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.