In 2018, my family received a marriage proposal for me. I was 21 years old and by the customs of my Saura Adivasi community, I was ready for marriage. They say ‘it’s okay for boys to study further but why should a girl – who is going to be in the house anyway – waste time and money studying’. 

I rejected the proposal. I said I want to study further and I also wanted my younger sisters to get a chance to study. My maternal uncle, Mukundo Gamango, who is a government high school teacher, was the only adult in the family who supported me. My parents were keen that I get married, but I stood my ground.

That is how I came to be the first girl in my village, and the first in my family to pursue graduate studies. I am now in my final year of a Bachelor’s in History through distance education at the SKCG Autonomous College in Paralakhemundi of Gajapati district in Odisha.

Initially I had thought I would do nursing, but my maternal uncle suggested I try teaching instead. I took the state exam – OTET (Odisha Teacher Eligibility Test) and qualified to become a teacher for classes 1-7. The affection of my students and the chance to build lifelong relationships with them is what I like most about being a teacher. 

For the last five years I have been teaching primary school Mathematics and Science at the  Mahendra Tanaya Ashram School (MTAS) in Koinpur, Gajapati district. It is a residential school around 25 kilometres from my home in Pandasahi. 

I need to wake up earlier than my students – around 4 a.m. to do my graduate course work. I usually spend an hour or two studying for my graduate exams after the students have gone to bed. Sometimes I don’t get enough time and end up not completing my preparation. It’s difficult to manage both – but I am determined. The English paper is an especially tough one for me. 

The school in Koinpur where I live has low network coverage and online study is out of the question.  So every Sunday, I travel around 50 kilometres one-way to attend the two-hour discussions that a professor from the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) holds with my class. There are about 35 of us students in this class, all of us now in our final year. This is the only way I can stay on track with distance learning.

Most of my friends got married after completing their high school, and they sometimes ask me why I am choosing to not get married, settle down and start a family. I tell them: if you see my situation at home, you will realise why. My parents are getting older and I want to see my siblings stand on their own feet. 

In small villages in and around here, people don’t think education is important. So parents don’t push their children. You will find young children who don’t go to school, stuck to mobiles and even walking or cycling to the next village just to get mobile connectivity to play on the phone. Agriculture is seen as the only occupation.  

Neither my parents nor my older sister have ever been to school. With my ten thousand rupees salary as a teacher I have educated my two younger sisters Pushplata and Laboni, and the former is also a teacher now. 

I get a lot of respect from my community. In our village, my parents are also respected for the work I do and no one tells them, “why did you let her study? Such a waste.” Girls in my village look up to me and want to know how I got here. I feel my story is able to motivate them to also study and choose different careers. 

Here in our school, we use the Saura language to teach since all the children come from the Saura Adivasi community listed as Scheduled Tribe in Odisha. The state language – Odia – is new for them. We use Saura to teach so that they get comfortable quickly and learning can happen. We do a lot of teaching activities using art, song and dance.

Our Saura dances are done by both men and women together. They are typically performed at Holi, Kandul puja (the winter crop of kandul or arhar) and Amba puja (for the mango season), and weddings. I want our Saura culture to go far and wide. I see around me that our dance is no longer seen in public spaces. Many children from our community do not even know about it!

Whenever I return to my village I speak in Saura. Our ancestors left us with this dance style and I want everyone else to value this culture. In February 2020, I had the chance to teach and present our local Saura folk dance at the Rajghat School in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh along with four of my students. That was a very special experience.

My village, Pandasahi in Rayagada block, lies at the bottom of a range of hills in Odisha’s section of the Eastern Ghats. We are surrounded by green hills. Each home has a small garden with fruit trees of mango, banana and papaya, and flowers like frangipani and jasmine. There are around 25 homes in our village in Gajapati district of southern Odisha. Everyone practises rain-fed farming on small plots of land – less than an acre. People here either do farming or migrate for daily wage work. Every week, a group of people undertake cleaning the village, including the toilets. We have a system of segregating waste with different trash baskets.

In 2007, under the Indira Awas Yojana, the government gave 50,000 rupees to build a house. We added our own money and tiled the floors of our three-room home and made it quite modern.  My parents, Narayan and Brahmani Gamango are small farmers who cultivate local varieties of paddy like ganga, gantia, janaa and ragi for our consumption. Cashew is the main cash crop from which they can earn upto 40,000 rupees a year. We also have a small orchard where we grow pineapple, orange and jackfruit for our own consumption along with vegetables.

There used to be a primary school in my village but in 2020 it was shut down. Roughly 20 students and one teacher moved to Talamunda High School. When I was growing up, I studied in this school where I now teach – Mahendra Tanaya Ashram School (MTAS) run by the non-governmental organisation, Gram Vikas. The school was only till Class 7, so I moved to Balika Ucha Prathamika school near Jirang, about 20 kilometres away to complete Class 10 and then moved again to Ekalabya Adarsh School for Class 11 and 12. I was interested in extracurricular activities and was especially fond of running competitions. I participated in state-level races.

In school, while textbooks were given by the school, notebooks had to be bought by the students. We didn’t have much money to spare, but my mother would save up and buy each school going child a set of notebooks for the year. She felt it was important for our education.

Working in a residential school means Jyoshna has to juggle her school duties with studying for her graduate degree.  Photo by Sharbani Chattoraj

Two of my siblings are married – my older brother, Buddha, lives and works in Chennai in a construction company and my older sister, Revati, is married. My brother Sushant finished school and now runs a small shop I helped him open at home. The store has a large variety of household goods as well as groceries, soaps, cooking oil, soft drinks, and vegetables like potatoes and onions. I bought my sister, Sebapati a sewing machine and she uses the money she makes from tailoring to pay for household expenses.

Today parents bring their children to school and say, “we are leaving him/her with you. You take care of them.” They now have faith in education. During the lockdown, when schools were closed I was back in my village. I didn’t stop teaching – I took classes for the children in my village. I would take one session from 7-9 a.m., and again from 6-8 p.m. In the middle I would be helping in the field and house.

Many of my teachers helped me stay the course of my journey. The principal of my school MTAS, Amaresh Chitrakavi, stood by me and said I should not marry anyone who will not be supportive of my career. My Sanskrit teacher in Class 10, Srikant Satpathy encouraged me to take up new opportunities as did my Maths teacher, Abinash. 

I plan to do a Bachelors in Education so that I can teach higher classes in school. Once I graduate I will do it. Sometimes completing my coursework, while simultaneously teaching at school, does get tiring and difficult. But I don’t see it as a burden; it is my responsibility.

PARI Education would like to thank Sharbani Chattoraj, Manager Innovation and Strategy, Gram Vikas Residential Schools, Odisha and Anushka Ray, student intern, for their help and support in bringing out this story.

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