12 January, 2023

Telling stories that matter

Tata Trusts supported CInI for a storytelling project in rural Jharkhand that has engaged children in critical discussions around themes like empathy, equality and social justice

Expressing themselves through activities like drawing Jamlo’s walk and enacting plays helped the children process the events in the story
Expressing themselves through activities like drawing Jamlo’s walk and enacting plays helped the children process the events in the story
Expressing themselves through activities like drawing Jamlo’s walk and enacting plays helped the children process the events in the story
Expressing themselves through activities like drawing Jamlo’s walk and enacting plays helped the children process the events in the story

On April 18, 2020, in the early days of the nationwide lockdown, 12-year-old Jamlo Makdam, a migrant labourer, began her journey on foot from the chilli fields of Telangana to her home in Chhattisgarh. However, due to the arduous nature of her journey and the lack of food and rest, Jamlo did not survive. She was among the many faceless migrant workers who trudged hundreds of miles to their homes from the cities after the Covid-19 lockdown brought the country to a halt. Jamlo Walks, written by Samina Mishra and illustrated by Tarique Aziz, sensitively depicts Jamlo’s fateful journey and her eventual demise.

As the pandemic unfolded along with its many attendant human tragedies, children’s voices largely remained unheard in the crisis. Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (Clnl), a flagship initiative of the Tata Trusts, was determined to change this – and Jamlo’s story became one of the conduits for its efforts.

In July 2021, facilitators at Clnl shared the story with over 1,500 children across 10 blocks in four districts (Khunti, Hazaribagh, Dhalbhumgarh and Lohardaga) of Jharkhand. The children, who hail from disadvantaged tribal communities, engaged with the story book through ‘read-alouds’, experience-sharing, drawings, and other activities.

Through the storytelling process, the team encouraged the children to analyse the event from an intersectional lens of privilege, labour, and social security. By creating safe spaces for children to share their thoughts, feelings and opinions, CInI helped them make better sense of the complex social justice issues experienced by them during the pandemic.

Education is a key thematic area for CInI, which anchors the Trusts’ Central India Initiative. Currently operating in Jharkhand, Odisha, Maharashtra and Gujarat, the agency transforms tribal communities by building knowledge and scaling up programmes in multiple thematic areas. Children from these communities are among CInI’s key stakeholders.

Reading Jamlo Walks

The facilitators, who were trained extensively, would meet the children in groups. They would read aloud the story and hold detailed discussions on the text and the illustrations. Next, they would divide the children in smaller groups for ease of discussion. These groups were encouraged to share their thoughts either by writing, drawing, or simply voicing their feelings.

The students were touched by the story. Many recounted the difficulties faced by their own families during the lockdown. Some children also enacted plays around the story and performed them in their villages. Playing the character of Jamlo gave the kids an opportunity to think about and discuss the subject of privilege in society.

Meanwhile, older children created collages of articles related to migrant workers. This helped them summarise the gruelling events that transpired during the period and understand how poor and underprivileged citizens coped with the crisis.

Understanding the nuances of social structures

The discussions around Jamlo Walks were designed to help children relate the story to aspects of their own lives. For instance, the book covers the aspect of online education and the access – or lack of it – in the interiors of the country. Many children spoke about their own experiences with online learning and expressed sympathy for the character. This gave them an opportunity to recognise and talk about unequal access to resources, especially digital resources.

In another part of the story, Jamlo, during her difficult journey, is given a laddoo by a shopkeeper. The children noted that acts of kindness like these mean a lot during times of distress. They were able to question, analyse and discuss the various social realities presented in Jamlo’s story: from the unfairness of the system that forced the labourers to walk back to their villages, to the need for stronger child and labour laws, and more.

Many children even wrote letters to the author Samina Mishra, urging her to write more such stories and even include stories from their own lives.

A new way of learning

Stories give us an opportunity to make sense of the world around us. An otherwise difficult truth is better understood when seen from an external perspective. Listening to Jamlo’s tale evoked empathy and concern in the children.

“I felt really bad for Jamlo. She had to cover a really long distance without any food to eat or money to buy anything. She walked day and night with no transport due to the lockdown,” said Chandrika Kumari, a little girl from a village in Okra, in Khunti district.

Meanwhile, other children created their own versions of Jamlo Walks with happier endings. In these versions, Jamlo is taken to a hospital and saved or was able to return to her family and live happily. It shows how children think and desire to live in a just and equal society.

The reading of Jamlo Walks, and the activities surrounding it, were not just aimed at generating empathy. The goal was to make these tribal children aware of the realities of the pandemic – something that happened in their immediate surroundings – and to encourage them to reflect on the social justice systems in the country.

In this endeavour, it was successful. The activity pushed the children to question the manner in which the lockdown was declared. Some came up with alternative ways in which the situation could have been handled. They also suggested steps or initiatives that could have improved the lives of the migrant workers. Such is the power of stories and literature to help young minds understand the world and give them the tools to aspire to a better future.

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