“An unforgettable experience.” This was the unanimous response from all 42 students who traveled this past summer during their vacation to one of our villages in Mata Amritanadamayi Devi’s Amrita SeRVe 101 Village Adoption Project. They were describing their unique and one-of-a-kind rural internship in an interactive session organized in Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham. Students, accompanied by faculty members and mentors, spent a period of up to 2 weeks living among the villagers and closely interacting with them. In some places such as Rajasthan, they slept in the open, under a neem tree, bathing daily in a nearby river. “We fell in love with Mother Nature,” these team members remarked. In other places such as Gujarat, they were accommodated in the ex-sarpanch’s double-storey home. Everywhere the students felt overwhelmed with the hospitality and generosity of the villagers.
“The spirit of Atithi Devo Bhava was so strong, we were greeted so respectfully everywhere,” students shared. Students interacted with youth groups in most villages. In Maharashtra, they conducted a cricket tournament. In Goa they saw a lot of enthusiasm for bringing about positive change. Even all male student teams interacted with the women. “Women are more ready for change. They do all the work– whether at home or on the farm,” students noted.
And they experienced the spirit of self-reliance already prevalent in the villages. They saw villagers making many things they use including beds, hand fans and ropes. They pitched in to help make a rain water harvesting pit in Uttarakhand and a smokeless chulha in Uttar Pradesh. They initiated an Amala Bharatam cleaning drive in Odhisa.
But the experience elsewhere was different. “When we broached the topic of cleaning, of doing an Amala Bharatam Campaign, the villagers told us, you are our guests, we cannot allow you to do that,” the student team that visited Haryana shared. “Language was not an issue– we were communicating through hearts and smiles,” students enthusiastically said. They did concede however, that teaching say Mathematics in Hindi was harder than they had imagined.
Students conducted classes for small children. In the tuition centers started by the ashram, they introduced tablet-based learning. When word got around, the number of children in the classes began to swell. In some places, student teams were invited to village schools and anganwadi centers to conduct interactive sessions.
When one team came back and reported to Amma that the village school does not even have a teacher, Amma immediately responded by saying that the ashram could train a teacher to teach in the school. Wherever possible, students conducted essay and painting competitions. They organized camps for not only children, but also their parents. Adult literacy was initiated in some places. An effort was made to identify special talents in the children and encourage them.
“There is so much good in the way that villagers are living. They are happy with what they have,” students observed. “We hope that in the name of development, we don’t spoil things,” others concurred.
Their faculty members agreed. “The villagers may be financially very poor, but culturally very rich. There are so many things they can teach us. We can learn from them.” Also evident was a strong culture of devotion, whether it took the form of chanting Ramayana shlokas every night before bed or weekly bhajans in the local Shiva temple or prabhat pheris early in the morning. Our student teams would join in and sing Amma bhajans.
“It was so gratifying to see Amma’s photo everywhere,” remarked Br. Sudeep, Director of the Amritapuri campus of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham. He and Br. Biju Kumar, Head, CIR, who co-organized the internships with AmritaCREATE traveled to many of the villages while the students were visiting.
It was many years ago, when Amma was awarded the Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters by the State University of New York in Buffalo that She stated, “There is more to society and life than the bright lights of the big cities. Unfortunately, we are forgetting this. There are also rural villages and agricultural communities. It is the people who live there that produce the fruit, vegetables and grain that feed the entire world. Without them, how can we continue to exist?
Amma’s humble suggestion is that, as part of our institution curricula, students should spend time in such communities. We should provide them with the opportunity to observe the lives of the people who live there– their struggles and hardships. Students should interact with them and listen to their problems. This will provide them with insight into aspects of life that otherwise would remain concealed to them.
In turn, when our students attain the success and positions of power they seek, the experiences they gained in these agricultural communities will remain with them and inform the decisions and policies they put into action.” Many student teams want to return to the same villages in December. They want to help solve problems related to water, sanitation, health and malnutrition. And combat evils such as the use of tobacco and gutka prevalent even among youngsters.
“Now we really understood what life is all about; it is really a chance to serve others,” the students emphatically summed up.