One child, one teacher, one book and one pen, can change the world”. These are the words of Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban in an attempt to murder her on her way to school. Why? Because Malala spoke out about girls’ right to education. Malala knowingly risked her own life in an attempt to raise awareness of the importance of education for all. This summer I truly understood what she meant when she said that one child and one teacher can change the world and I understood why she went to such extremes to fight for her, and her fellow neighbours, right to go to school.

My name is Sarah Enright and I spent a summer teaching alongside eight incredible women with Team DAS in Kolkata. My Suas journey however did not begin here, I was lucky enough to volunteer in Zambia in 2017 too, and I can safely say it doesn’t end here either.

This summer myself and my teaching partner, Moya, were based in Dhobiatala, Kolkata, which also presented many challenges. The children amazed me every day. Despite all odds, they are still going to school. They are fighting for their right to an education. I went to India and Zambia to teach, but instead I was taught.

Dhobiatala is a coaching centre, intended as after-school extra tuition. Although the children were registered in government schools, many rarely, if ever, attended, and instead were involved in child labour, something that shamefully benefits us in the ‘West’. This links with SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 4 (Quality Education) and SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities). Many of these children live in poverty and therefore must work to provide for their families. They do not have access to as good quality education as we do in the West, and they are less likely to attend school due to the pressure on them to work.

You would think that Dhobiatala would be a dark, grim place, and aesthetically, it was. We fought through many challenges such as serious behaviour issues, and there were days that there was music so loud playing outside that we had to shout in an attempt to be heard. But in many ways, Dhobiatala is one of the happiest places on earth. The children were still coming to school. They were still smiling. They still put their all into everything we did with them; down to the highly anticipated daily star chart competition or roaring the Days of the Week at the top of their lungs. On paper, there was very little going right in these children’s lives. But they had so much love to give, they found so much to be grateful for.

Every day, Moya and I received little gifts; sweets, unknown fruits, or the Friendship bracelets for Friendship Day. The celebrations for Friendship Day seemed to go on for about three weeks, and there were times when Moya and I would be covered genuinely from arm to arm in these Friendship Bracelets. Refusing one of these gifts simply wasn’t an option, no matter how much you tried to get the children to keep the sweets or whatever it was for themselves, they were insistent it was for you. Bearing in mind these were children living in the depth of poverty, yet still found little ways to make Moya and I feel appreciated and loved.

Our time in Dhobiatala was full of small successes, but I’ve come to realise that maybe the small successes really were big successes. We may not have taught the children how to read fluently, and to be honest, after eight weeks of doing the Days of the Week every morning, there were still children in the class that didn’t know them. But we tried our best to make our children feel loved, and for most of them, that may have been what they needed the most. When we walked in to Dhobiatala on Day 1 we realised it was a bit of a crazy classroom. I think in Ireland, we take for granted that children, for the most part, know how to behave. But when you come to Kolkata, and some of these children have never really attended school (SDG 4) , and are involved in intensive child labour (SDG10), how can you expect them to behave in the same way? We accepted fairly soon after starting that these children probably wouldn’t be able to read by the end of our eight weeks. Hopefully some day they will, but not just yet.

However, we saw incredible development in these children in the short time that we spent with them, and I am so lucky to have been part of their journey. I use the word ‘lucky’ as I am one of relative few in the world that can cross borders safely as well as being in a comparatively favourable financial position and I recognise this middle-class privilege. We noticed a dramatic change in the children’s behaviour. There were things that at the start we thought we’d never be able to do in our school, such as painting, certain games, or outings outside of the school walls. But by the end, we did, in fact, do these things with the children – something that sounds so small, but to us, and I hope for the children, this was huge. Nothing could have prepared us for Dhobiatala, but nothing will ever compare to it again. There were challenges greater than I ever could have imagined, but amazing things happened within those four walls that will stick with me forever.

Interestingly, both Team DAS this year and Team Chikuni last year were all-female teams. What a wonderful thing it is to be surrounded by empowering, kind-hearted women. I hope that we may have worked towards SDG 5 (Gender Inequality) during our time there as we tried to encourage all children, regardless of gender to come to school and tried to act as positive female role models. Working towards SDG 5 is, of course, more complex than this, but I hope to have contributed in some way towards the development of this sustainable development goal in Dhobiatala.

This summer my team and I all read the Rupi Kaur books ‘Milk and Honey’ and ‘The Sun and her Flowers’, which if you haven’t read yet, I would thoroughly recommend. She is an Indian poet who seems to put into words things we all felt this summer, but in a much more articulate way than I ever could have.

She says;

To the amazing children that I had the pleasure of spending my summer with; if I made even half of the impact on you that you have made on me, then I’ll be happy. My one wish is that you live healthy and full lives and believe in your own potential.

About Author 
Name: Sarah Enright
Volunteer Sending Agency: SUAS
Award: Gold 
SDG: 5