Isolation, education, and being an icon: an Indian Summer

Jack May 4 November 2014

Whilst many Cambridge students were content to wile away the seemingly endless weeks of the Summer with procrastination, not-working, and try-hard wanna-be ‘lads’ holidays to well-worn corners of the Mediterranean, for Hugh Hathaway, that didn’t quite cut it. Instead, he got himself on a plane to India to try his hand at teaching English a world away from the grey skies of mid-October Cambridge. Now that he’s back, he wants to bring a little slice of India to Cambridge, and vice versa, and take one of Cambridge’s more obscure charity movements on to the next level.

“I went to Ladakh, which is within the northernmost state in India, Jammu & Kashmir. I was working in a valley called the Zanskar Valley, which is cut off from the world for about nine months of a year,” which meant that Hugh’s trip, organised through Cambridge University English Learning for Tibetans (ironically not in Tibet), came at the busiest time of the year. In the winter, “you can’t get cars in or out, you can’t really move between villages, so everyone spends their summer – all four months of it – harvesting stuff, feeding their yaks and goats, so that they can survive for the winter.”

As it’s such an isolated community, there’s a tradition of people going into the professions that their parents are in, whether that be as a butcher, a farmer, a grocer, or a shoemaker. India’s new government, under the divisive Narendra Modi, has prioritised the region as one of ‘affirmative action’, which means the Government will “funnel in all the benefits and all the resources that they can to try and get some development going”, as Hugh puts it, to try and encourage people to develop aspirations beyond the confines of their local environment.

You can easily see how education is a pretty key part of that, and how the ability to speak English would be a great asset for the children in this area. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. “There’s not only an educational block against them in that they’re not really able to go to school during the winter, [but] there’s also a cultural barrier in that within India there are prejudices existing between dark-skinned Indians and light-skinned Indians, southern Indians and northern Indians, Tibetan Indians, Muslim Indians, Buddhist Indians.

“I talked to one of the teachers there who went to university in Delhi, and he said it was very difficult to integrate just because not only the racism, essentially, from other Indians, but also because the educational standard was quite a big leap to be made.” Although Hugh went out to teach English specifically, the practicalities of the local school system meant he ended up teaching Maths and Science too, “simply because the teachers didn’t really show up for school, and when they did the students didn’t really show up for school, which is partially understandable given that the students, some of them had to make a two-hour walk along the valley to get to school.“

What becomes very quickly evident with any language, however, is the importance of a long-term buildup of knowledge. “A language is so enormous, it’s impossible to make real headway on it in such a short timescale. I mean it takes people years to learn languages, so what was really rewarding was seeing people become interested in it and gain some passion.

“What they were really lacking was the practice and the relevance of the language because where they live there’s no English TV, there’s no English Books, there’s nothing English at all, it is an entirely alien language which they’re being taught without any relevance to their lives.”

It’s for that reason that Hugh came up with a slightly kooky, quirky, and strange idea. He wants to set up a ‘penpal’ scheme between Cambridge students, and school students in the tiny village of Phey in the Zanskar Valley, where he was teaching. “I think making friends, essentially, across the world, is a great incentive [to learn a language, and] when you live in a village of a hundred people, it’s exciting to have one more person in your life, let alone 49 students from Cambridge.”

As Hugh sees it, teaching is about much more than just imparting information, especially with languages. “You have to be a little bit more than a teacher, in a sense. You have to be a friend. You have to be an icon, that they can ascribe to the language and say ‘yeah, this is something cool, this is something interesting.’”

If you want to be a part of Hugh's penpal scheme, join the facebook group here.