Opportunities for a Creative Education

22 December 2014

On Tuesday, we visited several NGOs that had foundations in education – whether vocational, elementary, or health-wise.  I think it was interesting to examine the Indian system, and particularly how these NGOs worked to satisfy the needs that are not met through government schools.  In Indian government schools, children are taught “fundamental” subjects – math, science, etc. that will maximize employability.  An education in art or music or other creative outlets isn’t offered, and children have to go to other after-school “tuitions” or weekend institutions for these expressions.  This sheds some light on the nature of their culture, in other words, many parents are purely interested in measuring a subjective “success” of their children, whom many want to study to become doctors or other highly-specialized professions.  At the Aikiyam School, our speaker (the school’s principal) told us that most parents just want to know their child’s grade, not necessarily how they are developing otherwise.  There is a clear emphasis on the academic performance of the children, since many parents want their children to have promising, respectful careers that will both be a mark of pride and support for the family.  While this notion is understandable, children – around the globe – benefit from creative outlets where they can grow and express themselves creatively.  Children, and adults, also effectively learn from “play.”  In the Tamil villages, this idea is also two-fold, since there is a need to preserve the Tamil culture in a context of increasing globalization.  In my communication courses, there were many discussions relating to Western cultural imperialism, so I understand there is great importance on smaller states to preserve and promote their unique cultures and traditions, which is so often expressed through dance, music, and art.  Instead of letting Western, especially American, influences dominate the society, local customs should be celebrated, embraced, and communicated so that the culture can be sustained.  Since the government schools don’t provide for this (and since many families cannot afford to choose otherwise), the work and efforts of these NGOs is admirable.  When there are other rapid social and health issues, like water scarcity, sanitation, etc., the creative needs of children could easily be neglected.  However, we encountered a variety of truly passionate individuals who are working hard to empower children, specifically those whom are disadvantaged, but even more globally, to empower a collective group of individuals whose culture is under threat, which is very inspiring.


Aikiyam School tour & lecture

Aikiyam School tour & lecture

Eco Femme: Eco-Positive Menstrual Hygiene Management and Education in Auroville


Yesterday, we visited the Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG) right outside of Auroville in the neighboring village of Irumbai to hear a talk from Jessamijn Miedema, the co-founder of Eco Femme. Eco Femme is a social enterprise focused in the area of hygiene management, working to spread awareness about eco-positive menstrual practices. The company has created a product line of premium washable cloth pads as an alternative to disposable sanitary napkins.

Eco Femme works with women and girls in rural Tamil Nadu in Southern India to provide education on how to manage their menstruation in a healthy and dignified way. Miedema discussed how they were looking to increase the livelihood of self-help groups for women and did so by having a team of 28 women from the village, 10 of which are full time jobs, produce the pads on site.

deval--621x414 ecofemme

In order to produce eco-friendly sanitary napkins, Eco Femme had to do a lot of research. They started by conducting a focus group of about 300 women to figure out how women were actually experiencing menstruation. In India there is a strong taboo around menstruation. For example, there is an association with uncleanliness; women are not able to go to temple or walk the dog while menstruating. This was very interesting to me coming from a Western culture where menstruation is very much a part of growing up. Unlike India, where I grew up in the US, pads and tampons were readily available for young girls, as well as medication for associated illnesses and education on how it all works.

In India, girls and women have limited body literacy and often do not have the proper materials to take care of them during that time of the month. Without the necessary products and information, I can only imagine that life for young Indian women comes to a complete halt during the few days a month when she is menstruating.

Half of women are using disposable pads and the other half are using old folded cloth. The government was providing girls in school with disposable sanitary napkins, but with no place to dispose of them. This along with many other aspects has caused a massive waste issue. This is why Eco Femme started producing washable pads. The pads are sold in India, as well as internationally. They started a program, Pad for Pad, where any time a pad was purchased internationally, a donation of 80 rupees would be donated to purchase a washable pad for an adolescent girl.

The washable pads seem like an adequate solution to the disposable method. The pads, which come in varying sizes, cost around 220 rupees, which is around three Euros and last for about 75 washes. The most interesting part of the discussion was when Miedema showed us the pad that was created to resemble the old cloths that women were using, however more efficient and leak proof. When these particular pads are unfolded they just look like a square of material, so when hung on a clothesline to dry, would not attract unwanted attention or cause any embarrassment. I thought this was very perceptive of the girls’ and women’s’ needs, while remaining culturally sensitive.


Eco Femme is continuing to encourage females to take better care of their bodies and the Earth and creating a safe space for girls to talk and share personal stories about menstruation. This is a huge issue facing young women in rural India and I’m excited to see the lasting effects of this company and its campaigns.

By Alexa Pizzi

Our large group of 27 students waited for the buses to Pondicherry. In our group huddle, our logistics coordinator and local Aurovillian informed us of an incident that occurred in the Aurobindo Ashram located in Pondicherry. Our logistics coordinator told us the passed down version of the story, stating five women were kicked out of the Ashram due to tension between these sisters and the ashrams. It was rumored they all attempted collective suicide where three were “successful” and the others were rescued. There was reported concern about some immediate uprising against the Ashram with people throwing rocks through their windows.

With caution, we ventured into Pondicherry and received more second hand information from an NGO owner who said she had heard the story over the radio. Apparently, a case was taken to court regarding misconduct of one of the five sisters living in the Ashram and after years of cases and appeals, it was ruled in favor of the ashram that the sisters should be evicted. The sisters threatened to commit suicide if they were to be evicted. According to court orders, the police came to evict the sisters and one sister climbed to the roof and threatened to jump to her death. She was talked down and the sisters left the ashram. Following, the sisters and their parents, who lived nearby, collectively walked into the ocean to end their lives. The father and three of the sisters were rescued by fishermen and were sent to the hospital, while the mother and two other sisters died. Through word of mouth and media reports, we gleaned the details of situation.

When visiting a shop later in the day, we spoke with the owner about what had happened and spoke about the bandh where all shops will be closed in Pondicherry the next day, normally a regular day of business. The owner explained that out of respect for the family, the community in Pondicherry would be closing down most businesses for the day. Later, we discussed as a group the situation in Pondicherry and the unrest of the community. The community was upset at the police for evicting the sisters without offering them an alternative living situation. Coming from different regions of the world, our group spoke about the perceived responsibility of the police in such a situation with no easy solution. In the days to come, we hope to hear the remaining family members will be able to find housing and solace in their community of supporters.


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The Beauty in the Unexpected

Tragic news upset our plans yesterday. From what could be determined by our local liaisons, Sacha and Tanya Elder and their local contacts, a mass suicide was committed in Pondicherry yesterday by a family that was evicted from the local ashram after a legal battle over sexual assault that lasted a dozen years. The Indian Supreme Court finally denounced the case, and required the family’s eviction. As a result, a transport strike was conducted in Pondicherry to protest the ashram and police for conducting the eviction. We could not visit Pondicherry out of concern that rioters would attack transport vehicles that were working in the area. In a brilliant piece of improvisation, our professors Charles Talcott and Tanya managed to reorganize the schedule for a productive day, and it happened to contain the most beautiful settings we’ve visited so far. First was the Auroville Botanical Gardens, a sprawling piece of land hosting a variety of local and foreign plants. We were guided around the areas of the gardens and explained some of the activities of the maintainers of the gardens. Income for the IMG_2006 (1024x683)gardens is partially generated by providing consulting and planning to other centers, such as hotels, on their landscape design and how to make resource use in their landscapes more efficient. Seeds of native vegetables are sold for some income, but also to provide Indian farmers with access to non-copyright seeds.Groups from local schools also visit the garden, and the experience is made as fun and memorable as possible to give the children positive connotations with the environment. A devastating cyclone that hit a few years ago wiped out the tall non-native trees, and caused damage that has only just been overcome after years of work. The wiping out of old trees did provide the landscape with space for much needed growth. Next, we visited the Mohanam Community Center for Culture and Education. It is centered in one of the oldest houses in the village of Sanjeevi Nagar.IMG_2069 (1024x683)Children were doing extracurricular activities in the back yard. Girls were learning a dance, and the boys too, but a dance that seemed combative nature in which they beat sticks together. Some AUP students tried to learn the girls dance with them.IMG_2066 (1024x683)The patient women of the center taught us how to draw mandalas on the ground. Inside, the founder explained the efforts of the center to keep alive local culture by conducting classes in traditional practices, such as cooking, dancing, and other arts. It has taken a year to build the trust of the community before members finally spoke up and offered to teach whatever they could. Now, the center provides a space where all ages can expand their cultural appreciation, and where children can escape the rigid structure of learning in Indian schools and explore their creative capacities and have fun learning their heritage. We watched the children present different dances and chants, before being served a beautiful luxurious Tamil meal. Afterwards we were given a tour of the neighborhood and explained some of the cultural significance of what we saw, such as demon heads on door corners, and the origin of the name of the village. Finally, we visited the Auroville Bamboo Center, where a quirky odd couple named Matt and Walter explained the ecological and structural benefits of bamboo and the centers activities. Matt is a hyper-enthusiastic 10-month volunteer and Walter is one of the founders of the center, who gleefully interrupted Matt from time to time to remind him of what he had to mention to us. The center sells products made of bamboo, but gains most of its income from the workshops it conducts with foreigners in how to build and create goods with bamboo. Local women are employed making decorations and jewelry and men often make furniture. The free workshops also give local youth a chance to learn real practical trade skills that can earn them a wage to provide a decent living. It was a day of spirit and color, and nothing could have compared to the conclusion. Auroville hosted a Christmas market at its youth center. Various caravans, tents and huts of straw and wood were set up, with Christmas lights stringed between them over our heads not to be outdone by the zip line gliding kids through the forest canopy.IMG_2103 (1024x683)This was the more adventurous alternative to being hoisted up on the enormous teeter totter and spun on the merry-go-round. There were local and traveling vendors of soaps, jewelry and clothes, in between a few food stands. Underneath one tent was a singer on a guitar, competing with the reggae and 70s music playing over by the crepe vendor, all of this surrounded by jungle. It was a market to rival a bohemian state fair. Just another day of extraordinary visions in a surreal montage of moments unique from the last.

-Anya VerKamp

We’re Boarding?

December 16th, 2014

It was just one of those days that seemed to be slipping through my fingertips. No matter how fast I moved timed seemed to go faster.

With finals finally behind us, we set out for Charles de Gaulle airport, unaware about what we had just gotten ourselves into. While I can’t speak for the rest of the group, I can say that I was throwing things into my suitcase up until the last minute. I arrived at the airport late but so did most. It was just one of those days.

After we cheated in and sat down for a quick bite before boarding, we once again let time slip through our finger tips and before we knew it our flight was flashing “BOARDING” on the screen.

“We’re boarding?” asked Professor Talcott. You could count this as being late or you could count this as our transition to “Indian time.”

Two flights and over 12 hours later we arrived in Chennia, greeted by two taxi drivers with bottles of water and lays made of jasmine. But as circumstances would have it there was a problem that raised that we had to take care of and so we sat, exhausted and hungry in the cramped bus for a couple hours waiting to go to our new home for the next 28 days, Auroville, India. Once we finally got on the road, it was a long rickety 3 hour ride to the small town of Auroville, before we finally settled in. The rooms are not spacious, the beds a bit flat and hard but it will be an adventure nonetheless.

I knew little about Auroville before arriving, besides how relatively new the town is and that it is a town devoted to sustainable development.How do they use their environment for sustainable development? Are they influenced by Indian culture or do they operate somewhat separately? I came here to learn about developmental communications and for a new adventure.

Two days into arriving in India and dozens of mosquito bites later, I know this is unlike any place I’ve ever been but it is sure to be an amazing adventure full of memories, mosquito bites, and an invaluable experience.

– Kara Ferguson/ American University of Paris