Teaching English and learning how to live like a Ladakhi

11 Sep
Eco friendly building

Eco friendly building

For two and a half weeks during July and August Andy and I volunteered at a school called SECMOL (Students’ Educational & Cultural Movement of Ladakh) situated just outside the small village of Phey, not far from Leh in Ladakh. The school was set up in 1988 by a group of young Ladakhis with the aim of reforming the educational system of the region. It has a very good reputation around the area so we were very happy to be welcomed to help out.

Most of the volunteers there help to teach English by way of the daily conversation classes, which is what Andy and I were most involved in. Every day there is a different topic or sometimes a game that helps the students practice and improve their conversational English. This is important both because the tourism industry is such an big part of the local economy, and the students may have the opportunity to work with tourists in the future, but also because all their end of school exams are conducted in English, rather than their native Ladakhi. Not only do the students learn a lot from these conversations but the volunteers do too! We learnt so much about Ladakhi cultural and heritage, about the way they live their lives in harmony with the local environment and the way their mainly Buddhist religion affects their outlook on life. Even coming up with topics for the classes was a cultural learning process. All the things we take for granted: like watching movies, having hobbies, dreaming about travelling or living in other places and having aspirations to become rich or famous are often foreign to the Ladakhi students. It was a challenge sometimes to not wish that the students would broaden their horizons and realise that it is actually a great thing that they are mostly happy living where they live and with what the future holds for them.

English conversation classes

English conversation classes

The students at SECMOL are usually there for just a year after failing to pass all of their year 10 exams. As well as the standard education they also get involved in the running of the hostel and they all have different responsibilities from sweeping the common areas, helping with food preparation to milking the cows. They have a packed 6-day-a-week schedule, waking at 6am for their morning exercises and finishing after their evening activities at 10pm. They listen to the news, get involved in debating, play board games, give speeches to their peers, perform Ladakhi song and dance, learn about recycling and reusing waste, learn how to make jam and dry fruit and vegetables for the winter. Basically everything that will make them a good Ladakhi citizen and give them a wider education than a traditional school ever would.

Hostel staircase

Hostel staircase

The hostel

The hostel

Recycling

Recycling

Solar panel reflections

Solar panel reflections

Milking the cow

Milking the cow

Milking the cow

Milking the cow

Our days at SECMOL usually started with copious amounts of sweet, spicy, steaming chai and helping the cook Binoy make breakfast for the 37 students plus volunteers and teachers. We learnt to make chapattis by hand and were sure to be around on the mornings when Binoy made delicious loaves of homemade bread so we could eat them hot and fresh out of the oven. The students often drank butter tea for breakfast which is salty and a little bit greasy but this was not a favourite of the westerners! Conversation classes were held between 11.30am and 1pm and before this Andy would often help with maths classes and I did some work designing a students’ name and information board for the common area. After lunch there were special classes, advanced English that I sometimes helped with and computing classes. This was also time for us to help again in the kitchen and it was a lovely time of the day to chat with Binoy and the other volunteers and learn to make some Ladakhi and Tibetan dishes like skyu, a noodle dish with handmade noodles that we made very badly! In the afternoon the students did their chores and I had fun one afternoon trying to help to milk one of the two cows – although I think I probably was more of a hinderance than a help! Early in the evening the students played sport, did a workout in the ‘outside gym’, did their washing and at this time Andy also offered guitar classes which around 8 students participated in. At evening dinner a student and a volunteer would each give a talk (although the student’s talk was in Ladakhi) and we would always sing a Ladakhi folk song. There were evening activities such as dance parties, Ladakhi song and dance performances, quizzes, debates and games nights.

Personal Training with Andy

Personal Training with Andy

Gym class

Gym class

Cricket match

Cricket match

Dance party

Dance party

Making skyu

Making skyu

Chapati

Chapati

Homework time

Homework time

Kitchen duties

Kitchen duties

One night a week was ‘Momo Night’, where the students and volunteers would hand-make around 400 momos, which are Tibetan dumplings. Making the momos was much harder than it looked and the students sat patiently with us as we made mishapen momo after mishapen momos. Everything was handmade, from the dough to the filling and it was a very long and laborious, but rewarding experience.

Momo party

Momo party

Showing us how it's done

Showing us how it’s done

My attempt at a momo

My attempt at a momo

We found the students to be lovely, welcoming, hard-working and very friendly. They would always say good morning and hello when you walked past and they were so grateful for any help you were able to give them. They were polite, mature, respectful of each other and worked really well together … and everything they did was accompanied by laughing and singing! It was an excellent experience to be immersed in the culture by living with the students and we hope they got as much from us being there as we did from spending time with them!

Making friends

Making friends

Fun times

Fun times

Dorje the Secmol dog

Dorje the Secmol dog

You can read more about the problems faced by the Ladakhi students and the work that SECMOL has done to improve their lives here: http://www.secmol.org/edureforms/index.php.

Oasis in the desert

Oasis in the desert

Nearby Phey

Nearby Phey

The gang

The gang

The Secmol 'back yard'

The Secmol ‘back yard’

Volleyball time

Volleyball time

Sunset overlooking Phay

Sunset overlooking Phay

Blazing mountains

Blazing mountains

Mesmerising mountains

Mesmerising mountains

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2 Responses to “Teaching English and learning how to live like a Ladakhi”

  1. Anna McCormack September 11, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

    Wow you finally found somewhere where you were working longer hours than with us! (Although it kind of looks more fun! :)).

    • catherine76 September 12, 2011 at 1:18 am #

      As much as I loved SECMOL and how lovely the people were, I think I prefer huskies to teenagers! 😉

      Oh and you’ll be pleased to know that my MAC is now up and running as it was before the little incident at Hetta. Andy did a sterling job of fixing it.

      Hope all is well there. Give the puppies and Eliel a cuddle for me!

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