My name is Manisha Gilla Majji and I am from a remote village in Bhamragad, Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, India. Bhamragad is located in the dense forests called Dandkaranya. In India, I am called an Adivasi.The Adivasi is a group of heterogeneous ethnic and tribal people who are part of the aboriginal population of South Asia. One of these tribes is the Madia Gond, to which my family belongs. The Adivasi make up 8.6% of India’s population or 104 million, according to the 2011 census. We live in deep jungles and live on whatever we can gather and kill. We have no irrigation, no electricity, no plumbing, no hospital, and no education. Infant mortality is pretty high and life expectancy of adults is pretty low.
How am I here then to tell you my story?
I am able to tell my story because of our forward-thinking father and some wise women and men who built schools for our people. Thanks to these schools, my siblings and I were able to live and learn. The project was founded by Padma Vibhushan award winner Baba Amte. His son, Padma Shri award winner Dr. Prakash Amte, is the present medical director. Through their efforts, many Madia Gond children have become doctors, paramedics, teachers, police personnel, and employees of the government forest department.
When I was around 7 years old, my father took my brother and me to the community ashram in the village of Hemalkasa, an ashram built by Baba Amte, where I studied through tenth grade. Needless to say, there was no school in my village. My village was 25 kilometers away from the ashram and there was neither road nor any type of transportation. Once at school, we went home only once a year, during festivals. When the Pola festival started, my father or another student’s father would come to take us home to our village.
When the river between our school and our village ran dry, we could cross the river on foot, but sometimes around Pola festival, the river ran over the banks with the forceful waters of the monsoon. In these times, my father would carry us on his shoulders, or we would sit at the river edge and wait for the water to settle down. It was a long walk home. We started the school in the morning and might reach home at 6 or 7 in the evening. Our legs would hurt from all that walking. My father took one path to get us to the school and different paths to take us home. We often wondered from which forest our father took us home and from which forest he brought us back to school. Later when we grew up, we started to remember the path, and we went home by ourselves. One day I asked my father, “Why did you take a different path each time when we were little?” He calmly answered, “So you would not sneak out of the school, run home, and not finish the school” When I reached the 6th or 7th grade, I stopped going home during festivals and stayed in the school’s dormitory to study.
From the first to the tenth grade, we didn’t need any money for our education. The Indian government paid for everything because Baba Amte had worked very hard to convince the government that the children of the Adivasi would not be able to learn otherwise and would remain illiterate. Our uniforms, slates for writing, books, and notebooks were supplied by the school. Even our dorm fees and meals were free. The school provided us with mats to sleep on and blankets to cover us.
I loved athletics and participated in sports from sixth grade on. I competed in long jumps, high jumps, 400 meters running, and the javelin-throw. Later, I decided to compete in only one of these events for nationals, and I chose the javelin-throw. I practiced throwing the javelin daily. When I was 16 years old, I competed at district, state, and divisional levels. All the expenditures of traveling were paid by the school. Our school did not allow playing sports in the 10th grade, so at that point, I stopped. We were expected to study and get good grades.
After finishing the tenth grade, I wanted to study further. My ambition was to attend a college. With the help of my older brother, I was admitted to a newly opened college in the Gadchiroli district, in the State of Maharashtra. The district is also categorized as tribal and undeveloped; forests cover more than 75% of the area. However, the literacy rate of Gadchiroli is only70%. This means 70 out of every 100 people over the age of 6 are literate. In terms of literacy, Gadchiroli is ranked 34th out of the 35 districts of Maharashtra and 424nd out of the 640 districts of India. Male literacy of Gadchiroli is just over 80%, while female literacy stands at 60.66%.
I left the cocoon of Hemalkasa, where I had learned a lot, thanks to Baba Amte and the institution he had created. Our group of students in Bhamragad village was the first group to study in the science field, which was taught in English. Up until then, I had studied everything in the Marathi language. I had no exposure to English, and I had very hard time trying to learn English. I understood nothing. I had to read the same pages of any book in English again and again.
I left for college at 7 in the morning. My new college was not far from my hostel, about 3 to 4 kilometers away, but I wanted to spend as much time as I could in learning. After a few days, I asked my brother to help me get a bicycle. He arranged to get a loan and bought me a bicycle.
The teachers in the college gave private tuitions outside the college and students went there for additional learning help. I was not able to afford private classes, so I never joined them. I completed 11th grade somehow and went to the 12th grade, but I was stressed. I met Ms. Madhuri Variyath while I was in my school. She was my angel. She encouraged me and sent money so that I could take private classes.
I had to study almost the entire day. I attended classes from 8 am to 1 pm, had a one hour break, and then went to classes until 8 pm. Although I worked very hard, I failed in two subjects, mathematics, and physics. I decided to take readmission. Everyone at home stopped speaking to me. But Ms. Madhuri Variyath convinced me that many times we trip, but we have to stand up and start to walk again. I took the Transfer Certificate and went back to the village. Everyone said that the reason I had failed, was because I accepted admission in the science department. Fortunately, I was admitted to another college for the 12th grade. It helped that my brother studied there and had a good record. It still was very hard for me to study everything in English, but I used every single minute to study and passed the 12thgrade. In our group of 30 students, only 5 girls and 3 boys passed. I was convinced now that if I studied, I would be able to get further in my career and would be able to get a good job. I wanted to study in Pune,a much bigger town full of colleges and universities.
I packed my small bag and left for Pune to apply at a college. But, which college should I go to? I had no idea. I knew nothing about Pune, except that I needed to get out of the bus at the Shivajinagar bus stop. My brother could not accompany me because he had to take care of errands in the village. He just told me to get off the bus when I saw the words Shivajinagar. At the bus stop, I should ask anyone about a college, any college, apply for admission, and get the bus back home.
Before leaving my village, from a public phone booth, I called Ms. Madhuri Variyath. She lived in Mumbai. She asked me to which faculty I wanted to apply for admission and I had nothing to say. I called her again when I reached Pune and asked her to please come and get me. She explained that was not possible, it would take her at least 3 to 4 hours to get to Pune. After some time, she called me back at the public phone booth and told me that a relative of hers would pick me up and that he had made arrangements for my stay in Pune. That relative was Mr. Pratap Gaikwad, and he was a principal at some institute. He called me, again at a public phone booth, and said that he was coming to pick me up. He would be wearing a white t-shirt and short pants. I told him that I was standing in front of the gate of the bus stand. He asked me to stay where I was and not to move from the spot. When he came, he asked me if I were the girl from Gadchiroli. He said his sister Madhuri had told him about me. He asked me how my father and mother allowed me to travel so far alone. He didn’t know and I never told him that I didn’t ask anyone for permission. I knew that my parents would have denied it. He took me to his house, gave me dinner, and offered me a room for the night.
Next morning he asked me what I wanted to do in Pune. I said I wanted to take further education. He searched online and said that I could get admission for B.Sc. Nursing at Maharshi Karve Stree (Women’s’) Shikshan (Education) Samstha (Institute).He asked me if I knew anything about nursing, and I said no. He explained to me the basics of nursing, and I decided to try it. I started calling him “Uncle.” Uncle went to the college; there was only one seat left. He arranged for my admission in the Schedule Tribal category for B.Sc. nursing. (Schedule Tribal is a way for historically disadvantaged indigenous people to apply.)
Uncle explained the fee structure. He paid my admission fee of rupees 10,000. When we got home, I called and explained the process to Ms. Madhuri Variyath in Mumbai. She gave me full support. Uncle took me to the bus stop and sent me to Mumbai in a bus to see Ms. Madhuri Variyath. She picked me up at the bus stop. She knew everything about me and my native place. She saw the fee structure and told not to tell to my family. She told me about an institute that helped poor girls like me and said she would assist me in asking for their help. I just nodded my head at everything she said.
My college tuition fees were paid by the government, but my hostel fees were supposed to be paid by me. Someone suggested to Ms. Madhuri Variyath about the Swadhar in Pune. We both traveled to Pune and filled out the form. They paid my 1st year’s dorm fees. (Swadhar partly paid for the dorm fee every year and substantially more in the last year of my studies. This was a crucial help as I would not have been able to appear for my final year exams without their help. ) I’m very thankful to Swadhar for helping me.
Now, I was ready to attend the classes in nursing. In the first year, I studied: physiology, nutrition, biochemistry, microbiology, and psychology. All the subjects were in English and I still needed a lot of help with English. Even my Marathi, my mother tongue, had been weak. My parents, my neighbors, and my friends spoke Marathi, but they can’t write in any script. My Marathi was and it is still not “educated” – polished Marathi. People spoke but never wrote any Marathi. No one read any newspapers–let alone books in my village.
When lectures started, my head would spin. My teachers were good. They understood my condition and supported me. They consulted with me regarding my studies and also my family issues. I failed in college mid-term and pre-final exams, but from there on, my basics of English started to get better. Everything in life is relative. Now I understood why frogs live in the little ponds because they feel comfortable there. If they came out, they would have to face the world. I had to do it after having left my village. One day, my professor called me into his room and enquired whether I studied at all. He warned me that I had to get at least passing grades in the finals.
The college conducted many competitions and I played sports. I represented at the national level at Indian Nursing Council. I got first prize for four years in a row in the javelin throw. All the cost for my participation in sports was paid by the college and by the university.
Finally, I completed my Bachelor of Science in Nursing on 31st July 2016. Now I’m a staff nurse at Deenanath Mangeshkar Hospital GICU(General Intensive Care Unit). I am thankful to many people who helped me along the way. There are too many to name here, but without their financial and moral support, I would still be in my village. Most probably, I would have been married with or without my wishes. I would have been in the same death spiral of an uneducated woman.
Now I stand on my own feet as a nurse in a well-known hospital in Pune. I am working towards becoming a Registered Nurse. I am sure that as a Registered Nurse I will be financially independent for my life.
Also, I want to get my Masters of Science in Nursing through government exams. And later I really want to finish my Ph.D. After that, I will return to my village in Gadchiroli and support the people there. The people in my village do not know how important education is. I will work to help them understand its importance, and I will help intelligent girls and boys to get the education as I did.
I am very happy to have met Ms. Shaku Atre thru a friend of hers in Pune; Ms. Kishori Prasad. Ms. Atre is helping me to learn about computer technology. She has bought a laptop for me. I plan to pay her back. She is guiding me in learning about the hardware and software of my laptop. I want to learn as much as I can because I know I can do many things with my laptop. I have heard of the Internet. This is a dream come true.
I am very lucky. I want to pass on that luck. In 2017, I am going to find two young girls who are 18 years old and have finished their 12th grade and bring them to Ms. Atre. We both want to help these girls get an education just like I did.