Photo Courtesy: Yarden Boytner
Last week I went to India for the first time. Well, rural India, that is. I have been living at UWC Mahindra College for more than two months, and I have even visited my friend in Bangalore for a couple of days. But going to rural Andhra Pradesh felt as though I might as well have gone to another country- a vibrant, flowery, welcoming country.
The reason behind this drastic change of scenery is what we at UWCMC call ‘Project Week.’ In groups of fifteen or so, all the first years and some second years set out to travel and perform a community-oriented project somewhere in the nation. Some groups went to work at a Crocodile Bank , some experienced the slightly crazy Bamboo Centre at Auroville, and some went hiking in the skies of the Himalayas. My adventure was set in South India- in Anantapur to be more precise- where a Jesuit monk arrived 50 years ago with the intention of helping the poorest people he could find. And he did very well, if I may say so.
But before I get to the brilliantness of this NGO, let me take you on the adventure of travelling in Indian trains. You may think you know what it is like to travel in a train – I thought I did – but after only 2 minutes on the platform in Pune I realised that this is entirely something else. I was tired since we had left the school around midnight. The noises surrounding me from all sides melted into a cacophony of “CHAI, CHAI, CHAI”, loud warnings from coming trains, sellers of hair-ties or street food like nothing I had ever seen before, and an infinity of indistinguishable noises from the inhabitants of this busy mini-cosmos. My eyes seemed to open and close at their own will, each time stumbling over passengers jumping out of moving trains, equipped with large metal containers- a hot drink for the weary passengers.
I, too, had become a weary passenger when our train finally arrived. I do not yet know how much of the term ‘Indian Time’ I should attribute to UWC Mahindra College, but regardless our train was 2 hours late. Not that this was a massive disaster – we were going to spend 12 hours travelling across the country anyway. I had prepared myself for the worst, yet all I had heard from Indians and second years alike was that riding a train in India is the most wonderful experience imaginable. I think both are debatable, but I am definitely more inclined towards agreeing with the latter: trains in India are definitely not a thing to miss. We slept in three tiers, covering ourselves with sweaters and socks (I must admit it warmed my Scandi-heart) to avoid the cold- which we ended up catching from the air-conditioning anyway. We arrived in Andhra Pradesh the next day, tired from the trip. The world suddenly stopped rocking back and forth around dinner. We slept, before the exhaustion from the trip caused our excitement to become insomnia.
Vicente Ferrer was a wise man in many ways. I was particularly delighted that his NGO began their program before 9:30 am so that we could get some rest. The food was also delightful, but he might have to share some of the credit for that with Spain. Most of us, when we didn’t oversleep, made a point of indulging in the fruit, curd, toast, dosa, etc. available every morning. In our defense, our program was packed to the brim, so some sustenance was required.
This brings me back to the arrival of Vicente Ferrer in Anantapur. With most NGO’s it is relatively easy to state what work is being done: the education of children, work with sexual minorities, orphanages etc. But with Vicente Ferrer Foundation, or Rural Development Trust as it is also called, this is a much harder task. They simply do everything you can imagine and more! To list just a couple of things we saw during our week: Horticulture with solar power, Schools for children with speech problems, hearing problems and other disabilities, an orthopaedic workshop for people missing legs, an orphanage for HIV positive children, women development programs, and several more.
This should give you an idea of the work the organisation does, even though it is only a small fraction of what we saw during our stay. I could tell you much more about all the different things they did, but instead I will entertain you with what I found to be most interesting.
I would like to mention the Women’s Development Program. The name sounds a bit dry and dusty, but believe me, there was nothing dry or dusty about these women! As I got out of the car that had carried us far, far away from all that was familiar, and entered a village of white, geometrical houses, an instant smile spread on my lips. Dozens of women in fusia pink sarees stood around me. With steady hands they smeared red and yellow on my cheeks and forehead, and I could smell the masala in the blessing dye. I was pushed forward, feeling like an oddly worshipped child, and a woman tied flowers in my hair. We were taken inside a small school building, and sat on chairs as the women sat on the floor, all smiling at their overwhelmed visitors. We learned that the foundation had started sanghams for the women- small self help groups where the women discussed their problems and their lives. Before these groups were started the women did not talk outside of their families and rarely left their houses at all; now they were able to go to the markets and have bank accounts for themselves. It was almost unbelievable that these strong human beings before me had not always been so. Green coconuts where passed around, and as I sipped the refreshing water. Inside I contemplated how such a seemingly simple initiative had created so many benefits and so much good for the people. This was truly a lesson in the importance of grass-roots organisations.
Now let me bring you to another setting entirely. We also visited a centre for HIV-positive children with one or no parents. I was unsure about what to expect as I entered the building, but my worries were soon eradicated, as three or four children ran up to hug me hello. For the entirety of our visit the children played with our bracelets and hair and clothes. Some of the children had prepared a very impressive show for us. As we watched the chequered skirts fly around to Bollywood music, a small girl eagerly taught me a game of clapping hands. The director of the centre informed us that these children, before the home was established, had been victims of unreal abuse; they had been burned to rid them of their disease, people had thrown stones at them in the villages, and parents had abandoned them. It was not an easy thing to hear, sitting there with a 7 year old on my lap, but seeing the children dance and sing in the safety of the organisation did lift our hearts.
Lastly, since I must not keep your attention for too long, we will go on a trip to the dryness that is Andhra agriculture. The district of Anantapur, in which we were, is the second driest area in all of India. They almost solely grew groundnuts, which is not great for the ground or the farmers, since it is very unreliable. This, Vicente Ferrer realized, was not going to work if the people of Anantapur were to be lifted out of poverty. Therefore the organisation developed a brilliant technology, very effective yet quite simple. They have dug large water reservoirs around the countryside, so that when the rare rainwater that falls will sync into the ground and not slide of the slanted ground into the other areas surrounding the district and state. Thus, by raising the water level, they could build wells and obtain water for agricultural purposes. This water was then used to irrigate the ground, and a variety of crops are now being farmed on the lands of the people. We walked around the fields of a family, seeing their chillies grow with happiness towards the unrelenting sun.
The beauty, I believe, that is important for us to realize in these projects we witnessed, is how the organisation had not implemented extravagant and foreign ideas at the people they wished to help, but had instead come to them and asked: what do you need, and how can we help? One thing common among all places we visited was a vibrant local culture and an air of working independently. Vicente Ferrer had not given the people the fish, but taught them how to catch it.
On this slightly cheesy note I will leave you, hoping that some of the excitement and wonder I have felt on my 9 day trip to the rural has been translated properly into words. Maybe rural India is not so different anyway – after all we are all human beings deserving the best live has to offer.
– Ida Laerke Jonassen Hass
Class of 2016