Paul and Frances Finch made their first visit to the school in India in August 2007 when Frances was President of Native Onlus.
This is their report.
India, a dynamic, powerful, emerging country still struggles with contrasts
The India we were immersed in during the 16 days of our visit can be summed up by 7 adjectives. Here’s the impressive list:
- dynamic . . . despite the obvious limitations of the old infrastructures of society, there’s the immediate sense of a people seriously pursuing a better way of life. Sleep is on the back-burner as they work hard and busily look for ways to move ahead. The English phrase ‘laid-back’ is not on their screen! India is a dynamic, restless, bustling, visionary country growing and developing in any and every way it can.
- passionate . . . there’s not a street, taxi, or bus which isn’t filled with people all looking out to get ahead. The familiar phrase ‘never a dull moment’ is wonderfully descriptive of this aggressive, industrious and creative society. Why should you limit a motorcycle to 2 passengers if you can get at least 4 on it? If you can jump on or off a bus while it’s still moving, why not seize the opportunity?
- colourful . . . even in the villages hidden away among the thousands and thousands of rice fields, the mud-beaten roads were alight with the magnificent colours of the women’s saris as they walked with natural elegance to and from work. This bustling, noisy, outgoing, passionate society is always wanting to transform every grey moment into a brilliant colourful festive one.
- respectful . . . although the jammed streets overflow with every means of transport thought possible, you suddenly become aware that it’s not chaos. Underneath the kaleidoscope of a seeming traffic jam, there is the invisible ordering determined by respect. The culture, deeply divided into classes by the cast system, is one which always looks for ways to show respect and courtesy. From the way they unite their hands greeting one another, to the way they express acceptance of a proposal gently rocking their heads from side to side, their social exchanges are gracious and often make our business-like western ways seem rather brusque and unbecoming.
- generous . . . what a thankful surprise it is to be offered a bottle of cold water in the village so far from the amenities of western comfort! Yet even in the most difficult of circumstances there’s no need to worry: the room may be crowded with perspiring people squatting on the floor but they will always find a way to get a chair for you! And when it comes to eating, although it will nearly always be curry and rice, you can count on it being very tasteful with the proviso attached ‘all you can eat’!
- of contrasts . . . despite the fact that the town of more than 7 million people boasts very prestigious hotels, shops, banks, computers, the latest technology in cell phones, a gigantic stadium, and Imax cinemas, you will find, just around the corner , a squalid and abject neighbourhood where you wonder now anyone can survive. Alongside wealth, gold and diamonds, co-exists dire poverty. Even though you are in the midst of dense traffic, you must always watch out for the buffalo. Although Hollywood is currently seeking a working alliance with it’s Indian counterpart ‘Bollywood’, the living conditions in the villages is still that of 200 years ago!
- religious and superstitious . . . everywhere you look you see statues, altars, Hindu temples, mosques and religious people involved in a religious rite. From the short hair of the woman who has just had it cut so as to give it to her god, to the long-haired ascetic, it seems that everyone is involved in some sort of religious activity. Everyone is free to worship whom or what he wants, but if you should ever want to change your religious belief you had better watch out. The cast system which relegates an entire class of people into that of being ‘untouchable, is itself untouchable. Even though at a Constitutional level certain gains have been made in recent years for these people, in practice the ‘dalits’ stay locked into their state.
The school at Chinamuthevi is a light in the darkness and is growing as it meets a real need in society.
The children are developing through education
The school constitutes a gigantic step forward in villages totally ignored by the government and where there has existed nothing similar. You can almost feel a buzz in the air as the children passionately follow their teacher’s words. For hours at a time, sitting crossed leg on the cement floor, they clutch their tiny slate and quickly copy everything they see written on the board. What a treat that sort of seriousness would be for any of our western teachers who daily struggle with the massive problem of discipline in the classroom.
The entire family reaps the benefit of the child’s education
The enthusiasm with which each child takes care of his school clothes and the desire to not ever be late for school is something totally new for the entire family. The family routine is transformed as the parents fulfil their signed commitment to make sure their child attends school punctually each day. What is an even greater delight is to see the mother who, because illiterate, could only put a thumb print on the page, now shows us how she has been taught by her child to write and read.
A healthy discipline now shapes family life
There are principles taught at the school which undergird the entire didactical approach. We saw a clear example when at a parent-teacher meeting, Edgar, the founder of the school, underlined the fact that the school is no substitute for the family. He made it clear that while the child must never shout at his mother or father the responsibility of the parent is to attend the regular meetings between teacher and parents.
This happens in two ways:
The first is that children of people who would ordinarily be excluded from society are now included. An imprisoning chain binding them is suddenly cut.
In second place there is the benefit of an education which is impregnated with the English language. The curriculum anticipates that the child develops a good capacity to speak English and in India, where so many features from the British Empire still remain (their passion for the national sport of cricket being one of them!) this is a wonderful advantage.
The entire village life prospers from the presence of the school
When we arrived at the village of Chinamuthevi the whole school turned out to greet us with a wonderful assortment of songs, banners and sticks, garlands of flowers in such a way as to involve the whole village in the celebration. And every afternoon, the last half hour before the school finishes for the day, in the area in front of the school, the entire student body does physical education. The happy cheers of the children are quite contagious for everyone.
In the nearby village of Nidumolu, the parents of the children had organised a reception for us which involved almost all the village. Even the mayor was present and he made a speech thanking Edgar for the benefit which had come to everyone through the school. Responding to that initiative, Edgar asked the children to sing a lovely song with actions, and then explained to the attentive crowd how all of this was fruit that comes from the basic principles of love and kindness in the school.
The two visits we made to families are sketched indelibly on our minds
The first hut: Following Edgar, we bent low and entered into the simply thatched hut, erected with bamboo poles and straw. We were about to visit “Prem”, the father and “Kumar” the mother, both about 27 years of age. Outside we had seen grandad “Matta” as he squatted in front of a smoking fire finishing the preparation of the evening meal of rice and curry. Now we met the pride of the family, “Samsunder”, a good-looking lad of 8 years of age. Through Edgar’s patient translation of Telugu we learned that before going to school, Samsunder was untidy and disobedient, but that now he has become much more careful and orderly. In fact we saw the little corner where he keeps his clothes and could detect a mind which was now alive and creative. The mother movingly described how the benefit of the school had not been just for her son but also for her. Through him she had learned how to sign her own name.
Before leaving them we paused to pray, especially as their new house nears completion. The foundations are already laid and besides it being quite a bit bigger (15 feet by 15 feet) it will actually be divided into 4 main rooms.
The second hut: After a short walk in the total darkness of the village, but always surrounded by a curious crowd of local villagers, we were guided by Edgar into another tiny hut where “Srino and Salomi” live with their 3 children – two boys Satish Kumar e Deelip Kumar, and a lovely little girl Soujanya. Satish is 14 years old and has just returned from the larger town of Vijawada about 60 kms away where he normally stays in a small hotel next to his new school. His eyes literally shone. In his exam, from a total of 600 possible points he got 469 – that’s nearly 80%,. In India if you get 90% the government will grant you a scholarship. Deelip, is two years younger, and his eyes sparkle with a joy which illuminates his good looking Indian tanned face. He is very good at drawing. When we congratulate him on the brilliantly artistic way in which he can capture the simple country life in his pictures he promptly gives us his precious drawing book to bring back to Italy with us. We are currently exploring ways we can make the book more available to our friends in Italy because it is quite extraordinary the manner in which he gives such a joyful and hopeful outlook on life through his pictures when he’s from an environment which offered no hope to anyone.
We will never forget the joy which was expressed through the profoundly emotional tears of his mother, Salomi, as she recounted the wonder of the possibility of her 3 children going to school when such a thing was a total impossibility for anyone of her cast. Her husband works hard in an enterprising way in the rice fields, but his income would never permit his children to be educated. Instead, with the opening of the school, everything has changed. Even she has been able to learn how to sign her name and read. With a wave of her hand she proudly displayed the newfound order in her tiny hut.
We’ll never forget the treasure of this one half hour visit in this tiny hut.
4 proposals we are considering for Native Onlus in the immediate future
- With the generous help of the husband of one of the students from “English for You” we are making plans for a water purifier to be installed at the school’s new construction which will take place, God-willing, this winter.
- We are proposing that our annual support for the school increase and continue so as to keep up with and cover all the day to day running costs.
- We want to develop a scholarship program so that selected students can go on to further studies if Native recommends them.
- We want to stay in contact with the school in such a way that we can assist where possible any future needs which may arise.