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 and Chris Pouncey (school visit report)
I spent two days at PUSS charity school in January myself, and several other members were able to visit and contribute by teaching the children English and generally getting to know the place and the people. These included Chris Pouncey, one of our most loyal supporters; he has written a note about his impressions which we are including in this newsletter.
... every little helps !
We are now supporting 349 children in the boarding section, including 31 at the nursery school. The PUSS handicrafts enterprise continues to prosper. While I was there Kadambini took an order for half a million election pennants, and she was expecting a similar order from the main opposition party. PUSS makes about a twentieth of a penny on each one, but every little helps !
Sponsor children in India
Our fund raising efforts continue. In addition to our regular donors, we received generous gifts from Marlborough School, Filgrave School, the Artisan Trust, the Oxford Study Centre and others. Eva Maria Elliott organised a successful pub quiz evening in Raunds, and Bozaid from Bozeat continues to sponsor eighteen children. We are particularly pleased when we are able to interest schools, children and their parents in our work, and we are always happy to visit schools and to talk to children of any age about PUSS, and indeed about India in general.
We are enclosing an invitation to a wind trio recital and dinner at Filgrave, on 25th June. This is being given by the Three's Company trio (see their website at www.threescompanytrio.com for more details about the group), and we anticipate that it will be as successful an occasion as last year's recital by the Pavao Quartet. Please let us know right away if you want to come; places are limited, and several people were disappointed last year.
Introduction by Chris Pouncey
In December, roughly four years ago, I moved to Filgrave and met Malcolm Harper who, with his customary focus, enrolled me as a Friend Of The Children Of Orissa on my very first day in the village, by inviting me to what turned out to be a fund-raising evening - something about some disadvantaged children in a remote area of North East India, apparently. I went home that evening basking in the warm glow of his welcome and his mulled wine, but somewhat bemused to be carrying various colourful handicraft trinkets, and marvelling at the speed with which he had parted me from my money. To be honest, PUSS did not mean much to me at the time, but it seemed a good way to start a new life in Filgrave.
... try to raise funds
Over the next few months, I learned a lot more about PUSS and developed a great deal of respect for the work of The Friends Of The Children. So much so, that when I was planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro the following August, I suggested to Malcolm that I should try to raise funds by gaining sponsorship from family, friends and clients. Later that month, I summitted Kili at nearly 6000 metres, scared myself half to death and came back down to earth as fast as possible. However, en route I raised a respectable sum for PUSS thanks to your most generous support. A year later, I undertook a similar exercise on Mont Blanc. I suffered a fair degree of discomfort owing to altitude sickness, especially on Kilimanjaro, but was spurred on by thoughts of the Children.
Theory is all very well, but there is nothing like direct experience and I was delighted eventually to have the opportunity to visit PUSS albeit fleetingly in late March 2004, together with my sister Penny
We arrived in Bhubaneswar, capital of Orissa, and were met by Bhagwan, one of the co-founders of PUSS. The journey through the chaotic streets of the city gave way to the lush green landscape of the countryside near Naharkanta, passing locals tending the fields and bathing in the rivers. Soon we were bumping down the track towards the school where we were greeted by a committee of girls, whose solemn faces were soon wreathed in smiles, after they had performed their ceremony and got to know us a little.
... both moving and humbling
Within minutes, we were surrounded by a throng of children, shouting hello, practising their English and demanding to see pictures of themselves on my video camera. It was late afternoon play time, and out in the fields there was lively activity as hundreds of kids raced around. Soon the bell rang for evening prayers and the anarchy of children at play dissolved into orderly procession into the assembly hall, under the watchful but kindly eyes of the teachers. The school follows a multi-faith policy and respect for all creeds is encouraged. The sight and sound of 300 children sitting cross legged on the floor and chanting in unison is both moving and humbling.
Later that evening, Kadambini invited us to eat. Sitting on her terrace, with the cool evening breeze rustling the palm trees, it was difficult to believe that this busy enterprise had once started with just four pupils in the little room where she was about to serve us supper. She explained that she kept the simple blackboard on the wall to remind her of the past, and she told us something of the early days of PUSS, which she founded in 1984.
I had met Kadambini once before in Filgrave, on one of her rare visits to England. I was impressed then with her quiet dignity. But here, on her own territory, surrounded by the solid evidence of her achievement, her self-effacing manner is even more impressive, and reveals her for the visionary that she is.
A sort of latter day Mother Theresa, she is a tiny figure who shines with an inner radiance, and possesses a will of steel. Shunning marriage, she hounded her father into allowing her to use her dowry to purchase the land for the school, where she started with just one communal classroom-cum-living space. Along the way she has spent dangerous weeks combing the streets to gain the trust and confidence of the most severely deprived children; fought the local authorities to a standstill on matters of red tape; single-handedly carried the children one by one through rising flood water to safety; provided love, care, shelter, medical aid and education to her growing number of charges; started a crafts centre to give the children a chance to learn a trade; and managed to enlist the support of Westerners to ensure the financial viability of her undertaking. Oh, and I should say earned many local "Woman of the Year" awards, from the great and the good, which she receives with shy good grace, but values much less than the vastly more practical assistance provided by way of donations.
... the children wrestled with their exams
The next morning we had a chance to see the school in action. For much of the school it was examination time, and so the normal routine of the school was interrupted. There were lots of serious faces, sitting in orderly rows at trestle tables, scribbling furiously. There were one or two regular classes that we could visit, but mostly we tiptoed around quietly as the children wrestled with their exams.
There are nearly 350 boarding pupils now. These are all children from severely disadvantaged backgrounds, (e.g. from leprosy or enforced sexwork colonies) whose parents see in PUSS a chance for their children to escape the misery of their own lives. Aged from 4 to 14, these are amongst the liveliest, happiest and most disciplined children I have ever seen. They work hard and they play hard. Their enthusiasm for life and keenness to learn is perhaps not surprising when you consider the terrible alternatives they left behind.
... as many as 500 pupils
The majority are girls, but there is a small and growing number of boys, quite enough for a decent game of cricket, a headline subject in the Country today as India have just comprehensively beaten Pakistan in the test series! Sadly, I must report that my slow off-spin delivery was despatched to the boundary amid much laughter. In addition, the school takes in about 150 local village children, because the standard of education PUSS is offering often eclipses that of the local state schools. Thus on a busy school day, there can be as many as 500 pupils in or around the school.
Later we had a chance to see in action the Crafts Centre that Kadambini has set up in order to teach elder pupils a trade, and provide employment for local villagers as well. Here they produce a number of different items, including conference folders for Indian business.
Apart from seeing PUSS at first hand and learning about the lives of the children and their needs, I had two other objectives.
The first was to take some up to date video footage with a view to producing a short up to date video about PUSS. I have only partly succeeded here owing to the shortness of my visit and the exam schedules. I need really to return again soon, when the school is on a normal routine and I have more time to record the daily goings on in more detail. In the meantime, the excellent video work of predecessors is always available for those of you who would like to view it.
The second was to see if I could help PUSS to get on-line for internet access and email. There have been previous attempts at this, but they have met with no real success, for a number or reasons including difficulties with phone lines, power cuts and the age of the school's two computers. A new internet-ready PC is needed and the training for their IT teacher to make it work. I am trying to help PUSS to organise all of this, subject to funding, and am hopeful they will be on-line within a few weeks. Whilst my family justly mock me for being a techno-geek, I do believe as small investment in IT is an important objective for PUSS, as India's economy is already demonstrating strong growth in IT services, and any training in this area will be an asset for the children when they leave PUSS for further education or to seek employment.
On our last evening, some of the pupils put on a performance of song, dance and drama for all the school to watch, including visitors. Standards were high. The meaning of the words may have gone slightly over our heads, but we understood very clearly how PUSS has changed all of their lives for the better, expressed in the exuberance of the performances and the enjoyment of all the audience. Kadambini, normally quiet and serious, weighed down by the problems of yesterday today, was laughing out loud at the jokes - a pure joy to behold.
We rose early on our last morning to say goodbye to the children at morning assembly before the start of exams. It is difficult to keep a dry eye, when you are thanked for your support by an angelic child, who has probably put behind her more unhappiness than you could ever imagine.
IT needs must be addressed
PUSS is indeed a very impressive enterprise, and Kadambini and Bhagwan have achieved miracles. But there is still so much to do and a desperate need for funding. The reputation of PUSS is very high in the local community and the demand for places so strong that they can now take only the most deserving and difficult cases. The needs of the children grow constantly in areas of health, wellbeing and education. Better sanitation is needed and the project to build a new cesspit is already at an advanced stage of planning. Infrastructure costs are rising. Simple IT needs must be addressed. As Bhubaneswar grows in size, the suburbs are creeping out towards the school, and already plots of land surrounding the school are up for sale at prices currently way beyond the means of PUSS. What will happen to the children when their playground disappears?
I hope you will feel able to support the children by giving in any way you can, and perhaps by sponsoring me next time I walk up a mountain on their behalf.
© Friends of the Children of Orissa