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.