Friday, November 27, 2009

Final report on Setrawa and the Sambhali project

After five weeks working with the beautiful girls and women of Setrawa village I am filled with so many emotions. Our time in village has been so special and slightly challenging. The girls and women, though especially the girls were so welcoming and by our second week there we were being lavished the hugs and kind words. From 11 to 1 each day we would go to the school and work on handicrafts with the women and girls who did not attend school. During this time I feel that they taught me more than I taught them. I learned to embroider and made a beautiful skirt, and more importantly I learned the beauty of sitting and enjoying some good company and music over simple creative work. There is no need to rush about or be concerned with what is happening tomorrow or in a week or month, it is time to just be present. Rajasthani and I am sure all Indian women are innately creative and it is remarkable the stuff that they can come up with, with the greatest ease. Unfortunately there are very few women coming to these sessions and it would be wonderful if there was a proper class or project that they could work on together to draw more in.

In the evenings we would return to the school and teach the school going girls English. Ever eager and excited to learn this was a very interesting experience for me after teaching in South Korea for a year. Unlike in Korea the children here have ample time to play and actually don’t often get a proper education when they are at school. So the girls were ever so happy to sit and read, write and do a very different style of lessons than I taught in Korea. But as little girls they do still love to play games and we definitely did play many, though their attention was much hard to maintain and they were not as well mannered when not seated and writing. We chose to teach a different topic each week, as we had a short time in Setrawa. Our first week was spent getting to know them and doing introduction games and activities, our second week focused around team work and unity, our third week focused on health and the body, our fourth week dealt with dreams and our final week was spent wrapping things up creating a photo collage and having a goodbye party.

The rest of our time was spent mainly at Usha’s home or going to neighbour’s homes for meals. The food in Setrawa is amazing, all vegetarian and super healthy and basic and if you like spicy like I do it is heaven. As it is very hot and sunny in the afternoon usually we would stay inside and read, write, play with the little kids or rest. The end of our second week and our third week Usha went to visit her pregnant sister and we were left to our own devices more or less as Usha’s family doesn’t speak a lot of English which made things a little more challenging and interesting.

Our time in Setrawa was amazing and I will remember it forever, but some things could be improved. It became evident to me while Usha was away and in trying to prepare lessons and determine what the girls already knew, that the project is in need of a proper teacher or administrator. Usha is a great asset and has the trust and respect of the girls and women but as she will be married off one of these days and will leave the village, I think it would be useful to have a full time permanent teacher to administrate and make sure lessons grow on each other and expand the girl’s knowledge. Also in our last week there was a serious problem with Usha’s father who after returning to the village on the weekend began drinking heavily and refusing to allow Usha to return to the school. This problem continued to grow throughout the week and turned into some very angry and painful screaming matches between Usha’s father and the family. There was a great deal of pain and grief in the house and my heart goes out to her family. I would say that I still enjoyed staying with Usha’s family a great deal and think it is very unfortunate that this had to happen in our last week. I do not mean to write this to discourage any volunteers from coming to Setrawa it is an amazing place and anyone will be greatly rewarded for going, but something should be done to prevent continued incidents.

My love and thanks go out to all involved at Sambhali; Govind and Mokta, Usha and her family, Ramu and Mulsingh and all the beautiful girls and women of Setrawa and all the awesome staff at Durag Niwas.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The pain of this world

It is so strange how things happen at a specific point in time, teaching us an invaluable lesson if we are willing to learn it. This past week has been one of those times. We returned to Setrawa later than expected on monday afternoon and walked into our temporary home. Usha (our co-teacher) and her cousin were seated on the floor in opposite parts of the courtyard, huddled in balls they looked as if someone had died. There was little response to our entrance, no cheerful hello or even getting up. As we entered the house further we saw Usha's father sitting in the TV room in the same infantile position. A millions questions flooded my mind what had happened, had someone been hurt, had Usha's sister's new baby died? Unfortunately we had no time to ask as it was school time and so we went off to school without Usha. At school i continued to thinking of the plentitude of horrible things that could have happened, but it was Mulsingh (another co-teacher) who let us in on the secret, Usha's father had been drinking. Govind (the NGO boss) had told us when we had started that there had been a times in the past when Usha's father had drank and refused to let Usha come to Sambhali. But he reassured us he lived in Jodhpur most of the time, in fact this was only our third time meeting him in five weeks.

When school was finished we returned home to the same cold situation. Usha's mother had gone to see Usha's sisters new baby and would not return for another day. With Usha unable to speak to us we went into our room and attempted to focus on other things. But an intense rage filled me and i so badly wanted to leap out of my room grabbed Usha's skinny little father by the neck and slap some sense into him. Of course my better sense held me back as that would never fix the problem and so we sat in the most uncomfortable silence. As i processed these emotions i realized that part of me wanted to rescue Usha because she could not rescue herself and part of me wanted to control the situation and i saw my own controlling nature in her father. Caitriona was much more cool headed about the situation thinking it would all blow over the next day and so we finally were carried off to sleep.

But we awoke to the same painful situation and the day was spent the same with us in our rooms or going off to school by ourselves and the same dead silence remained until Usha's grandmother came to the house to talk to her son. We missed most of this when we went to school and by the time we got home Usha's mother had returned. But as we had hoped she could not return the peace and herself fell into a painful silence. But the silence was finally broken that night in a screaming match and a sudden bang and crash and Usha running into the courtyard crying. by this point most of my anger had subsided and i was filled with the most intense sense of grief. The pain that this house and family felt was unreal to me, though i have experienced many black holes in my time, i have never experienced a single person pulling down everyone to such a horrific low. Usha had finally been able to talk to us briefly that day and she said that her father was extremely angry and had been drinking day and night since sunday, but why he was angry she did not know. That night i did not sleep so well, infact i spent it bent over with excruciating stomach cramps. According to Ayurveda the food you eat and the people who make it are filled with emotions, as are we, so i believe that my own feelings of anger and grief and the feelings of the mother and Usha which were prepared into the food i ate created a very unpleasant reaction in myself.

Finally daylight came and the fighting restarted and i lied in bed trying to block it all out until it was time to go to school. Though i did not feel up for it i went to school to remove myself from the black hole that the house had become and as i walked to school alone i burst into tears no longer able to hold in all these emotions. Fortunately, Usha appeared at school with her grandmother as they were concerned about my health and While we sat working she spoke to us more of this continual problem. For at least 10 yrs now her father would return home once a month from Jodhpur filled with pain and anger and would begin to drink and hit the girls blaming them for his pain. Usha said she never talks to her family or friends about it, though the whole village knows. She says she hates her father who won't let her come teach at Sambhali and will not let her get married and leave this horrible situation. It made my heart break listening to her, hearing all her bottled up pain, not understanding why she was the target. After class Caitriona and i decided we would leave the next day, one day earlier than planned. When we returned home and told the family another fight broke out, i presume the mother and brother were angry and said that this would loose them the income of the foreign teachers who come and stay and some time during the fight Usha left to go to her grandmother's. The next day when we left we went o visit her and she said that she would stay there until her father returned to the city.

This experience for me was so intense. I have not felt emotions this intensely in ages and have not fully comprehended the experience yet. But my love goes out to Usha and her family who suffer so greatly and to all people out there who experience such abuse. I am thankful that Usha lives near her family and has somewhere to and be safe. I can not imagine all the those people out there who have nowhere to go and no family near. This has not put a damper on my love for Rajasthan and her people, in fact i feel my connected to be able to have truly experienced some of their lives. I will miss Usha and all the girls and women at the school. Ironically we are off to Agra next to see the Taj Mahal, a monument to love.

I send you all my love and hope that you are happy and healthy.

Desert Village Living

Life in the village continues and has changed little since we arrived. We still have daily visitors, mainly the girls we teach who come in, say a few words and stare at us. The last week was particularly strange, as Usha our co-teacher who is really the only one who speaks a decent amount of English here, decided to go to Bikaner to visit her pregnant sister for 10 days. Of course who can’t really blame her, as she hardly ever gets more than two days off in a row and there were two of us here to hold down the fort. This did however make for a far more interesting time in trying to explain our lessons and games to the girls and during the afternoon we basically sat in the sewing room working on projects while women either sat there and stared at us or worked on their own projects. It was nice to have more freedom though, as I still find living in such a communal space difficult. Mataji, our host mom is amazing and dealt with us so well despite the language barrier, getting us what we wanted and giving us lots of privacy. Caitriona and I have both stated that it makes a huge difference in living somewhere when you can speak the language. I have picked up some words and the fact that they are very expressive people makes it much easier to understand them, but communication abilities are still rather meager.

We continue to learn more and more about the women and girls, which is really wonderful because when you travel India you don’t really meet many women. We realized this after spending the weekend in Jaisalmer with only men and on thinking back it seems other than in school or at the ashram our day to day lives and travels in India have been totally and completely surrounded by men. Life for women here seems to take a good and a bad angle. Looking at it with our western eyes we see that they are kept at home and pulled from school at a young age, they are married off young and at a great cost to the family, they must cover their faces when in the presence of their mother-in-law. But they have an incredible bond with each other, far more than we have at home and without them their homes would fall to pieces.

Teaching here is good and very different from Korea. Unlike in Korea the children are not going to school 16hrs a day and actually get time to play, and for those who go to the gov’t school they sometimes play all day. As their teachers, despite being good, rarely teach or show up a few hrs late or not at all. So they want from us a very different sort of lesson. They of course want to play as all kids do, but they also really want to learn. They sit and read and write obediently and they love tests. In fact when we have a sit down lesson things go much better than when we try and play games. They are rather spoiled and can be difficult some times but they are so cute and love to dance and play with us. It is definitely a rewarding experience.

As for adventures we go off every weekend, typically to Jodhpur to have a little excitement and a change of pace. But last weekend we went to Jaisalmer, which is an amazing and mystical place. It is the only living fort in India, set up High above the great thar desert. It still lives and breathes as it did in the past. It is looking a little worse for wear, but there are several temples and exquisite stone work and the shopping :D Definitely more expensive than other place but they have got the good stuff including tons of gypsy stuff which just pulls me right in. But I am sure you have heard enough about my shopping sprees, so let’s talk about the desert. Caitriona and I had sort of given up on the idea that we would venture right out into the desert, but the great goddess that is mother earth decided we were to see this amazing part of her. The couchsurfer we stayed at of course ran camel safaris, as well as letting people stay at his house for free. We arranged a one night safari and set out with a group of germans, French, Russians and Venezuelans into the desert. Our guides two old men and two young met us on the side of the road with our nine camels and got us all up on top of them, as comfortably as possible. They walked us through savanna type desert past temples and their own village with cool mud huts that the people lived in. We stopped and ate and they cooked us delicious food. Finally, we reached the real sand dunes and we set up camp. As they cooked for us we wondered out into the dunes. Such a magical and peaceful place, sitting on top a sand dune looking out into the big empty world under the hot sun. We were quite blessed that it had been cloudy and cool all day until we set up camp just in time for sunset. After dinner we drank cold beer and desert whiskey by the fire as our guides sang to us and turned our cooking equipment into musical instruments. Our one guide, the oldest of the lot, who I would have guessed was in his sixties but was only 45, was truly a gypsy. Originally from Pakistan, he wrapped his scarf around his head and swigged back desert whiskey while we sang his heart out, in fact everything he said was in song. When it came time to sleep and the fire was put out, the sky lit up with millions of stars, as it was near the new moon every star in the sky was visible and we slept under nice warm blankets and watched them dance before us. It was a really wonderful experience though next time I would rather go in a small group for a longer time, that is if my body could handle it. I was sore for a good three days after ;)

Friday, November 6, 2009

First impressions of a desert village and the sambhali trust

It is a long and surprisingly bump free road to Setrawa passing not the typical desert we think of but a land of hardy trees and shrubs living in the sand amongst people, goats, dogs and peacocks. As we sat on the bus and the suggested time of arrival had passed we began to worry, oh no did he miss understand us or miss the stop and not want to admit it. The tension rose as we hoped we would make it to our new home. But at last, only one hour later than expected, we arrived in Setrawa. Our host Usha, the teacher at the school was tracked down as school was shut for lunch. She came up to us smiling with a group of girls all curious to see who the new foreigners were. Immediately we were put at ease by the friendly nature of Usha and her friends. We were taken to a lovely blue and green house and were plunked down and offered tea and food. After filling our hungry bellies we talked about ourselves and must have met at least 20 aunts and cousins. Who all came waltzing in the door saying hello and then proceeded to try and talk to us in Hindi, stare at us or wonder off. Everyone was so welcoming and excited for us to be here.

Soon it came time for our very first class and many girls showed up at Usha’s to greet us and take us to the school. Holding our hands they pulled us along and soon we were seated surrounded by bright shining eyes. The girls were all fascinated by us and all was joyful except when they heard we would be staying for only 5 weeks. “Why do you only stay one month?” they asked us, which made me realize how much these girls need long term volunteers. However, I know our time spent with them will be magical and rewarding. The rest of our first class was used as getting to know you time. Some girls were painfully shy and others were right in our faces. Their English abilities varied greatly as did their ages. They are the perfect little crew of girls to play and have fun with.

After class we went home and ate some delicious food completely made of Onions, I must say this is a first for me. Usha is such a lovely woman opening up to strangers and helping take care of us all. We went to bed early as we were very tired from our day’s travels. In the morning the alarm went off at 5 to tell us it is time to wake up and do our yoga practice, but my exhaustion kept me in bed and suddenly out of nowhere a group of women began to bang on the door shouting Usha’s name. In they came and the morning’s puja was performed with much chattering. From that point on our morning was very relaxing; first yoga on the roof, then tea and planning and later some tasty and salty Poha for breakfast. Many people came to meet us and despite the language barrier there was complete love and welcome in them.

Finally it came time to go to school to meet the women, but this time there was no one who came to fetch us or even waiting for that matter. So we set about looking around and I began to wonder whether any women at all would come. Finally three girls came in, all 15 yrs old. They no longer attended school having stopped after fifth grade. Only having joined about 10 days before they were incredibly shy not used to foreigners but we sat together and embroidered sharing smiles and encouragement. It was sad for me to see these beautiful young women with so much potential who had been taken out of school so young. But coming to Sambhali is a good step in the right direction, learning skills that they can use to make money and help their families.

Of course, First impressions can be deceiving. Despite the fact that I knew I was coming to a village to help women at first it never quite seems that way, smiling faces and invitations to dinner can often be misleading and as an outsider you remain on the outskirts of what is really going on. But here in Setrawa we have experienced a phenomenal thing, an insiders view in a mere two days. On the Friday following our arrival a meeting was held with the women of the village to discuss the development of the Sheerni project. Sheerni means Tigeress which is more than appropriate for these women. The meeting began with women slowly showing up and general banter and curious discussion about what would happen. Once all the women had arrived the meeting began and the real issues of the village were brought to light.

The main issues centred around education, child marriage, the Nreja and Anganwadi projects, the rapidly dwindling water and food supply and of course the sheerni project itself. I was shocked to find that only 4 of the 20+ women had gone to school and only 4 read the newspaper. Literacy as we found out from Govind merely means the ability to sign your name, doesn’t matter if you cant read what you’re signing. This has lead to a large problem in regards to the Nreja project, which the Indian gov’t has set up to help poor women in times of drought. Women are given 100 days of work at 100 rupess a day in order to survive until the next monsoon, or at least they are supposed to be given. But as many women testified in the group they were only paid 30 after they had signed a form that they could not read at which point it was too late. Sadly the women did not defend each other in trying to get their full wage and the men will not step between their wives and the gov’t. Similar corruption has been seen in the Anganwadi project which is supposed to ensure that children and pregnant women get enough to eat. This of course is a logistical nightmare with the number of people in India, and to make matters worse it is now being controlled by private self help groups who close early, don’t stock supplies and seem to be generally inaccessible.

All of these issues and more are what the women and girls of Setrawa and I imagine Rajasthan and India at large face. But on Friday the Sheerni project was given life and now 15 women have access to micro financing for projects they deem worthy. Some of these will be sewing, cattle farming and cooking. These women seem so resilient and determined I hope it brings them new hope and opportunity.