Last week, Plan contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in working with them to provide blogging and social media support for their campaigns to support girls around the world. Apparently, they want someone who writes about “… life, money, girls with a healthy dose of humour …” and so it seems that I fit the bill! More importantly, I’m a long standing supporter of their work and have blogged and attended events about it before: when I raised over £300 to support their “Girls’ Night In” campaign in 2009; at the launch of the Plan book, “Because I Am a Girl” in January 2010 and then a few months later at their International Women’s Day event at the House of Commons. It seems that I’ve just missed their event featuring Angelina Jolie and William Hague, but I’ve been invited along to learn more about their plans and how they’d like to use social media to raise awareness: so that’s where I’ll be on Tuesday afternoon. This workshop will be followed by a “Plan Talks” event featuring their long term supporter, author and broadcaster Kathy Lette, who I remember as being fabulous at the book launch event four years ago. I’ll write about that later this week.
Today is my last day in Goa; tomorrow I fly home via Mumbai, after another month in this beautiful, heartbreaking, bewitching, chaotic, colourful, frustrating country.
It’s been a busy week, with a mixture of freelance writing, charity work for Educators’ Trust India and, unexpectedly, a sidebar trip to Chennai.
Monday saw me spending the day working on the “Volunteer with Us” section of their website, and hammering out the framework by which ETI can take on around 20 volunteers for the 2011/2012 tourist season. We also identified 20 children who are in need of monthly sponsors and talked about how that model will work … feel free to email me if you’d like more details.
On Tuesday I went back to the slum with the Morning Light project and spent five hours there, washing the children, handing out samosas and being in charge of Operation Underwear. Two Swedish supporters, Jane and Bjorn, donated a large shopping bag full of assorted pairs of differently sized knickers … so we had a system going whereby we washed the kids, treated their hair for nits and they then lined up in order to receive a new pair of pants.
(Over which they then re-dressed themselves in their filthy old clothes.)
Jane also provided each child with a Mickey Mouse toothbrush, so we had an “up and down, side to side, rinse and SPIT” teeth brushing lesson in the open air.
Two children were particularly affectionate this week; brother and sister, they came running over as soon as they saw me and then attached themselves to me for the duration of my visit, each one clinging to a hand. Diego translated for me and I learned that the lady with them, whom I had assumed was their mum, is in fact their nanni – they are the children of her son and she is raising them, as their mother died a few years ago. I was so sad to leave them – lots of hugs all round and they cried when we drove away. I wonder if I’ll ever see them again?
On Wednesday I spent a long, dusty and above all HOT morning at Anjuna market; until this trip, it’s just been the place that I visit to shop and sightsee and take colourful photos, but this time, I spent the morning working with Diego on the ETI fund raising stall. I gave out leaflets, explained what we do (“we run schools for slum children” – how about that for an elevator pitch?) and took donations of clothes, toiletries, books and money. Some very clear national divides emerged between the passersby: Indian tourists walked straight on, Russians stopped to look and then barked “No!” or even, charmingly, “F*ck off!” if you offered them a leaflet; Americans were friendly, interested but usually backpacking, so had very little money to offer but always managed around 100 rupees (c. £1.40) as a donation, with an apology that it couldn’t be more; northern Europeans from places such as Germany and Scandinavia didn’t want to chat but always stuffed a generous donation into my collecting box before walking on.
Most of the money came from the British tourists, who were uniformly friendly, positive, supportive and generous – it gladdened my heart to meet so many lovely people, who gave so freely of their time and their possessions. I only did four hours there and was knackered at the end of it – and there’s poor Diego, doing a 12 hour day week in, week out, every Wednesday. What a star.
Thursday saw a complete gear change for me; I cobbled together a vaguely “smart” outfit from things in my traveller’s wardrobe plus some borrowed shoes and flew to Chennai on the other side of India for a business meeting-cum-interview. After three weeks in the universal melting pot of Goa, it felt strange to be on a plane where I was the only woman aside from the staff and the only westerner – everyone else was a dark skinned business man with a laptop and a bushy moustache. Upon arrival at Chennai airport, I saw a billboard welcoming the England cricket team and a sign saying “hello Thompson mr” and was then whisked away to the Sheraton hotel, courtesy of my hosts.
TV! Hot water! Room service! A vibrating massage chair … what a contrast to the start of my week.
My “Alice down the rabbit hole” feeling continued the next day, when I managed to have an interview, meet the England cricket team (obtaining some autographs for my taxi driver Satish in the process – he is now “Top Man in Goa”, apparently), chat to the Sky Sports camera team and meet my friend Priya from Bangalore for lunch … before flying back to Goa to head up the ETI team in a pub quiz – which we won!
Yesterday I rested, before going to a wedding in the evening. I knew neither bride (Feliciana) or groom (Romeo) but was invited as a guest through my friend Renee; her landlord is the bride’s uncle (or something). So Satish drove us through the twilight to a huge, open air wedding venue, where we joined around 500 other people in celebrating their marriage. Fireworks, confetti, party poppers, spray string, fabulous food, Bollywood dance moves and a free bar …
Today I’m blogging, packing, saying goodbye to my friends (although quite a few people have already left for home; this is the Big Exodus weekend) and then heading out to a concert by the ETI children – they’re performing some dance moves – like this – at a local restaurant and we’re hoping to raise a few more donations from it.
I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again – but I hope it’s soon.
This is a guest post by Dr. Dhiru Mistry, an Indian born British GP who took early retirement from the National Health Service in order to return to India and devote his life and his medical skills to helping the poor and dispossessed.
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Namaste, as we say in India – it is a lovely greeting from the heart. The greeting has inner significance, let me just explain briefly. By holding both hands in a prayer position and looking at the eyes of the person you are greeting, this means that with my five senses of perception, five organs of action and with my soul I greet you. It also means that I see God in you and I welcome you with that intention and purpose. This is much better than our western greeting of just saying hello or shaking hands.
Having read Cleo’s article on the work of Educators’ Trust India, I was very impressed. It carried the point home to the reader: that in India, we have a tremendous gap between the poor and the rich, and yet out there we still have noble people who want to make a difference.
Let’s get serious. My mind boggles to see this extreme poverty, this obvious carelessness and selfishness which is quite apparent when we visit the slums. I have the deep feeling that in the 21st century, this should not be allowed to exist – the obvious pain, the suffering born of hunger and illness, no proper human being should allow this to happen. Well, it is happening, what are we doing? This world belongs to us all, not just the Goan, the Indians, the British but to us all, and our teaching from the great books says it all, that there should be no class based, creed based, religious based, colour based discrimination. As humans, we should be utterly ashamed of our apparent lack of love and concern for the needs of these poor, displaced people in our society.
At Educators’ Trust India, we are empowering these children through education and trying to give a few of them food and clothing, but this is a drop in the ocean.
Our Morning Light project, where we provide a mobile health, education, sanitation and nutritional service to slum dwellers is the best that I have ever undertaken. I say this with experience – my voluntary missionary work and philanthropy in medical fields have taken me to various parts of the world – but this is the ONLY project in Goa where we are going to the poor, the destitute and displaced people. These people are so poor, so illiterate, so hungry that they do not have the energy to know how to fight their corner. India is boasting that they are a world power; I disagree, as one cannot be rich by means of acquiring gold or dollars, one gets richness when the hearts and mind and the physical health of all its citizens are fulfilled, without hunger, homelessness, illiteracy or holding out of the hands for a few rupees. It makes me not angry, but sad at the thought of such treatment in an open society as ours. Remember, slavery is now forbidden, but in reality it still exists.
At Morning Light each week, our volunteers, all of whom come from wealthy Western backgrounds, see no difference in colour, creed or race, they see all as one and the love flows. Everyone is engaged in various tasks – you will see them washing, bathing, shampooing the children hoping to get rid of their suffering due to head lice. These children just do not have the simple itching manifestation of head lice: they have bleeding, scarring and intense itching – why? It is obvious they have been neglected. You can also see our volunteers playing, cuddling with joy and affection at the same time as teaching some basics to the children. I am engaged in treating the illness that comes alone, with the help of our nurse. We may be doing basic treatments and they do not need somebody like me with extensive experience to deal with minor illnesses, but the point is that we care for them and it is done with unconditional Love.
Remember, Love heals.
This requires patience, tolerance, fortitude, equanimity and fraternity – these will prove invaluable attributes in our pilgrimage to the souls of the poor and the needy. Remember, we need to be a flower which radiates charm and fragrance, whether it is for a poor child or a rich child. As with all things good and noble, the project, as a mobile clinic bringing medical relief, feeding and education, empowering and educating the neglected Indians in the squalor of the slums, brings home the lesson that Love and Service are like the two wings of a bird.
Flight is not possible with just one wing alone.
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Educators’ Trust India now have a Justgiving page. Please click here to make a donation if you can – even a few pounds or dollars makes a huge difference to both these children’s lives and to the work carried out by Dhiru and his team. Thank you.
In this field is a banyan tree, pictured, which is regarded as holy and sacred around the world and which here is also on the site of an open air Hindu temple, complete with altar and access to clean running water.
It’s also the place where the Educators’ Trust India team have struck a deal with the local Hindu priest to use the land for a few hours each week (for the payment of 300 RS – about £4) as part of their mobile Morning Light outreach project. I witnessed this last year and wrote about it here – it’s a change of location for the occupants of this particular mobile slum, as the police moved them on earlier this month – in spite of having happily solicited and accepted bribes in order to allow them to stay. As the land is holy, they can’t and won’t camp upon it, but the familiar blue plastic tents, open fires and cooking pots are sited just a few yards away.
We arrived in two cars and on a fleet of scooters and the ETI volunteer team soon spread out in a well practiced routine, taking plastic sheets over to one area to set up two impromptu “schools” for groups of children aged five and over or five and under and carting plastic bowls and buckets over to the cold water tap in order to commence Operation Bath Time. The fact that the children came running over asking to be washed is a huge improvement on only three months ago; with patience and love, Diego and the team have persuaded the parents and children to trust them. Meanwhile, resident doctor Dr. Dhiru Mistry, who truly believes that we are all privileged if we can help the poor, put up a portable tent on the back of his car in order to create a makeshift surgery, thus allowing the children and adults to be treated in privacy. Dhiru explained that, as a doctor, wherever he is, he believes that his patients deserve confidentiality, dignity and respect and this tent device allows him a modicum of this.
During our visit, he treated five children and one adult, mostly for ailments which included the usual coughs and colds, head lice and scabies but also a really nasty foot infection on a child – caused, as described before, by the lack of shoes. One little girl was quite ill, suffering with dehydration and malnutrition; Dhiru treated her with intravenous antibiotics and fluids and left some medicine with her mother, but explained that he was unable to provide his preferred drug in case it reacted badly and caused diarrhoea – a nightmare in an environment with zero sanitation.
Meanwhile, other volunteers were washing the children, using tourist donated shampoos and soaps and then drying the kids off with discarded beach towels. Once clean, we used imported head lice lotion to treat the children’s hair, which bizarrely they seemed to love – perhaps it was the attention, as they are all hugely tactile and love hugs and piggy backs.
Then it was meal time – and we all shared donated bread rolls, samosas, omelettes, milk and fruit – suggested by Dhiru as being both nutritionally sound (protein, fruit, carbohydrates) and portable.
Another big change from December is that when we left, all the mothers (still no sign of the men) came up and shook our hands and thanked us – some had tears in their eyes and hugged us, saying “thankyouthankyouthankyou” over and over. The shift from the hostility we experienced only a few months ago is very marked – and welcome. They now know they can trust the ETI team to turn up, feed and support them, treat them with dignity and respect – and not involve the police, crucial for this particular community.
Some of the volunteers were new and were profoundly shocked by what they saw, but all were keen to stay involved and to do as much as they can to help out over the next month or so.
Dhiru has written me a moving and very beautiful guest blog piece on why he is so involved with India’s poor – coming up next.
A few days ago, I went over to see the Educators’ Trust team at the Leading Light school in order to update their website. While I was there, as is always the case, I was interrupted frequently, including being asked to help interview a lady called Sangeetha. Ian, the charity’s project manager, was talking to her and it was obvious to me, while I was sitting at the opposite end of the veranda, that she was very uncomfortable being on her own with a man, and with a western man at that. She kept looking over at me, as the only woman that she could see; Ian, to his credit, noticed this and asked me if I’d come over and sit with him and interview her, in order to make her more comfortable.
Sangeetha, it turns out, is 28 years old and a married mother of three. She is very small in stature, probably no taller than 5 foot, very, very slim – she actually looks malnourished, in terms of her eyes and her cheekbones and her whole demeanour. She’s also disabled and she walks with a very pronounced limp. When she moved the folds of her sari to sit down, I saw that she had a withered foot and leg and I later discovered that she’d been born like that.
She speaks limited but reasonably clear English and so we talked freely as long as I spoke slowly. She must have been born into quite a good family, as she stayed in education up to the age of 18. Given that school in Goa is only free until you’re 13, that indicates, I think, some family resources behind her. She was married at 18 and has 3 children, the oldest of whom is 11, a girl; there are also sons of 9 and 5. She came to the attention of Diego and the ETI team when her 5 year old son, Parras (pictured above, in the blue shirt) came to the Leading Light school. She lives in the same village as the school, Canca and her other two children go to another school nearby via bus. As I mentioned before, education here is “free” – in that the actual schooling is free, but then you have to pay for bus fares, uniforms, meals, sometimes textbooks and so on.
Sangeetha is the sole wage earner for a family: herself, her husband and the three children and she works as a cleaner for a local business, where she earns 500 rupees per month.
That’s about £7.
I can’t even begin to imagine how they can survive on that – by way of a contrast, 500 RS is about the budget I give myself for my nightly evening meal.
Another useful comparison figure is that the “room boy” (Indian for “chamber maid”) at my hotel earns c. 3000 RS (£42) per month plus room and food – which makes it sound like quite a good job in comparison to Sangeetha’s role.
The reason that she is the sole wage earner is due to her husband being paralysed. That in itself sounds tragic – but I also learned that her husband was a drug dealer and user and contracted HIV through the use of shared, dirty needles. He subsequently had a paralytic stroke and so he is now at home, all day, paralysed, whilst Sangeetha is forced to do what she can to earn a living. She managed to get Parras into the ETI school and Sangeetha then approached Diego, the charity’s founder and asked if there was any work for her at the school. She pointed out that she’s smart, she’s educated, she went to school until she was 18, she can speak some English and she’s a very fast learner. And she promised that she would work very hard, she would do anything at all that they needed her to do, as long as they could pay her more than 500 RS per month – and would it also be possible for her other children to transfer from their schools and join this school?
Diego, who has a heart as big as the world, asked us if we could chat to Sangeetha – which was where I came in. So, just sitting down with her, this was what I heard – and we tried to find a way that was both possible and dignified for her to come and work here. She’s now paid 1000 RS per month and has started work as a “Classroom Assistant”; she helps in the kitchen, tidies the classroom, helps to organise the children when we take them to the beach and so on. One of the things that she told me was that she’s never been to the beach or seen the sea! She was born and has grown up maybe 10 miles inland from this beautiful coastline and yet neither she nor her children have ever been there – so imagine what it’s going to be like when we take her family to the beach for the first time next week.
So that’s what’s in Sangeetha’s future; what I think is particularly encouraging about her story is that it shows how the charity are starting to work with people from within the Goan community as well as with those who travel here from elsewhere. One of the things that’s a constant in charity work here is the fact that some Goans are suspicious of and tend to have a dislike of NGOs who work with migrant communities. They can think of the migrants that “… these problems are of their own making – if they stayed in their home state, they wouldn’t bring themselves and their problems into our beautiful state of Goa”.
But what we’re seeing now is that the charity has an infrastructure to support those people within Goa who also live in poverty. Diego will never turn away a child in need, especially if that child has parents who want their child to be educated. He’s not going to check where they’re from – he just sees a child in need and wants to help.
So, I think the fact that there will be “local” children in the schools may make a difference to the way in which the more affluent Goans start to perceive the charity. Let’s hope so.
I arrived here on Saturday evening, just in time to join the Educators’ Trust India team at a fund raising event at a local restaurant. Some of the volunteers had taught the children a dance routine, so they came into the restaurant and performed, whilst we passed around the hat, sold raffle tickets and ran an auction, with prizes such as a trip to the local monkey sanctuary or dinner for two at the restaurant. In a moment of madness, I bid for the chance to push Ian, the on-site project manager into the swimming pool … he’s a big guy and it was extremely satisfying to shove him in for the price of c. £70 …
All in all, we raised nearly £350, which is enough to buy one of the key items on the charity’s wish list: a mobile water filter, which they can take around to the various rural slums and use to provide fresh, clean water for the children and their families. Drinking filthy water from polluted ponds and streams has had some truly horrific health consequences (a little girl I visited in the Panjim hospital last November has, I learned yesterday, died of kidney failure due to bad water), so it’s great that the tourists’ generosity has led to the acquisition of something so tangible.
Later today, I’m going over to the Leading Light school in order to do some work on the website and to hand over my huge bag of gifts and donations from the UK. Here’s some of what I brought – all in all, I arrived with 46 kgs of luggage, of which about half is for the charity. Again, I’m grateful for the generosity of my friends and family back home: my mother has set up a monthly standing order for the charity and also gave me some money to buy the #1 item on the “we need it NOW” wish list – head lice lotion. Another friend donated her Boots Advantage card points, which I used to buy lots of bottles of hand sanitiser and Liz did loads of printing for me – small gestures but very much appreciated and they will make a world of difference to the children.
While I’m here, I want to interview some Goan women for Mother India and to spend some time at the Mother and Baby home and at the HIV clinic – my friends Jim and Moe have arranged for me to interview Sister Jessie, the nun who runs it.
My taxi driver Satish has kindly invited me to his sister’s wedding next weekend, so my dance card is filling up – and I will also make a flying visit to Palolem in south Goa (stick “Palolem beach Goa” into Google images and you’ll see why) in order to catch up with my backpacking friend Natasha.
More next time, when I can get online again …