The organisation "The Learning Tree Foundation"
The Learning Tree Foundation is a project run by the LOVE Society, a tribal organisation in the eastern state of Orissa, India. It functions as a residential school where 3-16 year old tribal orphans from around the area are looked after and educated. It is situated in a rural part of the Kutra Tehsil. This residential school has been in existence for several years but has recently been given a separate identity by the Society and is now called The Learning Tree Foundation.
The Society that runs The Learning Tree Foundation was founded in 1981 by Patras Dungdung, a tribal person himself who dedicated his life to helping tribal communities and children without families. Today, many more children in the area who do not have access to decent education attend classes run by the Foundation. The scope for expanding the services to many more children in need is immense.
Aside from the Learning Tree Foundation, the Society also runs a small home in an urban slum in the city of Rourkela, roughly two hours away from the residential school for orphans under the age of 3. Over the last 30 years, the organisation’s dedicated staff have cared for several hundred children by providing a secure environment, education, health care and nutrition. In addition, the organisation placed emphasis on the education of local tribal communities by providing training and awareness-raising programmes to improve the livelihood of those living there and restore the cultural heritage of the area.
A total of 100 children are being cared for by seven dedicated workers, eight employed teachers as well as two elderly people who seek shelter at the organisation and help out with the day-to-day work.
The children are in many cases severely malnourished when they are taken in and typically need a lot of attention and care. They are either brought to the organisation's doorstep or are referred by the police or social workers. While some have no parents, others come from families who face extreme hardship, including young single mothers and poverty-stricken tribal families who are not in a position to care for or educate their children. Many of those working in the organisation come from a similar background, and have found a livelihood caring for the children as social workers, teachers or household staff. One such example is Beronika Toppo who came to the organisation as a baby and now at the age of 17 plays an integral part in the running of the school and orphanage.
The dedicated staff do not receive any financial remuneration, but only shelter, food and clothing, while the teachers, who are mainly drawn from nearby villages, receive a small salary. In addition to the staff, the children play an important role in the day-to-day running of the organisation. They help with the construction of new buildings or with agricultural activities, as well as teaching and caring for the younger children. The organisation provides a loving and caring environment to foster the children's emotional, social and educational development. Its few, sparsely furnished buildings function as dormitories, dining and meeting rooms, while there are also kitchen, toilet and washing facilities on site. With its well and its flower, fruit and vegetable beds, the garden is an oasis within an otherwise harsh environment.
For most of the children, The Learning Tree Foundation offers their only chance of an education. The nearest state school is some distance away and state provision is often inadequate due to insufficient resources. The Foundation currently provides an informal education programme up to 10th standard based on the state curriculum. There is also an emphasis on traditional tribal values, reflecting the background of most of the children. They learn the indigenous language, as well as traditional music and dance. They also have an opportunity to participate in cultural competitions at a local and regional level. In addition, regular yoga seminars teach the children concentration, physical exercise and discipline.
While the school is not yet recognised as a formal school by the government, many of the children appear privately for the 10th state board examination. Eventually, some stay at the organisation and become staff members, while others return to their original villages. A central aspect of The Learning Tree Foundation's philosophy is that of helping the children to help themselves. The children are taught how to process nutritional and medicinal products from sustainable agriculture and forest management. Berries, fruit and mushrooms, for example, are collected and preserved; soap and washing powder are manufactured, and then sold in local markets. The children acquire skills which they can later use to support themselves in the community, hopefully preventing their migration into the larger cities in search of work.
The organisation’s founder, Patras Dungdung, tragically died in June 2009. He was a tribal person himself who had dedicated his life to helping tribal communities and children in need. The organisation is now headed by two tribal women, Francisca Bilung and Maria Tigga, both of whom worked closely with the founder for more than 15 years. Since the death of Patras Dungdung, who did the majority of the fundraising, the organisation has faced many problems. Day-to-day functioning is dependent on small donations made by the surrounding villages and shops, often just food.
The Learning Tree Foundation urgently requires financial and other support, and also needs to establish ways of generating income. Therefore, in the immediate future the priority will be to provide the staff and children with training, to find ways of generating income, and to guarantee the self reliance of the children when they leave the orphanage.
TLTF works closely with a local training organisation to identify ways of generating income. As a first step, mushroom cultivation and organic manure production have recently been introduced. Mushrooms can be cultivated all year round and, while they provide an important source of nutrition, they can also bring the organisation an essential income. The first harvest was sold at a stall in Rourkela within one hour! The staff are also are working hard to make the organisation self-reliant. For example, they are in the process of registering the land upon which the school is built, which will open up new opportunities to access funding and support.
Furthermore, since summer 2010 TLTF have started to work with the Smile Foundation. The Smile Foundation is an India-based NGO (non-governmental organisation) that finances and supports grassroots' initiatives targeted at providing education and health to underprivileged children. The Foundation matches financial contributions made by us towards our education programme. The funds are spent on schooling for the children such as teachers' salaries, furniture and books. In addition, we receive advice and guidance on how to improve our education programme. The support of the Smile Foundation does not only provide us with much needed educational impetus but also frees funds donated by our supporters for activities other than education.
In March 2010, two long standing supporters from Germany oversaw the attempt to drill a new bore hole to access water and install an electric pump. The current open well is drying up and the water is becoming increasingly stagnant, causing frequent illness among children and staff. Water shortage remains a problem due to the low level of the ground water. Unfortunately the new well provided little water! The search goes on.
Who are the Adivasi?
In India the members of the tribal communities are usually called “tribals” in English language and “girijan” (hill people) or “banvasi” (foresters) in Hindi language. The Constitution of the Republic of India applies in its English version the term “scheduled tribes” and in the Hindi version “anusuchit janjati”. All these expressions contain clearly paternalistic and partly even discriminatory connotations.
During the first decades of the 20th century educated and politically active tribals from eastern central India started to use the Hindi/Sanskrit term “Adivasi”. This word consists of “adi” (original) and “vasi” (inhabitant). Irrespective of the various names for individual tribes the self-designated term “Adivasi” has since become widely accepted. “Adivasi” signals awareness of a distinct identity, of a history and culture of one’s own. Moreover it points to a political programme to conserve and promote these cultures and to attain self-determination in a wider political context.
The self-designated name “Adivasi” corresponds with the modern concept of “indigenous peoples”. Since the 1950s representatives of indigenous peoples have been networking on a global level under the auspices of the United Nations. They contributed towards elaborating international legal standards in order to preserve their diverse traditional cultures and in order to work towards an overall self-determined future. Against this backdrop one may refer to the Adivasi movement as a movement for empowerment and assertion of Adivasi identity.
Adivasi – Past and Presence
The Adivasi are the descendants of those first inhabitants of India, who resisted the law and order system installed by the respective conquerors. Over quite a long period in history the Adivasi have been left untouched on principal. In many regions of the Indian subcontinent the Adivasi used to live as fishermen, as nomadic shepherds, as shifting agriculturalists and as hunters and gatherers. Between 2500 and 1500 BC cattle-breeding pastoralists from Western Central Asia – they called themselves “arya” i.e. the noble ones – conquered the then densely forested land. In order to confirm their dominance this “elite” created the caste system, which brandmarked the orginal population as “wild” and “uncivilized”. A certain part of the aboriginal people was subjugated and subsequently integrated into the system of dominance at the lowest rung as “outcastes” or “untouchables” (today they are known as “harijans”, “scheduled castes” or “dalits”). Thus racist discrimination started more than three thousand years ago. This was also the beginning of continuous eviction and withdrawal of the Adivasi.