A Library Grows in the Desert
For some years now WaterBridge Outreach.org (WBO, and formerly PaperTigers.org) has been sending books to the Merasi School in Rajasthan through Folk Arts Rajasthan (FAR), and has recently undertaken water projects to provide drinking water for the first time at the Merasi School. Peter Coughlan, executive director of WBO, visited the Merasi School earlier this year. Under the Projects Now tab on this website you will find more about our books + water projects in Rajasthan.
Peter asked Karen Lukas, FAR’s executive director, to describe the collaboration between FAR and the Merasi: “New York-based Folk Arts Rajasthan (FAR) and India-based Lok Kala Sagar Sansthan (LKSS), meaning local folk arts society, are two nonprofit organizations bound together by a shared vision of a thriving and just future for the Merasi people and their musical culture.
The Merasi of northwestern India carry a powerful musical legacy of 38 generations intact. But with it, they also carry the burden of the still enduring caste system. In an effort to reclaim their identity as storytellers, the Merasi of Jaisalmer have shed the derogatory name Manganiyar, meaning beggars. The name Merasi/Mirasi instead means musicians, and is a poignant symbol of self-determination.
The FAR-LKSS collaborative approach recognizes that preserving an intangible cultural heritage on the brink of extinction and achieving social justice for a continually marginalized people are mutually dependent goals. FAR’s educational programming is designed to perpetuate the Merasi cultural legacy while balancing the opportunities and challenges of modernization.
Together, FAR and LKSS are nurturing a rising generation of ambitious and capable Merasi youth in the face of obstinate hierarchical norms.”
In an email to Dr. Barbara Bundy, WBO’s books + education coordinator, and to Corinne Robson, WBO’s projects manager, Karen offered a moving testimonial to what the book donations mean for the Merasi School in the Great Thar Desert. Her words remind us of the immense power stories have to open our hearts and minds to other people and other cultures, and to connect us all:
“A testimonial from FAR must start with ... you have brought a sense of self-worth to Merasi children. To have a room filled with beautiful books they are allowed to touch and to choose from, is for them simply remarkable.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no Merasi family that owns a children's book; their caste, poverty and illiteracy being the driving factors.
The kids immensely enjoy the revealing of each set of new WaterBridge Oureach books, especially Afreen the student in charge of the library hours.
Because of the Merasi School time and logistics frames, books that are most successful are the ones that picture environmental or animal elements that they recognize, are graphically vibrant, and not too long.
For example, the older title Yuko-Chan and the Daruma Doll, was a bit too lengthy to hold the kids' attention. Because English is not their first language, when we have to translate a lot of text it's difficult to keep their attention centered on the book for a stretch.
To date, the titles Biblioburro: a true story from Colombia, about bringing treasured books to eager children in remote villages in rural Colombia, and Rain School, about the desire of children in Chad to get an education no matter the obstacles, continue to top our charts.
Part of what the kids love is that WaterBridge Outreach delivers multiple editions of each book. This means that the kids can either listen to a youth leader or teacher read aloud--such as Afreen--or can gather together in small groups (without craning) and look over the books together.
I enjoy the image of heads all bent down in a cluster. What it represents thrills me; the days of illiteracy are disappearing.
As I said before, books are not items that are present in individual households, so it's great that reading has become a communal activity, much like Merasi music playing.
‘Reading Hour’ is hugely popular with the kids, and it's a sight to see them scramble without hesitation towards the library to pick something they want to read and SHARE with their peers.
Electricity and internet in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, have been very sporadic this month especially. Afreen could not hear us on the phone today (we were calling from New York) but we will keep up our efforts to engage her for feedback.
Inspired by the beauty of the books, I did suggest to the children that we could create a Merasi storybook (I don't know if I ever told you but that's my background, artist and painter).
I'm enclosing a folder of photos titled a ‘Big Hello from Merasi School.’ I believe the assortment of photos will tell the story better than I. We are so grateful to all of you for taking your passion of books and spreading it out globally. I like to think of my kids sitting in the Thar Desert and another group of students doing the same thing in another country - perhaps even at the same time."
UPDATE: In January 2015, WBO friends and supporters Jenny Li and Angelo Lamola, visited the Merasi School on behalf of WBO and delivered 245 books and dvds. Learn more about this trip in our feature interview with Jenny and Angelo by clicking here.
Photo Credits: Jules Feeney, Sarwar Khan, the Merasi youth, and Karen Lukas
To visit our Projects Now page for the Merasi School, click here.
To access our archive of Books + Literacy Updates click here.