Saturday, 20 June 2009

Education for Girls

Vizhinjam Harbour in 2007, with one of the two mosques in the backgroundOn Sunday, last weekend, I decided to take some time out and go for a walk down to Vizhinjam harbour where many of the SISP kids come from. I left the house, walked up the road a few hundred metres and, with my new compass (thank you, Petra!), headed south. It took me down paths and back roads that I've never been before, and away from traffic noise and smells. Everything was looking green and fresh with the recent rains. It was all very pleasant but it was a bit further than I'd expected. Near the end there's a long climb before the road drops down to St Mary's church, and the village and harbour beyond that. The port was thronging with people - it's a real working fishing town with loads of small boats moored in the harbour. Boats were coming in and going out, outboard motors were being hauled about, nets were stretched out on the ground being repaired, dried or folded, fish were being auctioned and re-auctioned. Little stalls were selling chai, snacks, cigarettes, essentials and junk. It was very busy. I walked amongst everyone and was almost totally ignored by all apart from the few who thrust out a hand as I walked by. So, noise and shouting, smells, colours and sights, and much human activity. This is how they earn their existence - by grafting, selling services, wheeling and dealing to make a few Rupees wherever they can.

St Mary's church overlooks the harbour and is Christian, of course, but there are also many Hindu temples scattered around, and down on the far side of the harbour there are two huge mosques. Huge! One is quite new and the other is nearing completion but already in use. As I approached them the call to prayer started. They are within shouting distance of each other and they compete for the same audience. What a bloody din! I thanked God, metaphorically speaking, when it eventually stopped and that it had only lasted ten minutes or so. Between the two mosques is a kind of shanty town which is predominantly Muslim. It's a maze of back alleys and breeze-block shacks squeezed together, with a few breeze-block shops and stalls along the roadside. No doubt they'd buy better homes if only they didn't have to pay for the ridiculous religious edifices.

Nazeera and Shajila in their SISP-donated frocks.When I walked through this area about seven months ago I met S, a 14 year old student from SISP. She's a nice girl but her education has been somewhat patchy and her English is very poor. And since Christmas, she's stopped coming. That also means that her little sister, N, who she accompanied, has stopped too. I decided to go and find them to discover what their situation was and to see if I could coax them back. Well, I did eventually find them, with a bit of help. Three sisters and their mother, and at least one brother, if not more, living in a minute shack. It had no windows and just a dirt floor. The door was a bit of tarpaulin, tied over the opening, and the roof was palm leaves, plastic sheets and corrugated iron. Amazingly, there was electricity for the single strip lamp and fan, but no water. They invited me in and I sat on the only chair, facing the door. If there had been another chair there was certainly nowhere for it to go. The immediate family mostly stood around in areas off this small central space or stood with neighbours and other spectators outside, looking in. There was one guy who did most of the talking. It seemed that the girls' mother stayed at home, looking after little N, while S did errands in others' houses to earn enough to keep them. Their father was dead and the mother couldn't find work. They also said that the school bus was taking a different route and it was much further to walk to catch it. Muslims are very protective of their girls. They are often not allowed out of their own close communities, so getting these two to attend SISP, about five km away, had originally been quite an achievement. It had only been possible because the bus had come close by, but now it was just too far.

I felt privileged to be in that little shack. I was the honoured guest, sitting on the throne and being put on display for the neighbours to see. However, I couldn't really look closely at my surroundings because my every movement was being observed. They treated me to a bottle of slightly flat fizzy stuff which they probably could ill afford. I haven't mastered the Indian trick of drinking from a bottle without lips touching the glass and my awkward attempts resulted in some cups suddenly appearing. At least it meant that the bottle could then be shared. Anyway, after trying to be diplomatic and suggesting that education was important and that if there was any way possible of getting the girls back to SISP then they would really benefit, I made my excuses and left. Very humbling.

The day after, Monday, I mentioned all this to the school secretary. She knew about the bus taking a different route and said that she would look into it. I was pleased that she didn't take my involvement as meddling in things which were her and the social workers' domain. On Tuesday the girls' mother apparently turned up at school and, whatever was discussed, the two girls miraculously appeared at school the very next day! A brilliant outcome! I suspect that the bus has been rerouted and that now the family receives food parcels from SISP, just as other very poor families do.

R in the Paper Arts workshopAnd there was another success this week! R, a nineteen year old girl who works in SISP's Paper Arts workshop, started school! This is definitely my doing - I have said that I will arrange funding if she can go to SISP's school in the mornings. At the age of 14, after a series of dreadful circumstances, R had to leave education to get a job to support her family. She's bright, keen to learn, a hard worker, and I've watched her help others who struggle to do things she has mastered. I think she's a good investment. The idea is that she'll be paid a substitute income to allow her to go to school in the mornings but she'll return to work in the afternoons. It will cost £240 for 12 months. My plan is to try to find three sponsors each willing to pay £80. If I couldn't have found them then I would have paid the costs myself, but so far I have found two damned fine fellows(!) and I'm confident I'll find a third. This sponsorship is only for 12 months - if she still wants to continue after that then I'll see what can be done at that time. R is delighted and it's great to see her face beam now that she's been given this chance. She's already talking about consolidating her existing education with exams and then aiming for higher exams in a year or two's time.

This scheme of mine had to be approved by SISP's management team so I was a little concerned that they'd bounce it, but all went smoothly. Result!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Jackfruits, Fake Notes and Coffee

My Blog pages are looking very boring so here are some photos to brighten things up a little. Firstly, this is a Jackfruit tree on the road down to Kovalam Beach. These are the largest tree-borne fruits in the world and can be up to 36kg in weight, according to Wikipedia. 36kg!! That's half my body weight!!!!

The neighbours sometimes bring me a bowl of the fruit for supper - the segments are yellow, about the size of a date, and have a large single smooth seed which is very easy to remove. The flesh is about 5mm thick and tastes pleasant enough - I guess my Western palate finds it slightly strange but it's quite edible. Anyway, these fruits are ripening around about now and will soon be falling off the trees. I don't want to be standing below when that happens!

By the way, Kovalam Beach and the surrounding tourist area is one of the few places where the streets are cleaned. The broom this woman is using is like those used in many homes, made from the spines of coconut leaves, stripped by hand with a sharp knife while green, and then left to dry. The grandmother next door makes them and sells them wholesale for Rs2.5 each - or about 3p!

When I was in Trivandrum recently, in a dingy back street shop, I spotted this sign advertising Fake Note Machines. My immediate thought was that it was for printing money! Surely not? But in India anything is possible! Or could a "Fake Note" be the name of some piece of paper - like a "Sick Note" perhaps? But no, sadly, the answer is totally prosaic. It's for detecting counterfeit bank notes. How boring! Obvious really, but it gave me some fun speculating!

Finally, this is part of Clive's India Survival Kit. For eight months now I've been passing a couple of coffee stalls in Chalai Market in Trivandrum where they roast coffee beans. The smell is irresistible and I have this compulsion to inhale deeply and walk slowly whenever I pass them. But up until recently I had no way to make decent coffee at home - I didn't want pre-ground beans because half the flavour would be gone before I drank it. Nor did I want to invest in a special percolator, coffee grinder, cafetiere or filter system because I have no idea how much use I'd get from them and also because I'm a bit of a skinflint. The solution was simple: my mate Chris Gowers suggested the mortar and pestle, and I found a muslin filter of the type used by Chai Wallahs everywhere. Easy! And now I can make absolutely fantastic coffee from the fresh, locally grown beans. Heaven! The fact that the power's gone off and I've lost light, cooling and Internet for the umpteenth time today, and it's peeing down outside, matters not one iota! Which reminds me, I wonder when the gas cylinder's going to run out...

Tuesday, 2 June 2009


You know how I said in my last post that there was no wildlife in my house nowadays? Wrong! Discounting the little House Geckos which I've got quite used to, there've been two incidents with wild beasties in the last week. One, while I was talking on Skype to my mate Chris using headphones, involved the discovery of a monster millipede, 75mm long and pencil thickness, trekking up the cable towards my head! The other was also a millipede, found rapidly heading up the thigh of my trousers. With all those legs they're difficult to shake off, but I made bloody sure they were removed; they were certainly not going to share my body or my house!

The SISP kids had two weeks' holiday and then returned to a new school year. They get only two weeks' summer holiday unlike most other schools where two months is the norm. Experience has taught us that giving them more time off is counter productive - they all get jobs, even the very youngest, and then it's near impossible to drag them back again! The new term kicked off with prize-giving for the top performers. Prizes were just small things but the kids seemed chuffed enough. Positions were also found for our high achievers in mainstream schools so they were presented with new back packs, pencil cases, geometry sets, exercise books, pens, rulers, bottles, lunch boxes and uniforms. The kits of our existing mainstream students were also refreshed. They all return to SISP at the end of each day for tuition classes and for somewhere to do homework so I've been hearing how they've been getting on - mostly very well, thankfully.

You may have read in the papers about Cyclone Aila which swept up the eastern coast of India on the 25th May, killing between 150 and 200 people in Bangladesh and West Bengal, and making many homeless. It affected us here in the south-west too. A huge amount of rain fell in the night which, coupled with the high winds, did considerable damage. The house of one of our staff members completely collapsed around her but thankfully she and her two daughters survived unscathed. Another teacher's house developed gaping cracks and the walls bowed in so he had to make a hasty exit. More worrying was that some of the small boats from the nearby fishing village went missing at sea along with the fathers of some of our children. It was with great relief that we later heard that those fathers had survived, but unfortunately others had not.

It has been very humid recently. It was up around 80% in the daytime due to the rain and the Sun's intensity when it finally broke through the clouds. Termites have been very quick to take advantage of the moist soil by building what looked like miniature cooling towers of up to 30 cm height - little coloured works of art made from the local red soil. They were quickly knocked down by the rain but were rebuilt by the following morning.