Last night (Friday) Sr. Deepa and I took the overnight train (7 hours) from Bangalore to Bellary (northern Karnataka state). That in itself was an adventure. First we were on the wrong platform (trains change platforms last minute, regularly) and almost missed the train. Once inside I was uncertain how we would get any sleep. Six of us were sitting on 2 seats... After a moment the men started folding the seats up and the 2 seats turned into 2 sets of triple bunk beds. Guess which bed was mine? Yes, the top. Though not the most comfortable, I was able to catch a couple hours of sleep. We arrived in Bellary around 6 am and drove to the Convent. The 7 Sisters who work there greeted me heartily! :) There was a procession waiting for me – children lined up on both sides. My arrival was blessed and I was given a tilka (a mark on my forehead) and a garland of fresh flowers was placed around my neck. As I walked toward the Convent the children scattered (or should I say heaved) flower petals at me! I was made a much needed coffee (scalded milk, sugar and coffee – no water – amazing).
While I waited for breakfast my “fans” showed me around the campus. I seriously felt like a ROCK STAR! They took me to the school and I saw their water source (a pond that is piped and filtered), then to the Convent where the boys boarding quarters are. I met the cook (Alistair) and his mother. She was a very humble old lady who made a huge impact on me. I’ll remember her forever.
The day I arrived (Friday) was a holiday. I’m still not sure which one, but they were celebrating the girl child. A swing was erected in the village for the occasion. I had the honour to try it out!
After lunch I went with one Sister to visit the Parish Priest. What an interesting man! He studied natural medicine in Germany and showed me some of his instruments. Then he gave me some gardening tips. For those who know me well, you’ll know that my thumbs are not green at all... So I will try his advice of singing and talking to the plants! Father also talked to me about the poverty in this region. The caste system is still causing much oppression, as is colour. Religion is not so much a problem – Hindus, Muslims and Christians live peacefully here. Earlier I had asked some of the boys if they were Catholic. Their response was, “No, but we know God and he loves and blesses us very much.”
While I was visiting with Father, the parents of the sponsored children were gathering at the Convent. I was officially welcomed to their village and one of the mothers stood up and talked about her life. She was so grateful to me and everything that I represent to her. Her child is getting a good education thanks to the programme. This means the world to her. She wept and many of the parents in the crowd (mothers and fathers) cried also. One child gave me a gift and then I handed out candies to all of the children and parents. This was more of a treat for me than it was for them. Every child shook my hand and said “Thank you Aunty.” One of my special friends decided to give me his candy. His friends were all laughing and clapping as he put it right in my mouth! I think I made his year!
After meeting with the sponsored children and their parents (and taking a zillion photos – each mother wanted to have their picture taken with me) I went for a walk into the village with the Sisters. A swarm of children followed as usual. The villagers were all honoured to have me in their homes, which are nothing more than mud walls, dirt floors and various kinds of roofs. One sponsored child showed me a frame that he made with all of the photos his sponsors sent him.
I saw the government houses that are provided. They are horrible. Most people prefer to live in their makeshift huts than to live in the ‘houses’ provided by the government. What struck me the most was how clean and tidy the homes were. As we were leaving the village one woman came to us and urged us to visit her home. I found out from Sr. Asha (HLN sub-site director) that she had spent the whole day cleaning just for me. Even as I write about this I get emotional. All she wanted was for me to come into her home and sit in a chair. It was like I was giving her the world by taking a few moments to sit in her house. It was immaculately clean. She has stone floors and they were freshly scrubbed. The pride in what little these people have far surpasses the pride that many of us well-off people have in our abundance of things.
In the afternoon we took a taxi to Maski. This was the most terrifying 3 hours of my life! I still am unsure how we made it alive... Driving in India is a constant game of Russian Roulette. A girl who is a teacher in Bellary joined us on the drive, as she is from Maski. I shared an orange with her and I could tell it was a rare treat! Once we arrived there was yet another blessing and procession. I was ready this time with my camera and took a video. I was able to take a much needed nap. Here it is HOT and there are many mosquitoes. I’ve gotten used to my new scent of DEET. After my nap I went into the Convent (there are 4 Sisters here – Sr. Jiji is the HMI sub-site director - far right).
Waiting for me was the girl who drove in the taxi with us, her younger brother (a sponsored child) and their father. I have no idea how long they must have been waiting for me. They greeted me with a garland of fresh flowers. The boy told me his name is Anil and his sponsor’s name is Janet. By giving me this gift they were saying thank you to her for everything she has done for them. I was totally stunned. I wish now that I had taken the time to speak with them longer. Once I’m back in Canada I will call Janet and tell her about meeting Anil.
The next adventure was to 2 villages outside of Maski. In this sub-site we work in 20 villages. They are all in different directions and the ‘roads’ leading to them are pitiful. Sr. Jiji told me that their jeep gets stuck or damaged regularly. It costs them a lot to repair it but without it they could not reach the villages to meet with the families and Self Help Groups (SHGs).
We arrived at the devadasi village as the sun was setting. Again I received the welcome blessing with a shawl and garland of flowers. This is a new village Chalice has just begun working in. The villagers took turns telling me about their problems. The children sang and a few brave ones came up to the front and spoke to me. The women that were sitting beside me sang a beautiful song. Sr. Deepa explained to me that the devadasis are (Hindu) girls who were given to the temple and dedicated to a goddess. In the old times this was a great honour and the women served the temple. However it turned into prostitution. Now the devadasis are completely shunned and segregated from their communities. They live in corner, removed from the rest of the village. They bear many children, who do not have fathers and are also shunned due to their circumstances. Their only form of income and sustenance is to continue prostituting. Though this practice is now illegal in India, it still happens. Again, we visited homes and everyone was asking me to come to theirs. The conditions of the homes are very pitiful. I was pulled in every direction. It was so overwhelming. These people are the poorest of the poor.
After leaving the devadasi village we stopped in the first village where Chalice was present in this region. Eleven years ago the Sister Superior at the time came to Canada to attend Coady Institute in Antigonish. It was then she met Fr. Pat and the rest is history. The community gathered in their small church. There was a small baby, maybe 2 months old, whose mother died soon after she was born. She is being taken care of by her grandmother, who is old, ill and poor. I held this little one the whole time. She was very docile. I’m not sure if this is because she is a calm baby, or because she is very weak. She watched me the whole time with her huge, beautiful, brown eyes. I was asked to speak and say a few words (as I have done during each gathering). I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I could barely say anything at all. I told the people that my heart is so full of their love and generosity that it is overflowing, and that is why I was crying. What was really happening was some serious self-reflection. These people spoke of their poverty; all I could see was their wealth. Their love and pride far surpasses what I’ve ever encountered in the ‘rich world.’ Speaking with Julie about this later we decided to do some serious evaluation of how we live to try and be more like these wonderful people I have met. I am challenging myself to be more proud and loving and have deeper faith that I will be taken care of. It is remarkable that in a small corner of the world, a world away from my own, that I would learn what love and faith and pride really are.
Before leaving this village and making our way back to the Convent we stopped and met with one old woman who was unable to walk and join us in the church. She took my hand and bowed to me repeatedly. Just taking the time to stop and notice her was a gift beyond any value I can imagine. In one of the houses a young girl was making roti – a yummy sort of flatbread. It’s not made with any salt or fat so it’s quite healthy and with some nice gravy (everything here is called gravy!) it’s very good. (I could write a whole blog on the food alone. I won’t even get into it now...) The girl showed me how she slaps the dough to make a round and then puts it over the fire and drizzles it with water. She even let me have a little taste!
Back at the Convent we ate a late supper. The Sr. who cooks here is very skilled! The food was delectable! While we ate the Srs. told me of their work in this region. Aside from the Chalice Sponsorship Programme they run a dispensary, do pastoral work with new Christian converts, hold awareness programmes about things like HIV/AIDS and health and hygiene, organize a Children’s Parliament and work with the SHGs, among many other things. The impact of their work is so evident. I finally slept for a full night – 10 hours! The Srs. gave me a mosquito net as malaria is a high risk in this area.