Sunday-- March 1, 2009:
You think the Edens, Dan Ryan or Kennedy get clogged? Well, dear commuters those expressways are nothing compared to the road to Mahanlalganj! At one point our van was stuck on a very narrow (ahem) thoroughfare behind many of the beautiful trucks this country is known for... decorated to the hilt and painted on the back bumpers with the traffic directions of 'honk your horn' or 'use dipper at night' (flash your brights) in order to pass them. Forget it - there was no passing here for at least 20 minutes as scooters, bicycles, pony carts and tuktuks (the three wheel auto rickshaws for hire) cut us off and kept us from plowing through. Oh, and there was the slight precipice on the left that our wheels were hanging over. We finally zoomed around and continued our slow and cacophonous journey to a government school which is part of CARE's School Improvement Program.
As we entered the school compound, the 1st through 3rd level children were seated in a circle under a tree ...each jumping up to recite part of a lesson. Many were in uniform; some wore which must have been as my grandmother would say 'their Sunday-go-to- meeting' outfits. These were probably one of two complete outfits they owned. All appeared well-nourished and their shy eager faces were bright as they tried to please the teacher with their knowledge all the while sneaking shy glances at these visitors from a land over 7,000 miles away.
CARE supplies technical support and trained teaching staff. Although the Indian government provides primary schooling all across the country, it is under-supplied with little infrastructure (i.e. bathrooms), there is no monitoring of school performance and the teaching staff can be substandard or not even show up. CARE steps in to manage and mobilize.
We entered a classroom where the 4th, 5th and 6th level children were working under the guidance of two male teachers. All around the classroom were teaching materials on the wall, art projects galore and some rather difficult (read: I could not do it) math problems on the chalkboard. One teacher instructed a very bright and precocious young boy in a light blue pullover sweater to point out Chicago on a map of the U.S. - he was close - we seem to be now located near Denver. This naturally precipitated a geography lesson by me, Sharin Bridges (a children's book writer who was in our group) and Jill Gordon - part of the Chicago Women's Iniative for CARE. What fun to play teacher and answer their inquisitiveness. My favorite question was - are classroom in our country like theirs? We said the biggest difference was - students here sit in desks all day not on the hard floor. Explaining a desk was not easy - most had never seen one.
Walking outside again we visited the tiny area where one woman was rolling out dough on a stone and the other was cooking the flattened bread on an iron circle over a small fire on the floor. Lunch! They were making it for the 35 students attending that day. I gazed over at the pump where some were washing hands and at the brand new latrine which has painted illustrations instructing good hygiene - another CARE improvement.
The village leader came for a chat - a woman whose husband had been the leader before her. Yes, he was here and sometimes speaking for her which was a bit frustrating. She is charged with helping identify families with children who need to go to school and motivate them to send them here. She is helped by a village representative reporting to CARE. Time for a little statistic: 13 million do not attend school - 57% of those are girls.
Grandmothers began gathering at the school to meet us - this I loved. We sat and chatted about both our lives and cultures. Many of these older woman who are illiterate themselves and from lower castes were gung-ho behind education especially for girls. They indicated that men now like to marry females who are educated - purely economics - women can earn more if they can read and write. Yes, marriage is very important to the grandmothers. Kathy Lane our Chicago CARE person who is married and the mother of 3 girls were thought to be single because she was wearing no make-up or 'bling'. Whew - I passed.... with some lipstick and bangles on my arm.
A walk through their village was next - compared to yesterday this cluster of houses looked more affluent but not by much. In a few places signs with the CARE symbol were painted on walls instructing families in Hindi to send their children to school, Nice.
Time to leave. The children were all gathered at the gate to say goodbye and take photos. I had bought a few pairs of earrings to give to some of the girls. Took a bit of persuading for them to accept. These children do not beg as they do in the slums of the city. As usual with the trip - shyness falls away the longer we interact. At this point, it was laughter, hugging and waves of goodbye...for now. The young man in the blue sweater who put Chicago in the Rocky Mountains kept angling to be next to me in photos and parroted my English. I predict this boy will be a leader, I predict he will continue to higher levels of education, I predict you have not heard the last of him.
On the way to the school, I had spotted an old Hindi temple in a town nearby. We stopped on the way back. A small bustling market surrounds it. While my companions were shopping, I walked up to the temple and was surprised when a man beckoned me to come inside. He unlocked the door and I took my shoes off to enter. He was joined by three others who also are guardians of this holy place. In Hindi they were explaining the interior and I nodded understanding - some things are just universal. As I left a symbolically-blessed food called 'Prasad' was placed in my hand. It looked like what I would call rock sugar candy. I was instructed to bow and place it to my forehead and then eat it. I walked away feeling harmony, inner peace and one more thing......
I felt aasha - five letters that in Hindi mean 'hope'.
Hope is also spelled with four letters... CARE.
Wednesday-- February 25, 2009:
I have been many places in the world, interviewed many famous people and have had exciting and unusual experiences...today was one of those life changing days that will burn in your mind and stay in your heart - forever.
The Chicago Women's Iniative of CARE and I traveled to the Barabanki District just east of Lucknow the capital of India's poorest state Uttar Pradesh. In the morning we split into two groups to travel to seperate project sites.... the small villages of Salarpur and Khajoorgaon. When I say small - they are villages with about 800 people living in the most extreme poverty. We were to observe what is called an Integrated Nutrition and Health Project.
On arrival at the village community center each of us were greeted by women and children dressed in their very best - colorful saris and clean clothes on the children. A red mark of vermillion and salt was placed between our eyes as a sign of respect to honored guests. A necklace of fragrant flowers was then placed on our shoulders and flower petals thrown on us for good measure! We then entered a room where about fifty youngsters ages 3 to 6 were waiting. This was the pre-school. Back home pre-school is the norm - not here. The children sang a lesson while staring intensely at the unusual looking American women. I have found that my blonde hair and blues eyes cause quite a curious reaction from not only people in the rural areas but also in the city!
As important as early learning is for these young ones - it is their lunch that truly is vital. This is the most nutritious meal they will have during the day... about 300 calories of a rice/vegetable dish spiked with vitamins and minerals. When they do eat back in the village - the calorie count will be minimal and forget good nutrients... they won't be there. Plus, most food ends up being eaten by adults especially the male members of the family.
We moved next to a room where pregnant women, lactating mothers and mothers of children up to three years of age were having their health assessed, learning nutrition practices and getting immunized if needed. I was absolutely shocked when one 6 month old took his needle without crying and a spoonful of vaccine orally with no fuss. That's not what I have experienced in the pediatrician's office! Mothers come here also for a weekly supply of a vitamin-rich dried cereal to feed to the baby. Which leads to the next room and the emotional moments that were to come.
This was the mothers group of the village sitting down eyeing us with shyness, curiousity and a bit of suspiscion. My group was unaware that we were to participate in ANNPRASHAN - a ceremony women have when their chilldren turn 6 months and take solid food. There were four babies and we four women were given the special honor of placing vermillion and rice on their forehead , showering them with flowers and giving each their first bite of solid food. Only one vigorously protested. Whew - wasn't mine. Guess the old 'here somes the airplane - open up for the landing' can still do the trick.
Next we had some Q & A with the mothers. One of them had composed a song about children and families which she sang to us. Next they asked me to sing...caught off gaurd I could only think of Raffi's "Baby Beluga" so Sue Yellen of our group and I warbled a lovely off-key version. Then it was up off the floor to DANCE! Yes, our group did the best we could to keep up with the mothers in best Indian fashion. There was much laughter! At the end when we all figured out that each of us had more in commen than not - that we were a sisterhood ... a moving moment happened. Mother began to place their babies on our feet and women without children bent to touch them also. Our translator told us this was a way of receiving a blessing from us to them. Now you tell me - how could one not choke up?
In the afternoon we traveled to another village which is a Sure Start site. This project basically works to improve maternal and newborn health through community action in the villages. The hope here is to remove misconceptions. For example, when we gathered with most of the village - a skit was performed for us in which there was a good wife/mother-in-law relationship and then a poor one. The role of a mother-in-law in a poor household is very strong and can create a positive situation for a pregnant women or a dangerous one. Once again we were painted, given another necklace and handed an enormous amount of rose petals. Another question and answer period with all the women (the men were hanging in the background this time) and a song by two beautiful pre-teen girls in school uniforms. Once again - we were asked to sing. This time it was "You are My Sunshine" (we should have been more prepared this time - darn it) and dancing again (with this we actually did a little better). More wonderful feelings but lurking in our minds was what we saw before we had this meeting... on arriving at the village we walked into one of the poorest sections, The first house (if you can call it that) had the wife and her children home. We asked to see inside but with embarassment she told us her husband locks the door when he is gone to work in the fields.Yes - mother and children cannot enter their own tiny space when he is gone. The next home was a bit bigger and open. Very dark - the family sleeps on the floor with a threadbare blanket. Opposite them is a large metal storage chest where all their worldly possesions are kept locked up. Things like pots, pans, utensils,cltohes,etc. That's it - no furniture, no electricity - the only decor were a few pictures of Bollywood stars someone has cut out of a magazine an nailed to a wall. Dried dung in the coutryard for fuel. In that small courtyard, four or five bricks arranged as a cook pit. One of the women was cooking a late dinner because she had been working in the fields since 8 in the morning. Her daily wage? In our currency... FIFTY CENTS.. Okay - let's figure that one out.... $3.50 a week ... $14.00 a month... $168 a year.
The last home we visited I would not call a house. It was shelter cover two raised beds constructed of wood and some type of woven plant material. There was a crude wooden table where an older man who was nursing a very infected foot was resting. Here we met a young women who was nine months pregnant. Her very - shall we say- take charge mother-in-law was speaking for her. We did find out she was talking her vitamins, had her immunizations and eating well. The plan was to have the baby in a nearby hospital and not there with a midwife. Yessss - it looked like Sure Start was working.
As we were walking back to our vehicles to take our leave - most of the village followed us. One elderly woman was heard to say how special they were that people like us came here to 'check on them and make sure they were alright'. Yes they are special and they have come along way - but considring that 90% of children by the age of 2 are malnourished, that women in their own households still have low status and their health is always at risk, that sanitation is poor if non-existent, that women are paid unbelievable low wages.... there is still so much to accomplish.
But the hope can be found in a little girl of about 8 years wearing clothes filthy and two small ... hair unkempt... who walked with me hand in hand and looked me straight in the eyes with a brilliant smile and unrepressible spirit and said a simple 'thank you'.
No, thank you.
Tuesday-- February 24, 2009:
We are all seeking a world of tolerance, hope, dignity,equality and love. I peeked into a window and saw that today. Udaan.... it's not a city or a village but a camp. A residential camp which is part of CARE India's mission to give girls from the margins of this society an education... and believe me, without Udaan these young ladies would continue the cycle of their mothers, grandmothers, etc. - basically treated as property to be worked and then married off to continue working in poverty.
Udaan takes 100 girls from ages 10 to 14 who are not only illiterate, but have no basic social skills. A rare few may have had some schooling but they have dropped out to return home. Eleven intensive months takes these young ladies from what we would perhaps consider pre-school skills and brings them up to a 5th grade level. Eleven months and they are doing fifth grade work! I find that almost impossible to comprehend, but I saw it with my own eyes today. 14 year old Rinki showed me the 'newspaper' she had created as a class project. I watched Chandrakantra ,13, jumping up to the chalkboard solving a long division problem. Archana told me she wants to be a teacher and loves reading - this 15 year old COULD NOT READ LAST JULY when she entered the camp.
So 8 months ago, 100 scared little girls came from the edge of Indian society to live and learn together. They came from different castes, or minorities like Muslim and told they were to share their rooms, food and belongings. One teacher told me the first month is teaching basics like toilet training, personal hygiene and learning not to fight. Slowly the teacher begin learning games and finally fear is dropped and focus begins. The teachers encourage these students to do something quite radical in the Indian system of schooling - aski questions! Yes, these girls have to be taught it's alright to do so and I saw they have nailed the concept.
Members of CARE's Chicago Women's Iniative are here because they help fund education projects like Udaan. Sue Yellen is a lawyer, Kim Stiffel worked in the music industry but now is a stay at home mom, Reena Shah is a pediatric dentist currently at Children's Memorial, and Jill Gordon is the owner of the Kid Snips salons. All have daughters, all were profoundly moved by the results of Udaan. A little girl who came here dirty in torn clothes and will not look up at you let along speak will now look you in the eye and answer with energy and eagerness the questions we strangers ask. This now young woman will soon return to her family changed forever with independent spirit and thinking. Yes, she may marry young or she may keep her education going. Yes, she may return to and stay in poverty, but the best bet is she will become a teacher, a doctor, a leader. We met many graduates of Udaan before we left - three have actually returned to teach here.
Today a handful of Chicago women felt the power that these girls now have. Theirs and our spirits soared.
You my wonder what Udaan means ... it is the Hindi word for 'flight'.
Monday-- February 23, 2009:
First off let me tell you that even though you may have heard that in India, 'Slumdog Millionaire' was not well received - the Indian media has been going crazy with pre-Oscar coverage and now the WIN. Where in the world is Janet Davies? I am in Delhi, India for CARE - the global poverty organization. Being Care's Chicago ambassador has afforded me the opportunity to come here and observe education, health and nutrition programs that many of you in Chicago have been generous enough to help support.
My flight last Friday night on American Airlines was a little over 14 hours and non-stop. It was a true pleasure (natch I slept most of the way) and I must give a shout out to the great Chicago-based crew Jani, Julie and Heather who gave me invaluable info about Delhi.
Delhi is always under a haze, crowded, exotic, colorful, brash, poor and rich. One looks around and sees few American and European tourists right now. The tragedy of Mumbai and the economy have taken a toll. At our hotel there are both Army and private security checking cars, passing you through metal detectors and x-ray machines, but always with the most polite attitudes.
By the way, I am 11 and 1/2 hours ahead of you in Chicago. Therefore, I will never get back Saturday Feb. 21st which was taken away by the travel. On Sunday, we had one day of sightseeing and of course that had to be a four hour van trip to Agra and the Taj Mahal. If you have never seen this wonder of the world you must know that it is truly jaw-dropping. To travel to it is a wild ride... I was told by someone here that the State Department (I think) reccomends that Americans do NOT rent cars and drive here. I can see why - it's like a steroid version of a WII driving game. And in a land of over a billion people in a country the third of the size of our country - it seems everyone is in a car, bus, van or on the road. And don't get me started on the cows that truly have the right of way!
It is Monday and I arose at 5:00am here to watch the Red Carpet coverage of The Academy Awards plus the show itself. Usually, I am there, but this year I am here and the juxtaposition of glitz and glamour with examining vital CARE programs dealing with poverty is sobering.
Right now I am in the CARE India office in Delhi being briefed for a trip to Lucknow - the capital of Uttar Predesh. Our flight is in a few hours. UP (as it is known) is one of the poorest and most illiterate states. It has such a huge population that if it were a country and not an Indian state - it would be the fouth largest country in the WORLD! My Chicago group - more on them this week - will be looking at a wonderful project on girl's education tomorrow. And in the next few days we will visit clinics dealing with Health and Nutrition.
I do hope you all will continue to follow us on our journey. And of course if you want more information on CARE - it's easy www.care.org
One last thing - my favorite sight so far? The outdoor barbershops on the sidealks. My least faviorite? Two little toddlers along with a cow picking out food from a roadside garbage dump. This is a wealthy country but 75% of the population earns less than $2 a day.