by Wang Kaiying (16S03E)
Photos courtesy of Raffles Photographic Society
Do you know the people who tend to our school’s plants, meticulously pruning the bushes and tirelessly watering the flowers? The people who clean up behind us in the school canteen, who work six days a week to keep our classrooms and walkways clean? Of course you do – they’re the school’s gardeners and cleaners. But do you really know them? And do you ever show your appreciation for all the tough work that they do?
For most of us, the answer would be no. As such, Doveswarm, a Special Interest Group in Community Advocates, organised the Homeground Carnival on the 13th of February to allow students to show their appreciation to this oft-forgotten group of school staff who do much to keep our school environment clean and conducive for learning, as well as to encourage more personal interaction between students and workers. For this carnival, the workers under the Estate Department were given time off their normal Saturday duties to participate in recreational activities, and were buddied up with the student volunteers.
Since Doveswarm mainly strives to help migrant workers better integrate into our community, the event was initially conceived as a sports carnival for the migrant workers in our school, but it was eventually expanded to include the locals who work under the Estate Department as well. As such, a group of more than 50 students gathered in the Y1-4 auditorium on a Saturday morning for the Homeground Carnival, which was also supported by the Basketball, Cricket, Red Cross Youth, and the Chinese Language Drama and Cultural Society (CLDCS) CCAs.
As we waited for the workers to arrive, several students expressed their anxieties about what was to come. Some wondered if their limited grasp of Cantonese would suffice, while others fretted about not being able to sustain a conversation with the workers. Yet all agreed that the carnival would be a meaningful experience, especially considering how we do not usually interact with the workers in school.
And a meaningful experience it was.
The carnival got off to a good start, with introductions taking place in both English and Chinese. Fears about language barriers and awkwardness proved to be unfounded as conversation flowed freely between the students and workers. With ethnic songs playing in the background, students chatted with their buddies. Some spoke about their families, others their interests and experiences – Ahmad, a cleaner, talked about his children and grandchildren, while Mr Loh, also a cleaner, animatedly shared about his love for fishing and cheerfully dispensed tips on the best places to fish. Mr Loh’s buddy later reflected that it “isn’t all that difficult” to interact with the workers, and that that we ought to “take the initiative to step out and interact with these people who are around us every day”.
Following the icebreakers, the students and workers proceeded to take part in recreational activities in the auditorium. Everyone was immersed in games of charades and modified lawn bowling, as well as lantern-making and Chinese calligraphy. I spied several students dancing enthusiastically with an Estate auntie while waiting for their turn to bowl. It was a heartening sight to see everyone enjoying themselves, with smiles and laughter all around.
In the meantime, the younger, more energetic workers – largely migrant workers from India and Bangladesh – were engaged in cricket and basketball matches in the school field and basketball courts. For many, the cricket matches were not just a break from their daily duties, but also a reminder of home: Das Dipta, a gardener, told me that he had played cricket a lot in Bangladesh, but had never done so in Singapore. It was an intense affair, with those on the stands occasionally shouting out cheers of support.
Basketball, too, was well-received, despite it not being as popular or common a sport as cricket in India and Bangladesh. The students and workers were totally immersed in the game, dribbling and fighting for the ball; in a brief moment of confusion, the ball was kicked halfway down the court to great delight.
The Homeground Carnival ended on a high note, with a lo-hei and a buffet lunch. Watching everyone take group photos and selfies together, it was evident that the students and workers alike had enjoyed the carnival.
On one level, the Homeground Carnival allowed the students involved to express their appreciation to these workers who work so hard yet so often go unnoticed. As Suzuki Tomoe (17A01C) noted, “our appreciation doesn’t mean anything until they know about it”, for only when we do something to show our appreciation does it become felt. In this sense, the Homeground Carnival was a huge “thank you” from the student body to the Estate workers.
On a deeper level, too, the Homeground Carnival enabled the students involved to see the workers in a more human light, and to get to know them beyond just their jobs.
As the various activities were ongoing in the auditorium, I was admiring the calligraphy of an Indian worker, Venky, when he turned to me and asked, “Can you write my Chinese name?” This sparked a flurry of requests by the others, and the CLDCS volunteers and I soon found ourselves entrusted with the significant task of giving the workers Chinese names. As I explained the name we had given to one of them, Nani, he also told me about the different languages in India, and how most people in India learn both the national language – Hindi – as well as their mother tongue. It was a wonderful moment, with Wang Heng (16S06E) noting that he was interacting well with the workers and that it was “fantastic”.
And at the end of the day, isn’t this what matters? When we go beyond what is scripted and have genuine, spontaneous interactions, with everyone learning from each other, we can truly find common ground. We no longer define our relations to each other in terms of “us” and “them”, “students” and “workers”, but as people all eager to learn new things and to form meaningful relationships with those around us.
Jason Peter Lim (16S03B), Overall IC of the carnival, aptly said that, “the staff are more than workers”. These cleaners and gardeners form the hidden backbone of our school, but we shouldn’t see them only as such, because they are not defined by their jobs. Rather, they are people too; people who have their own parents and children, people who have their own unique interests and experiences. Of course, while it may be a tall order for one get to know every worker as an individual, the Homeground Carnival was an admirable first step: Jason noted that the Homeground Carnival provided a platform for students to have more meaningful interactions with the workers, thus helping to foster friendships and build a more inclusive Rafflesian community.
That said, the carnival was but a one-off event, the batch project of Doveswarm’s batch of 2016. For its impact to be sustained, Mr Terence Tan, Director of Corporate Services, expressed hopes that such an event would be held more regularly; Jason also encouraged the next Doveswarm batch to consider taking it up for their own batch project.
A few days after the Homeground Carnival, as I was walking towards the PE department, I met Venky again. He looked at me cautiously, evidently unsure if I would acknowledge him now that the carnival had ended. When I waved at him, he broke into a big smile.
I wish this didn’t have to happen. We do not have to wait for someone else to organise a carnival before we acknowledge and show our appreciation to the people around us. We can try to say hello, and to ask them how their day was; a smile and a simple “thank you” can go a long way in making the Estate workers feel included in the Rafflesian family. And, when we have the time, I hope we will all try to chat with our Estate worker friends, because they have such a wealth of stories and experiences to share.
Author’s Note: During the carnival, some members of the Community Advocates were hard at work capturing personal portraits and stories of the workers present. Do keep an eye out for these portraits, which will be posted on the Community Advocates’ Instagram account, @rafflescommunityadvocates.