Fellow: Ridhima Agarwal
Parindey: Fatema C
Alivelihood: Community Work & Education
Region: Palampur, Himachal Pradesh
“It is not just about cutting trees but also about the kind of relationship we hold with the rest of nature. It is symbiotic, not pyramidal. We do not control everything but tend to think that we do. This experience of nature is what I want to imbibe in children.”
– Fatema C
An ode to the feeling of that bird who doesn’t like to be caged,
Who sings in love, who sings in rage,
Of the past she holds, of the chains she breaks,
The future for the world she nurtures, she creates,
And through her echoes far in the sky above the earth, a message to humanity.
Fatema expresses herself through her life journey of rethinking relationships and education; to follow the path of nurturing children. Fatema was born into the Bohra Muslim community in Mumbai, Maharashtra. She grew up in economically impoverished conditions and experienced the struggles that follow them. As any individual aspires, she says, “There is a notion that we have to study well, and when we grow up, settle with a good job, get married and send our children to the best schools.” Apart from schooling, Fatema encountered various social-political realities that shaped her worldview, including the 1993 Bombay riots and discrimination for belonging to a minority community. She managed to complete her Bachelor’s in science from a local university. However, she could not take up a Master’s due to a lack of encouragement and opportunity. She took up a job at a call centre and aspired to speak fluent English, earn well for herself, and become independent. She got married a few years after graduation, and with the birth of her son Qasim in 2010, her life took a completely new turn. After having settled down with her son, husband, and a stable income, she realised that they needed to spend more time with each other rather than fulfilling hollowness with materials.
Fatema with her son Qasim, near a waterfall behind their home (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)
Exploring perceptions on education, lifestyle and money, Fatema realised that to educate her child she need to rethink her education and foundational ideas on upbringing and schooling. Having witnessed riots, oppression, and ecological degradation, she was concerned about the kind of world being created for children to grow in. In 2011, she attended the first homeschooling conference organised by Swashikshan at Khandala near Mumbai to explore alternatives to mainstream education for her child. She met people who practised diverse vocations and were consciously working on improving their lives and those of their children for a better world.
Observing Qasim made her realise how profoundly creative, intelligent, loving, and curious children are. After attending three homeschooling conferences, with the last one held in Palampur, they decided to leave their Mumbai-based life and move to the mountains. Something that Fatema always valued within was getting manifested. Leaving a corporate job and moving to a biodiverse landscape where they grew their food, lived with just the essentials, and rejected consumerist culture, was a tough but life-changing step for her and her family.
Sambhaavnaa, situated in a valley of the Dhauladhar range, Himachal Pradesh (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)
Her husband Mohammad got associated with Sambhaavnaa Institute in Palampur, and their new home on the campus of Sambhaavnaa was a conscious space for rethinking development. Slowly absorbing the surroundings, the rural community, and alternative ways of organising daily life, Fatema decided not to send Qasim to school. The campus had a learning center where children would play. Fatema used to go there with her son. Slowly, there arose a need for a facilitator in that learning space. Her nature of nurturing and observing young souls manifested in her joining the Udaan Learning Center. ‘Udaan’ means flight, and Fatema’s intention in her work with the children here is to enable their spirits to soar. She began directly intervening and shaping the learning process for rural children in Kangra district. She was instrumental in establishing a working philosophy for facilitating a space for children to explore themselves after school. “The learning center is a space where resources are always available for children to create and learn something. “Adults keep lecturing children, but they learn through the experience and interactions with themselves and the world around them,” she states.
Inside Udaan Learning Center (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)
Her primary work, experiential education and building an alternative lifestyle, is supported by her inclination towards discussing environmental consciousness and sustainability. These are not new ideas but deeply engraved in our ancient culture and experiential reality. For instance, if we ask children to save water, teach about pollution, but keep them away from the landscape, how will they ever learn to care for or protect something that they haven’t experienced?” asks Fatema. Conventional schools ignore the emotional parameter of the child, nor include the awareness of social and environmental degradation.
Along with her team at Udaan, she accentuated the importance of experiential and context related learning and critical thinking. She designed and facilitated creative learning sessions with the local children and conducted environmental consciousness camps where children from different parts of the country joined. These camps were designed with a focus on biodiversity to understand the myriad ways in which the natural world and human world are connected. She facilitated sessions on interdependence in nature, plastic pollution, pottery, carpentry, bird watching and gardening to emphasise learning through the harmony of head, heart and hands. Her pedagogy was to nurture critical thinking and scientific inquiry skills in children.
While making Christmas cards, Fatema says, “People see it only as paper cutting and pasting. But in the process, I am trying to bring attention towards the feeling of sharing, knowing about the world, respecting each other, listening to inner creativity, improving the quality of attention, and expressing emotions in a welcoming way.” The mindset is not to equip children with the English language and other skills, but to try to tap their own needs and aid them.
Fatema interacting with children from nearby villages (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)
“The center has undergone many changes, and our blood and sweat have placed each stone over the other. It is not just a physical space, it is a feeling.” The place breathes life back to anyone who visits it by reawakening their creative energy and the need for innocence, colours, and expression. Facilitating learning is challenging as each child’s psychological and social needs are unique. Leading a sustainable life comes with its complexities in growing market culture, with difficulty in procuring clean food, electricity, and resources at the right value. “The mainstream is not just concerned with education, it is a competitive, alienating way of life that seeks to control the environment. Parents work to earn money to ensure their children’s future security, but in the process, they do not have time to spend with them. The question is whether children require material or their time. By prioritising money, how are we contributing to the child’s growth?”, she inquires.
Spreading colours, spreading smiles (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)
She wishes to contribute to the idea and practice of holistic education, and asserts that if one works with children right from their childhood, a lot can be saved. She feels that she has re-lived her life after her child’s birth, having taken up a firm and compassionate responsibility for providing a nurturing ground to lead and pass on a sustainable lifestyle. Believing that travel is one of the best ways to grow and relate, she began travelling across India with Qasim to learn more about themselves and to expose him to a different educational experience. As the basic needs for food, clothing, shelter are satisfied by the environment, she asks how education can be disconnected from the environment and asserts the need to make our surroundings a part of the educational process itself. She believes in learning to take charge of the environmental responsibility that we all share. Fatema envisions a future where more conscious spaces can be created by collaborating and volunteering to design educational modules, working towards her desire to learn more and creating a generational link of conscious education through environmental learnings.
Fatema comes alive in her love for and awe of the little beautiful things of the natural world. Her engagement in local knowledge systems; interest in growing food, exploring different crafts, and creating handmade artefacts; concern towards human–environmental degradation; paying complete attention to children and becoming a part of their growth; discussing various life perspectives with Qasim; and wishing to travel the world speaks of the learning methodologies she practices in her daily life. Her efforts are for protecting the heart and soul of human civilisation i.e., its children, by doing her bit in their education. From this perspective, Fatema considers motherhood as her most dignified work. For the world, she is a true educator, lighting our paths to collective wisdom and safeguarding our world’s future.
In one of the activities, Fatema gathered children around a tree and asked them to write a message to humanity on their cards and use them to decorate the tree. The smile on her face while reading those cards later is a true reward that one can receive for their work. One of the cards wished for a healthy and happy family and another one read “bea good”.
Fatema C can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Fatema and Ridhima walking on a street in Watlar, Kashmir
Written by: Ridhima Agarwal
Originally published on Travellers’ University, part of the 52 Parindey Fellowship
Teaser/SEO description: A message to humanity: Fatema shares guiding lessons in education and sustenance with the soul of our civilisation, i.e., its children.
Location for geotagging: Faculty House, 4H5F+2C9, Kandbari, Himachal Pradesh 176081
Tags : environment, alternative education, community learning, Himachal Pradesh, sustainability, community, youth, empowerment, natural living, environmentalism, conscious living, Learning methods, youth empowerment, community work, rethinking education, alivelihoods, 52 Parindey