Providence Home – our final visit.

Today’s blog post is probably the most emotional I have had to write. We headed to a special orphanage run by the Sisters belonging to the religious congregation ‘The Little Servants of the Divine Providence.’ The home, in Vilangu under the Eranakulam Diocese is run by only 11 nuns, led by the kindly Sister Linda. They cook, wash, clean and care for 117 girls and 1 boy with severe mental and physical disabilities including complete paralysis. We were welcomed in with kindness, shown around the beautifully clean house, complete with its own chapel and meeting with the girls and women who stay there.
We saw many different disabilities, from Down’s syndrome to blindness and severe mental disabilities. The women and girls held our hands as we walked through, wanting to touch us and all those who could were smiling. With such little support and complete reliance on charitable donations, the Sisters rely on some of the girls to help feed those unable to feed themselves. Some lay in beds like cots with rails to protect them, unable to move, unable to speak, or even hear what was happening around them.
We saw one lady crying pointing to a small cut on her finger and Sister Linda stroked her face with love and tenderness to calm her.

The Sisters all came to meet us, gave us coffee and offered us biscuits and fish curry which we declined, mainly due to the fact we didn’t want to eat their rations. We gave them coloured pencils, crayons, colouring books etc. which we now are not sure will be helpful, but hopefully they will at least be able to share them with those able to enjoy them or, if necessary sell them for funds. We were also be able to give them a small donation.

There are now 16 Providence homes in India and 1 in Zambia. All founded from the love and care of a Sister called Sister Mary Litty who had spent time in ‘The Little House of the Divine Providence’ in Turin, Italy founded by Saint Joseph Cottolengo. She was inspired and came back to India determined to set up a similar home. In January 1978, with permission from her Archbishop at the time she started in one small room with one woman who could not walk, speak or attend to her own primary needs. She had practically no food, utensils or even a lamp but soon donations from local people helped her and the Providence homes were begun. There are one 147 sisters and 24 more in training with over 1000 patients being cared for.

Heartbreaking for us was hearing that many of the children came from families who did not want them or could not care for them. We were even told that if a girl dies, sometimes the family do not even want the body returned to them because their neighbours do not know they ever had a child with disabilities. This isn’t a judgement on these families, many of them struggle to survive themselves.

Thankfully, the home does survive thanks to kind donations from people, including our link school, Naipunnya, but we want to be part of that now. We are both determined to share the good work and raise money back at our school and in our local community and send what we can back to the home. They need the equivalent of £400 per month just for medicine, if we can send anything it will be a drop in the ocean, but welcomed nonetheless.

Jackie and I sat quietly in the car on the way back to our hotel, touched by what we had seen and the kindness we had once again been shown. If any one who reads this would like to donate, please send me a message and I will pass on the details of the charity to you.

So our last few hours in India, time for reflection and contemplation on a country of extremes. We sit in our room watching a Hollywood movie while the rain lashes into the bright blue pool outside our door. But the images and memories of this morning and our whole week are in the forefront of our minds.

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Onam and final day at school

Another early start to be picked up for school. This time we were hustled into a dark room to put on our saris ready for the day’s Onam festivities. The blouses had been made to fit only this week, mine was red and Jackie’s green. It took two women 20 minutes to dress me with all the pleating and pinning and there was a bit of panic when we hadn’t brought our own bling – but as always someone came to the rescue with perfectly matched coloured necklaces and earrings for us both.
Panic set in when I was told I would need to make a short speech after the children’s performances about the meaning of Onam.
Once the hall was ready we were introduced over the microphone and had to enter as guests of honour sitting right beside one of the main boss Fathers as they call them. Thankfully Mary sat on my right and explained all the songs, dances and skits as well as writing down all the correct names I needed to say.

The children performed magnificently, they danced in unison with the most beautiful costumes. These were children aged between 6-8 and they were astonishingly good. One child was dressed as Mahabali – the king for whom the celebration has been created. He was very sweet and nervous in a very heavy costume but got up in front of everyone nevertheless and made a speech.
Then it was my time. I started with ‘Ona sham sagal’ – ‘happy Onam’ and had cheers – that helped! Thank you to the teacher who taught me that!! I managed to stumble my way through a speech of thanks and understanding that Onam was a festival that ignored boundaries and differences of religion, caste and wealth as well as cultural differences and that it was a time of love and equality, and we felt like we had become part of the family etc. I managed to say thank you in Malayalam at the end – ‘nandhi’ and gratefully sat back down!

We enjoyed a delicious feast served on banana leaves and with us all seated on the floor with the children – again no hierarchy if everyone is on the floor and eating the same food with their hands. Once we had cleaned up we waited for others to finish and met with the drummers who had been playing at parts of the ceremony, had our photos taken again with each one and returned to the hall in time for the house tug of war. The houses represent earth, sky, wind and fire and have the usual four colours so Jackie and I were able to cheer for our corresponding UK house. Unfortunately Jackie’s came third and mine last (though her house won some other competitions).
Finally there were some prizes to be awarded which Jackie and I were asked to present and then we had to say goodbye.

It had been such an emotional day with parents, children and staff constantly checking we were ok, had eaten, were comfortable in our saris and were not hot etc.
We had been so hopelessly spoilt, treated like royalty really and it really was a wrench saying goodbye. All the staff were gathered together and the senior staff spoke about our visit as did the teacher, Tess, who had shown us around earlier in the week which was so generous of her. Both of us said our thanks and I did have to hold back the tears when saying thank you to Mary. She has been the most wonderful host to us and we have had an amazing experience and learnt so much.

After our goodbyes in torrential rain we headed off to watch the snake boat race, really exciting to watch; we also visited a typical Indian family in their delightful riverside home complete with four generations of family and seven cows!
Our last stop today was for my favourite meal, masala dosa which was twice as big as a dinner plate, as thin as paper and as crispy as a wafer stuffed with spicy potatoes and served with coconut chutney, onion chutney and sambar! What a way to end yet another absolutely amazing day in India.

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Nilgri taun, elephants, tea, spices and chocolate!

Our second day in Munnar, the hill station town in Kerala, woke to amazing views.
Our first date was with the nilgiri taun, a rare mountain goat found in the hillsides of the area. We headed for the national park and climbed aboard a tourist bus to drive us 3 km into the park. The once-again windy roads were bordered by acres of patchwork tea plantations with women bent double plucking the largest leaves from the top of the plant and placing them in baskets strapped across their foreheads and hanging down their backs. They wore traditional saris with big plastic ponchos to protect them from the rain. It was pouring!
Once we had reached the top we alighted from the bus and were told to walk the last kilometre. Even with an umbrella and scarf wrapped round my head we were soaked. The road was really steep and the rain horizontal! There were no goats in sight and we almost have up and turned back when we saw a lone nilgiri standing in the rain. Two quick snaps and we headed back down to catch the bus back to the warmth of our Toyota.

Next stop tea museum. Most of Munnar is owned by Tata tea, so it is impossible to buy property within a certain area. We listened to a fierce elderly man lecturing us, along with a crowd of others, about the amazing effects of green tea and how black tea, certainly the way locals drink it, has no health benefits. He blamed the British of course, for bringing milk and sugar into the brew. But he was interesting and he certainly knew his stuff. After a look around the processing area we tasted some green tea, which is from the same plant but treated differently and not oxidised like black tea. We followed his instructions just dipping the tea bag in for two long dunks and then removing it. It was really refreshing and delicious. After some purchases we headed off to see the elephants.

This was a different group of elephants, seemingly their purpose was purely for tourist rides. We felt sad seeing the limited space they had but they were healthy and well trained. Jackie and I shared an elephant, me and the front, she behind. We felt spectacularly high up sitting astride Camilla our elephant. It was a short ride but quite enough with some fairly steep downward paths which felt very unsteady! I had the opportunity to feed her some pineapple which I was pretty hopeless at but I enjoyed nonetheless. It reminded me of the time I fed an elephant for an advert as a little girl, not sure my parents ever passed my payment my way!!

All these brilliant experiences were along wet and windy roads up and down the hills and as well as tea plantations we could see black pepper, cardamom, nutmeg and coffee beans. It was brilliant to see them growing green and strong, the coffee smelt so good. As we plucked some samples a local man came up and helped and offered me a taste of the ‘toddy’ he had in a large container. This alcoholic drink is made from coconut water and gets stronger day by day. Luckily for me it was quite young as it was only 10:30 am, plus it wasn’t really to my taste!! I have a feeling toddy will be gaining in popularity soon as Kerala becomes a dry state over the next few years with only 5 star hotels selling booze. Better get a G &T in tonight then!!

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Kathakali and Kalarippayattu

The winding, hairpin bends up to the hill station of Munnar, dotted with splendid waterfalls takes four hours from Kochi. En route we stopped for snaps of tumbling white water and cheeky monkeys, daring to get close to the human visitors and their snacks with babies secreted tight against their chests.
Praveen, our illustrious guide, took us to a small shack which was promoting Kathakali dancing and Kalarippayattu – a marial art form. Dubiously, we followed him down some treacherous stairs into a small theatre. We paid for premier seats which meant we were close to the front but the cost was still only ¬£3 each. After some time a man’s voice came over the microphone and began to explain, in quite halting English, the use of drums in Kathakali dance. Three men in only dhotis (long white sheathes of fabric wrapped expertly around their waists) and huge, heavy drums started beating rhythms. After some time a dancer came out and impressed us with all the facial expressions used in the dances to tell the stories – shyness, anger, joy, fear and annoyance were all conveyed just by eyebrow movements and her enormous kohl-painted eyes darting this way and that. She had a fantastic sense of humour and played with two or three audience members with flirtatious and then horror at one girl in her shorts!

The martial art form is apparently the original form of martial arts, adapted by oriental forms. This uses many dangerous weapons and was fearful to watch.image

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School trip – Kerala folklore museum

Wednesday – day 6 of our visit to Kerala. Today we spent the morning with the 6th grade students (year 7). We got on one of the extremely smart, air-conditioned school buses with the children heading off to town and a visit to the folklore museum. I sat at the back with the boys. A bus ride with Indian school kids is an experience. No seat belts, no need to sit apparently! The boys were all standing up crowded around my seat chatting to me about English culture, playing word games and charades. I was a little nervous for their well-being knowing the driving standards! But this was normal it seems, the teacher didn’t ask them to sit, complain, nothing. The girls at the front were the same – no health and safety concerns here it seems!!

As we settled in to chat I asked them about their social studies work, this being the subject that has really brought us to India, global citizenship. They told me that they understood that you could be a global citizen from anywhere, you don’t need to travel to understand. This was like an echo to six years ago when I undertook a global citizenship project for Teachers’ TV. They use Smart class – via the internet and do projects about the environment, countries around the world etc. This class have learnt about the problems that waste brings to their part of the world – pollution and environmental damage. I asked them what they thought could be done to help and they suggested planting trees and recycling (which, as a school they have done) and avoiding the use of plastic. When I asked how they could fix pollution issues in more remote and poor areas where people are far less educated and may see plastic as a boon rather than a problem, they said they could teach them by writing articles in newspapers. I questioned the use of this if they couldn’t read and they came back with radio. How the power of words can help! I left the conversation with the suggestion that they write a song for a radio station! Let’s see what happens with that.

Naipunnya as a school believes strongly in a value education, bringing the children up with not just a solid educational base but also a good emotional grounding. They have just begun a program called SALT – which they’ve bought into and receive specialised teachers in to instruct the children on a monthly basis. SALT stands for Skills and Attitudes for Life Transformation. The children were very excited whilst telling me about this. It is really new to them and the teachers, but they are taking this creative approach on board alongside the more formal teaching of other subjects. The lessons are much more group focused with discussions about current affairs, emotional intelligence and creative minds taking place. Sounds to me like a great step towards skills for life in a very traditional setting.

The museum was phenomenal and deserves a blog post to itself so I’ll save that for another time.

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Strike in school

Yesterday we relaxed. We read, caught up with sleep, swam and ate then repeated it all. We had had a call late on Monday night to say that school had been closed by government order – they were forcing the schools to strike.
Strange, I thought, what makes our schools close is teachers striking for better pay, pensions, conditions etc. Here, the teachers and kids are happy to go to work, to have work to go to in a school they love doing the vocation they love. Our school, Naipunnya, is a public school which means it is not directly affected by government decisions but if they didn’t shut, the buses would have been stoned by political activists with the children on board.
The strike was forced upon all schools in Kerala because a faction of the ruling BJP party, the ABVP, had been giving bribes to some government schools and not others because they wanted to encourage children to stay until 12th grade. The national BJP party don’t want to be associated with any corruption so shut all the schools for the day.
What a strange and mixed up government and education system!

Naipunnya – day one of school visits.

Another early start, too early for breakfast, we were driven through crazy rush hour traffic to the school. We were met by Mary, our host, and stood at the school entrance meeting all the children as they came in. Many come by buses -the school has 6 very smart coaches, and the tiny children in their smart pink checked uniform, or navy pinafores and shorts, trooped up the steps weighed down by huge backpacks containing all their books. The warm smiles and extremely polite ‘Good Morning Ma’am!’ greetings to all three of us was natural, normal and so very respectful. These children love their school and have a yearning to get learning.

We were formally welcomed with ‘arathiy’ a traditional worship given as a welcome, a ‘thalam’ (a brass dish with flowers and a diva light) was passed around us, jasmine garlands placed over our heads and ‘kalabham’ a sandalwood paste was smeared on our foreheads. We were truly welcomed.

First thing on a Monday is a formal assembly. Each class marches in to the beat of a drum, stands to attention whilst a prayer is sung and a psalm is read. We were introduced to the children and invited to speak. All we could say was thank you for the warm welcome and how much we were looking forward to our day.

We spent the day with a teacher called Tess, whose role is to teach communicative English, speaking and listening, with a bit of grammar thrown in. She is a brand new teacher, not properly qualified with a BEd but on her way to taking that on board along with three young children at home. She was keen to share her own ideology of using lots of ICT in her teaching and making the lessons more interactive than teacher chalk n talk. She was also explaining that she and a colleague plan to enter a British Council led drama festival to celebrate Shakespeare’s work, they plan to write their own version of King Lear, 20 minutes long with a cast of 8. I hope she does well, it sounds fantastic!

She took us into every class. The children have a form teacher and then are taught by different teachers for each subject, from grade 1 upwards (year 2). The lower and upper kindergarten children have one teacher each but much planning is done together with communal lessons taking place. We watched the lower kindergarteners learn the sound /e/ by listening to and watching a story being performed by all six teachers. The sound was emphasised many times at the end, both lower and upper case highlighted and the letter formation shared. This might not be the way that we do it but it works for them, though there were a few wrigglers at the back with me!

The children in all he classes have workbooks. The teacher has her own manual and they work their way through it. We saw some reading comprehension, repeated addition, subtraction and both Hindi and Malayalam lessons. The teacher teaches, then they turn to the book, she works with them all at the same time. Most of the children keep up. What of those who don’t? In this case we were helping out, there are no teaching assistants to support, but this is not a criticism. This week we are there, we are a distraction, I have not had a chance to delve further into this.

Also this week they are preparing madly for a huge festival on Friday. It feels a bit like nativity time at school, grabbing moments in the hall to run through a song or dance. This is involving all the children, well over 300 in the primary section (up to year 3), so it is a bit chaotic and lessons in between are shorter and rushed. The harvest festival of Onam is unique to Kerala, celebrating a character called King Mahabali who sacrificed himself to Vishnu by allowing himself to be used as a stepping stone, thus being pushed into the netherworld. Before going down he begged Vishnu to allow him to return once a year to his beloved people of Kerala. So they welcome him back with feasts, dances, dramas and a fantastic snake boat race, the largest team event in the world with up to 100 people rowing in one extremely long boat.

On Friday we will see the culmination of all this hard work and be part of the festivities, even dressing in the traditional white and gold sari (we were measured for our blouses today!), we will sit altogether on the floor and eat traditional food from banana leaves. It will be an amazing experience on which to end our trip.

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