they go about preparing one of their traditional dishes made out of couscous, dried fish, peanut oil and spices. On one of the days, we had a heart-to-heart with the community folks, the chief of the village, the imaam (priest of a mosque), men and women, separately with the help of translators. Any question was fair game, about their day-to-day life, their societal norms relating to marriage, profession, their village hierarchy, administration and more. But there was one question which was to be avoided, “how many kids do you have?”. Yep, a benign question to us, but a rather offensive one to them. They considered it a bad omen to “count” their kids, which could lead to their death. Hence, an indirect way if at all you had to ask them was, “how many sticks do they own?”. It might seem odd, but that’s the thing about “normal” right, it is such only in your own context. And the community was curious too, and the most surprising aspect to them was that all of the men who were part of the experience could cook. As someone rightly said, when you’re learning about a new culture, you end up learning a lot more about your own in the process.
These conversations help break the definition of set patterns in your head, opening up your mind to abstractness, fresher perspectives and unthinkable possibilities. And that is just so beautiful, one of the many reasons to love travel.
The evening hours were spent with the children. And part of the purity came about from them, for whom it was exciting to see such a diverse set of people, just like how it used to be for us when guests came over. The language was a barrier but we somehow managed conversations with some basic words, sign language and some authentic smiles. We spent our time playing football, some basic clapping games and dancing with them. They taught us counting in their language and they were eager to learn our language and our ways. The whole week was almost like a festival for them, a week of escape from the conventional life. It was hard to remember all their names because they were so many of them. Some end up becoming your favourite and vice-versa. Modu was my favourite kid. A quiet guy with the brightest of smiles, who was always trying to spend as much time with me as possible. Don’t know if I’ll ever see him again, or if he’ll even remember me in a few years, but I just hope he does well for himself in life.
Apart from the community, it was the bunch of people you go on the trek with, which in my case was made of Europeans, the Sengalese translators, a local trek leader and a trek leader from Nepal. We spent every minute of the week together cherishing each other’s company. We bonded over random interests, discussing the politics of our countries, exchanging the stereotypes we knew about each other’s countries and busting them. All the societal discussions were purely non-judgemental, open and with the pure intent of learning. Each one of them is a lovely soul. Funnily a Slovenian’s image of Indians was completely based on the TV show “Scam 1992”. Had a hard time convincing him that India wasn’t like that anymore. You’d be surprised to know how much you can have in common with people of different countries and ethnicities, fundamentally, we are all the same, just brought up in diverse environments and belief systems. I even found a fellow vegetarian among them, she and I had an absolute ball throughout, laughing to the point of crying, who was probably one of the hardest goodbyes at the end of it all. The best part is now I have a few homes across Europe to crash at! We’ve pledged to do another trek together in November, and I honestly can’t wait to meet them all again, this time in Nepal.
It’s almost unbelievable I was able to live through all of these emotions and experiences in just a single week. You know you’ve had a good trip when by the end of it, it feels longer than it really was. I know it might seem like one is obligated to like this whole experience and make it look good even if it wasn’t. But none of the above was phoney, all straight from the heart, felt as-is. I would do all of this again in a heartbeat. It was delightful to stay away from all the hustle-bustle nestled in the remote community with the perfect sunrises and sunsets, digging and dancing away with the lovely people of Yeradi. It almost felt insignificant to come back to our “normal” lives, everything else I had done in life so far seemed to have had no purpose, no true value. Yes, I have donated multiple times for good causes, but this feeling was unprecedented. But I also understand realistically speaking, that my privilege allowed me to experience this. But now I would like to eventually create a life for myself where I can feel this every single day than just a week.
I’ll leave you with the two key phrases from the experience, spaccatutto (italian, go break something) and my other local language favourite, jam rek kaay (wolof, it’s all peace).
Picture credits: Pranav Singhania