Reports on how charity work and development continues at the childrens and young women's residential boarding school in Bhubaneswar in Odisha, India.
By Malcolm Harper
Chris Pouncey and Sheila Keegan travelled overland from England to the PUSS school earlier this year; they raised over £7000 for Friends of the Children of Orissa; this is the story of their (self funded) visit:
Kuku with one of the toddlers
Monday 7th February 2011 dawns bright and clear as we head out from Bhubaneswar towards PUSS in an ancient auto-rickshaw. We cross a wide river, and turn left off the two lane highway onto a small side lane running along the canal, in which people are bathing and washing. The fields are green and fertile, the buildings simple. The lane becomes narrower still. We pass through the tiny village of Naharkanta with its few basic shops and suddenly Ramadevi Girls' High School (the PUSS school) is in front of us. On the wall outside is written the school motto ..."As long as children are allowed to suffer, there is no love in the world". One of the senior girls, Mamata, comes running out to greet us, closely followed by the wonderful Kuku, the Secretary or Chief Exec of the school. Hugs all round. School is in session, but as we pass the simple classrooms, the children all rise singing out a cheerful "Namaste" (hello, welcome) putting their hands together. There is a lump in our throats. It has been a long trip and it is good to be back in this simple place, where so much care is needed and given. We go to Kuku's office for a cup of tea and a chat. We were thinking of planning a picnic for the girls but Kuku explains that the children are all studying hard for forthcoming exams. She proposes a party instead; a great idea.
The school has 414 girls, ranging from less than a year through to 17 years old, of whom a number are unwell in the isolation sick bay. One has infectious TB and HIV, another has typhoid and two have malaria. Some of the girls are the daughters of mothers from sex-worker or leprosy colonies. But about 60% of them are from the tribal castes, mainly from the remote north western areas of Orissa. For decades, their families have eked out an existence by subsistence farming, but their way of life is now being threatened by mining and forestry activity and whole communities are sometimes on the move. Often they speak their own tribal languages and do not have much knowledge of Oriya (the state language of Orissa), let alone Hindi or English. Some of them have never been to school before, so their progress can sometimes be extremely slow, as they are bewildered by their new circumstances and have so much to learn.
Bulari, who has typhoid and HIV, is just seven years old, a waif of a child. Both her parents died of AIDS and she has no living relatives apart from a grandfather who is a beggar. PUSS is probably her home for the next 10 years, if she survives, but HIV means that she is constantly at risk and fighting typhoid may be too much for her. Shanti was found by the local police crying at Bhubaneswar station, aged six. She spoke Hindi but no Oriya or English, and did not know where she came from. She was taken by the local police to PUSS. Her parents had died and she was in the care of an "Auntie", who forced her to beg.
Eventually she ran away and jumped on a train. We first met her two years ago, shortly after she arrived and she was very withdrawn. She has been at PUSS for nearly three years now, is visibly happier, and is making progress in learning Oriya.
Babies and toddlers with their carers
Annie was one month old, a premature baby, when we first met her. She had been abandoned at birth. She was ill and needed medical treatment, which PUSS had to pay for, before taking her into care. She was one of the first residents of the baby unit, and is now just over two and doing fine. In many parts of rural and illiterate India, girl children are unwanted, because their parents believe they will not be able to work and will ruin the family through dowry demands. Infanticide is shockingly common. Nowhere is this more true than in Orissa.
Mamata is a serious and very hard working 17 year old, who is studying at a nearby college but helps Kuku in the running of the school. She is one of five daughters and two of her sisters are also at the school. She has been here for five years and does not want to leave when she graduates. She would like to stay on in a teaching or support role. PUSS has become her home. She does not want to marry as, she says, she would become a slave and her mother-in-law would torture her, because her father cannot afford to pay a dowry. She probably does not exaggerate much. We read horrific stories like this all the time in the India newspapers.
Mandakini with one of the new babies
Reading these desperate case histories, you might be forgiven for thinking that PUSS is a place of misery and deprivation. Actually the opposite is the case. It is a place of love and mutual support. The children become each others' family and there is nothing like a family to teach the virtues of sharing! All the children, apart from the tiniest, wash their own dishes and clothes and take turns to clean the school. Of course, there is no automation here, no dishwasher, and no vacuum cleaner. Water is taken from the well. Clothes are scrubbed on stone slabs. Floors are cleaned with a simple hand brush and washed with bucket and disinfectant on hands and knees. There is no waste. Every scrap of food is finished off. When we join the girls for a meal and leave some gristly chicken, which to us is inedible, Kuku calls over a little one and invites her to finish it off. She tucks in with gusto. Chicken is a special treat. Kuku does not mean to embarrass us but we are left humbled!
The school faces an urgent problem. Rice is their staple diet and accounts for the majority of the food budget. For several years, the school has been granted subsidized rice at approximately one third of the market rate, in common with other charitable institutions. One year ago, the State government suddenly suspended the subsidy and this is causing some hardship as budget needed for basic equipment, education, and healthcare is being diverted into buying rice. The reasons do not seem clear. Kuku enlists Chris' help to attend a meeting with a senior local government official to request the re-instatement of the subsidy.
The appointment is a surreal experience and an excellent introduction to the nightmare world of Indian Bureaucracy. Our appointment is delayed for an hour. The official then meets us on the stairs and tells us she has been summoned to the office of the Chief Minister and cannot meet with us today, but that her junior will see us instead. The junior, a lady, backed up by two acolytes, is an expert buck-passer and hair-splitter. We are talking to the wrong department, we are in the wrong category, we need to be inspected, we should not expect to get government handouts when we are financed by charity. Let the charity give more! In an increasingly alice-in-wonderland scene, we are told that government policy is to promote the unity of the family. We have the wrong kind of children from the wrong area. PUSS is not necessarily the competent authority to decide upon their welfare. If we choose to take in such children, that might amount to child trafficking! The children should be taken before the competent authority to decide.
In the face of such insults, it is hard to respond positively. Chris asks with heavy sarcasm whether foreign charity is welcomed at all by the State? And does she realize that PUSS does not choose the children, it is often the officers of the state e.g. the police that bring the children to PUSS because the state has failed them utterly. Of course foreign aid is welcome, she replies frostily but there are Rules, Regulations, Protocols and Procedures. We do not get our rice subsidy back and have little prospect of ever doing so. We exit disillusioned and disappointed. That evening we hear that the Minister in charge of the department has resigned and is possibly about to be incriminated in a massive fraud. There we have it. The machinery of state contrives to deny the needs of the poor on spurious grounds whilst helping itself quietly to the proceeds. But this time, some of them have been caught with their hands in the till and hopefully heads will roll. (Chris and Sheila's efforts were not in vain; the subsidy has now been restored !)
The day of the party
It's the day of the party and the children are really excited. The assembly hall is decorated with tinsel and glitter. They gather and sit expectantly in neat rows on the floor waiting for the magician to start his act. He is surprisingly good and performs a series of tricks. The children are mesmerized and want to see each trick again.
At the end of his show, as part of the last trick, the magician throws out handfuls of sweets and they scramble to get them. There are not enough for each child. It is not the magician's fault, he probably was not briefed and does not realise that the children almost never have sweets - they are huge treat. It is a difficult moment. But the children are touchingly democratic. They share the sweets, having a bite and passing it on their neighbours. After the show, a special lunch is served. Normally it would be rice and dal. But today there is a vegetable starter, then chicken and potato. The kids eat ravenously and there are second helpings for those who want it, before they clean their metal plates and sweep and clean the floor. They know that ice cream and sweeties are next and line up patiently, with very serious expressions; ice cream is a rare commodity.
Ice cream out of the way, the children gather for a talent dance show, led by two seriously talented teenage sisters, Gouri and Durga, but enthusiastically entered into by all, ranging from classical dance to Bollywood routines and including a display of Scottish dancing, which the girls learned from Alex Davies on her last visit. The scene is chaotic but it all comes together with Kuku acting as compere. This is homespun entertainment, watched with huge enthusiasm, and each act meets with raucous applause.
As the last act finishes, Kuku announces the end of the evening. But the children beg her to allow them to carry on dancing and the entire floor turns into a disco. Kuku, Chris and Sheila are dragged onto the floor and do their best to keep up with the wild enthusiasm of their young friends. It's exhausting, exhilarating, and touching to take part in such a spontaneous outpouring of joy. Time stands temporarily still, worries disappear, caste is abolished, hierarchy irrelevant. We are all equal on the dance floor, everyone caught up in the fun. Soon the oldies have to sit down and sit out the next dance.
To the airport
We sleep the sleep of the exhausted and jump up early for our ride to the airport. Kuku and two girls come with us to the airport. There are tearful farewells as we hug everyone and go through the doors to take our long flight home. It has been a wonderful visit to PUSS. We know for sure we will be back soon to visit the Children of Orissa.
Thank you, Chris and Sheila, from all of us and of course most of all from the children.
We are very pleased to accept donations online to our charity through CAF, the Charities Aid Foundation Charities (www.cafonline.org). If you are a UK taxpayer then 28% is automatically added to your donation. For more details, see the Guide and please donate what you can.
© Friends of the Children of Orissa