Parindey: Sona Murmu
Alivelihood: Educator, Social Worker
Region: Ghosaldanga, West Bengal
Diverse individuals may differently understand the idea of education. Some may perceive it as a means to acquire certain skill sets whereas others may think of education as a tool for social progress. Certain individuals view education synonymously with livelihood security, i.e., job stability and social conformity. Then there are formal and informal modes of education. Formal meaning education that one can acquire in schools, colleges, and universities through a fixed curriculum adhering to certain rules of normative engagements. By informal education, one may refer to knowledge that one can acquire without having to be part of a formal educational structure. For instance, one can be an apprentice of a doctor and learn the art of treating a patient in due time or understanding how conventional diseases may be cured. For this one need not spend five years of their time at a school of medicine. However, in the Indian context, many indigenous communities do not have basic access to education which has resulted in poverty, poor healthcare, and a lack of livelihood opportunities.
Consequently, such communities struggle to be part of mainstream society and institutions. This is the story of Sona Murmu, an indigenous educator, first-generation learner, and the first individual from his village to acquire formal education, who despite all odds stacked against him endeavoured on a quest to educate the youth of his village. This journey was never formally planned. Rather it emerged out of a need to progress. It was a chance encounter between Sona and Martin Kampchen – a German scholar, who performed a significant role in shaping Sona’s journey as a leader.
Born in the village of Ghosaldanga in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, Sona belongs to the Santal community, who are the primary inhabitants of the region. The Santals are a homogenous indigenous community that can be found in the eastern region of the Indian subcontinent and neighbouring countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh. While Sona was a student at the Bergram School and had completed his school final, in the early nineteen-eighties, he met Martin while the latter was passing through Murmu’s native village Ghosaldanga. Neither of them had planned to invest their time and energy in social work. Martin was pursuing his second doctoral degree on the works of the Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore at the Department of Philosophy and Religion, Viswa-Bharati University, Santiniketan. He was a student of the renowned Indian philosopher Kalidas Bhattacharya. Apart from being a prolific scholar and translator, Martin took a deep interest in the development of the village of Ghosaldanga, often contributing from his scholarship fund which he would receive at the time being a student.
“I helped a Baul singer to buy a plot of land at a short distance from his village Bautijal on which he built a mud hut for himself and his family. This plot was at the edge of Ghosaldanga. When I visited him at his new home, I quite naturally got to know the entire Ghosaldanga population gradually. I loved to sit with them in the evenings, enjoyed observing their rural life and learn about an aspect of Indian life which had been concealed from me although I had already spent nearly a decade in India”, shared Martin, in a lecture delivered at Viswa-Bharati on February 2012, celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ghosaldanga Adibasi Seva Sangha (GASS), an initiative solely dedicated to community development in the village of Ghosaldanga. As echoed by Martin, he never visited the village with a plan of doing any kind of development work. It just happened with the help of Sona and later other youth leaders from neighbouring villages.
“I was seventeen years old, and I realised how the lack of education had affected my village. There were no proper roads that would connect our villages to the mainland. Being poverty-stricken, living conditions were difficult with rampant illiteracy. Around this time, while I was roaming with no purpose in life, I came across Martin, a German researcher. I became friends with him and ever since I knew I had to work towards making a change in my village. I knew we had no hope without education”, shares Sona who chose to stay in his village and work for his people instead of getting a job elsewhere after completing his education.
Initially, when they began working in the mid-nineteen-eighties to educate youth, they only had basic supplies such as chalk and a board to write on alongside a kerosene lamp for light when it got dark. The work was slow and would be disrupted when Martin was not in the region. Although he would visit about twice a week, there would be interferences when Martin was travelling back to Germany. However, slowly, they built a structure, and the development was consolidated. “Martin helped me to complete my studies in turn if I helped set up evening classes for children of my community. To which I agreed, and our journey started in 1985”, says Sona who has been part of this initiative for over thirty-five years. From evening classes, they gradually worked their way up to not only strengthening their vision by registering their organisation but also setting up an informal school in the region catering specifically to the needs of the Santali youth. Like Sona, there are other community youth leaders including Boro Baski from neighbouring Bishnubati village and Gokul Hansda of Dhansara. Their vision was not one of achieving a short-term goal, but one of continuing development.
“I told my friends again and again that I should make myself redundant; that they did not work to please me but to serve their village people. I never lead from the front in any function or event; rather, I do prepare the event or programme with my friends, but then I urge them to represent the village and experience the ownership of their work and of human responsibility”, expressed Martin who facilitated in the development of this community from within. In 1996, they set up a school known as Rolf Schoembs Vidyashram (RSV), as part of the GASS with the support of many individuals who believed in this cause.
Today, the villages of Ghosaldanga, Bishnubati, and other neighbouring villages have medical aid available to them, a school being run by and for them, evening classes to help the youth excel in their studies, alongside other practical initiatives for children to effectively enter mainstream institutions and society. The RSV school, informal in its approach to cater to the practical needs of its students, offers not only a formal educational curriculum but also extra-curricular activities such as classes on agriculture, fishing, permaculture activities for interested students, beekeeping, sports such as cricket and football, dance, and music, amongst other pursuits. At this residential school, the students grow their food organically which makes life completely self-reliant. This school aims to train the youth not only in academics but also to help them in retaining their cultural life. For instance, the students work in the fields and simultaneously indulge in sports and other activities. This allows each student to find their interests naturally and work on them. In doing so, they enable the students to adopt both aspects of modern life and their traditional village worldview.
Most importantly, the medium of instruction at the school is in their native Santali language which enables especially the young children to grasp ideas and concepts easily – an aspect otherwise overlooked at government schools where the youth struggle to understand the medium of instruction that is in the Bengali language. Furthermore, various individuals from the nearby city of Kolkata, other urban and rural spaces in India, and even various parts of Europe come and live at the school as part of diverse programmes that give the local Santali students exposure that is beyond the margins of their villages. Many students have travelled to different places in the Indian subcontinent and Europe. For Sona and his peers' efforts, the Ramkrishna Mission in Narendrapur, Kolkata recognised their struggle early on and gave them official acknowledgement. This helped them to organise their working structure and formally strengthen their cause. Sona’s work helped not only many of his peers but continues to help second-generation learners from the Ghosaldanga village who have secured jobs beyond the borders of West Bengal.
In conclusion, contrary to popular conception, development may not necessarily be visible at the onset, but it slowly takes a form. Communities that have been in struggling for generations may not instantly progress and witness social change. For social improvement and steady betterment, it takes collective willpower, determination, and continuing labour. Something Sona and other youth leaders' efforts have shown. Against all odds and their challenging predicament, Sona and his peers’ collective efforts illustrate how community-led development can be achieved and sustained. One could say that what started as a social experiment with good faith with barely any resources has taken a shape of this beautifully designed initiative. Much like the seeds that were sowed decades ago have finally taken the shape of a robust tree that caters to the needs of each of its branches.
Sona Murmu can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org