The reason why we’ve arranged to meet with Solomon in Masinagudi is because of his work with Grace Charitable Trust, one of the projects sponsored by Adventure Ashram. As we leave the Elephant Camp and head towards one of the tribal villages deep in the Tiger Reserve, Solomon tells us his story.
He is the seventh of nine children, and his father wanted them all to have an education. Solomon enjoyed school and did well. He had his sights set on being a Forest Ranger, and he studied hard and got top marks in his tests. His teacher, though, favoured other pupils to take up the places on offer because of their religion, and his father couldn’t afford to pay for his higher education. Bitterly disappointed, his experience clearly left Solomon with a burning desire to help other children into education.
Whilst in theory education is compulsory here, in practice children who live in remote tribal areas do not have the means or incentive to get to school each day. Parents, mostly uneducated themselves, don’t always see the need for their children to go to school, preferring to allow them to stay at home playing or watching TV. Solomon knew he had a job on his hands.
He found, though, that the children themselves were keen to go to school, and that when they did so they helped encourage their friends to go too. By this time Solomon was working as a taxi driver, and he would visit the villages in the morning and take children to school himself. If they didn’t show up, he would go to their houses and ask their parents why their kids were not in school?
Gradually and persistently he started to get buy-in to his vision for their children’s education. Solomon could see the results of his efforts as the children started to make progress with their schooling. He resolved to put all of the money he received as tips from his taxi work towards helping the children get to and from school. He paid for bus fares or other taxis to make sure they attended.
In doing so he started to get into debt. At one point he owed 11 months worth of bills to people who had worked for him. He didn’t know how he was going to repay everyone.
Solomon also had another job, working at the Jungle Hut hotel (where I’m writing this from now). Simon Smith was staying as part of the India trips he was involved in, out of which had come the Adventure Ashram charity. Solomon took Simon for a taxi ride, and during the trip they got talking. It was a trip that was to change Solomon’s life and the lives of hundreds of the children whom Solomon had been trying to help.
Simon promised to help. As a result of his efforts, Adventure Ashram raised what Solomon described as “a huge sum of money”, and suddenly Solomon’s dreams could be realised. Since then, Adventure Ashram has funded four school buses and their drivers, and tuition centres in several of the villages. Here children can meet, get extra help and lessons from their teacher, and complete their school homework. It was to one of these tuition centres at Chemmanatham that we were headed now. It was dark, and the children would be returning from school.
When we arrived it was clear that the children had been expecting us. They spilled out of their classroom in great excitement, insisting on shaking our hands and introducing themselves. We were swept into their classroom feeling like royalty.
There were 17 children here with their teacher, and we thanked them for their wonderful welcome. The tuition centre comprises two rooms, the main one being around 20 feet square, laid out with metal framed desks and colourful pictures on the walls, including maps of India and their national flags, as well as the Union Jack, and a smaller second room containing computers available for the children to use. With solar powered batteries and phone based wi-fi this is a self contained setup.
The children crowded around us as we took selfie videos with them, and they enjoyed watching themselves on the replays.Solomon told the children a little bit about us and the reason for our visit, and we asked them what they would like to do when they left school. There were several doctors and police officers, two forest rangers and a member of the military among them. We fervently hope that they go on to achieve these aspirations.
We had brought some small gifts with us, including crayons, notebooks and sharpeners. The highlight, though, was undoubtedly the bottles of bubble-blowing liquid, and soon the room was a mass of bubbles streaming in every direction. We all had a wonderful time.
It was all too soon time to leave, and we headed to our second stop of the evening at Bokkapuram. Here the tuition centre was inside the village, and we proceeded on foot past one room houses with corrugated roofs, animal enclosures, young children playing, people cooking, and a lady washing clothes using the traditional method of scrubbing them across a stone on the ground. The paths between the houses were only a few feet wide, and Solomon told us that there were 70 houses packed together here, with about 250 villagers.
The tuition centre was similar to the previous one in its shape and feel. Again we had an enthusiastic welcome, and all of the children fell over themselves to tell us their names and say “How do you do?” Again the bubbles were a big hit and happy chaos reigned as the children did what happy children do, chattering, playing together, and laughing.
Solomon had warned us that these children were a little cheekier than in the previous village, and harder to control. If that was true we saw little evidence of it. These kids were exuberant but polite, well-mannered and a delight to be with. They seemed proud of their education and their achievements, and we hope that their future is bright.
As we left for home, the children’s goodbyes ringing in our ears, I asked Solomon whether he thought that getting more children into education would change the character of the villages. “Yes, definitely,” he agreed. “The kids will have to leave home to get the jobs they want, so the villages have to change. But in a good way.”
I asked how the villagers support themselves. “Life is very hard for them,” he said. “They used to work in the hotels, but many of them have closed due to government restrictions on the Parks. They receive no other help and find it hard to get work, especially if they have to travel. They have no land of their own and cannot farm. Education is the way out of this problem.”
Back at the Jungle Hut, we ask how we can help. Solomon tells us that he doesn’t have big plans for future expansion, just to carry on doing what they are doing at the moment, helping more children. There are the running costs of the buses and drivers to meet, and hopefully Adventure Ashram can continue to support these. But every additional child who goes to school is a success, and the best way to help is to sponsor the cost of a child’s transport, uniform and materials to enable them to attend school each year. At a cost of around £20 a month this is a target within everyone’s reach.
We are deeply impressed and inspired by Solomon. He comes across as a thoughtful, joyful but very sincere man with a grand and life-changing mission. He has achieved amazing things here, and we have no doubt that he will continue to do so. He is justifiably proud of his achievements, and he deserves all of our support. If you’d like to help, there’s more information on the Adventure Ashram website.
It’s been an incredible day.