A New Life Founded on Faith

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For a child the world is a wonderful place to explore through the frame of family. That frame may be any shape, size, and on the odd occasion it’s toxic. But what if that frame is shattered?

Orphans from two districts in Tamil Nadu live in Alangayam and they are the happiest children I have ever met. Taken in by the pretty houses with pillars, balconies, landscaped gardens, and smiling faces, it’s far too easy to forget why the kids are here. The place is just so warm.

The children are well looked after here, the way an orphanage should be. – A Father at the School

The orphanage takes international volunteers and funding from all over the world and the simple sign that brings them all together? Hanging around a child’s neck is a cross.

Sitting far away at home I felt unsure of the ethics of such projects. Atheist slurs of ‘brainwashing’ seemed true of a system that took bereaved children and gave them no choice about their new religion.

But what does God offer them? The glue that holds their lives together is faith. The Fathers teach them that their parents are not truly lost to them; they teach the children that strength and joy will reward them with the divine. Whether you believe in Christianity or not, just ten minutes with these children will show you its magic.

Watch as a little girl runs up gleefully to the Father with her 100% ‘superstar’ homework. It may not be her father’s praise that she receives but she’ll never stop working hard because she believes that he can see her.

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“When I Die, I Wish To Be Reborn In England.”

I have titled this post with the quote that broke my heart from the same family that melted it. After a chaotic day running round in circles after 13 year old boys at the government school I met two sisters outside.

The eldest spoke excellent English and I got into a real good conversation with her. After, I got my hair done in their bedrooms, invited for a holiday, and offered a free cat, but I can only process the amazing big issues of this conversation right now so here they are:

  1. Girls in India are severely restricted. Some married girls are not allowed out of the house or allowed to think about jobs. Others face similar oppressions from their fathers. The girls felt very privileged that they had only faced short periods of being house bound at school hostels (they couldn’t even take their rubbish out or visit their families).
  2. Access to products in Vellore district leaves a lot to be desired. The eldest girl absolutely loves western clothing and food but is only allowed to wear what she wants in the city. Also she cannot access the ingredients for western foods anywhere – even chicken is a challenge.
  3. The education system is ridiculously unfair. The poorest castes get a moderate amount of help from the government but generally the poor cannot access education. If you want to go to university you have to pay an upfront fee, if you want to choose your university outside of counselling you have to pay another fee, if you want to do all of that you need to pay an extra ‘donation’. Crazy!

So yes, I learnt a lot today about, India, people, and true generosity. I don’t care how strange the customs sometimes are to me, that’s co operation. When I see heart within the people it turns my day around.

Thank you for reading if you have any questions for me/Tamil Nadu please send them my way!

The Things We Take For Granted

Yesterday I was walking around town and stopped to buy my fifth or sixth big bottle of Coca Cola drinks for the week. 67rupees for a bottle (67p) and I handed over a 500 rupee note happily.

You may not think much of giving a fiver to a shopkeeper for a bottle of Fanta – I didn’t – but he seemed to think it was quite unreal and asked me my monthly salary.

It made me think of the things we take for granted and though I’m volunteering 3 months of my life to Tamil Nadu, my presence must appear rather cheeky to the community.

To a state where half the population earn less than a pound a day Coca Cola is a distant luxury; to some three meals a day is a distant luxury.

We don’t need to change everything about our lifestyles, and I won’t. But I’ll definitely think more about my budget after India.

 

Aspiring Tamil Nadu

Doing your first school workshop is a scary business, as back in the UK taking workshops into schools is tricky, surrounded by red tape, and the children are sometimes difficult to engage. We expected our classes to be so much harder than they actually were but after an informal meeting with the headmasters we were in. We prepared skits, games, and talks to give the children, recording the session with worksheets about their dream jobs.

Our first workshop was in Vallipattu village, and we went in unprepared of the differences to our schools back home. The classrooms were poorly ventilated concrete blocks without seats or tables. Classic chalk boards sat at the front of the class and examinations were being held outside on the dirt. The students sat in the blazing sun in rows about three feet apart (I remember when our class was complaining about the week long delay in getting our interactive whiteboard fixed).

This was a government school and the headmaster made no attempt to deny that the students sometimes struggled. He expressed that livelihoods was no great decision to the children but a means of survival, and therefore expected a purely economic outcome. Despite the difficulties faced this was a proud man of a good school with excellent results in traditional subjects.

But the students weren’t particularly money hungry. The majority of girls wanted to be teachers whilst the boys wanted to be in the army. When asked why they wanted their dream jobs the majority of both genders mentioned their community. Teachers wanted to help poorer students into school, doctors wanted to provide free local healthcare, politicians wanted to improve access to safe water, and police officers wanted to protect their community.

It was absolutely survival on the minds of these children, but not their survival, the survival of the people they grew up with.

To improve our second workshop we gave more information about career paths and entry requirements. Looking at the faces of Alangayam’s School for Girls 9th standard all you could see was intent focus, each so eager to chart their futures.

There is no career guidance in the school curriculum here and many students thought that their futures were influenced most by their parents. Perhaps with more voluntary classes on careers we can break the cycle of social class reproduction and children can learn how to make their dreams a reality.

 

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The Doggie Drive

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Today we were walking through Alangayam high street and saw a sight that chilled my heart. The sound was worse and made me want to cry right there. Few of the locals seemed bothered, and a few were laughing at the 20-30 caged street dogs screaming their guts out in the back of a van.

Instantly thinking the worst we wondered why no one cared that these dogs were in such distress (and likely about to be put down). Their eyes searched the faces walking past, their paws searched every gap in the cage, and their voices searched horrifying octaves for any chance of release.

Me being my polite passive self I walked past without protest and went back to the house to research what happens to street dogs in South India. I expected to regret my bystander behaviour but I was actually pleasantly surprised.

In a ‘developing’ country so strongly patronised by the west I found myself making snap judgements. These dogs weren’t going to a pound but a vet. Communities across Tamil Nadu are rolling out an anti street dog regime the humane (and expensive) way. Vets were neutering, vaccinating, and cleaning up street dogs to reduce the next generation. Chennai city has promised not to put street dogs down and this doggie drive would be making a return trip.

Overall, India has opened my heart to the reality of animal cruelty. Seeing a limping street dog isn’t cruelty, its nature. Killing that dog so people don’t have to see something unpleasant is cruelty. 

Though some people may shoo a few street dogs with sticks and kill a few chickens in public, such is the truth of life. You will see things you don’t want to in India but won’t be living off the products of intensive farming (where animals live out their lives in cages smaller than their bodies).

I suppose everyone has different opinions but as a dog lover and a sensitive soul I would rather have seen those trapped dogs today than the statistic that 21 are destroyed every day in the UK. Team India.  

Blackouts, Take Outs, and Cockroaches

Our placement house is located in Alangayam, Tamil Nadu, and this whole South Indian state suffers from rolling blackouts whenever there is an energy deficit. The issue is the worst in rural areas of the state, being of ‘low priority,’ and at the house we have around three power cuts each day. As you can see in the attached video we don’t cope, we sing.

At first it was all a big shock and we would stare up at the still fans helplessly. Cuts in Chennai were rare and there seemed way too many more in Vellore District. Going out for our dinner (to avoid the cockroaches) though, it was business as usual for everyone else. Lamps run by generators attracted people like moths to the light and people seemed relatively calm about navigating the wild streets in the dark.

The whole street celebrates audibly when the power returns and it got me thinking about the bigger picture involved for the communities. Tirupur is the textiles capital of Tamil Nadu but suffers 2 hour cuts a day. In economic senses the shortages must transform the area into an investment minefield; why would you pay for a factory and staff that can’t always work?

In the social senses the poorest suffer. For those who can’t afford torches, generators and transportation an untimely blackout could be disastrous. The Ill, elderly, and vulnerable may not be able to complete their homework, take their medicine, or find their way home.

And environmentally there is a question. The bulging 1.2billion Indians set to become the most populous country in the world can’t continue with a power deficit. The pressure on fossil fuels has affected the world but if countries cannot maintain a reliable system now then how will they cope in ten years time when oil supplies hit peak, green pacts become serious, and millions more people sigh at their slowing ceiling fans.

Indian Jewels

I started this blog to document my work and the people I meet through it. But important to the people in India is the scenery that I see on the bus everyday and I owe a post to the sheer beauty of the things I have seen here. When nothing goes to plan, haters hate, and you feel a world away from home, its the sights that chill me out.

Tamil Nadu is an underrated destination for holiday makers but following every road we take I am a satisfied tourist. Clouds of bright terracotta dust follow every activity, and in the city every space is consumed by bustling enterprise. A patchwork of services stretch every street so that a high street seems a lost concept.

Buildings are painted in pastels and have no consideration for a neighbour’s personal space. The horns and lights of ant like traffic will never leave you and neither will spontaneous farmyard animals. Grand bulls with painted horns constantly instigate diversions with no sense of urgency. Hindu vibrancy invites you with Technicolor temples at every turn that have enlisted the streets with decorated vans and cars.

Bright saris cut through the dust as beautiful women in flowers, paint, and silk go about their every day lives with the grooming of goddesses.

And as you move west towards Kerala awe inspiring mountains crest above the coconut trees. Enchanting stone crags bend the yellow horizon into gentle waves and everything close to you pops green, bursting to steal the mountains’ attention. People and animals tend the plains like artists, a woman’s sari blazes in the breeze as she ploughs the distant soil.

As the Indian summer broke people ran through streets cradling their things and screaming laughter at the invisible sky through bulbs of rain.

Vallipattu

A temple in Channai

A particularly cute friend

Roof friends