Save a life, Sports camp, Maher Day

Take Five – Save a life
We were driving home from Pune late one night when Sr. Lucy apologized that we would need to turn around and stop for a minute. She had spotted a woman sleeping on the median in the middle of the highway. She and the driver got out of the car to talk to the woman. It was only a couple of minutes before they returned with the woman and her belongings – some dirty tattered clothes and a few broken toys. She had accepted Sr. Lucy’s offer to come to Maher. There were already six of us in the little sub-compact car, but no matter. There is always room for one more. By the time we got to Maher, staff were waiting with hot food, clean clothes, and a bath. The woman said she has no family, and she showed signs of dementia, so her photo was registered with the police as a missing person. The next day, she moved to Maher’s elderly women’s home. The next time I saw her, she was clean and smiling. What a difference a day makes!

Sports Camp
Sportscamp-Boys relay-web
We hosted a four day sports camp for over 500 Maher children. The older (20+ year old) students spent weeks organizing it, even raising the money for food and prizes. All of the children stayed here at Vadhu, pretty much filling every space. What a slumber party! Events ran the gamut from balloon breaking for the smallest children to cricket and volleyball for the oldest, with speeches, costume competition, and amazing dancing by all ages. Just in case there wasn’t enough going on, a wedding was scheduled for the second morning, and a naming ceremony for four babies on the third.

Maher Day
Yesterday was Maher Day, the last big event before I leave for home. It’s Maher’s 16th anniversary and we celebrated it with dances, music, speeches and awards, plus of course dinner for 600. My apologies for repeating myself, but I can’t get over how often they serve meals to crowds. Maher is an amazing place in so many ways, and this is just one more example.

Volunteers, volunteers, volunteers
Right now, there are 15 volunteers at Maher. One from the UK, one from Ireland, two from the US, four from the Netherlands, and seven from Germany. Our ages range from 22 to 70, and our commitments from two weeks to a year. Some are students, some are retired, some are working people on vacation. What do we have in common? We all speak English and we all love to play with children. And of course we all love Maher.

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A long overdue update…

December 29, 2012

The past weeks have been very busy.  They’re always busy for Maher, but sometimes less so for me.  There’s so much to write, but this will get a start.

Christmas, Maher style

Christmas is not a major holiday in this part of India, because there are relatively few Christians.  However, as an Interfaith organization, Maher celebrates all major religious holidays – Hindu, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist – and they do each of them in a big way.

We celebrated Christmas here with two parties, one on December 24 at the main Maher facility in Vadhu, the other at another large facility at Vatsalydam.  All of the Maher women and children from the Pune area took part in both celebrations.

There were gifts for everyone, so during the days before Christmas, staff and volunteers wrapped over 1,300 gifts.  On the morning of December 24, we helped prepare vegetables for 1,000 people – peeling, cutting, sorting.  At each home, older children created a nativity scene, ready to receive the baby Jesus.

Field workers' home-web

Children began arriving at Vadhu mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve.  It was like a huge family reunion, as many of them know one another, even though they live in different villages.  At 6:00, migrant farm workers arrived.  They were the guests of honor for the first part of the program.  All of them were invited to sit in chairs – a gesture of honor – and the women were invited to sit on the stage to honor women’s rights.  At the beginning of any significant program, an oil lamp is lit.  This one had many wicks and was lit by the village leader, the village women, and the foreign volunteers – a symbol that there is no difference among the people at Maher – we are all equal.  Before they left, each of the women was given a nicely wrapped gift, with the remainder given to men and children who arrived without women.  They are very poor people who live in fields in make-shift tents or sugar cane huts, moving from place to place as the crops change, so the gift was likely the only one they got for Christmas or any other holiday.  I was struck by the fact that no one opened their gift during the program.

Maher Angels-web

After the workers left, we re-grouped and had a Maher-only Christmas party.  Carols were sung in Marathi and English, and Santa paid a surprise visit.  Then our family of 500 formed a candle-lit procession to carry the Baby Jesus to the nativity scene.  Prayers followed, and then dinner.  The children who lived nearest went home, but about 100 had a ‘sleep-over’ in preparation for the Christmas Day party.

On Christmas morning, five buses carried the women, children, staff, and volunteers to Vatsalydam for another party.  We were joined there by former Maher residents and village residents for a program, complete with a magic show.  After lunch, each person received a gift, with the children ‘fishing’ to pull theirs out of large boxes, using poles and hooks.

Protesting violence against women
On a very sad note, there was a horrible rape in Delhi in mid-December.  Maher planned a march and rally in opposition to this rape and all violence against women.  As it happened, the victim died the morning of the rally, so it was an even more sober event.  About 300 women and older children from Maher marched, and we were joined by another 700 for the rally in the village.  Because of our tourist visas, the foreign volunteers were not allowed to march, but we helped to create hundreds of signs, and we walked along in support of the demonstrators.  This particular woman was a medical student, so there was a huge amount of media coverage and dozens of demonstrations.  Since then, the newspapers are filled with accounts of rape and murder that would otherwise have gone unreported.  Women’s rights are improving, but SO slowly.  Police apathy and bribery result in the vast majority of perpetrators being released or given very short sentences.

Jan 12 update – Tonight we went to a demonstration in Pune City.  This time there were a couple thousand women and a fair number of men.  Tomorrow the older Maher students are presenting a seminar on the rape at a company.  We’ll be going to listen.


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Jharkhand – Summing it up

Jharkhand - Children with corn

December 6, 2012

We leave Jharkhand tomorrow to return “home” to Pune. I’m not looking forward to another 32 hours on the train, but if Indians can do it, so can I.

When we arrived at Maher in Jharkhand at the beginning of the week, we were greeted by tribal dancing and songs. Then Benita, the housemother washed my feet and rubbed them with oil – a tribal custom in Jharkhand that I fully enjoyed. We were served previously boiled water, which had been cooled and served lukewarm.

I think the children in Jharkhand are less accustomed to foreigners than in Pune, so they were shy the first few days. But now we are all friends. They share songs and games with me and show me their homework. I will miss them.

The Maher home in Jharkhand

The current Maher home is a rented family home. My guess is it is about 1000 square feet, and houses 26 children and four adults. Needless to say, space is used efficiently, especially when we are there as out of town guests. The rent for the house is 600 rupees per month – a lot of money for Maher – and there is no room to grow.

Maher has purchased 1.35 acres of farmland an hour outside of Ranchi. They have built a small building, which houses a caretaker family and has room for a guest or two. There is currently no water, electricity, or toilet, but they hope to change that soon. Once water and electricity are available, the family will begin to farm the land.

An architect has drawn plans for the first two of four buildings planned for boys, girls, women and staff. Getting permits to proceed is a complicated and confusing process, and required multiple trips to the village. The cost for two buildings and the perimeter wall is expected to be about $200,000.  The plans will be presented to the Maher board on Monday for authorization to proceed.

The school bus

The older children walk to school, but the younger ones go by rickshaw. Fifteen children fit surprisingly well with a driver, even with their outrageously heavy school bags. Every child has 15-20 workbooks, which they are required to carry back and forth every day. Yikes!

A few children’s stories

The children seem happy now, but all of their stories started our very badly.

• One boy was here with his mother for two years. His mother was suffering from abuse and unable to care for herself, so the boy took care of her, combing her hair and tying her sari for her. Eventually she got better and returned home to care for a family member. Her son wanted to return with her, but there was a problem. The Maoists (more on that later) travel through the forests near their home, and are known to kidnap children to fight for them. This boy’s grandfather was afraid for him and loved him enough to send him back to Maher without his mother.
• One woman and her 13-year-old daughter live here together. The girl was a year old when they were found living on the street. Both were very sick, but they are healthy now. After some time, the woman wanted to return home to see her older children, so two staff took her to visit her village. Her husband was not at home, but their older children told her he has a new wife and did not want her back. They attacked her with sticks to chase her away. The woman left with Maher staff, but not before reporting the man and the older children to village authorities. The woman now works at Maher and her daughter attends school.
• A 12 year old girl was known to Maher before she was taken from her family and sold into prostitution in Delhi. She was able to convince a guard to call Maher for her. For six months, Maher searched for her. They contacted every agency in Delhi looking for her. Finally they did find her, and she has lived at Maher for a year.
• The father of one teenage boy was the village leader, working to help poor people. The Maoists mistakenly thought he had money, and they killed him. That boy has lived at Maher for a year now. He’s had a hard time, but is beginning to play and sing with the other children.

A glimpse of the Maoists

I have to say I’ve been completely ignorant about this group, and have very little information even now. What I’ve learned is mostly from Vijay, whose English is very limited, but who explained what he could with the help of a map of India.

The Maoists began as Communists, working to take money from the rich, in order to help the poor. They evolved into a terrorist group who steal and murder in order to get money for themselves. They control Sri Lanka and have strongholds throughout south and east India, including the forests of Jharkhand, through Nepal, and on to Tibet in China. The tribal people in Jharkhand’s forests are at great risk for kidnapping, murder, robbery and child conscription. Government services, spotty at best, are almost non-existent here, out of fear of the Maoists.

Gomia and the legacy of Sister Pillar

Maher has been asked to support eight women who want to work with people in villages near Gomia. We spent two days with these women, in order to understand them and their goals and to visit some of the villages they had targeted.

Sister Pillar is a Catholic nun from Spain, who lived in Gomia for 35 years, serving tribal people in these small villages. Among other things, she taught them health awareness, violence protection, home gardening, women’s equality, and the importance of education. She hired and trained these women to support her in this work. When Sister Pillar was recalled to Spain, the women sought help to continue the work, but have not found long-term funding. We are here to see if Maher will be that source. Hira will report to Sister Lucy and they will make a recommendation to the Maher Board on Monday (it will be a busy meeting), as to whether to proceed with this project.

We met with the women and visited the villages to identify needed services, existing resources, and key decision-makers in each village. The women were asked to individually write about the village work they have done in the past, and about their hopes for additional areas to develop in the future. As a group, they wrote a proposal to the Maher board, telling why they thought Maher should support their work. Later, the women will visit each village and meet with all the people to determine if they have a desire for their services. If they do, an agreement will be drawn up between the village and Maher. This is important to make sure Maher only serves villages who want them there.

A few things I’ve learned about meetings in Jharkhand

Tea comes first. In Jharkhand, the traditional tea is black with salt and sometimes sugar or lemon. Much better than you might think. At a meeting, the tea is always served, finished, and the cups removed before any business is conducted.

Prayer and brief chanting open most Maher meetings.

Everyone has a right to be heard. Meetings can be long.

Cell phones rule. When one rings, the person invariably leaves a meeting to take a call.

A little about Jharkhand

What I saw of Jharkhand is a beautiful area of rolling hills and forests. Ranchi is about 400 meters elevation, and noticeably cooler than Pune. Gomia is higher still and gets quite cold at night.

Much of Jharkhand’s forest has been cleared for farmland. The primary crop is rice, which is ideal for planting during the monsoon season and harvesting now, in early winter. Where irrigation is used, a second crop of a different variety can provide increased economic stability and nutritional diversity. Unfortunately, irrigation is not the norm in the villages, so rice is pretty much the only crop for sale or for food.

Coal mining is a huge industry near Gomia. The work is difficult and dangerous, but is the one source of good money in the area. Men often work in the mines, returning home only for the rice harvest.

After a mine has been officially closed, men will illegally enter and gather remaining coal to sell at markets. They transport the coal by bicycle, piling heavy bags six feet across. One strong man can push the bicycle (forget about riding it) on rolling hills, but it takes four men to push one bike up the curvy mountain highway.

A day in the dark

We have been intermittently without power for several days in Ranchi, and yesterday we had none at all. Indians are good at getting along without power, but it does make life more difficult. Water is drawn from the well by buckets, rather than by pump, and water faucets dry up as a result. Electric lights are replaced by much less effective solar lanterns and candles. Supper dishes wait to be washed in the morning light, and everyone goes to bed early.

Some things don’t change at all, as meals for 30 are still cooked over open fires, mud ovens, and kerosene burners.

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Odds and ends and a word about festivals


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Staff are arriving here at Vadhu today for a three-day annual meeting of Maher social workers and managers.  They will review the past year and make plans for the next year.

One year ago today, one of the older boys died suddenly at Vatsalydam.  He was 20 years old and had been the first child to come to Maher sixteen years earlier.  It was a very sad occasion, with many older boys and staff gathering for a service and then travelling together to Pune for the cremation.  Later in the evening, there was a smaller service for him at Vadhu.  Today his picture is on the altar, decorated with a garland of flowers and lighted by a candle.

The children are beginning to return from holidays, and it’s getting busier.  Any chance of a quiet afternoon is pretty much gone!  The different schools begin at different times, beginning tomorrow.

There are about a zillion different festivals in India.  A few are celebrated nationally, some are state or regional, and many are specific to particular villages.  But all of them seem to be big deals.  I arrived at Maher on the last day of Dawali, the national festival of lights.  Lots of decorations, music, parties and sweets.

There is also some sort of village festival that has been going on for several weeks.  Amplified music and chanting start before 5 am and go until 7.  That takes care of the morning hours.  In the evening, there is more amplified music and what appears to be political speeches.  Throughout the night, the wild dogs fight.  As they say, India is not a quiet place.

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Thanksgiving Day – No turkey in sight…


November 22 – Thanksgiving Day – No turkey in sight…

I went to a picnic yesterday with about 20 mentally disturbed women and 8 or 10 of their children, who are staying with them at Vatsalydam for the holidays.  Today I went on the same picnic with the elderly women and a few children.  It was about a half-hour jeep ride to the picnic from where I am staying at Vadhu, and a bus ride, plus two rickshaw rides home.

The park where we had the picnic is a Hindu temple.  It’s quite beautiful and lots of people make use of it during the holidays.  We had chai and biscuits as a snack, shortly after we arrived.  Two of the older children came from Vadhu to lead the games and singing.  They were very funny and seemed to know how to keep the women entertained.  One of the older women is the granddaughter of a man who was a friend and a servant to Muhatma Ghandi.  Her English is quite good, and she loves to tell stories about her younger life.

The highlight of my day was taking a rickshaw to Koregaon Bhima – by myself!  I bought an Internet stick for my laptop the other day, but it has not worked, so I brought it back today.  They promised they will have it ready for me tomorrow.  Will see…  Indian time is as they say – inexact at best.

A few tips for people who might want to visit Maher.

Maher hosts many volunteers, especially during the winter months when the weather is mild.  It can be a confusing and sometimes frustrating experience, so I’ll give you a bit of my wisdom, as it accumulates.  First, they are incredibly gracious hosts.  If you send them your flight schedule, they will most likely arrange to have you met at the airport, either in Mumbai or in Pune.  They are used to meeting planes at all hours of the day or night, but I was able to find a flight that arrived in Pune at a reasonable hour.  Allow an hour to get from the airport to Maher – about 4 hours, I think, from Mumbai.  The first week or two, you can expect to be invited along to visit other Maher sites, and to meet any visitors who may come to Vadhu.  Since I’m still in my first week, that’s as much as I know for sure, but after that, I believe I will be assigned to one of the residences for a period of time.

I think the volunteer housing varies from site to site, but at Vadhu, it primarily consists of four or five rooms with partial height walls and a shared bath.  You can heat water for a bucket bath or for doing your own laundry.  We have western-style toilets, although the room I had last year had an Indian-style toilet.  Maher provides towels and linens.  You provide your own toilet paper, which you will also want to bring with you wherever you go.  You might want to Google ‘how to use an Indian toilet.’

You should expect to pay all of your own expenses while you are here.  A case of water costs 80 rupees, and you should always drink bottled water, except for chai, which has been boiled.  Room and board is 300 rupees a day – about $90 a month.  If you travel in a Maher vehicle, there is no charge, but you will pay for other transportation.  A rickshaw ride to Koregaon Bhima is 10 rupees.  My train fare to Jharkhand next week is 964 rupees for a 32 hour trip, second class.  I think that amounts to about 60 cents an hour 🙂

You can get a sim card for your smartphone, or an Internet stick (USB modem) for your laptop, but you will need a copy of your passport and visa, a photo (without glasses) and a letter of authorization, which Maher is willing to provide, if you are a longer term volunteer.  My Internet stick cost 1,800 rupees, plus 500 rupees for the lesser of 5GB or 30 days.  When that expires, you need to return to the Internet store to have it recharged.  At that point, you can choose unlimited bandwidth for 950 rupees per month.

The most important thing you should bring with you is a flexible attitude.  If there is work to be done, you will be invited to help, and if you are not given a job, you are welcome to create your own.  There are always children to be played with or women to be talked with.  You should not expect a structured volunteer experience.  Maher’s mission is to provide homes and community services.  Volunteers are most welcome, but you will not always be busy unless you are willing to create your own work.

Women and children are very happy to practice their English with you, but it would be great if you could pick up a few words in their language too.  The question is – what language is that?  I’m not sure, but I believe the most common one is Marathi, which is the official language of Maharashtra.  Hindi is the official language of India and is spoken by many of the people at Maher.  My understanding is that when staff communicate with one another they might use either of those languages.  Kerala and Jharkhand speak their own languages, so an allstaff meeting can be pretty intense.  I found a good online course in Hindi, called Hindipod 101.  The problem was making myself study, which I didn’t.  I think it will be easier to practice while I am here, once I get my Internet stick.

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Think your house is chaotic ???


Quick Note – I’ve been without much Internet for the past week, so am posting several items.  I’ll be in Jharkhand for the next 10 days or so, without my laptop.  So more will follow after Dec 10.  Maybe I’ll figure out how to add pictures too.

November 19 – A few snippets from a day in the life of Maher

With the help of a few children, we are wrapping 2,000 gifts for Children’s Day.  On four different days, there will be celebrations for Maher and village children at four different Maher locations.

I removed pockets from three school shirts.  Forty new shirts were donated, but they have logos from a different school, and the children can’t wear those logo’s, so the pockets will be replaced with fabric from some of the shirts.

Among many other meetings, Sr Lucy met two 21-year-old women today who had come from another state, because they had heard that Maher might be able to help them.  One had been forced into an arranged marriage at 16 with a man she did not like.  She ran away and went home, but her mother told her she needed to return.  She stayed four years and then left and found a small job.  Her brother came to get her, telling her they had found a better man for her.  She left with him, but instead of introducing her to a man, he beat her badly for shaming the family.  The other woman was born to a woman who had become mentally disturbed and whose husband committed suicide.  The women arrived at the Maher office unannounced and with no money.  Sr Lucy talked to them and learned that they wanted to go to school and to get married.  She gave them money to go home to get documents they need for schooling and marriage, and for the second woman to say goodbye to her mother.  When they return, they will live at Maher, while they go to school.

Two preschool boys moved to Maher last week with their grandmother, after their mother died and their father was put in jail for killing her.  It’s not clear whether he did this or not, but he is unable to defend himself, as he has no money and is of a very low caste.  Sr Lucy obtained money from a wealthy man for an attorney to defend him.  Sr Lucy says Maher has many children whose fathers have killed their mothers, sometimes by fire, sometimes by throwing them in a well.

Ten children arrived from one of the Pune homes in time for dinner.  It’s not clear to me why they came, but they will be spending the night.  I do know the schools are closed for the holidays, and those who have families have gone home for a couple of weeks.  The remaining children have shuffled among a few houses – they like to spend the holidays with children they don’t often see.

As the children were rolling out their beds, Sr Lucy noticed that one of the boys was using a pillow from the guest room.  It turned out to also be hiding his stash.  She pulled out a stapler and a binder clip from the office, a roll of ribbon from the Children’s Day gift wrap, and a set of plastic spoons and forks.  She scolded him and sent him back to bed with a regular pillow.  She told us he needs to learn, but she doesn’t want to be too hard on him, because he was raised to understand that stealing is a normal thing.

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On my way …

I leave tomorrow.  30 hours later, I’ll be in India.  I make no promises for how often I’ll post, but I will do my best when I have access to the Internet.  In the meantime, check out the Maher website:

Bon Voyage and namaste!


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