“My Name is Asha Adivasi and I am going to Oxford to study English”

on October 8, 2016 | Features

Janwaar, Madhya Pradesh: Remember when we were children, and secretly thought we could touch the sky.
When we ran wild and free and always imagined the moon running with us.
When we believed in the power of our dreams, and no dream was too big or unachievable.
Remember when we were children, and had hope.In Hindi, hope means Asha.In a dusty village in Madhya Pradesh’s Bundelkhand area, I met a 16 year old tribal girl named Asha, who hoped for a better future and is reshaping her destiny to achieve it. Her story, and that of those around her, rekindled hope in the jaded reporter in me.

“My Name is Asha Adivasi and I am going to Oxford to study English”1
She looks straight into my camera, and says, “My Name is Asha Adivasi and I am going to Oxford to study English”

She is most matter of fact about it, without a shred of hesitation or self doubt.
And then she breaks out into a smile as she recalls how she did not know even a word of English until last year.

At that time, her life seemed to be following the normal trajectory of any young Adivasi girl in this part of the country. Her parents, poor landless labourers, wanted to get her married off before her 16th birthday. That was the norm.

But sometimes, there comes a wind of change so sudden and powerful that it disrupts all norms.

Change came to Asha’s village, Janwaar, in the form of a skatepark. It was the brainchild of German national Ulrike Reinhardt, who had seen firsthand, the success of Afghanistan’s Skateistan program, that helped educate girls through a skatepark. She had similar plans for Janwaar.

It was a daunting task.

It seemed surreal to build a skatepark in a village where many children could barely afford shoes. This was a place that barely got 2 hours of electricity and didn’t even have access to safe drinking water. A skatepark seemed like a ludicrous urban luxury.

At first the villagers were sceptical, even amused.

But soon, curiosity won over, and the children started to come in.

As they learned to travel on wheels and conquer their fears, Janwaar Castle, as the skatepark was called soon became much more than a concrete structure. It was the place where the children could escape their grim reality and reclaim their childhood. It became the place where they could dream.

The skatepark taught the children much more than just skateboarding.

Weeks after it had opened, Janwaar Castle conducted a summer camp where, among other things, it introduced the children to learning English. Held over 4 weeks, it gave Asha the means to access a language she had heard of, but never been able to learn properly.

Asha believed that English was her ticket to a different life, far away from tilling land or collecting firewood, as most adults in the village did. She grasped her chance and gave it her best shot. Her determination was noticed by Ulrike, who decided to take a chance with the 16 year old and give her a big break.

“She attended her classes regularly, everyday and I felt that needed to be rewarded. I asked her if she was ready to go to England to learn the language in a better way? And she just smiled.”

Not surprisingly, the biggest resistance to Asha’s travel came from her parents. It was not because they didn’t want the best for their daughter but because they simply couldn’t fathom sending their girl to another country.

It took Ulrike Reinhardt 8 months to persuade them. She soon understood that the words “England” or “London” meant nothing to people who had never been beyond the town of Panna. Their whole world, and imagination, ended at the borders of the village.

And there lies the true magic of how the skatepark is transforming the life of people in Janwaar. It is not just about helping Asha go abroad to study English but also about changing the mindset of each and every person in the village. It’s about teaching Yadav children and Adivasi children to forget traditional caste and class barriers and skate together. It is about teaching girls to be more self confident and chase their dreams. It is about teaching the village elders to dream bigger dreams for their children.

Later this month, Asha will be the first person in her entire village to apply for a passport.

But she will not be the last.

A skatepark, always seen as a modern, urban space, has disrupted this sleepy little village like nothing before. Every child here now has a dream and an innate self confidence that they too will get their chance.