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!

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