To the Field, Chalo!

Chalo! I hear this phrase thrown around almost daily in conversation here and I love it for both its simplicity as well as its flexibility in meaning. Most often it’s used to mean “let’s go,” as in “let’s go for a walk. Chalo!” You could also use it to express relief at having finally finished a task, like “chalo yeah, it’s finally done.” It slips off the tongue easily and I’ve even started using it when speaking with colleagues or friends. Full disclaimer, my Hindi is still very rudimentary at best. I can count to ten, answer yes or no, ask a few question words, and identify some food items on a menu. I’m taking my first Hindi lesson this week to hopefully become a bit more acquainted with the language, but in the meantime at least I’ve been perfecting my “headshake.” If you’re not sure what I mean by this, check out this video here.

The phrase chalo seems to fit perfectly with the Aga Khan Foundation Delhi office since there is a good chance that someone on staff is travelling to one of our field offices on any given week. AKF India works in four states across the country: Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Telangana. There’s only so much one can know about the progress of AKF’s education programs from sitting in the Delhi office, making these field visits crucial to understanding what’s really happening on the ground.

AKF hand washing station in a Hyderabad government school

Last week I had the opportunity to travel to Hyderabad with the education team for a three-day whirlwind site visit, engaging with our field team, meeting donors, and seeing the schools we work in. We went straight from the airport to the Aga Khan Academy (AKA) – Hyderabad, an International Baccalaureate institution for grades 1-12. AKF in conjunction with AKA is implementing its Professional Learning for Educators Series (PLES) program in August. PLES is a three-tiered program that aims to equip English language teachers by enhancing their English language skills, developing their pedagogical knowledge, and then putting their training into practice in the classroom. Once the teachers are selected and the training begins, the PLES program will run from August until the end of January. There’s a good chance I will return to Hyderabad before my internship is up to observe and assist with some of the trainings. Our AKA visit concluded with a tour of the campus which is roughly the same size as a small university back home. We even got to help plant a few new trees for the school (really just a photo op of us holding the sapling while someone else poured in the dirt)!

Wednesday and Thursday I travelled with my supervisor and the AKF Hyderabad team to six different schools around the city that are part of the School Improvement Program (SIP). Each one we visited was a government school, roughly India’s equivalent of public schools in the U.S. The differences in facilities from one school to the next can be vast. It came as quite a shock to me that there could even be two schools in the same building compound with classrooms divided according to the medium of instruction, in this case one school for Telugu students and the other for Urdu students. If the school is operating on rented property, the staff cannot make any changes to the building design or structure without approval from the landlord first, leaving some to be stuck with leaky roofs that do little to stop the monsoon rains from dripping into the classroom. It’s not uncommon for the schools AKF works in to be single teacher schools (STS), with only one teacher looking after every student without additional support. In schools with better infrastructure and more teachers to support the student body, we saw how staff members were looking for ways to enrich their student’s lives outside of the classroom. For example at the one high school we visited, we got treated to a demonstration on self-defense skills the head coach was teaching all the girls.

Telugu Medium and Urdu Medium primary schools

Beyond collecting data on school infrastructure and teacher/student strength, we spoke with teachers at every school on their relationship with School Management Committees (locally elected groups made up of mostly parents and teachers), what additional training they would like to receive, and how AKF could assist them in the future with school improvement. Most of these conversations were carried out in Hindi or Telugu so I only got the gist of what was being said, with the exception of a few in English (including one very excitable teacher who insisted on taking a photo with “the American” to remember the visit).

Girl’s Self-Defense Classes 

The language barrier does make me feel at times like I’m missing key details and nuances from these crucial conversations with teachers, but it was still really insightful listening to those that I could understand and to discuss with my colleagues afterwards what was said by those who I couldn’t.

No trip to Hyderabad would be complete without trying the city’s most famous dish, biryani! Biryani is a spicy rice dish popular throughout the Indian subcontinent and can be made with chicken, mutton, vegetables, or sometimes egg. The exact origin of biryani is up for debate, but most people in India will tell you that it’s best in Hyderabad. We had it for lunch two days in a row, and if you’ve never had it, be warned it will put you into a serious food coma. I had to walk off all that rice somehow so I spent one evening after our school visits exploring the famous Golkonda Fort and the Charminar market. Need to buy bangles? There’s millions to choose from at Charminar market!

I’ll be going on another field visit or two in August to Bahraich and Patna to see AKF’s other projects in those cities, and I’m looking forward to more opportunities working on the ground. For the next time, chalo!

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