Archive for April, 2012


Stories of Hope

AMDG

Fr Eric Mathias SJ (left) is the director of the educational works in Manvi and the founder of the Jesuit Mission here 10 years ago. This blog has been contacted by a few people who wanted to know more about the many children here who have been saved from a life of grazing cows and given an education.  Fr Eric has written todays entry to highlight two students (from many) whose life has changed dramatically because of their work.  

Pannur Mission began with releasing some bonded child labourers and giving them A life-changing experience  through education. All these children who were released  are doing well and are an example to others.  Let me give you some  examples of living stories of our children who were grazing cows and never ever thought  that one day they would speak in English and study in an English medium school.

Hanumanthi.  Hanmuanthi hails from a small village called Umli Hosur,  26 kms from Manvi. She was grazing cows  of the landlords and used to collect  Rs. 3,000 per year.  Loyola team met her in her village and sent her to Bijapur for literacy program. She proved herself so smart  that  we decided to send her to Mangalore to do her primary studies. As she was good in English we brought her to school in Manvi for the 8th std. She has excelled in studies and sports and brought a good name to the school. Now she is in 2nd year PUC (Pre University) and dreaming of  being an eye  specialist.  She says  that both   her mother and brother are suffering from eye trouble and so she would like to be a doctor and help out  those who have eye trouble.   She has also has a desire to be a nun at the service of people.  Though she is now in holidays she has opted to spend her holidays in visiting villages and helping to identify and register malnourished children with a team that is engaged in helping these children.  She says she gets energy and peace when she helps the poor and needy.  Hanumanthi is an example of a girl who is liberated and wants to liberate others.

Noble Raj is coming from Pannur village and at an early age engaged in grazing cows and doing some work under the landlords.  He had never been to school till he met us.  He has one brother and two sisters. He was never bothered about the loss of education till he started schooling.  One day he came to us and begged that he wanted to study and work and help out his  poor family.  We gave him an initial grounding in his studies and brought him to school in Manvi.  He has been with us past five years and  has been diligent in his studies.  He has a strong desire to be a Jesuit and to serve humanity especially the poor.He says that his eyes  were opened when  the Wimbledon group first visited Pannur in 2002 and he used to see Bro. Tim (now Fr Tim) lifting children on his shoulders and swinging the children hanging on his arms. He was thrilled when he himself had the joy of being carried on Tim’s shoulders.  He was astonished that  Dalit children were made to feel free by the  English group. They were considered untouchable by so many, even their own families, yet the boys from Wimbledon were delighted to play with them

Later, when another English visitor Dinah and her family visited his poor and simple house, he felt accepted by them and was strengthened by their love. Now he is in 10th std preparing himself for the public exams. He wants to score well and go for PUC.  Noble Raj is very helpful by nature and is a gentleman with discipline and self respect. Even now in holidays he  is staying in the school and helping out in different activities. He  has made his school as his own second  home and is cordinating a group of boys in building and maintenance works.   English medium has helped him to grow in all round knowledge.

There are many Hanumanthis and Noble Rajs in our school who will change the structure  of our society and liberate Dalit families from the slavery of moneyed people and landlords.   If you would like to help support them directly click on this link

The Vision

AMDG

Thankyou for so much interest about the educational work that the Jesuits are doing here in India.  A repeated question has been about what effect does education really have in a rural underdeveloped area like Manvi?  In a ‘developed’ country like the UK there may be a valuable question to ask about the wisdom of sending so many people to university, when many leave with degrees that may not be helpful or useful.  In that context I would agree that vocational skills can be more useful that tertiary academic education and there is no point in pushing someone who is demotivated to do a degree for the sake of it.  But here in Manvi we are talking about education at a much more basic level. Here education is the key to transforming society.  Why?  Because it changes mindsets, it encourages people to think, to challenge. It opens their horizons. In rural India, traditional ways such as child marriage or child labour, corruption, sexism, and caste discrimination all work against development.  Even deeper that that is an all-pervading sense of fatalism that comes from an ancient philosophy of time being cyclical. In the West we understand time in a lineal manner – Judaism, Christianity and Islam talk about the ‘end of time’ – Judgement Day – when the good and bad deeds of life are weighed against each other.  In many places in the East time is cyclical, judgement is through reincarnation, good karma versus bad karma.  This can produce a certain fatalism – I was born in this caste, in this village, if I don’t cause trouble, try and live a virtuous life then my next life, my next reincarnation will be favourable.

Simply Giving them a chance

So education is a force that says – you can change things, you can improve the here-and-now, you can aspire to be a doctor, engineer, teacher.  Just this morning I took a class of very motivated science students – we watched a programme about the Arctic Circle, as well as exploring ideas such as body temperature, nutrition, seasonal variation etc.  The students were fascinated by snow and ice, particularly by the phenomenon of ‘cloudy’ breath in freezing temperature. It blew their minds.  When I asked the class what their ‘coldest’ experience had been  – the furthest one of them had traveled was to Mangalore and a temperature of about 15C. So Education opens their horizons, they loved seeing an igloo being built.  We also discussed the challenge of a balanced diet.  In one of the scenes the Inuit were hunting for Whales which is their only source of vitamin C, in a terrain where nothing grows.  So this lead to a discussion about a balanced diet – and a project where the students who will go back to the villages next week will log all they eat for a month and then will investigate what vitamins or minerals are missing from their families diet.

Regarding the questions about what the students will go on to do after school – the Jesuits are building a University College on the same site. Two weeks ago – after an inspection – we received the news that ‘Loyola College’ as it is called will be affiliated to Gulbarga University and has been awarded decree accreditation powers in the fields of Computing  (BCA), Commerce (BCOM),  Social Work (BSW),  English (BA), Science (BSC).   So for the students who wish to they can now study here from kindergarten through to undergraduate level.  Already there are     students studying their PUC (Pre University) courses.  This years saw the first batch of graduates from the PUC.  Most of them will go to the college, some will write CET exam and go to medical or engineering or architecture colleges.  Some will do vocational courses like automobile, welding, electrical, electronic, plumbing, diesel mechanic, tailoring, carpentry – access to these courses is only available to children who have finished 1oth standard in school (age 15).  Since almost all of them come from families who if they are lucky rely on seasonal ‘coolie’ work – to have a skilled steady job in itself is a big achievement. I have been told that the ‘drop out rate’ i.e. thks students who don’t complete 10th standard is less than 2%n  (which is considerably less than other schools where the average drop out rate is 40% or higher).

Any help you can give or continue giving through charities such as Supporting Dalit Children really does make a difference.  I have asked Fr Eric Mathias to write the next blog about the changes he has already seen over the last 10years.

Water for All – Appeal

AMDG

Installing a 1000 litre rainwater harvesting tank.....

In the last year I have found myself living in three of four places where I wash out of a bucket. One thing I have noticed is that it makes you much more careful about how you use water. Every drop becomes precious, especially filtered or good drinking water.  I still remember the shanty town in Manila and the small home where I was staying. There were about fifteen buckets and tubs of water stacked around.  All possible rain water was collected and stored, a very precious commodity!  Here in India this is also the case – the newspapers are filled with stories of drought at the moment.  Officially on summer holiday, many of the government schools are staying open for lunchtime to ensure that the children receive at least one good meal a day (although my fellow Jesuits tell me that many of that money and food will make its way into the wrong hands).    In these conditions it is a really important service that the school serves by teaching the children – who will the teach their families  – about how to use, store and capture water wisely.

I am showing the science students the excellent BBC ‘Human Planet‘ series at the moment. Last week we watched an episode about living in the desert. As part of my preparation for the class, I looked at the annual rainfall figures here in Manvi and Pannur.  What is very clear is that all the regions in the district have seen a drop in average rainfall, thus bringing them into the category of semi-arid or semi-desers (anything under 500 mms a year).  This focuses the mind!

The Monsoon rains supply over 50% of India’s precipitation in 15 days so when they fail it is problematic.  Trapping and storing water is very important.  We have been teaching the children about rainwater harvesting – so that they will take this knowledge back to the villages.  Exacerbating the situation here in India is the rapid melting of Himalayan Glaciers which is depriving the great rivers the Indus and the Ganges of their summertime source, thus extending the long dry season.   Here in Karnataka the lifeline of the great river Krishna also flows through neighbouring Andrah Pradesh and also Maharashtra.  The rapid building of Dams in all states and diverting parts of the river has politicized water to such an extent that conflict can easily develop. In fact it is striking that India’s extremes of hydrology, population and poverty presents large difficulties for water management. Agreement to release dam water down stream and across state boundaries makes the front page of the newspapers.  As always it is the poorest who are hit the hardest by water politics and the corrupt water mafias.

Building pipes would help these children spend more time in school - Please help see link below. Even £10 can make a big difference.

Here in Manvi and Pannur  there are two different sources of water – surface water and ground water. Climate change is making surface water less reliable, so there is more stress on ground water. India is the biggest user of ground water in the world with over 2 million boreholes providing 60% of water for irrigation.  Ground Water is much more efficient for agriculture and cheaper pumps and electricity have changed the life of many of the farmers but the groundwater is finite – and shrinking – over exploitation means that bore holes run dry. Much of it is is also not drinkable and illness is common due to contaminated water and parasitic worms.  The result is that in Pannur the villagers have to walk 6 kms a day to get safe water from the river. It always seems to be the women and children who have to carry out this arduous task.  We have been asked to help – the villagers are proposing to lay a pipeline from the river to the village – which will have  a big impact on the peoples lives.  The land has been donated and the labour of digging and laying the pipeline will be free – what they are asking for are 960 20ft pipes (6inch diameter) and two 20-horsepower pumps.   If you are interested in helping! Please do…. check out this facebook page and also you can donate a small amount online by clicking on the link below.

Click here to make an online donation. 

AMDG

Great  contemporary Indian authors 

It is an arresting paradox of India – that its culture sustains one of the most vibrant literary scenes in the world, its engineers are valued and sought after, and it is becoming a dominant force in the IT sector, yet on the other hand there are more illiterate people in India that the whole of the population of the US.  I am helping train the teachers in the Pre-University-College here, we meet every day, I have been asking them questions about this paradox and what would they change about the system.  The answers ranged from better pay for teachers, reducing teacher absenteeism in government schools and a female teacher who said she would rigorously enforce the banning of child marriage and child labour.  This group of teachers has impressed me with their desire to learn, and I have shared with them teaching skills and professional practice from the UK.

Last week we discussed the findings of PISA ( Programme for International Student Assessment).  Started by the OPEC countries, who realised that as education was so important for growing a future economy, they needed an independent ‘transnational’ way of checking how successful education systems are, and how they compare to other countries.  You can’t always trust national governments to give you an accurate and unbiased picture!  Data was gathered every three years as 15-year-olds’ take a series of pen and paper tests focusing on four areas. : Literacy in maths, reading and science and finally problem solving.  This international report is growing more and more influential in the field of education, South Korea performing best in the recent test, the UK and US slowly slipping down the table. India, not in OPEC, have resisted taken part – but eventually allowed two regions, Himachal Pradesh  and Tamil Nadu  to take preliminary tests.  They came below the mean scores in the tests but interesting scored high for language skills.

A recent report from PISA results suggested that there were roughly four stages countries would find themselves. At the first, basic stage, the challenge is to centralise learning, standardize curriculums and make sure everyone is using the same textbooks etc.  Then when this in place the second stage seems to be the use of reliable exam data to identify good schools and share good practice, The third stage, perhaps where the UK is at, is then to choose the best graduates for teaching, by increasing entry salaries and raising the status of the profession.  And the final stage, where East Asian and Scandanavian countries seem to be is the opposite of the first stage  – a radical de-centralisation and allow teachers more control over curriculum and teaching.  In my limited experience it seems that at least in rural India is making the transition from stage one to two.  One of the problems is the unreliability of  the public exam system. I have been told that in the cities it is different. However it seems as though corruption is endemic.  Copying in exams seems frequent, in some places the invigilators even encourage it. There are many leaks of papers, this year being no exception.  Papers are  frequently recalled and have to be sat again, putting extra pressure on the students. One girl committed suicide a few weeks ago.  There are attempts to come to grips with it – todays news is that the Common Entrance Tests are being delayed in Karnataka after exam rescheduling because of leaked papers and also boycotts from lecturers.  The delay allows an evaluation of exam scripts but puts even more pressure on students who have other exams for civil service, police and armed forces.

This is a shame because until the exams are better regulated then there is not enough reliable data to identify good practice in the consistently successful schools and share it, at least in the rural areas where 70% still live.  It is also give another example of why the Jesuit school and college here in Manvi are so important and are becoming flagships for good education in the region.

India & HIV

AMDG

Gol Gumbaz - photo taken during a family trip ...

Gol Gumbaz  in Bijapur (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have just enjoyed a couple of days in Bijapur – a predominantly Muslim town about 100kms away from Manvi (where I am based).  One of the members of the Jesuit community is being reassigned there and so we were moving his luggage for him and taking it as an excuse to have a very quick 24hr ‘break’.  I realised a whilst back that many of the hard-working Indian Jesuits do not have ‘holidays’ as we would understand them.  So it was very nice just to spend a bit of time with each other (we were 6 priests and a social worker from Slovakia!) outside of the pressure of work.  Very memorable was visiting a huge mausoleum – the Gol Gumbaz – which has the second biggest dome in the world and the largest whispering gallery.  But what will stay in my mind for longer was the couple of visits we paid to small but very impressive works run by some of the Catholic Nuns in Bijapur caring for AIDS patients.

Orphaned by AIDS

Orphaned by AIDS 

In 2009 it was estimated by the UN that 2.4 million people were living with HIV in India, which equates to a prevalence of 0.3%. While this may seem low, because India’s population is so large, it is third in the world in terms of greatest number of people living with HIV. With a population of around a billion, a mere 0.1% increase in HIV prevalence would increase the estimated number of people living with HIV by over half a million. Particularly at risk are the Devadasi women, a group who have historically been dedicated to the service of gods. These days, this has evolved into sanctioned temple prostitution. It is also somewhat ‘in the closet’.  So the dedicated sisters told me that the patients often arrive on their last legs…when it is clear that their immune system is shot, that they are dying.  The social taboo is so strong that it stops them from coming until it is too late.  The sister, to their credit, have an ambulance and go out and search for them.  There is little they can do when they arrive but at least they can administer drugs that slow the decline, and at least they are surrounded by a community that gives them a sense of dignity. I was very impressed by the joy and gentleness of the sisters who look after them.  The second place we visited was a sister community that take AIDS orphans, again sometimes literally taking them from the streets. For me this was very intense.  A small group of thirty children – without parents – who often arrived at the sisters malnourished, after sadly being neglected whilst their final parent died, and taboos and silence mean that they were left alone.  One of the sisters told me that they were all HIV positive.

However they all seemed so happy – well fed – one beautiful little girl sat on my knee as she ate her lunch.  I was told that she had arrived only three days ago.  The sister asked if she would like to leave with me – but the gorgeous little girl, very content sitting there, said no she wanted to stay with her new friends. My heart had already been melted, as only small children can do!  But I was so impressed with the set up.  The long drive back home, much to the surprise of my brothers, I was very quiet, thinking of this little angel, but also about the wonderful work these sisters were doing.   It is laughable when you here people talking about how religion is a force for bad in the world – how ignorant so many of them are!

Peace, Blessings and Rain

AMDG

It has been a lovely experience celebrating Easter here.  I keep on pinching myself, it is great to stay here and I am savouring as much as I can.  The ceremonies were all in the local language Kannada, which is impenetrable for me, the ancient script is impossible to read as it is alphasyllabary.  There are 49 letters, 13 vowels, consonants and other letters that are part vowel-part consonant. An ancient Dravadic language – the number of written symbols is far greater than the 49 characters, as they form compound characters. Suffice to say – I cannot even attempt to read the Missal, so felt pretty useless during the celebrations!  On Easter Sunday morning – with 5 other priests –  we blessed 200 houses in the village (or so I was told).  I was surprised that quite a few houses were stuffed full with cotton – evidently the price in the local market is too low so they are keeping it in storage and waiting for a market fluctuation.  I was accompanied by a young Jesuit, who was a great help. Very politely and quietly he informed me that the word for peace was ‘shanti‘.  I had gone into the first few houses –  confidently greeting them with ‘ashanti‘. This, I was informed means ‘violence’ !  Not a good start for a house blessing.  Nevertheless I was still greeted with warm smiles and reverence!

The heat has been slowly climbing and now mid-afternoon it can climb over 40 degrees. In the villages everyone dives for the shade, and there is a lot of snoozing and resting.  Yesterday it was so hot that we had a convection storm.  It was the first rain for months and it was lovely to walk in the damp air afterwards and smell the heat and steam in the fields.  The dust briefly was gone and ground itself seemed content and sated.  I was impressed to see the rainwater harvesting in the student hostel – with that one storm filling a 500 liter barrel to overflowing.  Water – as in many places – is a precious commodity, so teaching the children to use it carefully and wisely and showing them how to collect it are useful life-skills.   There is some evidence that the water table is falling in the area, so this is something to worry about in the future.  A great initiative of Fr Eric is the large lake on site which is used for farming fish. (inspired by a trout farm in North Wales!).  Of course this lake is great for collecting the water, especially during the monsoons.  At the moment the heat is so oppressive that most of us have now taken to sleeping on the roof of the Jesuit community.  Luckily a quick-thinking scholastic saved all our matresses before the storm broke…..

AMDG

The power of Jesus’s Passion and the message of the Gospel are heard in a unique way by the poor.  So to celebrate Good Friday with the villagers of Pannur, many of them ‘untouchables’ in the eyes of higher castes, is a special privilege.   Yesterdays  2 hr long ‘live’ stations of the cross was a powerful experience.  As we processed through fields and villages, past mosques and temples, I won’t forget it for a long while. There were soldiers who seemed slightly over enthusiastic with their whips – particularly with Simon of Cyrene who has a reputation for being lazy and workshy in the village. I was told that last year was the first time they had dramatised it and many of the women, and even some of the soldiers,  burst into tears when Jesus was crucified,  This year not so many tears – but lots of devotion. Click on the Video below to get a taste of these ‘Live’ Stations of the Cross.

Untouchability’ is a horrible concept.  To say to someone that somehow who you are is unclean is devastating and dehumanising.  The Dalits have had this label for generations. Their ancestors were untouchable and their children are untouchable.  Many teachers will not even touch their books to mark them.   The Jesuits have explained to me that combined with a fatalistic cosmology, reincarnation, the cyclical nature of time, there develops a  fatal passivity – I am unclean and there is nothing I can do about it.  It seems to me that it is through the lens of these ‘out-castes’ that the power of Jesus’s liberation resonates vibrantly.   In this context liberation and redemption are very tangible.  Reading the Gospel during Holy week with these people reminds me that Jesus was closest to those who were deemed ‘unclean’ : lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors.  These were not necessarily ‘the poor’ but they were ‘the excluded’.  It was a religious-social marginalisation rather than an economic marginalisation that seemed to make Jesus angry.   With the Dalits, poverty and exclusion are combined.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that Gospel is only for the poor – the excluded.  I think the message is universal. It is just that the poor – particularly the outcasts – they hear the Gospel with a certain freshness and urgency that must be acknowledged and learnt from.

———-

Proud of our Ambassadors

AMDG

Today many of the children are heading home.  It is the start of the summer holidays in India (April -May) school will begin in again in June.  I will miss them being around, especially in the evenings as when their exams had finished we had began a tradition of open-air cinemas.  500 sitting under a starry sky, with a warm night breeze blowing as we projected films like ‘UP’, ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘The Karate Kid’ onto the wall.  They are a wonderful audience cheering, booing, and getting very excited if there is a kiss on the lips (very raunchy here!).   When they go back to their remote villages I have been told they will be pampered as the people are very proud that they are going to an ‘English Language’ school.  I told them at mass last night that they are ambassadors – so they must teach the other children in the villages when they go back.  Already they perform this role well – on the left is a picture of a student giving out school books and school bags to children who were most affected by the terrible floods last year.  This girl was grazing cows a few years ago – now she is distributing aid!  Like any school the most important asset is not the building or the facilities but the students themselves.  And we are very proud of them!

Alarmingly I have also been told that when they come back in May they will be a lot thinner.  The sad fact is that the food they get whilst they are in school is much more nutritional then what they can get in the villages. Malnutrition is a huge problem in rural India. Two Fifths of Indian children are still stunted by hunger according to the Economist.  To get a sense of how things can change – a recent study  in the National Medical Journal of India of wealthier Indians, found at the age of 18 boys are 4.5 inches taller and 4kgs heavier than they were in 1992, due to better food and a lack of disease.  That is an incredible change.  Living with the Jesuit community at the moment is Lenka, a social worker from Slovakia. She is doing great work travelling into the villages every day and measuring and weighing the children. She is working on behalf of St Elizabeths University in Slovakia – who with the Jesuits are running an anti-malnutrition programme.  They identify babies who according to a WHO scale are at risk of malnutrition and provide food supplements or sometimes even milk powder if the mother cannot breastfeed them.  Hopefully in the future the government, which passes a bill last November declaring everyones ‘right for food’ click, will be able to fulfill this duty, rather than relying on generous (and often religious) NGO’s.

AMDG

This Sunday was a very memorable Palm Sunday for me.  With about 200 villagers and 5 other Jesuits we processed from the recently built Health Centre (funded by a Spanish Jesuit University) to the small chapel in Pannur.  Waving Palms and singing Hosanna in the local Kannada language – dodging buffalos, and passing Hindu Shrines and small Muslim mosques, we were greeted by the smiles and waves of many of the non-Christian villages.  With the beautiful vibrant colours of the women’s sari’s, the bells and drums of the choir, and the sights and sound of Indian rural life this palm Sunday will live long in my memory!  Because of the great work of the Jesuits and the local Christians in this community, building the schools, hospital and recently many new houses after devastating floods, inter-religious relations are very good.  It is in inspiring to see how so many villagers consider the priests to be ‘their priests’ regardless of religion, and how so many of the local services provided by the Christian community are shared with all regardless of faith.  This service of  and for the common good, and the harmony and respect engendered, may  be a model for all ‘missions’.  I have put a small video clip below of the parade (only mobile quality I am afraid….)

Sadly this inter-religious harmony is not present everywhere in India. Sitting next to me at mass was a priest who recently had a harrowing experience in another part of Karnataka State.  He was seized by a group of nationalists in Anekal, near Bangalore and marched down to the police station by a mob.   His crime was not raising the flag on Independence Day. Others suspect that the real ‘crime’ maybe that he was the director of the Jesuit school in Anekal – which favours intake from the poorest Dalit community.  Some of his students were beaten up when they came to defend him.  His ordeal made some international websites at the time click here. Whilst the long Gospel passage was being read of Jesus’ arrest and trial, I was thinking that persecution for many Christians is still a terrible reality, in fact sitting in the seat next  to me.

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