The following is an informal trip report by Karen Kotoske,
Executive Director, Amistad International:
Our first destination was the northern city of Varanasi, one of the holiest destinations for Hindu pilgrims. Varanasi (which used to be called Benares, and before that, Kashi) is over 3,000 years old. Hindus hope to die here or at least have their ashes scattered in the Ganges river flowing through to the Bengal Bay. Their believe that doing so ensures moksha–instant union with the Universal Soul (God) and freedom from reincarnation.
Varanasi is also one of India’s most fervently politically and religiously conservative cities, and one of the poorest. It is in the state of Uttar Pradesh, considered India’s poorest region. Ten minutes north of Varanasi is Sarnath, one of the world’s most sacred sights for Buddhist pilgrims. It was here that Siddhartha Gatama (circa 563 BC to 483 BC), founder of Buddhism, gave his first sermon.
Buddha’s Smile School (BSS) is located in Sarnath and is only a short walk from the historical site where Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha delivered this first sermon. Amistad International has been the primary sponsor of this school since 2004 when BSS had only 60 students. 239 now attend this free school for the poorest of the poor children in the area.
Officially, India guarantees all children 6-14 will be able to attend school. This program is called Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Yes the dropout rate if about 53%. The reasons for this are many: lack of teachers, poor school facilities many lack toilets and running water), lack of desks and chairs, books, play equipment, or any sort of enrichment. India has an extremely high rate of teacher absenteeism. There is also a strong component of child labor; many parents require their children to supplement the family income.
It took us about 12 hours in Varanasi to wonder where the women were. We saw almost none in the streets. I asked locals who seemed not to even understand my question asking, “where are the women?.” This was not a question they seemed to understand. It turns out the men buy the groceries etc. so the women have no need to go outside the home. The women are, essentially, in purdah, or seclusion in their hovels, and dingy cramped apartments. There were one or two working at the desk in the hotel, but no women were hotel maids, waitresses, or selling in retail shops.
While we were in Varanasi, a terrorist was arrested under a bridge, he had plastic explosives he was planning to detonate. We read in the papers that there were terrorists all over India at work during our trip. The US press doesn’t often mention the various religious and political groups that are at constant war in India.
But the most incredible news we read while in India was the enormously important convention of Islamic academics and religious scholars who issued an official fatwa (decree) against all terrorist acts. They decreed that no person is to blow up him or herself trying to harm another person,and to do so is non-Moslem and a sin. Tom, who is a newspaper and TV news addict, says he saw nothing about this amazing step forward in the US press. This should have been headline news in the US.
Just as soon as our taxi drove us along the madness of the highway from the airport to Varanasi, John Holman (a longtime fabulous BSS volunteer from Australia) and Dana Kornberg, who works at the Clinton Foundation in Delhi (and is of the youngest volunteers who has been helping BSS founder Rajan Kaur since the beginning) took us to the Ghats , steep stone and concrete steps which lead from town steeply down to the Ganges river. Along the ghats are many Hindu temples and guest houses, destination for the dying, pilgrims and tourists. The Ganges ghats are where people come to bathe, wash their clothing, and bring their dead to burn.
The Ganges is quite low and in fact there were Save the River demonstrations this week. During Monsoon it will or may raise 40-50 ft up the steep ghats and flood the city. India is making new dams along the Ganges, and of course Varanasi grows with more citizens, so they have a water shortage in non-monsoon seasons. The fate of a dying Ganges was the cover story on a recent National Geographic.
We hired a row boat man to take us at sunset to the ghat where they perform Puja at sunset. At sunset, with the lights, and the flames, and song, it was all dramatic from vantage point of being on the river.
We then walked up through the shopping areas taking an auto rick shaw (an open three wheel vehicle driven by fearless men) through the congested traffic back to our hotel, Taj Ganges.
Buddha’s Smile School
Early on our second day in Varanasi we went to Rajan Kaur’s Buddha’s Smile school, first having a pancake breakfast served by Rajan’s husband, Sukdev, who owns the Sarnath cafe, a clean (and delicious) dining destination for international students at the Buddhist Institute across the street. At 8:30 we jumped into the the new school van (recently purchased by Geir Davidson and his Norwegian community), a brand new Indian Tata Bus that would normally seat 12 adults. BSS squeezes in a lot more than that!
We had the great fun of traveling that morning in the new school bus. I wish the Norwegian donors of the bus could have been with us. This trip was exciting for we visitors and even more so for the children we were picking up. The kids were thrilled to have visitors showing up in their new school bus.
We were able to meet some of the parents of the students who live in nearby neighborhoods. Perched right on the roadside, their homes are made of grass, plastic sheeting, rock, mud, and sit only feet from cars and auto rickshaws, carts and motorcycles whizzing by. Their cooking, bathing, all of life is done looking at the wheels of cars, tailpipes of buses, and bicycle rickshaw drivers’ feet. The air they breath is vile.
One forward-thinking family had placed their home by a public water spigot where a large, 10X20 pool had formed, algae growing over it. No doubt a mosquito breeding pond also. This is the community’s all-purpose watering spigot for cooking, drinking and bathing, and washing clothing. The women were hanging clothes to dry on the brick “tree saving” enclosures wrapped around saplings, part of a Varanasi, Delhi and Kolkata ‘green India program” in which a huge public works program has planted millions of trees hoping to clean India’s air. The brick enclosures are needed to protect the saplings from the cows roaming everywhere one can imagine.
Three young teen girls, about 13, came over to us to shyly greet us. They don’t go to Rajan’s school but are either family or live near the children that do come to Buddha’s Smile School. The girls were dressed in raggedy clothing and were pretty dusty looking. Rajan told me these girls are at very serious risk for prostitution. They, along with other young girls from Rajan’s school, work at weddings, carrying candles atop their heads for 8-10 hours, all evening into the early AM, for only a few cents pay. The girls are at risk for attack by predatory drunk male wedding attendees. This is of concern to Rajan.
Rajan would like to be able to provide a training for these and other young girls in handcraft, or sewing, or other practical skill so that they don’t have to work at the weddings or even worse alternatives.
Across from the spigot, there was one especially pathetic little thatch falling down lean to, about 4X5 ft in size. Rajan told me that one of her young students had lived there until the previous week when her grandmother, with whom she lived in the shack, had died. Some relative had taken the girl away to a family member in the countryside. I asked what happened to the grandmother after she died, did anyone provide the firewood for her to be burned? Rajan told me that “No, her body, like the other poor, was just dumped into the Ganges without burning.”
BSS physical layout is difficult to describe. It is a warren of unplastered brick rooms, built one after another when cash is available. Rajan and Sukdev have personally sacrificed their meager cafe earnings to do some of the the building, and donors have done the rest. The seven classrooms are long narrow three sided rooms, open to the air, windowless, cement floored, lit by one bulb. A blackboard is on the wall at one end. Most of the children sit on the floor (desks needed in some rooms). Student artwork adorn the walls.
In front of the two layers of classrooms is a small courtyard about 20X20. A gate to the street closes in front of this courtyard. The courtyard is where the children pray together en masse in the morning, asking God to bless them. At noon, the children return to the courtyard for their one meal of the day, thanks to the French Association, L’Arche de Dolanji. For most of the students this is their only meal of the day. Because of this meal, most of the children are energetic and healthy. Though a few who seemed in poor health.
One child named Kishan, a boy of 12, eldest child of his family, had tried to commit suicide the day before by swallowing pesticide. His unemployed parents, often out looking for work, are often not at home. The child’s despondency that his parent could not feed the family overcame him. Rajan was able to take him to the hospital in time to save his life. He wrote a letter to his parents before taking the poison, begging them not to burn his school papers or school books (when they would burn his body.) Kishan’s final words were “God is satisfied with my work. Don’t burn my school papers.” This child, like her other students, considers school their only place of peace and happiness in their lives.
Kishan had no last name when he came to school. Rajan gave him the last name Kumar just as she does the many other students who have no last names.
Visiting the Bangladeshi Refugee Community in Varanasi
Later that day we visited a slum community (which are called jhuggis) of Bangladeshi refugees (The Bangladesh government mowed down some poor communities and many fled to India. Bangladesh is only hours from Varanasi by train, sharing a border with India. India has, to some small degree, absorbed these hapless nomads (at least temporarily) several miles away in Varanasi, 19 of whose children are now students at BSS. Their housing was primitive. I saw only one one water spigot for the entire community. Women were bathing, fully clothed, washing through and under their saris as discreetly as a person could with dozens of people all around.
(Jumping ahead while I am writing about how women bathe and launder: In Kolkata the women have to get up in the middle of the night to bathe at the spigots. There the cultural norms is that no one is supposed to view the women bathing even though they do wear their saris while bathing. The men, on the other hand, strip down to their shorts and bath on the dirty sidewalks, which the women are pounding the family’s laundry on the same dirty betel nut stained, cigarette butt-strewn, urine encrusted sidewalks. They have to do the laundry where the water spigots are located. From time to time I’d see a hand pump for water. It is clear that almost no one in India we saw has running water in their homes.
Electricity, when anyone has it, is sent through a dangerous snaky mess of illegal wires. We saw the results of dangerous community electrification later that day at Buddhas’ Smile School.
BSS student, Amit Kumar, 12, was one of five children standing under electrical lines when the lines collapsed onto them. Three children were electrocuted to death, Amit and another child survived the electrocution. Amit was badly burned on his leg, arm and neck. His left leg is in need of a scar release surgery and hopefully Rajan can find a surgeon to do this surgery with Amistad’s help. The leg is permanently bent. Amit’s biggest sorrow is that he can’t stand for prayers with the other boys.
A problem arose we were leaving the Bahgladeshi refugee community. A local Indian community politician came over to the van and lit into Rajan for encouraging the Bangladeshi children to come to her free Buddha’s Smile school.
The local Indians, who let the (illegal immigrant) Bangladeshi squat in their neighborhood do so because the Bangladeshi families are doing the worst of the worst jobs, the ones that even poor Indians don’t want to do. And they do NOT want the Bangladeshis to learn to read and write.
Most of Rajan’s students must work before or after school, or both. Some of Rajan’s little Bangladeshi students scour their area of Varanasi picking up garbage before dawn in the morning and again after school, selling the recyclable materials (plastic, cardboard, cans) for 9 cents American per pound, (5 rupees per kilo). Rajan’s Bangladeshi students also make pies from cow dung, baking them in the sun and then carefully store them in round piles for sale as cooking fire fuel.
Visiting Varanasi’s Rajghat Leper Community
Our visit to Rajghat, a community set aside for families with leprosy, was a deeply moving experience. Twenty of their children attend BSS and the families would like to send many more to school if there were room at BSS. There is not room for more.
We parked the school van in vicinity of the Rajghat train station. The rails run alongside the leper colony. We walked about 200 ft. over a dirt rough area downhill to a long paved narrow street, about 15 ft wide. On each side were small one room homes, opening to the street. The homes had no doors or windows. The families have public lives.
I was first of all impressed by the cleanliness of the Rajghat street. It wasn’t long before I felt the deep sense of caring the families have for one another, and especially the joy and pride they have in their children. Grandfathers without hands carried their grandchildren with pride and tenderness. Young mothers brought their children to be photographed. Many of the teenagers asked me to take their pictures.
These kids were as cool as teens are everywhere, dressed in jeans and t-shirts. One group of boys brought their bike to be included in the photo. Two teen boys, their hair well greased, hugged just as two opposite gender lovers would, in Indian fashion, for their photo. Indian men walk the streets holding hands, and teen boys hugging is a social norm.
At Rajghat leper colony, about 50% of the adults and 15% of the children have leprosy (Hansen’s disease) caused by the Mycobacterium leprae. Though children are more susceptible than adults to contracting the disease, this is not a highly contagious disease and those in treatment are almost not at all infectious. This disease take a very long time of continual physical contact to develop.
The adults and children, elders, came pouring from their homes, crowding around Rajan, They are crazy about her. She is probably the only human being from the outside world who truly loves them. BSS is providing a free education for 20 of their children, but they begged her to take in more (as did the Bangladeshi families in the other neighborhood.) When I heard the parents’ desperation for their children to be educated I could understand why Rajan opened BSS to twenty more students. If only we could wave a magic wand (over the world’s billionaires?) and build a larger school on a nice big piece of land! If only the Amistad donors who’ve helped BSS could have been standing there with me, they’ve have been covered with goose bumps of happiness seeing what hope an elementary education brings to these, the most humbled of humanity.
I asked Rajan how the families earn money for food and clothing. She told me some are beggars. Without hands and or feet, what manual labor could they do? They did not ask us for money. They treated us as honored guests, and as equals, with great dignity.
One moment I won’t forget was seeing a handsome young man of about 25 years, a resident of the leper colony, who is the village medic. He set himself up in one of the small rooms along the street and tenderly changed the bandages of the hands and feet of those who were in need of this service. This was a work of extreme humility and my heart was touched to the core. He asked Raj for more bandage supplies and John Holman was about ready to break out his wallet when Raj quietly said “no, let me handle this later.” Rajan will know how much to give and when.
That same day Raj and her teachers handed out the large quantity of new, or like new clothing (underwear, trousers, jackets and medical supplies) which Melanie had brought from her prayer group in West Los Angeles. The teachers put the clothing on right over the childrens’ uniforms (think camisoles, and undershirts over red checked uniforms) The kids were just beside themselves with happiness. I don’t think that every single child got a piece of clothing but those that didn’t seemed to be pretty excited anyway just to be a part of this event. We surely do thank Melanie’s prayer group.
Rajan has a pressing need (but no space) to open a small hostel for some of her students who live in situations of extreme violence or neglect. Perhaps this can be done someday when land next door can be purchased.
Amistad will be providing funds for Rajan to build two more classrooms. The building will begin in spring. Amistad provided funds for the digging of a well, and the water began to flow while we were there. The school will no longer be at the mercy of the unreliable city water system. The school has a backup generator to pump the water from the well into the faucets.
What Rajan and Sukdev are accomplishing on a financial shoestring is nothing short of miraculous. Their monthly budget for educating 239 students, including nine teachers’ salaries, is just under $2,500 USD, remarkable by Western standards and prices. They are careful with every rupee.