Learning from the land: a Kerala school's emphasis on nature
When Panikkaveetil Thirunelli Mohammed Hussain returned to India from Qatar, he wanted a simple life. Today, he and his wife run three schools for underprivileged children nestled in Kerala’s greenery. Suryatapa Bhattacharya, Foreign Correspondent, reports
KIRALOOR VILLAGE, KERALA // When Panikkaveetil Thirunelli Mohammed Hussain returned to India in 1988 from Qatar, he had spent 11 years working as a supervisor for a company that built power stations. Retirement, however, was the last thing on his mind.
Most of his fellow workers from Kerala, who spend years away from their families in the Gulf, hope to return with enough money to build their dream home. Mr Hussain started building schools.
"I saw those around me suffer from an acute sense of identity crisis," said Mr Hussain, about those returning to Kerala. Many had come from farming villages like him, and had become entranced by city life in Dubai, Doha and Jeddah. They only cared about earning more money, he said.
"I did not want to become one of them. I missed my family. I wanted to return to a simple life, surrounded by nature."
Mr Hussain, 52, has opened three schools for underprivileged children. The curriculum and ethos is somewhat alternative.
Unlike the education he received, which was based on rote learning rather than critical thinking, Mr Hussain's schools follow the idea that teaching in classrooms and lessons learned from textbooks are secondary. Instead, there is an emphasis on learning from nature and through social interactions.
His third school, the Salsabeel Green School, is set on 2.6 hectares of land in the heart of Kerala's lush tropical villages. Salsabeel, means "spring of heaven" in Arabic, and the surroundings live up to the name.
The fees are modest, up to 900 rupees for grade 10. Those who cannot afford the fee - almost 25 per cent of the pupils - are educated for free. Mr Hussain said he strives to give them a decent education, boosting their confidence while teaching them to be self-reliant and to work within the nature that surrounds them.
Students walk bare-foot on the red, loamy soil, amid peacocks and rabbits. They harvest organic fruits and vegetables such as mangoes, pumpkin, guavas, and jackfruit. They grow rice and listen to guest lectures from eminent environmentalists and social activists.
Every day the students read English and Malayalam newspapers as part of their improvised curriculum.
Science, English and maths are also taught.
Many of the children at Mr Hussain's schools have fathers working in the Gulf. An estimated 2.2 million people from Kerala live and work in the GCC, according to Irudaya Rajan, a professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, Kerala. Most Keralites consider the separation of family from the bread winner a worthy sacrifice so that children can attend a good school and the family can live in a decent home.
Mr Hussain wants the children to learn farming practises that will enable them to earn an income in Kerala if they are unable to attend university or get a well-paid job at home or abroad.
Unlike his wife, who holds a masters in social history and is the principal of the school, Mr Hussain barely made it through high school, failing grade 10 four times.
Although Mr Hussain is popularly known as "Hussain Master" he remains in the background, running the administration.
"I am not a teacher," he said. "I am a helper."
Mr Hussain says he can barely write the Malayalam script properly.
The simple life, his wife, Alukkal Mohammed Sainaba, says, is what drew her to her husband when they wed on his return from Qatar.
"His ideas were clear and simple. At that time there was no vision to build a school but the idea of a life surrounded by nature, and doing good for the community was always there."
The Salsabeel Green School was set up in 2006 with 33 students and goes from kindergarten to grade 10. When the next academic year starts in June, the numbers will have increased to 200. The other two schools, called Salsabeel Central School are in the nearby towns of Thrissur and Mundur.
In Salsabeel Green School students attend classes from 8.30am to 1.45pm and after that, they are encouraged to do their homework beneath the trees in the school's grounds. Younger students gather in the afternoon to watch the older students tending to the crops grown on campus.
Adheena Sundar, 16, is torn between wanting to become a social worker and an Indian civil servant when she graduates this year.
"I want to start with the soil, what it means to us, as human beings. I want to work to make us better," she said.
For some of the village girls, like the shy and hesitant Amnah bint Basheer, 15, in grade 10, attending school has meant a world of difference. School has boosted her self-confidence. Before she could barely hold a conversation.
"When I walk around my locality, I am more aware," she said. "That gives me a kind of confidence to know what is happening around me."
First published on The National