“Who in here has a usable toilet in their house?” Imagine posing such a question in front of two-hundred restless middle-schoolers. The reaction would be instantaneous: a few giggling girls capturing the moment to burst with fits of silent laughter, a group of sophomoric boys mocking the speaker with their wildly- gestured interpretations, and a handful of knowing kids stealing supercilious glances at each other with looks of “well yeah … duh" written on their faces. Yet in the two-room schoolhouse in countryside India, the scene was altogether a different one as, to my amazement, only three timid children embarrassingly raised their hands.
I had anticipated a bustling crowd of provocative pre-teenagers for my first presentation at one of the local-schools in Vengal, a small village forty kilometers north of Chennai, India. But what I had not in the least expected was this: a hushed group of children, jam-packed in a dusty schoolroom, watching intently with rapt attention and a hint of mingled excitement and wavering curiosity on their faces. Their eyes flickered incessantly between me and the laptop, growing wide with awe and curiosity as every once in a while, a new item would pop up on the computer screen. Above them the ceilings were leaking, water dripping at random intervals down the sides of the cement walls where curious shapes formed where the cheap paint had chipped. A strong stench of sweat combined with the smell of the damp mud floors and the reeking stink of urine as a result of open defecation filled the air, and despite this, I saw that only a couple of students were wearing chappals. Sanitation was the focus of this lecture.
An Impoverished Village
Vengal can boast of having a population of barely three thousand (a little over the number of students attending an average public school in the United States), among which a fair 90 percent are below the poverty line and a maximum of 3 percent have attended high school. Solely based on an agricultural economy, the average married couple in Vengal makes their living working in the vast fields of jasmine plants and selling the fragrant flowers in stocks to the flower vendors of Chennai. Their children will help them as soon as they turn five, and by eleven, they would work fulltime alongside their parents, as education in Vengal is not a priority. “Why should I pay to keep my son in school,” a father explains briefly “when he can make some earnings for the family?” Most parents share the same short-sighted views, and this attitude is not different, if not worse, for girls who, in addition to increasing the family’s income, need money for their marriage dowry. As a result, the absentee lists in the schools are ominously increasing since schooling does not produce any immediate solutions to the present-financial problems.
The lack of education directly affects the standard of living of the villagers. Basic facilities and even necessities such as running water or proper restrooms are not available to them. “Toilets,” one villager scoffs while warily eying her children tackle each other playfully by the open sewer line “that is only for those rich city-men, not for us”. Resorting to open defecation does not only mean the stench of urination throughout the village, but also the spread of several fatal diseases, and the fact that hardly 5 percent of the population can afford slippers makes the situation rather more perilous.
Yet in the midst of this poverty-stricken village, The Rural Development Center’s relief concept took shape. “We just felt a magnetic bond with this village,” says a RDC volunteer “that would constantly pull us back to Vengal to help these people”. “It is one thing to read about depravity and poverty in a newspaper, but it is another to read it in someone’s eyes”. Vengal is not the first village that RDC, whose objectives are centered on raising the standard of living in rural parts of India, has adopted; nevertheless, it is the one that is the neediest. “These persons do not have anything; they have not heard of such common objects such as sinks and fans” says Dr. S.Rema , the CEO of RDC “the first step in helping them is to teach them about the necessities of education, health, and hygiene and about social issues.” Several volunteers including myself were called upon to execute this essential and primary step of spreading awareness through a variety of methods including lectures at schools, presentations at public places, spreading pamphlets about sanitation, and painting murals about social problems. These projects, my focus being sanitation, were about brushing teeth regularly, washing hands before meals, and drinking boiled water, “very basic ideas” Dr. Rema explains, “that can make all the difference in the world”. I was surprised at how easily I could reach out to the Vengal children, and perhaps because I was closer to their age than the average middle-aged volunteer, the impact I could make on them was astonishing.
The evening before I left, I presented Bharatanatyam, a South Indian classical dance, at the
panchayat building for the villagers. I danced on a bare, broken, uneven concrete floor, a sharp contrast from my recitals in a climate controlled auditorium with plush curtains before an audience dressed in their finest dress and jewelry. The residents were astounded by the very dance form which originated in Chennai, the cultural capital of India forty kilometers south of Vengal. This last interaction with the villagers made me realize that I have nothing in common with these people: a place with no electricity, running water, nor even hygiene that had pushed me out of my comfort-zone. Yet over the past month, I had formed a special bond with this village, one that would that force me to return many more times in the future. I look forward not to my graduation in 2008 but the graduation of Sukanya, Prabha, and KalaiSelvi.
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