Crystal’s detailed report after visiting the HEAL Village (with excellent photos from her trip).
Third year Student on a BA (Hons) Primary Education degree at Nottingham Trent University England, who visited the children’s Village in Guntur India in July 2002.
After arriving in Chennai airport on June 7th 2002, completely drained and shell-shocked from the whole experience of travelling alone through multiple airports for over a day, I was extremely glad to see some friendly, smiling faces – namely those of Dr Satya Prasad’s sister and her husband. They had driven for many hours simply to welcome me and collect me from the airport. This set the scene for the hospitality and kindness that was to be shown to me over the next five weeks.
Driving from Chennai to Guntur I was able to see the variety of the Indian landscape, from the capital city of Tamil Nadu to the tiny villages along the roadside. Although I had prepared myself for a completely different environment, I was still amazed at everything I saw. Being the height of summer and incredibly humid, there was a natural heat and also a severe lack of greenery along the route. I therefore prepared myself to find that the Children’s Village would be very similar
This could not have been further from the truth! When I first arrived at the Village, up a long, bumpy ‘road’ I was surprised to find that, in fact, there were plants, trees and flowers everywhere you looked, all carefully cultivated by Dr. Manga Devi. To say it was breathtaking would honestly not be enough, no matter how melodramatic it seems. To picture it or see the photographs is not enough. A self-contained village, at the foot of the mountains, (or at the least, some very big hills!) surrounded by shrubbery. It was completely unlike anything else that I saw during my time in India, or indeed have seen anywhere else.
On meeting the children I was extremely apprehensive. It was done with great formality where the children all sat in rows on their dining room floor while Manga Devi and I sat on chairs in front of them. The children sang for me and I was introduced. Then, to my relief the formality was dispensed of as I taught the children the all-time classic song of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” followed by a chase game of ‘Duck, duck, goose’. With about 80 children running around in a comparatively small space I was amazed at the lack of injuries, until I noticed how the older children looked after their younger ‘siblings’. Although, in the majority, not blood relatives the children treated one another as brothers and sisters, looking out for each other as well as arguing and fighting as siblings!
This was illustrated on many occasions throughout my stay, perhaps the most memorable time being on my last day in the Village. It was a Saturday morning around 6am and I had gone to the cottages shortly after the children had woken and performed their morning meditation. It was calm and peaceful, the sun not having yet brought the full heat that was to be expected in a few hours, and the children were all getting ready. All around the cottages there were housemothers and children sitting on the floor brushing and plaiting another child’s hair. This task was not exclusive to the older girls, however, with everyone being a part of getting a person younger than them ready. This simple memory sticks with me for two reasons: firstly the sense of community that could be felt at that time, and secondly the humour of the situation with the girls sitting around fiddling with their hair and the boys waiting for them to be ready…it seems that little changes across the oceans!
Throughout my time at the Village I was able to spend evenings and weekends with the children when they were not engaged in their studies, a task of high importance that took up the bulk of their time. Despite the language barrier between most of the children and myself, we were able to communicate ourselves well through mime, gestures and the interpretation of older children whose schooling was in English. The children were all very eager to learn about me and my life in England and this feeling was reciprocated. Through stilted conversation we all managed to learn a lot about each other and our different cultures, information that brought me to the realisation that there really weren’t that many differences between us all despite the thousands of miles.
The most noticeable difference, however, the children were all fascinated by – my skin colour. This was something that I had never really considered before but I found was now often pointed out to me by the children in comparison to their own, touching my arms or face as they did so. This fascination did not seem to wear off over time as I had assumed it would and this made me realise that in fact, although initially the issue had been with my white colour, the children were now continuing to point it out in order to get physical closeness. Something that I myself have not been deprived of, I had forgotten how important a cuddle or holding a small child’s hand can be to that child. The sheer logistics of the Village, with over 80 children and ten house mothers, means that the children cannot possibly get as much attention as if they were in a 2.4 family situation in Britain. This is not to say that the house mothers do not provide this physical attention, but only that there is only so much time they can spend with each individual child. From that realisation onwards neither the children nor myself were deprived of the odd cuddle!
Aside from this unavoidable division of time, the only thing that I felt unhappy with during my time in the Village was what I perceived to be as the isolation of the HEAL children. Although the children mixed with children from outside the village during school hours after school hours they were confined to the cottages. At the top end of the village, however, other children boarded, studying and playing there. The children never had the opportunity to mix together and I often felt a sense of elitism. I felt it would have been beneficial to allow the children to all play or study together.
As well as the children having an obvious enthusiasm for me to teach them dances and games and sing them songs they were also eager to comply with my request to learn some Telugu. All children were enthusiastic to be involved in my education including the kindergarten children who realised that this was a way in which they had the advantage over me. Despite being in India for five weeks I only managed to master counting to 10, greeting someone, asking for someone’s name and replying, “My name is…”, asking, “How are you?” and replying with “I am fine.” This was incredibly difficult for me to learn! The children all thought that it was hilariously funny that I found the pronunciation of the words so hard, but were proud of themselves (and hopefully me!) when I mastered them. They then took every opportunity to show off what they had taught me to the various adult figures in the Village.
As a present to the children I brought some stationery and small toys from England. I decided to give the stationery as a leaving present but gave them the bouncy balls during my visit. I was shocked at how the children reacted to the balls, which each child had to share with the other children in their cottage, all grabbing and fighting over them until I realised that they had so few possessions that anything they did have was to be treasured. I was dismayed that I had caused this conflict between the children and instigated a large game of throw and catch to show the children that they could all have a turn with the ball. They seemed to have no concept of sharing in this situation as they were not often put into it. This was sad for me to see knowing how many resources and toys many children in England have and also other children in India.
I did not make the same mistake with the stationery. I shared it out equally between the children so that they had two colouring pencils each, rather than giving a whole pencil case of colouring pencils to each cottage. The children all seemed pleased with this as they could physically hold onto what was theirs. This was one of the more depressing moments of my visits to the HEAL children as the realisation hit home how little some of them really had. Simple things that I, and many other people, take for granted cannot be done so here. Although as much is done for them as possible by the housemothers, teachers and other support agencies and charities it is difficult to see children in a situation that I would label as poverty. But yet, despite my view of things, this did not seem to be the attitude the children took. They all seemed very happy and content and accepting of their new life within the Village, and there was certainly no lack of love or attention.
It is extremely difficult for me to express how I feel about the whole experience of meeting the HEAL children. On a personal note, they made me reconsider a lot of my own values and take time to appreciate the things that I have.
The children are all unique and very special and this is supported by the housemothers and other adults in their lives. I only hope that the children themselves recognise this.
I had an amazing time in Guntur and cannot wait for my return.
These photographs were taken by Crystal during her stay in Guntur, and many more excellent photos, she has given us from her visit.