Time to reflect!

I feel like I’ve been chasing to keep up with this blog since I got to India. I’m also keeping a paper journal as too much has been happening to be able to remember it all, and up until now, opportunities to get to a computer have been scarce as I’ve been so busy. I’m also aware that this blog chronologically resembles a Tarantino movie, shooting back and forth, just because I’m trying to organise everything that has happened. It’s only been two weeks, or just over, since I got here, and they have, for all the right reasons, been the longest two weeks of my life.

I’m in Kovalam, as I said before, the main coastal resort of Kerala – it’s a beautiful place with clean seas, marred by the numerous touts and hawkers on the seafront persistently offering sunglasses, cigarettes, and shirts. The fishermen here, a Muslim group fishing one area and a Hindu group fishing another, are hauling in feeble catches day after day, ever since the Tsunami changed the geography of the ocean – but still they fish. Click here to download an MP3 I recorded this morning of their singing (6MB) – they sing to keep rhythm, and pray to the sea to provide for their families. The hotels and shops in Kovalam are desparate for trade as people have stayed away after the Tsunami – with no good reason – the people go out of their way to help you, all for a rupee here and there. Waiters and other service staff earn in the region of 70 rupees a day here – that’s about 82p, less than the cost of a bottle of Kingfisher beer.

The Aidcamp team all came here after the Aidcamp finished, with great success, a few days ago – we settled here to take it easy for a while before most of the volunteers flew back to the UK this morning. The object of the Aidcamp was to finish decoration and preparatory work on a new primary school for Dalit gypsy children, whose families have created a settlement at Pettai, near Cheranmahadevi in rural Tamil Nadu. This area of India is home to some of the poorest people on Earth, most families living below the poverty line.

The NGO which co-ordinated the work on the school, SCAD, has about 200,000 people in Tamil Nadu dependent upon it. SCAD provides assistance with water management, work, education, empowering women, health, debt reduction, assistance to the elderly, fighting the dowry system, business assistance, and care of the physically and mentally disabled. SCAD has also taken responsibility for two of the worst-affected villages on the coast of Tamil Nadu hit by the Tsunami of last December 26 – and we were privileged to be able to see some of the damage first hand, and how SCAD was assisting people who in many cases have lost homes, family members and entire livelihoods.

During our time in Tamil Nadu we saw examples of SCAD’s work and achievements affecting thousands of people for the better, and we met its founder, Cletus Babu. Cletus is a former priest who established SCAD several years ago, and has built the organisation up from scratch, with a dedicated team of staff, and his wife, Amali. SCAD is a secular organisation staffed by people of several faith groups, which does not preach or practice missionary work – it offers pragmatic, real, sustainable assistance to people in dire need. Seeing what SCAD has achieved in this part of the world has been truly humbling. Cletus and his team were also just fantastic, friendly, generous people, with a healthy sense of humour!

The gypsies are untouchables, Dalits, which makes them pretty much the lowest of the low. The female children of gypsy families may be engaged by the time they are ten, and married when they hit puberty, around eleven or twelve years old– so have children very young. The gypsies usually make beads and other handicrafts which they then sell at festivals or pilgrimages, spending the money on brandy and having a good time – hedonists they are, prudent investors they are not! The school was built by local labour co-ordinated by SCAD, using funding from Salt of the Earth, the sole UK charity that supports SCAD, and the donations of the Aidcamps volunteers – half of our fee was a donation. Aidcamps is a UK charity that provides short term volunteers for projects with NGOs in Cameroon, Nepal, Tamil Nadu, and Sri Lanka. The gypsy children benefit from the new school as they are housed for the day, fed, and educated by a team of very hard working teachers. Hopefully, the good effects of the work in the school will also spread to the village surrounding it.

When we arrived at Pettai, we met a crowd of very curious, energetic, friendly and possibly drunk gypsies – the expression ”mad as a box of frogs” sums it up. Walking through the village settlement was quite an experience – an elder danced dressed as Kali with a huge golden sword (see the video in the previous post), children insisted you take their picture and show it to them, adults did the same, women tried selling us beads, and everyone generally had a great time. These people didn’t give the impression they wanted anyone to feel sorry for them, it was more like “hey, welcome to the party!”. We were almost relieved to make it out of the other end of the village in one piece, it was so boisterous. The school sits in a relative oasis of tranquility at one end of the village, locking the children who attend (and they don’t all attend) in during the day, mainly to keep the rest of the village out and give the kids, and the teachers, some peace.

During the next two weeks, we painted walls, blackboards, murals and window frames, installed new play equipment in the garden, and planted a flowerbed, a green border, and a kitchen garden. With limited time, the local labour worked with us, and continued anything we couldn’t finish because of time constraints. At several points during the Aidcamp, I found myself using the universal sign language for “OK, tighten that nut mate”, “Could you pass that big hammer?”, and “Ooooh, that’ll never go in there”. The local labourers worked alongside us, were great fun, had bags more energy than us wilting flowers in the midday heat, and kept surprising us with their ingenuity. It seems in India anything can be achieved with a length of plastic tubing, a wok, a spanner and a spade.

See the photo album for the completed work.

When we weren’t at the Aidcamp, we saw and experienced some amazing things, and were treated to the most generous hospitality of the SCAD team, eating fantastic curries, dosas, parothas, chapattis, and masses of fruit. I came to India expecting to lose weight, and ended up gaining it – which also happens when Tangum, Susilla, Asha or Vimela, the excellent ladies that were looking after us, took a half-empty plate as a sign to sneak more food onto it! Nights were spent sitting on the porch of a small villa, playing cards, reading, and putting the world to rights, with the soundtrack to the night being provided by chattering crickets, and the music that just seems to float on the air at all hours. During the days, chipmunks provided constant entertainment chasing each other, sprinting along the ground with their tales in the air, and stealing flowers from trees, and I swear there must have been twenty dogs with nothing else to do than trot happily along paths and then back again, just for the hell of it.

We also had some opportunities to spend some time with the children on the SCAD school campus; a wide range of ages, some with physical and mental disabilities. The children were reason enough to do the Aidcamp alone – they were fantastic fun, friendly, curious and energetic – and there wasn’t a shred of self-pity amongst any of them.

Most of our time was taken up with various trips around Tamil Nadu to see SCAD work in action – and I don’t know how else I would have been able to see some of the things I did; vast, barren salt pans at Tuticorin; the villages affected by the Tsunami; the friendliest and most curious people I ever met; and genuine rural Indian life (let me put it this way; we were the only westerners we saw during our time inTamil Nadu, with the exception of Madurai, and it was common to be waved at, stared at, and being given random handshakes by lift attendants and security guards). Sometimes the experiences were difficult or saddening – we had to cancel two trips to successive villages in one day because there had been a death in each village, we saw children that would have been working in inhumane conditions were it not for the school provided for them by SCAD, we saw salt panworkers working in conditions I wouldn’t wish on anybody – and there was, needless to say, grinding poverty everywhere you looked. These sad experiences were outweighed by so many other touching ones; leprosy sufferers who contradicted the medieval stereotype of lepers with their dignity and approachability; children with physical and mental disabilities being lavished with love and attention when they could otherwise have been left to suffer in a corner out of ignorance; women’s groups getting their villages out of debt and gaining respect in their community; the elderly being given care and attention when they would otherwise have to fend for themselves.

The Aidcamp has shown me some things I will never forget, given me something genuinly worthwhile to be passionate about, given me the best induction into India I could have hoped for, and allowed to meet a brilliant group of people. I don’t know how the rest of India can match up to this.

2 thoughts on “Time to reflect!”

  1. The salt was packaged up in various different types of packing, all looking commercial-grade, for home use. The photo of the little boy asleep on the floor doesn’t show that next to him lay a large pallette with all kinds of packets of salt on it.

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