In the first five days of our program, we’ve already done so much. On the first day of our program, the final two students that we were waiting on arrived – Alicia and Safiyyah. We’ve had a number of welcoming ceremonies, including one by Principal Dr. Alexander Jesudasan, the Bursar, and other administrators of Madras Christian College on the first day of the program. Alicia’s arrival time was perfect because it was also her birthday, and Dr. K, Pravine and the administrators surprised her with a birthday cake and a beautiful necklace and earrings. She had no idea! Her shocked reaction was perfect and she said many, many thank yous.
On this day we also had a very interesting guest lecture from Professor Miriam Samuel about the paradoxes of Indian culture. She delved into the issues of women in society, the trash and pollution, as well as the man-made divisions that make up the hierarchy of the caste system in India. Although it is hard for me to understand at times, it inspires me to want to make a difference in the world and confirms my passion to work in public sector of nonprofits.
We also had a class session with Dr. K and our first NGO case study presentations. The class sessions are the first real exposure to how NGOs around the world work that I’ve had. They work very differently and are successful for different reasons, as we have seen throughout the three NGOs that we’ve already visited since the program started.
The first NGO we visited was the SOS Children’s Village. The basic characteristics of it include homes that take in orphans who come from desegregated families, or children who have lost their natural family environment. As the village director described, the government determines which children come into SOS Village, and the organization’s mission is carried out in a way that makes sense in the lives of these children. The four basic pillars of the homes in the village, consisting of about eight or nine children each, include a mother as the core, the other children as siblings in the home, the family and the village as a whole. SOS Children’s Village is an International NGO, and my sister has actually been to one in Cape Town, South Africa. All of the villages have these four characteristics, but each one is different based on the location it has been established in and the culture there. What I especially liked about the village was that each child is brought up without changing the religion or values that they came with. There are Christian homes and Hindu homes. Basic Tamil is taught in the village because that is the language of Chennai. After having an orientation and Q&A session with the director, we had the chance to visit a few of the homes, but we all really enjoyed getting to join in during their play time. We went out to the field where all the children were and got to play with them for way shorter than we all wanted to stay. The kids were filled with so much joy that it was hard to leave them.
Sunday we went on a tour of Chennai. We got to see the Metropolitan Bus Station, which is a huge project considering public transportation in a city this huge and in a country with the population that India has. We also visited a few churches, including one of the rare ones that are built on top of a tomb of one of the apostles, St. Thomas Basilica. We also went to a church on top of a mountain-like hill that overlooked the whole city. It was an incredible sight, more amazing than anything I’d seen of France and the Eiffel Tower. Like I said, the city is huge. There were buildings, churches and trees for as far as we could see.
The highlight of the day was going to the beach, the pride of Chennai as our tour guide called it. It is one of the longest beaches in the world, second only to the Copa Cabana in Rio de Janeiro. It was also a very wide beach, which was really cool to me because I’ve only seen the narrow and short beaches of Florida. It was cool to see horses running up and down the beach, and apparently we were a sight to see too as people gathered to watch us dipping our feet into the Bay of Bengal. It was interesting, but we had Pravine our Protector with us so we weren’t worried.
Monday we had two class sessions and more presentations. We also had study circles of each of the chapters that we’re reading, and we got into a discussion about what we’ve all been feeling so far. It’s interesting that, based on our personalities, we all notice different things. I am a very sensitive person, so my reflection was a little bit more emotional than others. It’s not really because I was sad, but once I start crying I just can’t really help it. I told everyone how I was feeling and that it’s easy to see the pollution and the stray dogs and want to try to fix those problems, but the culture and people we are learning about are much more complex than is tangible to visitors of this country. Just like Dr. K has told us of the poverty that we’d be seeing, we are also constantly reminded of the preservation of tradition that encompasses the different religions, languages and people of India that Professor Samuel described to us on the first day of the program. Talking as a group definitely helps me to process my feelings more, and also get a sense of some things that I might not have stayed with me as much as the others on the trip.
Today was the longest day we’ve had so far. We were off campus from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. In the morning we visited the Sethu Bhaskara School , an NGO of one of Dr. K’s long-time friends, Dr. Kumarnan. Walking into the school was absolutely overwhelming for us as we were greeted with two lines of students playing instruments on either side of us, and lines of students cheering and waving both Indian and American flags. Of course it was amazing to see and to feel such a hearty welcome, just nothing we could’ve ever expected. It was like we were celebrities because there was even a poster of us of a picture we took a few days ago. The school was K – 12 and we spent an hour or so going around to different classrooms and talking to the kids. I basically just told them how beautiful I thought their country, school and culture was and that they should be proud and appreciative of their teachers who clearly care so much about them. Some of the students asked us really smart questions like how we feel about the education system in America versus the one in India, and if we have any ideas on how to improve certain issues in Indian society. Others asked silly questions like what kind of songs we like and if we would sing for them.
After a wonderful lunch that we ate off of a banana leaf and receiving scarves and elephant figurines, we left and ventured off to another part of Chennai to a smaller, but nonetheless successful, NGO called Sevalaya, which is primarily a children’s home as well as a home for the elderly. This was one of our favorites that we’ve visited so far, simply because of the story and the passion that the founder of the school V. Muralidharan told us. The motivation for starting Sevalaya was his three inspirations – Mahatma Ghandi, Swami Vivekananda and Mahakavi Bharathiyar. From reading his books, Mr. Muralidharan realized that his life would be fulfilled through three main pillars that these icons represent. Ghandi represents the development of villages, Bharathiyar gives insight into the importance of education, and Swami believes in feeding the poor as a means of really helping others. Because of these values, Mr. Muralidharan started the school and has never lost doubt in his mission, even if he may not know where the funding is coming from for the next month or the next project. This quote that I read on the wall by Swami also stuck with me: “They alone live who live for others, the rest are more dead than alive.” The impact that Sevalaya has especially on the children is clear in the joy and smiles on their faces. They were so happy to see us as we were to see them, and a few of us had the pleasure of having a little girl sing an entire Tamil song to us. It was beautiful and her sweet gesture left us feeling the happiness that these kids probably feel every day when they get to come to school. We were so grateful to them for hosting us and didn’t want to leave.
On top of everything, the most amazing thing has been not only the amount of people, but the amount of life that has been all around us throughout our time in India thus far. Shannon made a good point in our discussion that everywhere we look; people are making their lives happen. Nothing is stopping them from getting comfortable on the side of the road or making their meals in their place of business. Although this may be hard for us to understand, it’s the way it is here, and it’s actually really beautiful. A common phrase that we’ve heard is “This is India.” The power might go out in the middle of one of our presentations, but we move on as if it never happened. We count a few seconds and Voila!, the power is back on. There isn’t a constant need to be on time, or to be connected to the internet. And sometimes I wish that’s how I lived my life in the US. When I get back home, I hope I will integrate more of a balance into my life. All I know is that I don’t ever want to forget the way that this country makes me feel.