Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Weekend at Karangabahla.

I spent last weekend at the CHF run hostel at Karangabahla in Jashpur district in Chhattisgarh. I was visiting it after a gap of over two years, and there were several visible changes. This hostel is run by nuns of the Convent of the Holy Family (originally from Kerala), seven kilometres outside Pathalgaon on the Jashpur road.My husband Ravi and I had gone primarily to visit Priti and Muskaan, who have been there nearly five years now.

Priti and Muskaan with their father Dev Kumar in January 2011
 For those unfamiliar with the two girls, I wrote first about them in late 2010 here and here. The story of their finally reaching Karangabahla in early 2011 is herehere, here and here. The first picture of them in their new school uniform is here, and this is the second picture I have, taken in 2013.

Karangabahla is a small village with perhaps 50 households, and the hostel is set off the road. The convent has a garden around it where vegetables are grown when water is available - these are used in the kitchen for the boarders.

The hostel that housed 42 girls three years ago has expanded to 78 boarders now, stretching the Sisters' resources for space, as well as funds for feeding and housing them.  The nuns, being sensitive to the needs of underprivileged families in the community found it hard to refuse admission to girls who have been orphaned and whose guardians say they are unable to care for them; for younger siblings of older girls already in the hostel; for very poor families who are unable to pay the boarding and lodging costs fully or partially each year. Now they cannot take in any more - depending on the number of senior girls who finish and leave the hostel, they will be able to take in that many girls only. 

In order to accommodate the additional student strength, the nuns have been allotted funds by their house to build an extension over the study room and kitchen which will have two rooms, and a toilet complex. Construction is under way, and funds will need to be found for furniture. An enclosed covered space has already been made for the girls to sleep in during the summer and to hang out their clothes. A portion of this has been enclosed fully to store blankets and mattresses in the summer months.

Thanks to generous contributions from friends and well-wishers, the boarders all have mattresses and blankets for use in winter; a new set of kitchen utensils; a small solar panel that provides solar lighting when they do their homework at night (The entire area, like large parts of rural India, has extensive power-cuts and even if the power does not fail, the voltage is often too low to read by); a generator to pump up water when the power fails or the voltage is poor; and a new toilet block. The studies of seventy of the girls are supported by others - fifty-nine from grants, and eleven from individual donations. None of the girls know who is supporting their studies and boarding, nor are the donors allowed direct, individual interaction with the student they support. Personally I think this is an excellent policy that the nuns follow.

The nuns lead simple lives, five of them live in the convent which is an extension of the hostel. They are careful to see that benefits to the hostel are not utilized by them. This small community has five nuns - one in charge of the hostel, two at the school, one for the dispensary and one in charge. The sisters who teach, as well as Sr Chaitanya (the oldest, and one who is now in charge of the hostel) supervise the homework of the children each evening. The older ones (Standards 6, 7, 8) study mostly on their own, but the younger ones need more supervision and help.

The school within the same compound is run by Diocesan priests and has upto 800 children - a mix of Yadav and Oraon children attend classes Kg to standard 8. After the 8th standard, the girls from the hostel will have to move to one of several hostels in larger towns around.

Priti and Muskaan have settled in well - probably the first time in their lives they have felt secure and been certain where their next meal is coming from. Their father calls every week from Bombay (at least, that is where we think he is). Their mother used to call them too, before she died (according to their father Dev Kumar) of a snake bite two years ago. However, they long to see their father, who has never once visited them in the five years they have been here. They watch with envy when other girls are visited by their parents, or their birthdays are celebrated with the family visiting and often bringing a small cake. No one comes to visit them, nor do they have any place to go to during the holidays. (They are from a place called Akaltara in Janjgir-Champa district of Chhattisgarh. Attempts to contact family there when the girls first joined here were met with a firm refusal to take the responsibility for two girls).

During the holidays, five other girls stay behind with Priti and Muskaan - one girl from Madhya Pradesh who is the fifth girl in the family and whom her family has virtually abandoned here; and four other girls who are orphans and whose guardians express their inability to take care of them during the holidays. They eat along with the Sisters at these times.

Muskaan and Priti outside their hostel, December 2016.

For the older girls, the dormitory is also their study.
Younger girls complete their homework in the study room.
Parents pay for the hostel and the school, though some are able to make only partial payments. Funds for food supplies are allotted partially by their order, some are donated by a few merchants in Pathalgaon, and donations (in cash or kind) are gratefully accepted.  There are four new boarders for whom financial support is sought.

The hostel is a place humming with activity when the children are back from school, and in the early mornings. They have three meals a day, have a set schedule that includes prayer, supervised study time (morning and evening), time set aside for working in the vegetable garden, for play, and for washing and bathing. Occasional picnics are organized by the Sisters to a nearby place.The children seem happy there, and in good health, and all are at the top of their class in studies.

The hostel kitchen serves lunch to 80 additional day students, both boys and girls, who are too poor to bring their own lunch. Almost of all them arrive hungry to school, sometimes after a walk of 8 or 9 kilometres.

Action song by the younger girls. 

On receiving their writing kit
Construction of extension wing under way.

Enclosed covered verandah for sleeping and for drying clothes.

The hostel students along with the Sisters, on the terrace of the hostel, December 2016.
The nuns welcome any kind of support to the hostel, financial or in kind - a small gift of money this winter got them all thick sweaters; the gift of a writing kit (pencil case, erase, sharpener, pencil and a box of crayons) had the students delighted. The hostel needs funds for various things - ongoing need of purchasing food supplies (the grant from their parent institution is never quite enough) and scholarship support for four more girls (needs to be ongoing for the duration of their studies in school), and benches and chairs for the study room for the senior girls in the hostel, among other things. Over the next two years, the sisters are looking at installing a solar water heating system for the hostel and convent (at present the children bathe in cold water, even in the cold of winter), as well as solar cookers for the hostel kitchen. Establishing a small library of appropriate reading material in English and Hindi is also needed. Costs are still to be worked out. 

At Christmas time each year, the Sisters organize a party in the hostel for all the children with a special treat. Last year it was scarves for the girls. This year they will get a tiny jar of Vaseline each for their chapped lips. Whatever the nuns can afford to spare from their budget that year determines the gift. 
Playing with balloons during the Christmas party, 2015.
At the end of a year that had little to cheer about, the visit to Karangabahla raised our spirits immeasurably. It is an ongoing tale of hope, of giving poor families the opportunity of a safe space to educate their girls; of empowering these girls and young women for a better future. In this tiny corner of Chhattisgarh, the nuns are quietly doing a remarkable job.