I started working in India in the Anamallai Hills, part of the Western Ghats as they tapered down all the way into the tip of the subcontinent. Before that I had worked for five years in bauxite mining in Guyana, South America and lived on the bank of Rio Berbice, in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. But that is another story.
The area that contained the tea plantations was part of the Indira Gandhi National Park. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife which thanks to the difficult terrain, plethora of leeches, and shortage of motorable roads is still safe from the depredations of ‘brave’ hunters buzzing around in their Jeeps and shooting animals blinded and frozen in their searchlight beams. In the Anamallais if you want to hunt (it is illegal to shoot anything in the National Park, but there are those who are not bothered about what is legal and what is not) you must be prepared to walk in the forest, up and down some very steep hills, be bitten by leeches and have a very good chance at becoming history at the feet of an elephant.
However, if you are not interested in hunting and killing animals, you have all the same pleasures and thrills with the animal healthy and alive at the end of it. I want to see and photograph animals, not kill them. I have hunted enough in my youth and lost interest in killing things as my connection with nature strengthened. I was looking for an opportunity to just spend time in the environment that I loved. My job as an Assistant Manager in Sheikalmudi Estate, my first posting with a princely salary of ₹850 per month, gave me all that I could have wished for.
Sheikalmudi borders the Parambikulam forest. This extends from the shore of the Parambikulam Reservoir (created by damming the Parambikulam River) up the steep mountainside all the way to the top. Sheikalmudi is the crown on that mountain’s head, manicured tea planted after cutting the rain forest, more than a century ago by British colonial planters. Where the tea ends, starts the rain forest of the Western Ghats. Anamallais is the second rainiest place on the planet. In the early part of the century it used to get more than three-hundred centimeters of rain annually and consequently it rained almost six months of the year. Even when I joined in 1983, we frequently saw spells of more than a week at a stretch, when it rained continuously day and night without any easing of the volume of water. I was horrified the first time I saw this. I was used to rain in Hyderabad, where we get about thirty centimeters annually. And to the rain in Guyana, where because of the Trade Winds which brought the rain, it rained on most days in the evenings for a little while and then cleared up.
Now here was rain and more rain and more rain. Yet in all this rain, we went to work at 6.00 am every morning. Heavy canvas raincoat, waterproof jungle hat, shorts, stockings and wellingtons. We rode our motorcycles down treacherous hill pathways, slippery in the rain and covered with fog as sometimes a cloud decided to rest on its journey across the sky. It was very cold because we were between 3500 to 4000 feet high and so in the first ten minutes, you lost all feeling in your legs, below your knees.
Walls of the bungalow would have mildew growing on them in damp patches. Small leaks would develop in the roof and their yield would be received in sundry pots and pans placed under them. This would create its own music. Little frogs would emerge from every crevice and would hop all around the house. In the night, they would find some resting place and add their voices to the night chorus of frogs and insects in the garden, that would rise and fall like an animal breathing. But sometimes the rain would be so heavy that all you could hear was the rain on the galvanized iron sheet roof. This sound would drown out every other sound. Within the first week of the beginning of the monsoon, all telephone lines would be down. Power supply would become extremely erratic. And more often than not, landslides would block roads. So being cut off from everyone for several days was a common phenomenon. When there came the occasional storm – every year we used to have at least two or three – all these problems would get magnified.
Candle light dinners with a roaring fire in the fireplace were the fringe benefit of this weather. That and in my case, a lot of chess by the fire. The year I got married, 1985, there was a storm in which twelve-hundred trees fell on my estate alone, taking down with them all power and telephone lines. There were two major landslides and we were cut off from the world for a total of fifteen days. It rained almost continuously for this period and my poor wife had a wet introduction to the new life ahead of her. But typical for us both, we enjoyed this time, playing chess by the fireside. She started by not knowing chess at all and I taught her the game. By the end of our enforced seclusion she was beating me. Now take it as her learning ability or the quality of my game, but being rained-in has its benefits.
I have always looked for challenges. Anything that comes easily does not excite me. My learning, that it is the extraordinary goal that inspires extraordinary effort is very personal to me. In the plantation industry I was constantly focused on setting new records. And over the years I was able to do this in all aspects of tea and rubber planting. I set the record in yield per hectare, in work tasks in various cultivation activities, and in the price of the manufactured product. I reclaimed swamp land and planted cardamom and set up bee hives and produced cardamom flavored honey. I reclaimed illegally cultivated land bordering our tea and planted tea in it adding over 50 hectares of land to the estate. I planted vanilla under rubber and successfully pollinated and harvested the vanilla bean; to my knowledge the first time this had been done in South India. When I say, ‘I’, I mean my team. I had one of the best in the world, each of them close friends who worked with me with total devotion and dedication and who I was very proud to call my own. I trained several of them, when they came to me as probationers and while not all were equally happy during the training, as I am a hard task master, every one of them was thankful for what they received and have remained lifelong friends.
1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the Russians. Sadly, quality went out the window. Some people, including myself, were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create brand. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Russia collapsed and so did their buying trend and it almost took the South Indian tea industry down with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some very hard times.
Interestingly, success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox, since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have created and our ability to take risks decreases. This to me explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone and creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:
- That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
- That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
- That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.
This fear of taking risk seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power. That is also why such organizations finally break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as the rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away. This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Creating Permanence and so on.
What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth. That growth is not looking inwards with a satisfied glow at what exists, but always to seek what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence and spending what you have, to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.
So, what is the alternative?
In my view, the alternative is to practice change even when there is no need for it.
Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. One can use this or any other method, but it is a very good idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route in my view only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.
The single biggest and most critical requirement of success in my view is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of in myself all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that it would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that he would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.
It is not that I succeeded on every occasion. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the other technique that I had learnt early in life; to analyze failure, face the brutal reality, and acknowledge ownership. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I need to do to ensure that this particular mistake never happens again. The pin and hole principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.
A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What we intended to convey is less important than what we did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for us all, perception is reality.
Being passionate about what you do is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. I discovered that if I am in a profession or job where I can’t really find it in myself to be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. And I did. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do. To maximize contribution. And that can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. People who don’t love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.
Just to close the point, a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in childhood and education, work life is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction and a sense of achievement, but is something that is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for. That is why work produces stress.
Berty Suares, my dearest friend
Life in the Anamallais passed like a dream. Berty Suares was the Assistant Manager on the neighboring estate, Malakiparai. And Sandy (Sundeep Singh) was on Uralikal. Both dear friends. They would come over to my place and we would spend Sunday picnicking on the bank of the Aliyar River where on a bend in the river that passed through our cardamom plantation, I had built a natural swimming pool. I deepened the stream bed and deposited the sand from there on the near bank, thereby creating a very neat ‘beach.’ Sitting on this beach under the deep shade of the trees after a swim in the pool was a heavenly experience. Add to it, eating cardamom flavored honey straight from the comb, taken from the many hives that I had set up in the cardamom fields for pollination. The flavor comes from the pollen of the flowers which the bees take to make the honey. Depending on where you set up your hives or where the bees go to find pollen, honey can have as many flavors as there are flowers. While we lazed about at noon, our lunch would be brought down to us and we would all eat together. The joys of being a planter in the days when we had people who knew how to enjoy that life.
If you walked down the river for a couple of kilometers you would come to the Parambikulam Dam backwaters into which this river flowed. I had built another pool there at the bottom of a waterfall, thanks to a stream that flowed through Murugalli Estate. We used to keep a boat in the dam to go fishing on the lake. There was a thickly wooded island in the lake about half a kilometer from the shore on which one could go and spend the whole day, swimming and lazing in the shade; a very welcome occupation, free from all stress. The only sounds that you would hear would be the wailing call of the Rufus Backed Hawk Eagle and the Fishing Eagle. In the evenings, Jungle Fowl called the hour. If you stayed beyond sunset, the only danger was that you could encounter bison (Gaur) as you walked home. That encounter was not something to look forward to as I discovered one day. Mercifully, I was walking softly and the wind was in my face, so the Gaur was as startled as I was. He snorted, spun on his heel, and vanished, crashing through the undergrowth. I was very fortunate.
The more time I spent with myself, the clearer it became that it is important to be ‘friends’ with yourself. The more you are self-aware and comfortable internally, the more you can enjoy the world outside. When you are not aware of what is happening to you inside or are unhappy with decisions you have taken, or with your own internal processes, the unhappier you are likely to be with your surroundings. The normal tendency is to blame the outer world, but if one looks within, it is possible to find the solution. One rider however, that you will find only if you seek and only if you have the courage to recognize what you see. That is where sometimes the matter remains unresolved. Not because there is no solution. But because we are unwilling to accept the solution or to implement it.
Time for another dip, then climb into the hammock and gently swing in the breeze that comes blowing over the water. Those were the days……………………
The Adhaan for Tahajjud was just called. I know Tahajjud is very important but sometimes I’m lazy. Nothing will happen if I don’t go. No punishment. There’s no punishment here for anything. Except if you tell lies or do anything dishonest or immoral. Then the punishment is expulsion. And that is something that none of us want. We love being here too much.
I get out of bed and make the bed. That’s one of the non-negotiable rules here. We always make our beds and line up our shoes beside them. On that subject, we clean our own dorms and toilets and bathrooms and our own classrooms. We do that because this is our home and you keep your home clean. Nothing remarkable about that, though visitors usually look very surprised. One asked me if I didn’t feel bad to be made to do this. I replied, “Nobody makes me bathe but I do. It’s just like that.” Keeping yourself clean includes keeping your environment clean. It’s as simple as that.
Our four huts, the Dorm Parents hut and the common room are all built around a central courtyard with grass and a shady ornamental or fruit tree. Bird feeders and nesting boxes are attached to building gables or placed safely in the tree. Each hut has a veranda on the courtyard side. The whole complex is surrounded by an 8-foot-high Bougainvillea hedge with a chain link center; very secure and impenetrable. There is a gate near the Dorm Parents hut. The whole complex is called a ‘Kraal’ and the fence is the ‘Boma’. There is a gravel pathway around the whole complex inside the hedge to give access to all the huts. It is wide enough to take a vehicle in case of any emergency.
Our dorm common rooms have a Musalla, a large hall very comfortably furnished with bean bags and arm chairs, books lining the walls, low tables, game boards, a pool table and a fridge stocked with fruit juice, flavored milk, yogurt, fruit and nuts. No sugared fizzy drinks and definitely no Coke or Pepsi. In one section there are a couple of terminals and highspeed internet to allow us to do any research that we may need to do. There is also a widescreen TV for us to watch news, sports and any useful programs. Our school has its own TV and Radio station and so we watch our own programs also.
We spend time in our common rooms, either reading by ourselves, discussing our projects, playing one of the indoor games or reading Qur’an in the Musalla. The noise sometimes gets too loud, but we regulate ourselves as much as we can to ensure that we’re not disturbing those who’re trying to read on their own. If it gets too boisterous we go out into the open courtyard and sit on the grass. Except when it’s raining this is the best place to be, you lie on the grass and look up at the stars. When it’s raining, one of the nicest things in to sit inside our classrooms or common rooms and watch the rain falling in the courtyard and dripping off the roof. The grass ensures that the rain doesn’t splash into the room, as does the wide verandah that circles the courtyard into which you walk out from the class or common room before you step on the grass. These verandahs also have chairs and hammocks in them and on a lazy afternoon, there’s nothing more pleasant than to lie in a hammock and let the breeze gently rock you to sleep. The walls of all our Kraal buildings are decorated with African designs, murals and are strikingly colorful. This is the case with all the buildings in the campus, which gives it all a very cheerful atmosphere. This is Africa and that is reflected in every building on the campus. SBA Africa is African.
I head out for the masjid. This a very beautiful part of the day. I love the quiet. The peacocks on campus have not woken up yet and I can see the big male on his habitual perch on the topmost branch of the tall Ficus. The tree is like a magnet for birds when it is in fruit and attracts Green pigeons, Blossom headed parakeets, Mynahs, Hoopoes, King Fishers, Egrets, Pond Herons, several types of doves and of late, Blue rock pigeons. Our resident Pea fowl and Guinea fowl compete furiously and noisily with these birds who I’m sure they see as intruders into their property but the Ficus is generous and there are enough berries for everyone.
On the ground the several species of deer, sheep, goats and hares that are all over our grounds gather under the Ficus to eat what the birds drop. Symbiosis in action. How do we learn about symbiosis? By watching these relationships between animals. We also learn politics this way. How do I know about the birds and what they eat and their lives? We learn about them in our natural history and photography classes under this tree.
All these thoughts are going through my head as I walk to the masjid. I’m in my kurta as I will change into my riding kit after Fajr. Most boys wear our sports uniform, track suit and running shoes. They wear that to the masjid for Tahajjud and Fajr as they go straight to the sports field after Fajr. We all jog around the athletic track for three miles and do various aerobic exercises before we go off to practice the different sports we play. I ride horses and so I don’t go jogging. Those who play cricket and tennis change into their kit after Fajr. The athletics and track event guys have it easier as they are already in their kit. The others must race back to the dorm and from there to the field to get there in time.
Kits are very important as they are an indicator of attention to detail which is a key factor of quality. I remember the dialogue we had with our teacher, sitting under this very tree, when I asked him why we needed to go and change into different clothes for different activities. He takes all questions very seriously and listens carefully and doesn’t try to impose his view on us. In this school if you have a reasonable argument about any policy, the management is willing to listen to you and even change that policy. He told us that when we change into the right clothes, not only are we wearing the clothing that is most suited and evolved and designed to suit the activity but we are also giving ourselves a message about the seriousness of what we are doing.
Here’s the masjid, bright and welcoming. As I enter I leave my shoes in the rack and wonder why we are the only masjid in the world where people don’t throw their shoes in the passage. Everyone puts their shoes in the racks and if the racks are full, usually on Friday because local people also come for Juma, they’re lined up neatly along the racks with a clear pathway down the center for people to walk to the door.
As I enter the masjid I breathe in deeply the beautiful aroma of cleanliness. On Fridays we burn incense, the aroma of which remains for a few days after. Each of us students have masjid duty which includes everything to ensure that anyone who comes to pray, has the best experience of his life. We know that by doing this Allahﷻ will give us a reward for their prayers, so we look forward to our turn which comes once per term. Masjid duty includes calling Adhaan, sometimes leading Salah and even conducting the Juma on occasion. The boys are all taught all these things as these are basic requirements of being a Muslim man. We take all these things very seriously and practice our Qiraat, Adhaan and spend a lot of time over our Juma Khutba when it is our turn to do it. The masjid is a place of much activity which I love to visit often.
It is very quiet and peaceful. In the back there’s a very quiet hum of some of the boys reciting Qur’an, taking care to keep their voice low, so as not to disturb those who are standing in Salah. Consideration for others is a very important value we learn here, not by lectures but by watching our teachers and seniors. We enjoy it when others are considerate of us and, so we know that we must do the same to create a culture of mutual care and concern.
As I stand getting ready to start my Salah, I can’t help but be impressed by the rapt concentration on the faces of some of my friends. It’s as if they’re in a different world which I suppose they really are as they’re connected to their Rabb and are standing in His presence, oblivious to the world around them. I envy them and ask Allahﷻ to bless them and make me like they are. It’s my dream that one day I reach a state of perfection in my Salah where I can concentrate like some of my friends. In the masjid I can see most of our teachers also in Salah or reading Qur’an. This is one of the best things about our school, that our teachers are our role models. There’s a huge emphasis here on practicing our core values and everyone does it without compulsion. We see how this helps us all to create a wonderful, caring environment which we all appreciate and enjoy. And we know that this can’t happen if even one of us doesn’t pull his weight. It’s peer pressure which is the most powerful force to encourage us to do our bit. And we all do it. Can’t let the side down, you see!
Fajr Adhaan is called and after praying Sunnah we line up for Fardh. The Imam says, “Allahu Akbar.” My heart misses a beat because I recognize the voice of Shaikh Saad Al Ghamdi, whose style of recitation I’m trying to learn. And here he is in person and I’m praying behind him. What good fortune for me! I bet there’s not another school in the world which can boast of this. But our school regularly has scholars, religious and otherwise, who come to spend time in our Retreat Village and share their experience, knowledge and time with us. Imagine the thrill of being taught a subject by the author of the books on that subject which we’ve been reading!! Or like today, to listen to Qur’an being recited by a Qari whose recitation we follow and learn from. Or to be coached in sports by those stars who others only see on the TV screen.
After the Salah and Fajr Reminder, we leave the masjid for the sports field. I head off to my Kraal to get into my riding kit. Two of my friends join me to change into their cricket whites. The chatter of the boys running off to their dorms or sports field is matched by the rising cacophony of the birds in the Ficus and many other fruit trees on our campus. Loudest among them is the mournful, scream of the male peacock as he announces to the world that he’s finally awake.
My ride was lovely as always. My mount, Fascination is a Thoroughbred mare and my dearest friend. She is the most intelligent thing on four legs and many times more intelligent than those on two legs. I love and trust her with my life and I know she feels the same. I talk to her and she understands me.
My riding class begins with mucking out her stable, grooming and saddling her and leading her out into the schooling area. Then we do our morning routine of exercising to warm us both up first. Then schooling for dressage, alternating with going over the course in the show jumping arena every other day. Fascination is a natural jumper and loves to go over the obstacles. The dressage movements come to her naturally and she is so experienced in them now that even if I fall asleep on her back she’d do them all perfectly on her own.
After I finish my hour of riding, I take her back to her stable, rub her down to dry the sweat, then take her to have a drink at the trough, taking care to see that she doesn’t drink too much water. Then I give her grain feed and throw fresh hay in her stable for her to lie on and fresh hay in her feeding trough. Finally, I give her, her daily treat of green Lucerne and a couple of carrots or an apple which she loves. She shows her appreciation by pushing her nose into my chest and making her soft neighing sounds.
Horse riding builds balance, boosts your courage, builds the muscles of your core, back and thighs. It corrects and gives you a great posture, heightened sensitivity and makes you a considerate and compassionate person. It teaches you how to communicate and that communication is different from speaking. Communicating is about understanding the other first and then about helping them to understand you.
A horse is the best judge of character that I know and senses fear, lack of compassion and hesitancy and reacts accordingly. Treat a horse with respect and love and it will take care of you, fight for you and give his life for you. Treat him or her badly and it will throw you at the first opportunity. Good horse riding is not about forcing the horse to do something it doesn’t want to do by applying the whip. It’s about helping the horse to see why doing what you want it to do is the most pleasurable thing for it to do. Once the relationship is built and mutual trust is established, the horse will do whatever you want without any hesitation. But building relationships is about spending time, communicating and taking care of the horse. This is where the daily grooming comes in. It’s not about cleaning the stable but about paying your dues to build the relationship with your mount. If you haven’t got it already, all this is part of our leadership education.
Riding is not only for fun, but our second class for the day. The first is always connecting to Allahﷻ in the masjid.
Back to the dorm after riding, quick shower, change into our school uniform and off to the dining hall for breakfast. Choice of oatmeal or mixed grains porridge, eggs, milk, coffee, tea, fruit. We can all eat as much as we like but no wastage. So, we learn to take small portions and go back if we’re still hungry. Our dorm parents eat with us and are there to see that everyone eats well. We have various versions of this menu, but the basic principle, that it should be wholesome, filling and nutritious, remains the same.
We all eat together. That’s one of our school’s policies. School staff eat with everyone. This includes maids, guards, gardeners, drivers, everyone. Naturally this depends on their work schedule but whoever is free to eat at regular meal times eats with us. And everyone eats the same food. No differentiation between staff, management, teachers or us. We know many of the staff personally. We address them as aunty or uncle, not by first name and they treat us like their own children. Many staff children stay and study with us. Some are on concessional fee; others on scholarship. But as far as we are concerned there’s no difference between us and them in anything.
How do I know all this? Because my Dad is a driver and my Mom is a housekeeper and I’m on a full scholarship. But I’m my House Prefect and Head of the Dressage team.
Everyone is treated with equal dignity and respect in this school. The only way you get extra respect is by your behavior, your sports wins and your academics. That also is different here. In sports, while we compete with each other, we get points for showing consideration to others, politeness, helping one another and good citizenship (sportsmanship). Dog-eat-dog, is not in our school because we’re not dogs. In academics we routinely help one another, study together, share knowledge and teach one another. We don’t get comparative class ranks i.e. there’s no First in Class academically, but there is in terms of demonstrating Good Citizenship, Integrity, Truthfulness (not carrying tales), Loyalty, Friendship and Trusteeship. We take our values very seriously in this school. Lying is considered the root of all evil and that’s one thing that you can get expelled for. Sounds strange today because lying is almost a part of our popular culture, but not here.
Here lying is treated as a crime and is publishable by expulsion. So, no matter what you did, it’s safer to own up than to lie about it or try to hide it. If you own up, you are asked what you learnt from what you did. Then depending on what it was, you may be put on a watch list, be assigned to speak to a counselor, be helped to get over your issue, be gated for some time, given extra PT or something like that. No corporal punishment whatsoever in our school. As I said earlier peer pressure is the biggest motivator. Our fellow students don’t let us do wrong things.
There’s enormous focus and emphasis on student safety above anything else. We all have 24 x 7 access to a Help Line where you can ask for any help of any kind, physical, emotional, spiritual, material and report any misbehavior, harassment or offence committed by anyone against anyone else. Complete confidentiality, immunity and protection for the one reporting is guaranteed. We need to give our name and ID number and narrate what happened. No anonymous complaints are entertained, so that nobody can falsely accuse anyone. We can ask to meet the Ombudsperson and report face to face or do it on the phone. Action is guaranteed before the end of the day. For emergencies, it is instantaneous. We’ve never had an emergency, but I know this from the drills we do, every term.
Breakfast done we head for class – the academic classes, that is. This period lasts until lunch which means from 0930 am to 1230 pm. While we’re in class we’re free to go and pick up a snack from the snack station; there’s one in every common area; or to go to the loo any time we want. Nobody comes looking for you unless you disappear for a long time and when they do, only to make sure you’re alright. But nobody has ever disappeared like that, as long as I can remember because nobody wants to miss class. Our learning is highly interactive, we’re moving around all the time. Our classrooms are designed to bring the outside, inside. So, they all open into courtyards with grass and shade trees. We can go out and sit on the grass to do our projects and work together in small groups. There’s no formal break time because there’s no need for it. We also don’t have bells or buzzers to announce the end of a class. Time keeping is our responsibility and we do it. After all, how hard is it? Bells are so undignified and prison-like. We are a school, not a jail
Our classes are multi-age group. In my class I have children between 8-12 years old. That’s because our school doesn’t segregate us by date of manufacture and believes that humans learn best in multi-age groups, like we do in our families. As they say in Africa, “It takes the whole village to raise a child.” That’s what we practice in our school. We take care of each other in class and teach each other. That’s the best way to learn they say, and I agree. We have at least two teachers in every class of about 20 students. No class is ever more than 25 students. In many classes we have 3 or sometimes 4 teachers, depending on what we’re studying. Two are our class teachers. A third may be the subject teacher who has come to talk to us about whatever we’re studying. We also have external experts who come to our school to talk to us, take classes, help with projects and take us on excursions and study trips.
We don’t study discrete subjects. We do projects. Let me tell you how it is done. In my class, this term we’re doing Mountains. We begin by brainstorming on the question, “What would you like to know about mountains?” There’s no rule about what you can ask. I said that I wanted to know the weight of Kilimanjaro. Nobody looked at me like I was crazy. We truly believe and practice the adage, “The only stupid question is the one that wasn’t asked.”
We all ask our questions. The teachers add their own. Then these are all organized into buckets of subjects e.g. History, Geography, Economics, Biology, Islamic sciences etc. Then we all work in smaller groups and try to answer our own questions. To do that we read, research the net and libraries (our own and open source), meet experts and seek their opinion, conduct experiments and constantly share our learning with the whole class. We publish a daily bulletin of our ongoing project. For each bucket subject we seek a time and go to the room which houses the teacher and resources for that role topic. To understand the effect that mountains and mountain ranges have had on history we go to the history classroom. To understand the effect of mountain ranges on rainfall and regional climate we go to the geography room. Each of these rooms is a treasure house of information about that subject. There we listen to lectures, watch films, look at working models and permanent exhibits of whatever we’re studying. Then we compile our learning and build our project. Most of that work we do in the evenings when we study or have discussions on our own. Usually in our dorm common rooms.
At the end of each day we write our Learning Journal in which we write what we learned that day. In that journal there is a full page for the questions you asked that day. Every week prizes are given for the best question asked that week. What’s the criterion? A question that nobody could answer immediately. I got that for my Kilimanjaro question. But then with that prize comes a challenge; find the answer. You are allowed to collaborate, use any resource you like and when you find out the answer, there’s a prize for you and all those who helped you. That’s what gets us really engaged in our learning. We do our own research in the evening in the student led session and present it in our class the next day. More about that later.
There is a huge focus on the spirit of enquiry, creativity, seeking knowledge and trying to truly understand it. Just quoting someone else’s answer is not acceptable. You’re asked for your opinion and the reasons for that opinion. And most importantly, you’re listened to with respect and seriousness, even when what you’re saying may sound crazy. We are never asked to memorize anything. We can refer to notes, books or other resources. We’re not allowed personal screens in class or on campus, so no smart phones or tablets. But we have high speed internet and terminals in class which we can use for research. Shaikh Google is at our service. At first, I found this ban on social media screens, irritating but now I have become so fond of reading, even addicted to it, that I love books. We’re allowed Kindle if we prefer to use that, but I like to hold a paper book and turn pages as I read. Sorry trees!! I hope all the books I read are made of recycled paper. Should be. Why not?
We’re supposed to read at least three books per term. These can be on any subject, related or not to our course. Every week on Thursday evening we have a Learning Sharing session where we present the lessons learned from our extracurricular reading. This is also good public speaking and presentation skills practice, which is one of the objectives for doing it. These sessions are very well attended and we get a lot of support from our school mates and staff. My own average is at least six books a term. And I’m far from alone in this. Children here love to read and discuss what they read.
Our discussions, I dare say, would do credit to much older gatherings. We discuss ideas, not people. We discuss strategies for change. We don’t complain. We look for ways to influence. We get frustrated sometimes. We go to our Dorm Parents or teachers to talk about anything we don’t understand fully. They listen, smile and point us to sources for research. Or ask us questions to nudge us to think in ways and about matters we may not have thought of. Sometimes when I’m feeling lazy, I wish they’d simply give us the answer, but I know the enquiry method is far more interesting and beneficial. And of course, many times they don’t know the answer, but that’s fine. That’s why we always share whatever we learn.
And, I must tell you, this summer vacation, we’re going to climb Kilimanjaro.
Our midday break is from 12.30 pm until 2.30 pm for Dhuhr and lunch. Lunch today was as good as it always is. Fresh vegetables in a Caesar salad, freshly baked bread, hot from the oven, jacket potatoes with a dollop of sour cream, a thick slice of juicy roast mutton haunch with boiled carrots and beans. And of course, you can go for seconds. Fruit for dessert. We stay far away from sugar which is addictive and harmful. We have ice cream freshly made with the fruit of the season with natural fruit sugar being the sweetener.
Then we begin our afternoon session. Some of us have swimming coaching, others go to their hobby clubs, Moot Court, Shadow Parliament, special project work, hospital duty, kitchen duty, vocational skill class or the farm.
Two days a week we work in the school farm. We grow all our food on-site. Our poultry farm gives us eggs, chickens, turkeys and ducks. The sheep, rabbit and goat farm gives us mutton and goat milk. The greenhouses give us most of our vegetables, mushrooms and some fruits. Other vegetables and fruit are grown in the open. Our bees give us honey. We plant flowers close to them and don’t use any pesticide anywhere on the property and so the bees are safe. Our dairy and processing plant produces milk, cream, butter, yogurt, buttermilk and cheese and loads of dung which we use to produce biogas with which we cook our food.
The waste from the biogas plant along with all the organic kitchen waste, leaf litter from the gardens, grass cuttings from lawn mowers, litter from the stables and so on, goes to our organic manure plant to produce, you guessed it, organic manure and vermicompost. So also, the poultry litter from the poultry sheds which is changed annually. We harvest fish from our fish farm tanks which are connected to the lake around which are the villas of the Retreat Village. Our fields produce wheat, barley and maize and the fruit and spice orchard gives us oranges, bananas, papayas, lemons, lime, pepper, cardamom and other spices. What we don’t use in the school kitchens is sold in our Department Store at a concessional price to cover costs and generate a modest profit. We harvest rain water and recycle waste water which we then use to irrigate our orchard, farm and all the greenery in SBA Africa by drip irrigation. Our electricity comes from the solar panels on all our roofs which is sufficient for all our lighting and heating needs.
The farm makes a small profit annually but that’s not why we have it. We have it for three reasons:
- So that all of us can eat pure, pesticide free, organically produced, fresh food
- So that we can train local people in better farming techniques
- So that we, students and teachers, reestablish our connection with the earth.
That’s why everyone participates in the farm in one way or another, as they say, from the Chairman to the Coachman and woman. We each of us know how to grow things, take care of animals, milk cows, tend to sheep, goats and poultry, catch and clean fish, slaughter and dress a chicken, rabbit or sheep and then convert it into a mouthwatering curry or roast. Sometimes people wonder why we need so much land for a school. I say to them, it’s to teach is leadership, stewardship, connect us to the land and show is the signs of Allahﷻ, daily. Give us enough land and we’ll feed the world.
Our motto is:
If it can be done, learn how to do it. If it can’t be done, discover a way to do it.
It’s ploughing time and we use two very large and strong bulls to pull the plough. A tractor can do this job faster, but you can’t contemplate life, tell your story or ask really intelligent questions to a tractor, can you? You say, “But can you do that to a bull?” I say to you, “Try it and see.” Do the bulls answer you? No, they don’t. But understanding begins with framing good questions in a way that the answer appears from within them. That happens when you’re riding a horse, walking a dog or walking behind a plough; not when you are driving a machine. Moreover, we want the children to learn farming and for that tractors are not safe. And bulls? They love the children and take care of them. While indulging in this philosophic mood, you must remain aware enough to ensure that your furrow is straight. And most importantly, tie the tails of the bulls to the plough or to each other if you don’t wish to have a face full of usually urine soaked bull tail tassel, when he swings it to drive away the flies.
Do you know the smell of freshly ploughed earth? Do you know the feel of fertile loamy soil in your hand? Can you tell, by crumbling a lump of compost in your hand, if it’s ready to be applied in the field? Do you know the companionship of Pond Herons and Egrets, Mynahs, Bee Eaters, Crows and in our case, free range chickens which follow your plough and pick up insects which get exposed?
A Rat Snake just showed up and is now moving rapidly across the field to get into the grass on the edge before he’s spotted. Do you know what to do when a Rat Snake comes out of a hole and moves away from you towards the edge of the field? You do nothing except wishing it well while hoping that the Brown Snake Eagle doesn’t see him while he’s still in the open. That’s not the only enemy he has. There is a family of Mongoose which would happily make his acquaintance as would the big Barn Owl, at this moment, dozing in his favorite hollow in the Ficus. I wish him health and safety because Rat Snakes eat rats which are the bane of our lives, on the farm. We don’t use poison because it doesn’t stop with the rat but goes up the food chain and kills anything that eats the rat and onwards. Rat Snakes are our friends and family and we protect them. All snakes and all life. We don’t kill anything because everything has value and a place in the overall scheme of things. We are only one cog in the wheel of life. Not its owner or the reason for its existence.
Farming teaches us Tawakkul (reliance on Allahﷻ). It trains us to be patient. It shows us that if we want a certain result we must make the necessary effort. It demonstrates the importance of nurturing and that to do so, it is not only important to feed, manure and water but also to train, prune and stop. All lessons in leadership of people. It teaches us that despite all the effort we still need the Fadhl (blessing) of Allahﷻ to get the result. Because after all a farmer can prepare the field, dig canals, take steps to harvest rain water, but he can’t make it rain. Or rain just enough. Or rain at the right time. So, he learns to do all that he needs to do and then to stand in the night and beg Allahﷻ for His favor. Farming opens our eyes both to our strengths as well as to our weaknesses. And it inculcates humility.
Farming teaches us to be sensitive to the needs of those that cannot speak and so it’s up to us to be ever watchful, recognize the signs and respond without being told to do so. Farming teaches us that the needs of those in our charge always precede our own. So, it’s not remarkable, in the lambing season, to find some of us sitting in the sheep pen waiting for an ewe to give birth, rather than cheering our favorite team playing in the World Cup. To give us company is always ones of our sheep dogs, Border Collies, which we helped to train. They are the best companions that you could wish for and our role models for being sensitive to the needs of others. You may be surprised that I’ve said that a dog is my role model. That’s because the fundamental lesson that we’re taught here is that there are opportunities to learn, all around us, all the time and that we can learn from anything and anyone. Especially from animals. It’s become second nature to all of us to constantly ask in every situation and many times a day, “So what did I learn from this?”
Farming teaches us the importance of preparing the soil before planting. Without proper preparation the best seed won’t germinate. It shows us the value of digging a straight furrow, of preparing irrigation channels and water harvesting, without which the best rain will simply flow away and give no benefit. So, success is not an inevitable result of resources but of preparation. Without preparation the best resources will simply be squandered.
Farming teaches us that what we have in our hand is the seed. If we hang onto it, that’s all we’ll have. But when we plant it properly and nurture it, it yields a harvest. And that the smallest harvest is more than the amount of seed that was planted. Only empty hands can hold. Something must leave your hand before you can receive anything. So also in life, to receive rewards, we must invest. The investment in life which has the highest rate of return, ROI, is the investment we make in others. To help others, to alleviate suffering, eliminate poverty, enable learning and open doors for others that they couldn’t open for themselves. It is to understand that possessions add cost, not value. That true happiness lies in the hearts of others, in their smiles. That there’s more pleasure in giving than in acquiring. In helping someone else than in indulging yourself. No investment, no return. It’s only when we strive to please Allahﷻ that He sends His blessings on us. Our actions must rise towards the heavens for the blessings of Allahﷻ to descend.
That’s why we have our farm.
We break off at 4.30 pm, pray Asr and head off to the dining hall where we have high tea. We have high tea every day. Scones, sandwiches, croissants with fillings, curry puffs; our bakery is excellent. Hot chocolate, tea or coffee. They feed us well in this school.
From 4.30 pm – 6.30 pm we’re free. Most of us head off to the sports fields. But this is not compulsory. If you don’t feel like playing, you needn’t. This is just free time to do whatever you want, including nothing. At 6.30 pm Maghrib Adhaan is called and we head for the masjid. After Maghrib is our second academic class. But this is different from the morning. This session is student led with we Prefects being principally responsible. It’s my responsibility to ensure that all the boys in my house are accounted for and get to whichever class they’re supposed to be in. How do I know which classes they need to be in? I ask them. They plan what they need to learn depending on what project they’re doing. They’re supposed to inform me and the teachers they need so that everything is in readiness for them. That’s the meaning of student centered learning.
Some people are surprised and ask how children can be left to decide what they want to learn. I say to them that in any case, it is children (all learners) who decide what they want to learn. When adults try to force them, not only do they not learn but they get turned off from learning. Adults may have the illusion that they’re achieving something but that’s an illusion.
You may be surprised that I haven’t mentioned Islamic studies as a special subject. It isn’t. We learn and live Islam. Our ethos is Islam. We are taught about the importance of remembering Allahﷻ all the time and of following the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ. Every project we do has a significant amount of Islam in it; laws and rulings applicable to what we are studying, history that relates to it, mentions in the Qur’an and Sunnah, incidents and lessons from the Seerah and stories of the Sahaba and later generations. Our philosophy is that Islam is a practice, not a theory and so it must be practiced, lived and benefited from. It is not something to be studied like a philosophy or theory.
At 9.00 pm we go to the masjid for Isha followed by dinner and bed. It’s lights out at 10.30 pm. We need the sleep because tomorrow is another day, as full as today.
Some final comments before I end; this school is all about inculcating leadership qualities in us. The stress is on service, integrity, honesty, quality, industry and compassion. Concern for others precedes concern for ourselves. A thirst for knowledge is kindled and I hope it will remain with us throughout our lives. Our teachers are our role models and we learn by seeing, doing and experiencing. Ours is a fully boarding school because you need to be here full time to understand the meaning of inculcating values. Happens unconsciously and quietly but very powerfully.
I am nearing the completion of my time here and know that the saddest day will be my graduation day when I will have to leave school. However, I take heart from the number of old students who visit us regularly and hope to join that brotherhood and contribute to the school that gave me so much. I ask Allahﷻ for His help.