Saturday, 22 February 2014

Departing thoughts….

 I can’t believe I’ve been here nearly six weeks. Some have said they like the garlands, so here is the complete set, 12 in total, I’m sure Bishop Alan manages that in a week visit! To prove it’s not been just clergy training, school work and visits to projects, I did take a day and a half off to visit Tirupati and it’s local Temple Tirumala, in the south of Andhra Pradesh. It is said that more pilgrims visit this temple than go to Mecca, or Rome, and they all seemed to have turned up the day I was there! It was a 6 hour drive from Nandyal, and setting off at 4 in the afternoon meant a late arrival, a meal for two at the nearest restaurant to the hotel I stayed in cost 60 Rupees (about 60p), the kitchen open to the dining area.

Up at 6 the next morning and another bargain breakfast, it took nearly an hour to travel the 20km to the top of the hill where the temple is; a combination of the queue at the toll booth and the extreme hairpin road up the hill. We eventually find the extra special, fast path, entrance, where for an extra 300 rupees you can jump the queue. It’s a wire mesh/railings covered walkway that snakes it’s way over roads, and round buildings and after an hour moves inside a building designed for queuing! It takes another 3 hours to reach the temple! Pressed into this corridor is a riot of shaved headed small boys and men, painted foreheads, colourfully dressed women of all sizes and ages, who every so often burst into song..’Govinda….Govinda…’ . I guess the 50 rupees queue must take several days? There are a number of temples within the compound, one completely covered in gold, but I have no photos; no cameras, no phones, no calculators (why no calculators?) allowed in, and from outside it is impossible to see more than the very tops of the buildings - go on the web and you can see pictures before most of the modern buildings were built!

The experience was amazing, but the half hour at a temple we just happened across by the side of the road on the way back was more magical. The man playing a Veena (a one stringed instrument) very happy to be photographed, as too others sitting around, and the carving looked special in the late afternoon light. Here I could buy a small guidebook in English, something not possible at Tirumala, where despite the vast area of stalls selling tat of all descriptions, there was not a postcard, or guidebook to be seen!

Conversation on the journey back turned to Bytipeta, the ‘slum’ I described in the previous blog. Where, despite the lovely welcome, and the colourful scene, the harsh truth is somewhat sobering; 50% of the women there are widows (alcohol and AIDS the main causes of death amongst the men), and only about half of these have any jobs, remarriage is not an option in India, and for many the primary source of income becomes prostitution. The, not quite David Wilson Homes, housing development I described also has it’s challenges. It was only looking through the photos that I realised not a single house has a toilet! I guess the mains drainage is for flood relief, certainly nothing to help the some 60% or so of Indians who don’t have a proper toilet. In the rural areas ‘using the field’ seems a plausible option, but here? And however much I see it I still can’t adjust to the fact that all Indian’s seem to throw their rubbish on the ground wherever they are. In the past when this was just a banana skin, or other waste food, the phrase ‘the whole world is my waste bin’ has some plausibility, but now the volumes of plastic discarded everywhere is almost overwhelming.

But the view out of the car window still continues to enchant; fields of banana trees, mango trees (the ground ploughed under them as I’ve seen Walnut orchards in France), papayas, as well as the usual crops, chillies drying in the road and a stall selling ‘durian’, the most amazing looking fruit; the one I bought should be ready for monday. Evidently it is very sweet and ‘smells like hell, but tastes like heaven’, I’ll let you know…..

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

From Oxford to the slum......

An idyllic morning spent in the CSI High School (sometimes called the Oxford School) on the Bishop’s compound. Assembly a bit more like the Scouts than schools I’ve seen. In very neat lines, standing to attention and at ease, declaring loyalty to India, singing the school song, the front child giving the head count for their class, and all done outside. 

I get to take class 8 (13 and 14 year olds) doing some craft activities; finger puppets, stick puppets, and paper bag puppets. We then performed the story of Jonah. Lots of spoken English and then the highlight for me the class performed their action song of Jonah in Telugu. The Principal and the Class teacher stayed throughout and participated fully. Was this because they didn’t trust me, or because they were having as much fun as I was?

I then head to Bytipeta - which means ‘out of city’, because it lies outside the city boundary of Nandyal. Eight years ago it was total slum, informal buildings, unregistered, the very poorest, but the government decided to let the people own the land so they could build permanent houses and a priest from the Korean Presbyterian Church came and started a creche. Today, this short street, maybe 150 metres or so, with a Hindu Temple at one end, an open air Hindu Crematorium in the middle, and the drainage outflow at the other, is home to some 2,000 families (up to 5,000 people in total). The creche is thriving with some 50 pre-school children coming every day for games, singing, learning and a nutritious lunch. In addition there are 30plus older children who otherwise wouldn’t be going to school but now are learning too.

The street gave me lovely welcome, smiling children throwing handfulls of yellow flowers, and keen to show me round their centre (in the Church). They sing some lovely songs, and watching them sit silently on the floor in neat lines for their lunch is amazing. The homes are the traditional one, or one and half, rooms, with beds turned on their sides during the day, and home to three generations, usually two to three children, the parents and a grandparent or two. The street is full of different activities; cooking, washing, drying, sleeping, wood storage, and conversations. The animals intermingle; goats and pigs and chickens and dogs and occasionally a cat. With the drain at one end and the animals drinking and eating in this there is a lot of skin and respiratory disease, but it is so much better than it was and everyone is smiling and welcoming.

From here I travel further out of town, past the piece of wasteland where the animals are brought for slaughter, it has the appearance of a small landfill site! Across the river where the bigger sheets are washed, and the motorbikes, tuktuks, and animals too, and past the palm trees that make it look so tropical and idyllic, to a place called YSR Nagar. This is a new development; land being sold off by the government to the poorest of families; moving them out of the town itself? 

You can have your house as detached, or semi-detached, many only part complete, interiors waiting to be finished off - but it’s not quite like your local new development in England! Although there does appear to be mains drainage, and water at standpipes on street corners. There are no buses and I guess a good two to three mile walk to town, the road is rough but mainly concrete, and few of the families will own a vehicle. There is a Church with rooms below used for an after school club, and there is a training centre funded by the Korean Church. The potential is enormous and everything is better than what these families will leave, but quite how it will develop is unclear - there are even fewer amenities than in the previously imagined English out of town housing development, and this is about as far from ‘middle England’ as you can get, but the ground floor is raised about a metre above the ground level, so it looks like they have taken the flood risk into account here! 

So much to see and take in in one day, I want to go back and see it all again, and talk some more to people to find out their dreams and ambitions, but I guess it is still more about survival and hoping the children get some education and some better opportunities soon.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Summer's nearly here....

Yep, it’s gone from the warmest, perfect, English summer to more like the South of France in June. A slightly early move towards summer temperatures, heading towards the mid 30’s now, so that means only one thing - it’s Harvest time! All the crops are coming in, on head, bicycle, motorbike, cart, and tractor. And here’s another use for the unopened dual carriageway; drying your chillies! Although the slightly more modest crop from a family plot is a bit prettier.

And harvest means festival, so at the church we have the procession - clouds of incense, close on a thousand communicants, and then the church lunch, with extra families and friends that’s rice and mutton curry for 3,000 all provided by a local politician - it’s the biggest pot of rice I’ve ever seen! But enjoyed by young and old alike. With dancing - a sort of May pole without the pole - but it makes a very fancy knot that is then undone just as quickly; if they get their moves right that is. Then the inevitable auction of items people have donated, just like at home, although I’ve never seen live chickens brought to one of these before. Of course more garlands and the ubiquitous welcome speech!

With the rising temperatures the power cuts get more frequent and longer - complaints in the papers that it’s not summer yet! But this is supposed to ensure enough power for the agriculture sector at this critical time, but we seem to lose the power at 6 am each day for a couple of hours and then again in the afternoon.
At the Oxford School this week, the one in the same compound as the Bishop’s House and the Women’s Christian Centre I’m staying in, we had the ceremonial opening of the ‘new shed’. It’s not really a shed, just a rather nice, covered, semi open teaching space a bit bigger than the classrooms. So more dancing and colour. Oh and the Bishop drawing on the wall.
Bifurcation is a fine, but rarely used, English word that is the main political story locally. It is the planned split of Andhra Pradesh into 2 separate states - Telangana being created as a new state. This proposal has been rejected by the state government but the national government seems intent on seeing it through with the issue hitting parliament this week. This has meant strikes by government employees on both sides of the argument, and a state school teacher I spoke to yesterday said this meant she was working 7 days a week to make up for the lost days in the strike (I didn’t think that was quite how strikes were supposed to work, but this is India).
I also met a man who works for a charity that, as one of it’s projects, is working with 40 villages to try to help the children who are out of school; due to poverty, family circumstances, the need to work and so on, to find a way back to school. Literacy here is still at a shockingly low level, when you think that Hyderabad’s (Andhra Pradesh State Capital) TechCity is one of the prime centres for software support and development in the world. Andhra Pradesh is the 5th worst state (out of 35) with overall literacy under 70%, but an extreme male-female imbalance (male literacy 75%, female under 60%). India is the nation with more illiterate people than any other. So education really is one of the prime needs in this state.
The other headline in the paper today (the Deccan Chronicle if you were wondering) ‘State Fails in Nutrition’. Andhra Pradesh is amongst the worst states in India with 44% of rural children under 5 years suffering from ‘reduced growth rate’ with ‘stunted growth, malnutrition and thinness’ underlining the state of children's health (36% underweight). But nutrition is getting worse; down decade by decade since the 1970s, and it’s not just the 5 a day fresh fruit and veg that is lacking; over 70% of people have less than 50% of the RDI for sugar - not too many sugary drinks here - although finding somewhere that sells diet coke is something of a crazy adventure). General levels of nutrition are poor, but over 12% of adults are defined as obese!  

So India continues to thrill and to challenge, to have colour and vibrancy, yet some of the biggest challenges imaginable. What will the next week bring….