Yesterday should have been just another day at work for the 17000 ft Team, but a simple statement by a young 10th grade Ladakhi student from a remote village Satho, made it all so different and special.
His school, Centralised Residential School, Satho, situated in the remote Changthang area of Ladakh is desolate, isolated, and inhabited by temporary settlements of nomadic people, who leave their children in this school and move from settlement to settlement with their sheep and goats to graze. The children spend 9 months of a year in the school, living in dorms, eating, playing and studying with their friends.
The temperature in Satho as of last week was a chilling -200C, when the 17000 ft Team went to visit this very remote school to prepare its students for an excursion. A trip that would take them to Delhi at much warmer climates of 30C.
Satho is about a 150 km away from the city of Leh, a 6 hour drive over the formidable Chang La pass (altitude 17,585 ft), well out of mobile connectivity, with no electricity or even basic facilities to speak of. The village boasts of a single shop that sells chocolates, Maggi and biscuits, some wheat and rice, pencil cell batteries and some odds and ends. Their basic needs are covered. There is a single Satellite phone in a small two room house right outside the school which works, only if you have the patience. Attempts to convey messages to the people of the village, is sometimes a multi-day affair.
Land is not a problem in the beautiful flat Changthang region of Ladakh, as is evident from the large school complex with wide open playing grounds. There is so much open and flat land in the remote villages of Ladakh that people do not want to leave their villages. But they want good education for their children, and better opportunities, and more than just brick and mortar. The school has impressive looking solar panels for electricity, donated some 3 years back, and lying non-functional, unused and waiting for repairs. They even have computers donated by the Indian Army which also lie unused for a simple thing like lack of electricity. A donated solar water heater for the children to wash their hands has been installed in the grounds a little over a year ago. It works very well in summers and freezes its pipes in the winters when the children need it the most.
Chilblains are a common ailment in children of the Changthang region, as is the presence of non-functional machinery needing maintenance.
The children and teachers live in this residential school, with many of the teachers themselves belonging to other remote villages far from here. Almost all the teachers have to spend a minimum of 3 years in the school, away from their own homes and families. Not all the teachers are well educated or professionally trained, but all of them do their job to the best they can given the circumstances. The village is too far and too remote for regular visits even by the local administration. School Uniforms, stationery, books, mid day meal supplies, teacher salaries, groceries for teachers and even gas cylinders for cooking have to be brought from other villages. Bringing these supplies is a two person job, and a multi-day trip. A trip is a hop, skip and jump from one mode of transport to the other, none of which is public or regularized.
This school embodies the hope and aspiration of this nomadic community.
Satho is less than an hour’s drive from the famous Pangong-Tso lake, a place which sees about 1,00,000 visitors every year. In peak season time, the lake side village, Spangmik, is teeming with tourist camps and tourists wanting to get a glimpse of the famous lake from a famed Bollywood movie. Almost no one notices a tiny school right in the middle of the cluster of camps, a school with just 4 children and 1 teacher. The students of this school go to school every day, despite of the madness just beyond. Just ahead of these camps are yet more villages; Mann, Merak, Lukung, all with less than 25 students in the entire school. The story here is the same as the village where our student comes from. With just a handful of homes, these villages are untouched, with no facilities, no opportunities, and too remote and inaccessible to be on anyone’s radar.
The teachers in Satho are Ladakhi, most having studied from remote village schools themselves. They are entrusted with the task of teaching from text books made heavier with their English based curriculum, something they find difficult, considering the lack of opportunity to even speak in the language. They look at the visitors passing by to Pangong Tso lake, at the exposure levels of a few “fortunate” villages which receive tourists; they look at the income that pours in to the village and marvel at the people who can speak English, and wish someone would come by to their school, and their village, and maybe just converse with their children in English a little.
Like others in his school, and others “just off the tourist map”, our 10th grade student has rarely seen the outside world, nor has the outside world come to him. He wonders why some villages have so many people and why his has so few. He looks at the few cars that pass by and wonders about its occupants. He wonders why no one ever visits his village, but takes it for granted that no one will. And without T.V, internet or even phone connectivity, he wonders what “India” is like.
Today, it is his first visit to a region actually named in the political or geographical map of India.
Today, 22 senior students from Satho are in Delhi for an 11 day exposure tour, a trip very generously sponsored by a corporate who has adopted this school. A first bus ride, a first flight, a first visit to a city, a first ride in a metro, a first visit to a hotel, a first in a toilet with running water, a first movie in a theatre, a first taste of a Guava, a first time attending a career counseling session. The list of firsts is endless and they absorb it all without speaking. They are shy, unsure about speaking in Hindi or English and answer in silence or monosyllables. But the eager volunteers from their corporate sponsors in Delhi who have been accompanying them have hundreds of questions. What is Satho like? What is in Satho? What do you do in Satho? What can you buy in Satho? All of which are met with complete silence; simply because, there really is nothing in Satho and no one goes to Satho.
And then the innocent question by a Volunteer who really did not know what answer to expect.
Who goes to Satho?
The answer was so quick, short and simple that we almost missed it.
“17000 ft Foundation”.
It is hard to define exactly what our team felt at the point. A little touched that he took note of and remembered all our visits and programs. A little taken aback by the immediacy of his response. A little sense of gratification at this small validation of our work. But mostly, a little sense of sadness at the absolute truth of his words.
Today, thanks to people from J. Sagar Associates, a corporate who understands the value of what they have, this little school with a 108 students was put back on the map. Over the last two years, they got a playground, bunk beds, furniture and a library with many books. And they got a chance to see the outside world.
But there are hundreds of other tiny schools each with just a handful of students, each more remote than the other, and each with the same story. You wouldn’t know about them if you drove past them, or even trekked past them. It just isn’t in your vision, nor is it something your tour guide would tell you about. And the children of those villages stay hidden in their tiny worlds sandwiched by barren mountains and a lone glacier stream. Would you go to any of these little schools if we told you about them?
We support a 100 schools today, and more than the programs we conduct, it is our frequent visits to the schools that matter to us. It is our way of reaching out to them, and we are touched that they noticed.
It should have been just another ordinary day at work for 17000 ft Foundation, but this little boy made it so special.