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June 6, 2002 Sharmila Pillai longs for a school under a tree



Sharmila Pillai

Sharmila Pillai

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Eleanor Brown

Sharmila Pillai laughs and says she’s suffering from post-masteral depression: “I have nothing to do. I’m trying to look for a job!” She misses working on the thesis that led to her master’s degree in educational studies, because she “could just write what I enjoyed.”

Pillai, 34, took the long way around to this milestone. She picked up a bachelor’s in English literature in India, then found a prestigious position teaching English as a second language in a posh French school back home in Ethiopia. The salary allowed her to travel. Eventually, in 1996, she immigrated to Canada, and earned a TESL (teaching English as a second language) diploma at Concordia, but it wasn’t enough. “I had this teaching certificate, but I had already taught. That did not satisfy me.” She re-evaluated what she wanted out of life.

“I want to get back to Africa,” she said. “I wanted to be in the developing field rather than in the classroom. What I’m interested in is developing informal education at the grassroots level.”

After a false start in applied linguistics, Pillai found her place in educational studies, looking at the integration of culture and schooling in sub-Saharan Africa. What kind of education do shoeshiners want or need? How can little girls who sell tomatoes be reached? “The schools are among the trees in Africa,” Pillai said. “Under the tree, that’s the school. Sometimes there’s a plank nailed to the trunk, and that’s the blackboard.”

She wants to help train the teachers. “How can I develop an educational program? I want to guide other people, ask them, What do you think you need?” She shyly asks for a small prayer to help her get home.