Facing the heat

The desert brings a cruel partisan climate.

I remember a freezing weekend spent building our Chula. Back in November I could barely speak Hindi; but those misty mornings with the children – breaking every rule of fire safety – were priceless. Three hours, burnt and re-burnt fingers and a hundred cups of chai would shiver by before it was my turn to take a bucket of hot water and have a quick shower, dressing in the same smoked sweater I slept in.

Back then I wished on the summer. I’d spent summers in hot places before, and several months in monsoon-soaked Malaysia. I knew what a real summer was; it had to be better than a winter with no heating, right? How naïve.

I have a thermometer in my room. It reads 38.7 degrees Celsius, that’s 101.7 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s 9.43pm, but the sun set three hours ago. During the night it drops a few degrees, but by the morning I’m suitably sweaty, twisted and miserable.

Over the last two weeks we’ve routinely flirted with a high of 47 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit). Outside it can drop to around 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) during the night, but it’s still wise to sleep inside. I made the mistake of sleeping outside when a sandstorm hit, and I was spitting sand for the rest of the day.

Like winter, the problem with summer is that you can’t escape the temperature. My summers spent in hotter climates invariably involved plenty of air-conditioned rooms, offices and transport, lots of chilled juices and shakes, and the option of a cool shower, bath, or dip in the pool.

Unfortunately conveniences are far and few between in Chachiyawas. Electricity is temperamental in the summer, but when electricity is available it’s used to power fan units in each room, which blow hot air at you. If I open the window I let hot air in. That’s about it for climate control.

My water is hot, too. When we have electricity we can pump water from underground storage tanks to containers on the roof, where Newton helps into my bucket. But the sun has plenty of time to heat the containers, so my bathing water is always hot. Likewise, so is my drinking water.

Truth be told, I was stupid to wish on the Rajasthani summer; it’s damn near insufferable.

But this week, and for the next two weeks, it isn’t just the heat that’s making me sweat.

Throughout the year I’ve supported teachers at our inclusive school: Minu Minovikas Mandir. The inclusive education that is pioneered here incorporates children with mental, developmental, physical, and sensory disabilities, with children from local villages. We’re a non-government organization, but our practices support a wider government campaign to secure education for all, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

In the last year I’ve observed and helped teachers to teach lessons, to run activities, to plan events, host guests, and organize awareness raising activities in local districts. I’ve imparted technical knowledge, led by example, and spent a lot of time covering for busy or absent teachers. I’ve run a few smaller training sessions. Outside of school, I’ve played adoptive parent to over thirty children I live with.

But so far I’ve been unable to comprehensively share my knowledge of inclusion and diversity. Our work here is made harder because basic concepts of fairness and equality are not understood, even among teachers. In our local community there are many mistruths and superstitions that bring scorn on the children I work with; parents who worry that their sons might catch mental retardation from their peers, or that their daughters will return home in a wheelchair after catching cerebral palsy.

The inclusion that is done here started as little more than a mixture of disabled children and children from local villages, with several special needs educators thrown into the mix. Their practice has been honed over the last five years, but there is little being pioneered. Concepts of inclusion are not widely understood, diversity is not discussed, and equality is founded on pity and karma. Our teachers are excellent at what they do, but there is so much unrealized potential. There is a wealth of knowledge in this world that would stop them reinventing the wheel.

And that’s where I – and the extra sweat – come in. Over the next two weeks I’m running twelve days of training for teaching and rehabilitation staff. My mentor aptly suggested we name it ‘capacity building’. Not a fan of generics, I opted for a grandiose title: Fostering Leadership in Inclusion.

I’ve spent a month planning and I’m excited about what’s going to happen. Accessibility Day will give the teachers a chance to experience disability for themselves as they embark on a day of activities and fact-finding with artificial handicaps. Another day will challenge the staff to prepare awareness raising tactics before being let loose in the local village for the afternoon to talk about disability, and three final days will bring the focus squarely on inclusion; inclusive language, inclusive environments, and inclusive atmospheres.

In the mix the teachers will get time to develop their own personal projects for improvement over the year, personal or work related; and they’ll spend an afternoon being introduced to problem-solving challenges that they can use in their classrooms. They’ll leave the training with their own classroom rules and a checklist of classroom management styles they can try out.

The training is not designed to teach teachers everything I know about inclusion; it’s designed to add structure to their experience of inclusion; to introduce concepts that better explain what they’re already learning; and provide a framework for them to develop inclusion, and education, here in Chachiyawas. When I leave next month, I want teachers to build on foundations that these weeks will provide.

I’ve already faced challenges; the number of participants was halved this morning – it’s now 17 – and I’ve been asked to relocate twice. Our latest site, the rather oversized hallway of the school building, comes with its own character, but it’s spacious and has plenty of light, if not much electricity.

And I’m sure I’ll face more challenges, not least linguistic. I can ask for directions and discuss the weather in Hindi, but it’s a little more difficult to enter dialogue on inclusion and accessibility. That said, teachers will be treated to an eight-hour English curriculum over the fortnight.

The training has been a year in the making and I’m excited to see what teachers can take away from it. The three weeks following training mark the start of the school year, and teachers will spend that time implementing what they’ve learned, with my guidance.

In that respect, this marks the last chapter of my project, my last investment of my Indicorps’ year. Luckily, the kids will be back to share it with me.

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