I am writing to you from the moist eventide on the shoreline of Pondicherry. Your letter gave me reason to come and SHARANA has given me reason to stay.
The world is so damaged in so many places. The weather is rough, huts and homes come crashing down, water doesn’t flow, stomachs go empty, children labour away into adulthood naïve to the possibility of a better life and adults, habituated to darkness, allow it to seep into the present and future of their progeny.
SHARANA has seen trauma and sought to turn it around. I was acquainted with these transformative journeys in an inspiring exchange with its founder, Ms. Rajkala Partha. She told me its history – a significant part of her own – the purpose, effort and reward evident upon her gleaming face.
She began, as we all do, with a conversation. Rural India is a bit of a hornet’s nest. Ms. Partha decided to enter it and into conversations with villagers about their needs. Listening is an act of love. I wonder how many of us are taught that at school. If she hadn’t listened, how would she have learned? How would she have helped? How would SHARANA have come into existence and been the shelter that it is to the have-nots? Truth is, they have much. It only needs to be found.
Ms. Partha found that when sought and supported, the spirit of enterprise and the will to learn resides within us all, irrespective of social standing. The problem in Rural India isn’t so much that people don’t wish to learn as much as the unsupportive ecosystem that makes the conditions for learning rather unfavourable. Her effort and accomplishment in turning that around began in an agricultural village named Angalakuppam, situated on the Cuddalore Road close to the Pondicherry-Tamil Nadu border.
Why were kids dropping out of school when they got a little older? Why weren’t kids strong enough to make it to school in the first place?
Children drop out because they are responsible to raise and care for their younger siblings. There aren’t crèches that carry out those functions while their parents are out working in the fields. There are no dispensaries to turn to when they fall ill. The government hospital is too far away to come to their rescue and afford even. Kids often don’t survive the initial, most crucial years when they need maximum care. The ones that do survive may well have to assist their parents in the fields very early on. Alas! Poverty pulls in young hands to put food on the table. School is a far cry for villages struggling with childcare, health facilities and basic necessities and incentives.
A SHARANA was established, in brick and mortar, by engaging the skills and labour of the villagers themselves. It houses a crèche, an activity centre and a dispensary. The stigmas around women engaging their potential for pursuits other than household chores disappeared. Today, trainers, curers, therapists and caretakers ensure a better life for children, a healthier life for every village inhabitant. The children went back to school. They were learning while their parents were earning from their expanding work in the fields, spurred on by micro-credit schemes and possibilities opened up to them by SHARANA. Ms. Partha saw entrepreneurship and education flourish in a microcosm of Rural India. A domino effect ensued in the villages of Chinnakalapet, Sodhanaikuppam, Aranganur and Mathur.
Local communities were engaged with to, in her own words, “Identify their needs and the methods by which they wish to address these, drawing on the community’s own strengths and human resources in order to implement educational, micro-credit, and other social development programs.”
Development – physical, mental, sustainable – is the bedrock of education. I suppose you have to make those you want to help want to help themselves. They have to want to make it work to make it work. One can only address their needs if they want to address them themselves. It only happens when you get out on the field like she did, patiently, intently listening and piece by piece, progressing.
My exchange with Ms. Partha has only just begun. And SHARANA already feels like home, the kind that literally, figuratively and morally raises you into a being of the community as a whole.
I’ll write some more soon, by the sea, in my shelter, perhaps a tad wiser.
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