This is the report I wrote after the program ended as a report for the organisation that had funded a lot of the work. We stopped the program early and I felt that I had to explain why it was unsuccessful and why we had decided to discontinue it. Since the program ended we have had two more apprentices who came on an individual basis. Neither was very successful although one of them went on to work in films and is very happy with what he is doing. The other came from a difficult background and we lost touch with him although we heard that he found a German girlfriend and spent some time in Germany.
The apprenticeship program in Buddha Garden ran for three years with participation from two groups of local young men. During this time we confronted many challenges and did our best to respond in a positive way that we thought would improve the educational process for the groups. Despite this it seemed there were fundamental problems which we found very difficult to address and as a consequence we decided to discontinue the program.
We were very thankful for the support given to us by Stichting de Zaaier who funded the program but did not feel that we could continue to ask for financial support for this program until the fundamental problems had been adequately dealt with.
2. HISTORY OF THE PROGRAM
• The Buddha Garden Apprenticeship Program started in July 2004 in Buddha Garden, a farm which was started by Priya four years previously. The aim was not only to create a viable farm producing food for Auroville, but also to create a place of self learning and expression within a working community. Volunteers had always been an important part of Buddha Garden. Over the years simple residential accommodation (capsules) had been built so that volunteers could live and work with us. Increasingly our volunteers come to Buddha Garden as part of an educational program (often a university degree) to carry out research as well as experience life on a working organic farm.
• The Learning on the Land apprenticeship program was started partly in response to the Farm Assessment Process which showed the need for better and more skilled labour in Auroville farms and partly to the perceived need for Auroville to participate more with local people. The aim of the program was to provide an experiential education for local young people to learn about organic farming and what it means to live lightly on the land in a spiritually integrated way within Auroville. It was envisaged that they would do this as part of our community of learners which included both the residential and other volunteers in Buddha Garden.
• At the time the project started I was running Buddha Garden on my own and was the only person living there permanently. Half way through the first year of the program, and just before I went into hospital to have my hips repaired, I was joined by Somasundaram, an Aurovilian who subsequently came to live in Buddha Garden. At about the same time Vivek also came to live and work here. He had just finished his MSc course in agriculture at the Jaibalpur university and eventually decided to carry out his practical PhD research in Buddha Garden. In August 2006 Alexei came to live in Buddha Garden. Originally from Russia he has been in Auroville since he was 13 (he is now aged 28) and for some years has been having mental health problems. Once he was stabilized and his medication established he came to live in Buddha Garden with the hopes that the structured situation and work on the land would help him become more grounded. This is gradually happening but he still needs considerable encouragement and support.
• In the beginning money for the apprenticeship program was raised by me from individuals outside and inside Auroville. After some months this money ran out and it soon became clear that there was insufficient money from the farm to support the program. A proposal was written and Stichting de Zaaier agreed to support the first group of apprentices. As the first group came to the end of their formal studies Stichting de Zaaier also agreed to support a second group
2.2 THE ORIGINAL IDEA OF THE PROGRAM
• The apprenticeship program grew out of the process whereby Buddha Garden became more consciously a place of transformation and experiential education as well as a place for producing food. The aim of the course was to provide apprentices with skills in organic farming which included both practical and management skills, such as computing and accounts, that are needed to run a successful farm. At the same time they would also participate in a general education course that included learning English and finding out about Auroville. Through discussion and reflection we would also, together, examine the various challenges of living well and how they would like to incorporate these principles in their own lives. From the beginning it was hoped that the volunteers would join in this program by offering to share their passions or skills.
• The original program consisted of:
Learning practical farming skills with everyone working together on the farm every day Monday to Friday from 6.15 – 9.00am. Apprentices – and sometimes volunteers – also carried out regular tasks, such as watering and chicken feeding, in the afternoons and weekends on a rota basis. After work everyone who had worked that morning (this included non resident volunteers) ate breakfast together.
Formal learning activities took place each day from 10.00 – 12.00pm and 1.30 – 3.00pm. These included basic skills in English and computing, theoretical principles of organic farming as well as being introduced to the ideas behind Auroville and what it means practically to live and work there. In addition apprentices were encouraged to explore and expand their horizons on any topics that interested them. Every week there was a period of meditation, reflection and discussion about the spiritual basis of life and our experience of this through the work together in Buddha Garden.
There were a lot of informal learning activities between the volunteers and apprentices. Apprentices were encouraged to share their local knowledge and experience with students and volunteers and vice versa.
• It was planned that this program would last for eighteen months after which there would be a six month work experience program. During this time they would spend periods at different Auroville farms and maybe in farms further a field in India and perhaps even abroad.
2.3 THE FIRST GROUP
• The project began with nine (eventually eight) young men from different villages around Auroville. Young Aurovilians and women were eligible, but none wanted to join. For all the apprentices the idea of doing manual labour like farming while also continuing with their education was very novel, although after the first group had experienced it they could see the benefits and on the whole seemed to enjoy it very much. For several of these young men (and their families) the opportunity to earn money was also very important.
• Very soon after the first group of apprentices started the program, three of them asked me if they could come and live in one of the capsules in Buddha Garden. They wanted to do so for a variety of reasons; wanting to get away from family tensions, wanting to be in or near Buddha Garden to make it easier to get to work on time early in the morning. At that time I was still on my own in Buddha Garden, and often found it a struggle to run the place. I could see possible problems but it seemed like it could be an idea worth trying. They moved in for a trial period of three months, after which it was decided that they could stay for the period while they were apprentices in Buddha Garden.
• While three apprentices stayed in Buddha Garden more or less permanently the others stayed intermittently although often using Buddha Garden as a place to wash their clothes, have showers etc. As time went on, however, I felt more and more that they used the place as a convenience – they had got away from their families but nearly all of them went back for meals because they either could not or would not cook. They were not interested in creating a different and perhaps more communal life in Buddha Garden and I did not have the energy to organize it.
• One difficulty was that as Buddha Garden had become home to the apprentices they felt that it was open to their family and friends to visit and use the premises as they liked. Buddha Garden was perceived as a very free place – mainly because of the perceived freedom of the volunteers – and this was interpreted by the apprentices as license to do anything. This was despite a lot of discussions about community life in general as well as specific things like smoking (which is only allowed in certain areas) and a set of guidelines about the use of alcohol and parties (moderation in both). In the end friends and family visiting had to be strictly limited and no non apprentice was allowed to stay overnight – especially after one apprentice tried to talk me into allowing his friend and girlfriend to stay so they could have sex.
• The apprentices enjoyed chatting with the volunteers and this enjoyment was in many, perhaps most cases reciprocated. Volunteers appreciated being taken out to local places and having parties with them. Gradually, however, some of the volunteers began complaining that they were coming under too much pressure to take the apprentices out and not all wanted to organize and pay for a party when they left.
• Despite these difficulties I felt that on the whole things were reasonably harmonious and that everyone was learning from the situation. Things changed, however, over the three months I spent having two operations on my hips. I had to go into hospital on two separate occasions for one week after which I spent about six weeks recuperating. During most of this six weeks I was in Buddha Garden but was unable to carry out very much physical work and was more focused on my health rather than the farm.
• Although both Somasundaram and Vivek were living in Buddha Garden at the time, being very new they did not feel they could make big changes especially in how the apprentices were living. When I returned to full time work I found that the apprentices had established Buddha Garden as even more of a convenience for them and it was very difficult to change this. In fact I decided that the best thing to do was just to wait until the end of the few months they had before they left to go on work experience.
• After I had returned to full time work and for some months until the first group of apprentices left to go on their work experience, we had a very difficult and seemingly intractable problem between the apprentices and the kitchen helpers (both female). The kitchen helpers were responsible for cooking the breakfast and the apprentices complained bitterly about the quality of the food. When I suggested that, in the light of their complaints, the apprentices should perhaps take it turn to produce breakfast it appeared that only two of them had the first idea of how to do so. None of them were interested in learning how to cook. Since they were unwilling and unable to participate in these activities I told them that they would have to accept what was provided – especially as Somasundaram, Vivek, the volunteers and myself found the breakfasts acceptable. The complaints stopped, but the bad feeling between the two groups did not. Looking back I feel that various control issues were being expressed with the apprentices wanting to gain status by being seen to control the kitchen helpers. Generally the apprentices found the egalitarian ethos in Buddha Garden difficult to cope with. I was aware of some jockeying for positions of power within their group, they did not always support each other very well and perhaps having to treat women equally was just too much for them.
• This first group responded to the formal education program quite well and they seemed to enjoy the classes. It was very satisfying seeing their language and computer skills improve and to see them starting to think for themselves.
• In January 2006 they started their practical experience on various Auroville farms. Unfortunately we found it was very difficult to move them around different farms as this was too disruptive for the farmers. In most cases work experience took place at only one farm although other farms were visited. A trip to farms in Kodaikanal was organized where they were able to visit several farms and observe different organic farming techniques suitable to the climatic and soil conditions in that area. There was very mixed responses to this work experience.
• Elandhyrian had difficulty in finding a suitable placement as he complained that the work was too hard (with cows) on the first one and in a second placement at Service Farm often did not turn up for work as agreed between him and the farmer. He later lied to me about this, saying that he had turned up for work when he had not so that he would not forfeit his monthly stipend.
• Selvam also had problems finding a suitable placement as he especially wanted to look after animals. Eventually he managed to find a very good one at La Ferme where there were cows and a new herd of milking goats. After working there for two months he was offered a full time job with definite possibilities for advancement both personal and financial. He turned this offer down in a way that upset the manager greatly – he just did not bother to turn up any more without saying anything to anyone. After trying to set up food growing activities on his own in another Auroville community Selvam is now working at Annpurna farm. So far this has been very successful and Tomas, the farm manager, is pleased with his work and his capacities for learning.
• Prabha and Ganesh went to Brihaspathi farm together. The work was hard but they enjoyed it very much and were very disappointed when only one of them could be taken on permanently as the (local) farmer preferred to employ his family. Prabha was the first one to leave (and he has not subsequently been able to find a job) and I have since heard that Ganesh also had to leave owing to lack of work. He subsequently found a job in Auroville in the offices of Water Maintenance.
• Rajan worked in Discipline on a part time basis and both the farmer and himself thought that it was a positive experience. Rajan has a degree in history and is working and saving so that he can go on to do an MA. He came back to see me recently as although he had managed to find a management job he was not happy. He took the job so that he could earn money to pay for his MA but was finding the hours too long. When he has his MA he is hoping to return to his native village to farm and provide some educational activities.
• Natharajan and Moorthy went to Windarra farm which is very much like Buddha Garden with volunteers and growing similar crops. Natharajan is now working full time and living on the farm while Moorthy subsequently undertook a computer course and is working with computers.
• Generally I feel that the work experience did not go very well and perhaps the farmers needed more support in providing this. With a well established paid work force some farmers experienced some difficulty in seeing how a short term, and better educated apprentice, would be able to fit in. I know that it was a disappointment to some of the apprentices that work experience did not automatically lead to a full time job in Auroville.
3. THE SECOND GROUP OF APPRENTICES
• The second group of apprentices started their program at the beginning of January 2006 as the first group started their farm experience program. Muthu, the youngest person from the first group – who was only fourteen when he started – decided that he would like to continue with the second group. Some people tried the course but left and we ended up with eight people in this new group. They were generally younger than the first group with most having an education standard of 10th grade although one or two had 12th grade and one had a degree taken by correspondence. Of the original eight, one managed to obtain a place at university and left the group.
• From the very beginning this group put all of us under intense pressure to come and live in Buddha Garden. Given our experience of the first group we decided that with this second group we would not allow them to live in Buddha Garden unless they had good reasons for doing so. We did not want them living in Buddha Garden just as a convenience but to experience something different/worthwhile – maybe learning to live in community and to cook and eat together. We were under no illusions, however, that if they were serious about this would be a big step for them and it would require an enormous amount of investment on our part in terms of organization and money. When asked why they wanted to live in Buddha Garden, however, it was clear that they were only interested in the convenience of the situation for them and were not interested in offering anything to Buddha Garden. It was also clear that being able to spend more time with volunteers was a large part of their motivation. The group tried a number of underhand methods to make us change our minds – trying to set one of us against the other and pursued this possibility with increasing persistence.
• Another problem, which we felt was a spill over from the previous group, was that almost from the beginning, they also started complaining about the food at breakfast, in particular that there was not enough. We spoke to them at some length about this and Somasundaram suggested that they take turns in serving the food. This would shield the kitchen helpers from the responsibility of giving out the food which would then be more of a communal responsibility. At first all the apprentices flatly refused to do this. In response Somasundaram and Vivek said they would do it and eventually the apprentices changed their minds and agreed to join in. Whether because they were shamed into doing so or for some other reason we were never able to establish. Each person did it on a rota basis and eventually this was perceived as one of the more enjoyable jobs that had to be done.
Later we had a further problem with breakfast when it came to our notice that the apprentices were putting the kitchen helpers under a lot of pressure to cook more food than was necessary for breakfast. The left over food was then being used for their lunch. Not wishing to put themselves in the same conflicting situation with apprentices as had happened with the first group, the kitchen helpers were understandably bowing to this pressure. We stopped this and were very clear that if apprentices wanted lunch then it was their responsibility to provide it. This was met with some disgruntlement and was never really accepted. Eventually we changed the hours so that there were no classes in the afternoon and therefore no necessity for lunch to be arranged by anyone.
• Within two months of starting the program with this group it was clear that things were not going well with the formal education program. They seemed bored a lot of the time and it was very difficult to engage them in anything. For them it seemed that lesson were just something that had to be got through. They did not seem able to link what they were being taught in the classroom to their practical work on the farm. Despite an avowed interest in the program when asked, their behaviour told a different story. They did not think about what they doing, often did not pay proper attention either to the work or to classes and seemed to find little or no joy in the learning process. They seem to feel that provided they came and sat in classes and went through the motions of learning that was enough. That they would receive a certificate at the end of the course which would magically make it possible for them to do whatever they wanted to do. They all said they wanted to go abroad and/or get a good job but had no realistic idea of what this involved or had any real insight into why they wanted to do so. Even the meditation period, which with the first group was often the highlight of the week, had become very dull. With the first group I would give them a subject and ask them to draw something that expressed how they felt about it. All of the first group (including those who thought they were not very artistic) did this with great enthusiasm, but the second group could hardly be bothered. They just scribbled a few things onto paper a few minutes before we were due to begin and rarely had anything interesting to say about it.
• Somasundaram and Vivek, who did most of the teaching, found them very hard work indeed. Teaching became a very frustrating activity with little or no interest from the apprentices. It felt as if all they were doing was pushing knowledge into recalcitrant heads and that not very successfully. It was very draining and of not much use to anyone involved. After trying various things to change the situation we came to the conclusion that the apprentices needed to be put into a situation where they had to take more responsibility for their learning.
• We therefore suspended the education program for a week during which time we changed the focus of the education program to make it more driven by individual motivation. Instead of putting on an education program into which the apprentices would have to fit, we would create a learning resource center from which apprentices could create their own learning program according to their own interests. We felt this would help empower them to think more about what they really wanted to do as well as give them much needed experience organizing themselves to do it. We also felt that it was more in line with the holistic educational ideals of Auroville. Given their education background and what we knew of them, however, we thought it would probably be very difficult if not impossible, for them to be entirely self motivated and directed on their own all the time. We therefore decided that we would make various offerings in the way of classes/tutorials, but that these would all be voluntary. If any individual decided he wanted to attend a particular class/tutorial then he would have to agree to do the whole course. This would stop flitting from class to class and not learning anything in depth. Similarly we made creating a picture for the meditation each week voluntary and they would choose the subject. There would also be a number of free periods in which they could do individual work. It was decided that once a week we would sit with them and work out their timetable for the next week.
• We were also concerned at the way in which the apprentices were hanging around the volunteers, which we felt was very unhealthy. We felt that they were beginning to see Buddha Garden mainly as a social and party place rather than a place of learning. During the week of the suspension of the educational program we therefore told them that they had to go home once the farm work was finished. We told them that Buddha Garden was an educational project and that unless there was education going on – either individual or as a group – there was no reason for them to be here. We reiterated this when they returned to the new educational program. Now they either had to be doing something, in the garden or in the educational resource center, or they went home. There were still periods of time for socializing but these were part of the overall program between agreed limits.
• Within a few weeks there were some successes and we felt that this had been a good change. The apprentices seemed to be thinking more about what they were doing and wanting to do. There was much less sitting around and aimless chatting and more of a sense of purpose to activities. The meditation at first continued in much the same way and although doing a picture was now voluntary few chose to do so. Suddenly, one week there was a breakthrough when several of them created pictures, which in each case depicted something that had happened to them during the week. One person had spoken to a ninety year old farmer about how he used to farm; another had seen what sounded like a very grisly car accident. At last the pictures started to relate to something real within them and were a real expression of something that was going on for them. Over a period of time it did seem that they were reflecting more on their experience and thinking about what they would like to learn. This was, however, a very fragile response and needed a considerable amount of energy from all of us involved in the program to keep it up. We saw ourselves as facilitating their learning process rather than teaching in the normal way.
• Then in May it came to our notice that the apprentices had been stealing from us. We pick vegetables three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and at that time used the electrical vehicle from Visitors Centre to take the vegetables to Solar Kitchen and Pour Tous on those days. Two apprentices were responsible for carrying out these deliveries and then doing the community shopping in Pour Tous. This after having been shown how to do so either by Somasundaram or myself. We did not generally go through the bills in detail but kept a check on expenditure and only checked the bills if it seemed that more than usual was being spent. Since Alexei had joined us we had been aware that expenditure had increased and in May we went through the bills in detail to find out how much was being spent on him (for reimbursement) and how much on things for the community. While doing this Somasundaram noticed that various things had been purchased which neither he or Alexei had put on the list.
• When confronted with this the apprentices firstly said they had bought the things for Alexei, but on asking Alexei about it, he said he had not asked them for these things. Somasundaram normally made out the list so Alexei told him what he wanted. Eventually the apprentices confessed to having made these purchases but none of them showed any shame or remorse for their behaviour. A few of them said it was our fault for not checking the bills properly – they would not steal if they knew that each bill was going to be examined. Others said that it was only a small amount, something we could easily afford and therefore we should not be bothering with it.
• At about the same time it came to our notice that the lock on the food cupboard in the communal kitchen had been tampered with. Someone had undone the screws and then put them back so they could be easily unscrewed with a knife or something similar. From a distance the lock looked secure but close up it was obviously easy to undo the screws and get into the cupboard. Once again the apprentices said that they had not tampered with the lock and once again they eventually admitted they had done so in order to get things out of the cupboard – mostly things like salt and oil.
• We had a long discussion about trust and how this behaviour breached trust and made it difficult for us to work together with them. This seemed to have little impact on them as they implied that as we could not manage the farm without their help and we had money for the course then we would be unlikely to get rid of them.
• This happened in the week before I was due to go to the UK for a holiday. Vivek and Somasundaram felt that they could run the farm on their own – with the help of volunteers – over that period and so it was decided to suspend the apprentices for six weeks.
• The apprentices returned on July 15th and all of them said they were sorry for what happened and would like to continue the course. We decided to change the times of the formal education program again and to have four periods until 1.00pm after which the apprentices would leave. We also decided not to allow them to carry out the deliveries or purchase things from Pour Tous, but this made more work for us as either Somasundaram, Vivek, or myself had to do it.
• When the apprentices came back we felt that things did not improve very much. They still displayed little real interest either in the farm work or in the education program. They continued to be very manipulative, mouthing what it is they thought we wanted to hear, but not actually doing anything different. One or two of them got very angry when this was pointed out to them. They continued to do the practical work without much thought and ended up making the same basic mistakes again and again. We felt that maybe one or two of them were learning something, but for most it seemed as if this program was perceived as an easy way to make money and that I was too soft to send them away. We did not feel happy about allowing these young men to do work experience on other farms, as we did not think they would work very well or really understand what they were supposed to be doing.
• We therefore decided to carry on the course until the end of December – as promised – but given their generally low level of attainment we would not allow them to do work experience on other farms.
• Since this group seem relatively uninterested in the formal education program we decided to focus more on the practical work, but in a way that would hopefully encourage them to think about what they were doing. We allotted to each of them a small plot of land on which they could grow whatever vegetables they liked. This meant they had to plan what they were going to grow and then organize themselves to do it. They were encouraged to keep a diary of their work and also proper data about the work undertaken and the eventual amounts of vegetables grown. They could either sell the produce (to Buddha Garden or elsewhere) or take it home for their families to use. Some of this work took place during the formal education periods.
• We felt that it would be very helpful for them if this process could be documented in a way that would enable them to see themselves more clearly. We decided the best way of doing this was through the medium of a video. Seeing themselves on film at regular intervals would, we hope, provide a very graphic representation of any changes that came about both in what they were doing and within themselves. We made the videos with Srinvasin, a professional video director, who made the last video of Buddha Garden. Each apprentice was given a small video about their work in these gardens and it was very much appreciated by them. Unfortunately we were unable to obtain the necessary money to make a video about our experiences on this program.
• Generally we felt at a loss to know what to do. It seemed pointless to carry on in the same manner, as having tried many different things it did not seem to us that this brought about very much change. Perhaps it was that they were not ready for the opportunities that we had to offer. Maybe this requires an awareness and inner growth which they had not yet attained. Perhaps it was our fault in that we had not found a way of offering what we would like to share in a way that engaged their interest.
• We finished the course in December and did not allow them to do work experience on other Auroville farms. Each student made a portfolio of their experience and received a short video made about the practical work they did in the gardens.
• We decided not to take on another group of apprentices
4. TENTATIVE THOUGHTS FOR THE FUTURE
• Thinking about future educational work we decided to focus on short courses for local people and to encourage more research students from abroad. We are also exploring the possibility of translating our organic farming manual into Tamil, creating a farm walk with educational notice boards at strategic points and maybe setting up a farm resource center for local and Aurovilian farmers.
• From time to time former students have come to us and we have been pleasantly surprised at their success. Two of the most difficult students – the ones that caused us the most problems – have found very positive situations. Their employers (both Aurovilians) send us glowing reports of their progress. Others have found jobs in different places and come back to tell us all about it. Seemingly what we tried to teach them in Buddha Garden has to some extent been learnt so perhaps the program was not a complete failure.
• We are open to having apprentices again but we have decided to have not more than three and not to set up a formal program for them. Individuals wishing to become apprentices must work with us for some time and show us that they are serious about work and learning. We will then teach them about organic farming and help them to find educational opportunities within Auroville. We are at present in negotiation with a person from the local village who says he would like to take up this opportunity.