Ted reports on the FOI Board’s 2017 India trip

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On his recent visit to Tamil Nadu, Friends of India treasurer Ted Talbot found out first hand what it’s like to go fishing in Kovolam on the Bay of BengalFriends of India has helped the fishermen and their families who suffered badly after the 2004 tsunami, and more recently when a cyclone hit the coast last December. To find out more about Ted’s visit, read his report below…

 

“After a few days of ‘loin girding’ at an Ayurvedic beach resort in Kerala, Pam Walsh, Jan Powell, Clare Schenker and I headed to Tirunelveli, and to the BCV International School.

There we met up with Di Smith, Maggie Sutton and UK based photographer Terry Knight (shooting footage for our crowd-funding appeal for a dalit girls hostel attached to the BCV International school). Can you imagine – it rained! But it didn’t dampen the excellence, fun and marathon length (4 hours) of the Holy Angels BCV International school anniversary celebrations. The kids and costumes were brilliant. There is a real buzz around the school which now has 200 students of which 60 are there on scholarships, i.e. Dalit.

Every class performed a riot of colour and sound for the BCV School anniversary celebration

During our stay, Di, Maggie and Pam concentrated on the teachers and teaching methods, Jan and Terry on filming and photography with Clare their ‘gaffer’, while I went through the accounts for the school with Br. Ravi and particularly looked at the forecasts to see when the school would become self-sustaining. In the school year 2017/18, which runs from May to March, there will be an intake of 150 new students of which 100 will be on scholarships. The existing building will already become too small. To cope with this it has been decided to convert another nearby building into the primary section. FOI are financing this transformation thanks to a very generous donor. The projections show that fees earned should cover teaching and general running costs, but transport is costing a net CHF 13,500 a year, despite charging fee-paying kids for the services.

On the BCV school bus

FOI are going to try and get a bus donated and may I encourage our supporters to give to our scholarship fund – CHF 500 covers one year’s schooling. Our other initiative is to raise money for a girls hostel which will not only relieve pressure on transport costs and travel time (some 4 year olds are spending 1.5 hours getting to school) but provide an environment for help with homework and to promote equality. It will also enable more dalit girls to attend school – an important objective of the BCV School.   Watch out for our crowd funding appeal for the Dalit Girls Hostel!

The Friendship Home for HIV/AIDS orphans

Pam and four-year old Robert at the Friendship Home

On the same campus is the Friendship Home – a hostel for over 40 orphans living with HIV/AIDS. What a joy to see these children again; see how they are nourished and growing up in a loving environment. One of the girls has now married, another two are at technical college and one boy is working as an apprentice at the Brothers’ print shop. Sadly little Robert (admitted 2 years ago aged 2.5 with his 4 year old sister) has not developed and 2 or 3 other children are also mentally challenged. FOI have a special fund from which we pay the salary of a specialist teacher (CHF 1’500 p.a.) as well as the college fees for the 2 girls (CHF 600 p.a. each) and the cost of an annual outing (CHF 300). Thank you to FOI donors whose monthly donation has enabled us to meet these special needs, but more contributors would be very welcome.

Maria and Priya are now studying at a local technical college

The running costs of the Friendship home should all be financed by a book-binding operation (paid for by FOI in 2015) but which has been slow to get going. I spent time with the new manager and Br. Ravi checking the accounts and discussing the future. They have good plans and I am hopeful that the Friendship Home will be fully funded from book-binding and printing activities by the end of 2017, thus relieving the Brothers of a financial burden. They told us of 3 other needs: a playground – which is already funded thanks to Ecole Moser Geneva; a compound wall and fencing as a protection against animals and snakes more than humans – cost CHF 12’000; paving in front of the buildings where there is just earth and flooding when it rains (which it did while we were there!!) – cost CHF 10’000. Help towards last 2 items would be much appreciated.

We had a very rewarding visit and are totally satisfied that your money has been well spent and ‘our’ children are in good hands. Superior General Br. Victordas is as friendly, charismatic and hardworking as ever. It was hard to leave, but after a week, Terry headed for home, Pam, Jan, Clare and I headed north to Madurai while Di and Maggie stayed on for another week of training for the teachers. Di would love to hear from any other teachers willing to continue the much needed help with passing on language and pedagogical skills!

The Chris Powell Training Centre

Madurai is where Dr. Amirtham Ammu runs the Chris Powell Training Centre, providing tailoring and computer skills courses so poor women can learn a trade and get a job or work as independents. It is a small operation on the edge of the city in a building bought by Amirtham who is dynamic and dedicated. The operation is now largely self-financing as Amirtham charges 300 rupees (5 CHF) for the three-month tailoring course, which the women pay once they are able to use their new-found skills. Making clothing for local shops, they can earn 300 rupees a day which adds greatly to family income, and gives the women confidence and a small level of independence. Jan would like to raise some funds to replace some of the well used equipment and to employ a full-time trainer.

20 women learn and earn in the supportive atmosphere of the Chris Powell Training Centre in Madurai.

From Madurai we continued North to Arani home of the SUEB (society for the upliftment of the economically backward) and the Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind. I had decided we should go by train, not only because it was the most direct way of getting there, but because I love Indian trains and wanted Jan and Clare to share the experience. Well! It was an experience all right! Loaded with 11 pieces of luggage we arrived at the station at midday to find the train was running 3 hours late! When we finally climbed aboard, my previous experiences of a nice air conditioned compartment to ourselves was shattered by the discovery that because it was very crowded, we had separate seats in 2 separate coaches and only top bunks for we oldies! Ted was not popular!! However, we survived and finally arrived at 5.00 am (another 2 hours late) to be met by Br Leveil and team who had been on the platform since 1.00 am!!

Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind

Marie-Najma Thomas with a group of blind students at the Richard Walsh School for the Blind

Priscilla Daniels, director of the SUEB had kindly lent us her house (she was on her way to New Zealand) and so we crashed out for most of the day until Marie-Najma Thomas arrived. She is a blind Indian orphan born in Mumbai, raised in France, studying music in Geneva and Pam had the wonderful idea of bringing her to India to spend a week teaching the blind students at the Richard Walsh Music School. The poor girl was nervous, understandably, as this was her first visit to India since she left at the age of three. But as the week progressed, she found her confidence and gave the Tamil-speaking children a taste of western music, including Silent Night, Doh Rey Me from the Sound of Music, Yellow Submarine and Frère Jacque. What a wonderful experience for her and her blind students!

Once again we were treated like royalty with flowers, shawls, 2 hour ceremonies, too much wonderful food and waited on hand and foot by Br. Babbu, Leveil, James etc. These Brothers are just so attentive to peoples’ needs, wonderful with the children and to watch them at work is very humbling. It was a great pleasure to use money from the FOI exceptional talent fund to buy a personal PA system for 2 girls with lovely voices and a keyboard for a boy with exceptional talent. Thank you FOI donors and it would be great to have more people contributing to this fund.

School for Tribal Children

One day during our stay we headed into the Javadi hills to visit a large school for 1’200 Tribal Children run by Br. Muttu. A few months ago we paid for a water purification plant and desks and benches for the boys. We have already worked with the tribals, providing solar lamps and 2 years ago I climbed to a couple of their villages and so it was with excitement we headed into these wonderful almost alpine mountains full of fruit and wild spices such as tamarin. What a climate to retire to! On arrival we were given a royal welcome with a loud band, dots on forehead (bindis), strewing of rose petals and after consecrating the purification plant, shawls and treated to a concert in front of all 1’200 smartly uniformed, well behaved students sitting crossed legged on the ground – very impressive. Lunch and then what? … yes, another concert and blessing of the desks!! Afterwards we visited the boys and the girls hostels and were appalled at the smoke filled kitchens. There is definitely a need for another smokeless stove and we are awaiting a proposal.

Next day it was already time to say our farewells. It is always hard to leave the children, their teachers and carers who over these many years have become very good friends as well as implementers of our projects. It was also with a little trepidation we left Marie-Najma on her own to complete her week of teaching.

SUEB Community Centre

Before heading for Chennai, we visited the SUEB Community Centre and met the local director and women from the local self-help groups, hearing first hand from two of the women how they had learned a trade and were now earning money for their families. FOI have helped the SUEB over at least 15 years, but it now runs on its own and we can be proud of the building we provided, the trainers we have supported and the close friendship and respect we have for Priscilla who founded the SUEB and has built it up over many years.

Kovolam Community Centre

And so to Chennai and I must say it was like shaking the snow off one’s boots and stepping inside a warm chalet, to step into the cool marbled foyer of the Taj hotel – despite our driver spending 45 minutes cruising around looking for it!! A day of lounging and then a final visit – a trip down the coast to Kovalam to meet Naryanan of the CARDT (Coastal and Rural Development Trust) and walk around the centre built with funds collected by the children of the Geneva English school back in 2002! We went to the beach and tried to spot the 3 boats paid for by FOI after the tsunami and 2 of us went fishing! Kovalam is becoming a popular location and we are frustrated that the GES building is under-utilised. We have a challenge on our hands to get something moving here, so watch this space as they say. On our final day we visited our good friend and ex-FOI Board member Nigel Majakari and his family. His enterprise Chilasa is doing wonderful work amongst the rural carpenters of Tamil Nadu. Their beautiful furniture is now available to buy online www.calyah.com.

So that’s it! A wide-reaching tour of many projects but with just a few very specific objectives before us.”

Ted Talbot

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