16-year-old Asha Gond is a tribal girl from a little known village called Janwaar in Madhya Pradesh. When she swings by on her skateboard, you’d be hard pressed to realize that she is actually the same girl who attend six weeks training in an Oxford school UK. For Asha, who travels seven kms to the neighboring Panna village for further studies, the opportunity to learn the English language in UK is a dream come true.
Homegrown had earlier done a story about how a German woman Ulrike Reinhard has changed the trajectory of Janwaar with the skate park they built called ‘Janwaar Castle.’ Children can skate here, draw, paint and learn how to speak in English and that’s where Ulrike saw Asha’s determination. Ulrike told us in an email: “This is what I’ve said during a talk about the Asha story: Asha, the 16 year old Adivasi girl, finished 10th grade. She did very well in the English course during our summer camp last year in June. So I promised her to take her to England to learn better English. It took me 8 months to convince her parents to let her go. I went to their house many times. I spoke to her mother in the heat of the day out in the fields where she was working. We went around the village on the Bullet looking for Asha’s father. I brought the Maharaj of Panna in to convince the parents, the principal of the government school and her favourite teacher. It was a long, long difficult process and I thought it would never get anywhere. But Asha never gave up – she always told her parents that she wanted to go! And then – finally her parents agreed to let her go. A big moment – Asha had tears in her eyes. So had I. Her father gave me a high five! Her parents promised me that they will NOT marry her off when she returns. She’ll have a job at Janwaar Castle interpreting what I say into the local language. This is a HUGE, HUGE thing in a small village like Janwaar!”
Asha herself is very excited about her trip. She had to cajole her parents for a long time to let her go. “They are scared about my safety but I have had to convince them a lot to let me go. There aren’t many girls who study in my village. They get married at 16 or 17 years. My parents have not forced me to do the same. They have allowed me to study as much as I want. I want to learn as much as I can and help teach children here. I really love the skate park and want to take care of it,” Asha said.
Asha can feel the impact of Janwaar castle on her life. She convinced her father to stop drinking alcohol and even got the local boys to clear their act. “I was a fearful person but we learned a lot at the skatepark and opened up about our lives. If friends came over to my house and saw my father getting drunk, it would embarrass me. I requested my mom to ask papa to stop and he did. When I wanted to go the skate park, some boys would eve tease us, get drunk and misbehave with me, they would smoke and gamble and had all types of bad habits. I told Ulrike this and she called all of them to the skatepark and spoke to them. It is not happening anymore. The rule of the skatepark is that if you don’t study and behave properly you will not be allowed to use the park. Many of the problems I had have been solved and my friends now talk to their own parents about changing their lives,” she said with a hint of hope.
The Maharaja of Panna, Lokendra Singh is also an MLA and a member of Parliament for the Panna district. He has personally come to request the parents and said he will continue doing it till Asha actually gets to go. “I am just an ordinary man and not a Maharaja. My connections though have helped me build trust among people. I will keep talking to her parents lest they withdraw their permission because she is a minor. They think Mumbai is London and Delhi is New York. It is a great opportunity and I am trying to tell them I myself have studied outside and their daughter is getting to go abroad without them having to pay anything. Madam is getting foreign funds to uplift our country, you don’t have to do anything and your daughter gets to be educated in a foreign country. Her education will awaken the people here about the possibilities the world has to offer and what is the level of education there. She has a bright future and this will qualify her to do bigger things later on. Minor girls are married and sent off here and it can change. The German lady is doing a good job. I had never seen a skating rink in my life and today Janwaar has a skate park,” he said.
Now that Asha’s passport has arrived, she will be leaving for UK and staying with Ulrik’es friend Sylwia Korsak. “We are aiming to treat Asha just as our daughter. Our 10-year-old son is really looking forward to sharing his life and play-time with her and help her learn English – and he speaks a wonderful Oxford English. I am a professional playworker which means I specialise in helping children learn through play and our methods of playwork here in the UK are very closely aligned with what Ulrike does in Janwaar. We are in the process of choosing the right learning activities for Asha in Oxford and the area, but most of those will really depend on her specific time of stay so we will know more once her travel plans are finalised. We are very privileged to be able to help Ulrike and Asha and we hope that she will have a nice and productive time with us,” Korsak said through an e-mail.
Ulrike has an eye towards Janwaar’s future with Asha’s return. “It would be so nice when Asha returns that I can easily communicate with her. She should stay in the village and help Janwaar Castle and get paid for it! We truly believe that the kids one day will run Janwaar Castle on their own! There is no better way of empowering the kids that they can stay where they are and have a chance, opportunity and a job, then no village / social structure will be destroyed. it’s a tough area for women and Bundelkhand is the wild wild west of India. They are never first, always work hard and hardly have a say. Now these girls at the skate park are experiencing something different. It will be interesting to see where this will lead and I am sure conflicts are ahead of us,” She concluded.
“Our village has people from two castes living here- the Yadavs and Adivasis. Adivasis are often looked down upon, expected to be enslaved and threatened on a regular basis. I just want to teach people around me that we can be of different castes and pray to different Gods but we can also help each other. We can co-operate and work together and be of help in each other’s need. I tell the children at the skatepark to make others aware about this and will continue to do so,” Asha said.
All Image Courtesy: Vicky Roy