Linda Abbot’s visit to Heal, Feb 2005
We have sponsored children at HEAL for many years, we decided that we would take the opportunity to visit the project in February of 2005. Currently we sponsor two children, Radhika and Hema Bhargav who we were really looking forward to meeting.
We made plans with the help of Dr Prasad and Kath Bardell in England and Vijayalakshami in Guntur. I work as a Manager of an Education Action Zone in Nottingham, through the schools I work with I organise a Student council. These students became interested in my visit to India and asked if they could raise money to sponsor a child themselves. This was arranged and they were allocated a child, Naga Mani, in December 2004. They first organised a raffle at Christmas and then started a copper collection across the ten schools that are involved in our project. The day before we travelled to India the students took part in a ‘big count’ raising a bumper £365 for the project.
On Saturday 5 February we set off from Birmingham airport. We had never travelled out of Europe before so this was a real adventure! Travelling via Dubai we arrived in Hyderabad at 7am on Sunday morning and stayed in the city for 3 nights. People in the city and at the hotel were overwhelmingly friendly and we enjoyed some excellent food and hospitality. Vijaya had organised for a friend of hers, Sunita, who lives in Hyderabad to show us around the city, it was wonderful to have someone local to show us the city. In Charminair Bazaar we wandered through a maze of shops and stalls with wonderful materials and embroidery. I bought many gifts and afterwards Sunita took us to a restaurant and we ate a traditional Hydrabadi biryani, a delicious combination of rice, chicken and spices.
After our brief city break we travelled by train across to Guntur. The train took 7 hours but was comfortable and we received a wonderful reception; being met by Vijaya and her husband, George, Dr Manga Devi, Mrs Jaysaree and our two children, Radhika and Hema Bhargav. We had not expected this reception, the children presented us with flower garlands and we were quickly whisked off to HEAL village.
Arriving during the evening, we were greeted by Marudhvathi (Maru), who took charge of our care for our entire stay. Padmaja and Thirupathamma served us a wonderful meal and we took our first walk around the village with Dr Manga Devi. The smell of Dr Manga Devi’s plants was lovely and the sound of frogs croaking in the water below our balcony was memorable, the children were very shy when they first met us – they were clearly very well cared for and treated Manga Devi as their mother.
We were treated to excellent accommodation in the newly built guest house with lovely views over the mountains to the rear and towards the schools from a large balcony at the front. Every morning of our stay I would sit with my morning coffee on that balcony as the children ran to and fro to their early studies. They would call ‘Good morning, Auntie, when are you and Uncle coming to play!’
We knew our time at HEAL was limited and I was keen to find out about the project, Manga Devi spent many hours explaining the roots of the project and how it has developed over the years. Maru and Vijaya helped me to distribute gifts I had bought from home for the children, I found this an overwhelming experience, the children are not really used to possessions and treasured the gifts we I them.
I was shown around the schools by the English teacher, called Vijayahakshmi. What a lovely lady she was – like all the staff there, so committed to the care and well being of the children as well as their educational achievement. She took time to explain the way the schools work and the way that HEAL give a positive future to women in need of a home and purpose in life. Many of the women in the village who work as teachers, helpers or housemothers have experienced violent marriages or are widowed, HEAL has given these women a real opportunity to enrich their lives and those of the children who need their love and care. It was very moving to experience such a holistic approach to care of both children and adults.
Children from all the surrounding villages arrived each morning to attend the Bala Kuteer schools, along with the HEAL children. Manga Devi explained they are currently trying to raise funds for a project to feed the village children at lunchtimes. Lots of their families cannot afford to send food with their children and during the afternoons children suffer from lack of concentration due to having not eaten enough.
One morning there was great excitement as there were to be discussions to arrange a marriage of one of the girls from HEAL. I was invited to observe the discussions by Maru and it was amazing as a westerner to see the elders sat around discussing the future of these two young people (who were not present at the discussion). The girl was a HEAL child and the boy was son of a local farmer. I was also amazed to find out that the wedding would take place in 10 days time! When we visited Manga Devi later in the week we were shown the wonderful sari’s that had been purchased for the bride and it was a shame that the wedding took place after our departure, even so it was a real privilege to witness the preparations!
The children were very loving once they were used to us and wanted us to go out and play; during the middle of the day it was too hot for us to go out but we were able to spend time with them in the mornings and later in the day. Despite some of their terrible experiences before coming to HEAL the children seemed very happy – we were very impressed by the care the older children showed towards the younger ones. They all loved having their photograph taken and then looking at the display – it caused great excitement. They also loved energetic games, during our stay we asked to be taken to a shop in Guntur to buy some sports equipment for the HEAL children. The trip to Guntur itself turned out to be an experience; we were supposed to leave at 5pm accompanied by Maru, but the car had to be used to urgently transport a vet to the village to deal with a sick cow so our journey had to be delayed somewhat! Shopping for the equipment was like being transported back in time – personal service whilst we sat in the shop and had goods shown to us – we could buy a huge amount of equipment for just under the equivalent of £25. What a wonderful experience it was taking this equipment into the village. Games of cricket were soon underway with brand new bats and balls, girls loved the skipping ropes and the children instinctively knew how to play badminton! I was delighted that they would share the equipment and play so well together. Although most of the children do not have shoes it doesn’t stop them running at top speed across stony ground chasing a ball!
The children showed me their cottages where about nine children live with a house mother, the oldest girl in each cottage is a first daughter who helps the house mother care for the children. There are several cottages in a circle with a veranda running round them. Children’s art work is displayed and the centre area is full of trees and plants – a really lovely environment for the children. There is a huge room where the children eat with a kitchen attached where ladies were busy preparing the children’s meals – the staple being rice and vegetable curry. Many vegetables and spices are grown in the village and on the village farm a buffalo is kept. The milk from the buffalo, I was told is particularly nutritious – it was made into yoghurt (locally known as curds) which we ate at most meals whilst we were in the village. Really delicious!
Because both Hema Bhargav and Radhika live at Ankita, the branch of HEAL in Guntur we did not see a lot of them but we saw a lot of Naga Mani and took lots of photographs of her for the children in Nottingham who had raised money to sponsor her.
While we were staying at Chetana the village celebrated their 13th annual celebrations. We were unaware of the importance of this celebration when we arrived although we observed children running to practice dance, karate and drama routines early each morning and again in the evenings after school. On Saturday Maru asked me if I would speak to the audience during the celebrations, I was honoured to be asked, although not generally used to public speaking! The evening was a huge success with over 500 people in the audience and we were able to present prizes to some of the children. All the children from HEAL and Bala Kuteer had a part to play and it was particularly touching for us to see HEAL children receiving prizes. The whole area was a riot of fairy lights and colour – everyone worked so hard to make the event a success which began at 4pm and went on until 10pm. In the kitchen ladies worked really hard to feed everyone, guests, children and staff. It was lovely to be part of such a wonderful event.
The day after the event we left HEAL village with very mixed feelings, delighted to have now met the children we sponsored but sad that we were unable to say goodbye (as the children get very upset!). On our return to Hyderabad I wrote to say goodbye to the children and they sent a wonderful book of drawings and messages that has been a prized item back in Nottingham!