Timbaktu again

After nearly 5 months of postponement and conflicting schedules, managed to make my visit to Timbaktu last week. This was again with regards to the demo of my (ever!) prototype lighting system, which has somewhat matured now. As always, the takeback from Timbaktu is more than what one expects.

I was accompanied by Arun from the company I work with on this lighting project. He and I share common interests in education, especially at the primary levels and there are few places in the world where one can learn better about this than Timbaktu. This trip had two main takeaways: one in education and another in technology.

A view from the top
A view from the top


The Timbaktu school takes in only those children who are from an underprivileged background and those that the Government school rejects as failures. These children, from what I saw manage to do pretty well, atleast getting their 7th standard certificates which is definitely better than having none at all. Subba Raju, who has been in charge of the school program for more than a decade enumerates the following guidelines for providing children with a happy childhood:

  • Good Nutrition is something he seems completely convinced about. On analysis, this seems obvious, but I have not seen many educators speak as passionately about it as Subba Raju.
  • No-fear environment is another stress here. The children are rarely chided or restricted to things that they want to. It is usually difficult to find teachers in the classroom since they are with the children on the floor ! The children easily approach strangers like us and speak to us with what little English they have picked up (The medium of instruction is Telugu). It embarasses me sometimes to notice that small children have picked up English while I have not been able to learn any rudimentary Telugu. Their curiosity levels are extremely high and they will buzz around like bees if you are carrying any interesting looking gadget. Girls play cricket with the boys and are not ridiculed but treated with patience uncharacteristic of children their age. We witnessed a practice for a play which was written by the kids themselves with a little help, complete with songs set to popular tunes. They had been practicing it for 5 days, and one cannot but develop an inferiority complex looking at their proficiency within such a short span of time. Such observations strengthen my belief in the futility of externally imposed discipline and the power of autonomous learning. Remember, these are kids in the age 5-15!
  • Non competitive learning is another interesting feature of this place. One may balk at the idea, but at then end of the day, it is similar to eating wholesome food, whereas competitive learning is like a body-builder’s diet supplement. Picking a few ‘desirable’ traits and encouraging only these is doing a great injustice to our posterity. Such practices are sometimes supported by simple-minded appeals to evolution, but are undoubtedly harmful given our lack of understanding of a phenomenon as complex as human development. One can ask how such children do in the outside world, and unsurprisingly, given their fearless attitude they adapt extremely well. Contrary to conventional wisdom, non-competitive learning creates more creative and committed individuals, since they usually converge to a discipline they are most suited to. Children are given ample choices to occupy themselves with, and choice available to individuals (not only economic) is increasingly being accepted as a metric of how developed a society is. Timbaktu no doubt qualifies as an extremely developed community.

The Timbaktu school is a must-visit pilgrimage for those interested in education of children and also for those who think starting their children on a IIT coaching class in 10th std is the best thing they can do.


My association with Timbaktu and Ashok Rao’s lectures have gradually moulded my perspective on technology and its purpose. Technology is undoubtedly shaped by the cultural milieu it is surrounded by, and this is apparent if you listen to technical proposals from different cultural universes. IITB’s business plan competition awarded a 1 crore prize to a group which came up with an idea to make a more realistic simulator for automotive video games. The people in Timbaktu are more enthusiastic about a system that will help detect wild boar intrusions into fields. Like I had mentioned in a previous post,  Liberal thought left purpose for individuals to define for themselves. This sounds good in theory, but ground realities makes social purpose identical to what those with the most money think it should be. Which is why a video game simulator is more valuable than a boar detection system. Since technology has a high correlation to social purpose, it is hardly surprising that HDTVs, iPods, Mobile phones (or whatever they are calling it nowadays) generate a lot more interest, since the reigning social purpose is to pander to consumer preferences. Like a friend puts it “One rupee, one vote”.

With technological virtuosity being the order of the day, it is natural to think of villages as a primitive society where nothing ‘happens’. However, if one cosiders a hypothetical society where conserving the environment or promoting an equitable society was considered good, many of the technological artifacts that we consider as ‘cool’ turn out to be exactly the opposite. Timbaktu may be considered a ‘poor’ place, but will be exemplary in this hypothetical society. Technological development will take place in such a society, but in a direction that does not make too much sense in our present culture. It is my hope to further the technological boundaries of such a society.


2 thoughts on “Timbaktu again”

  1. “non-competitive learning creates more creative and committed individuals, since they usually converge to a discipline they are most suited to.”

    Do you really think that people(say children in Timbaktu after they are grown up) always go with interest (assuming no parental pressure,…any pressure) rather than earning money?

    As per my observation many are there in their disciplines to earn money, they don’t have much of interest in any discipline.

    In these cases competition forces them to be creative and committed.

  2. If many are there in their disciplines to earn money rather than interest, this observation begs the question ‘why?’.

    competition forces them to be desperate :D Being creative because you HAVE to and WANT to makes a world of difference. One is susceptible to short term thinking, the other is usually not. There is a reason why most good R&D centres (AT&T Labs before) did such incredible work.

    A famous libertarian educator once said, better my students become happy taxi drivers rather than miserable professors. Non competitive learning helps one to value things other than what brings them sustenance. Like I mentioned the primary goal of the Timbaktu school is a happy childhood. Non-competitive learning is far more suited to this.

    Also, children grow up to be highly adaptable, because they have seen more things than what an extremely focussed person would have. This actually increases opportunities.

    So, even if jobs which correspond to their interest are not available, they do well.

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