Thursday, May 9, 2013

"People in America Eat Cow?!?!"

Well okay, maybe the 20-some Indian children staring at me didn't have the vocabulary to actually articulate that. But, if I learned anything from teaching English as a foreign language, it was how to understand people based on expression and tone. Needless to say, the students' reaction suggested they were completely and utterly appalled at the very thought of human beings eating cow, an animal their religion deems as holy.

As I continued babbling about life in America, I noticed that every student in the class was clearly fascinated by me - if not by what I was saying (with their teacher translating as needed in Hindi), then by how different (non-Indian) I looked. They ate up every word that I spoke, full of questions and hungry for more.
Ever wonder where the expression "holy cow!" comes from?
These students in a remote village in northern India were genuinely grateful for the opportunity to study at all. While they were clothed in their "fancy" uniforms inside a basic concrete classroom receiving an education as beneficiaries of the Niranjana Public Welfare Trust (NPWT), their siblings and village friends spent the days under the hot Indian sun working labor intensive agricultural jobs alongside the rest of their uneducated and extremely poor family. 

"Why do you like India so much?" the students questioned me - them, along with most of my friends and family who wonder why I stayed so long. I tried to explain to them because their country is world's different from my own, and in India, the air seemed to be filled with a happiness I'd never known before. 
I asked them to imagine a place so completely opposite of theirs: cities where cows don't run the streets (yes, because people eat them), a place filled with big houses, cars and buildings, streets that are not lined with trash, cow feces and human urine. Pretty soon I realized that they could not possibly imagine such a place when many of them had never been outside of their village. 

Most students at Niranjana School walk miles on foot from their respective villages to attend Niranjana School of Bakrour village in the poorest state of India, Bihar. If the children visited the nearby city of Bodh Gaya at some point in their lives, they may have seen the foreigners from all over the world that flock to the famous sites of Lord Buddha's Enlightenment. But, many of the students may have never even had the opportunity to leave their small poverty-stricken villages - and had definitely never seen a foreign face. 
Unlike other schools, admissions at Niranjana does not discriminate based on the Hindu caste system. Here was an opportunity for people of the lowest of the low caste, the untouchables, whom for centuries have been considered less than human, to educate a member of their family. Outside of the mixing at Niranjana School, the segregation based on the harsh conditions of the caste system, which has been around for thousands of years, is, unfortunately, still alive and well in India. 

Devendra Pathak, the school principal and co-founder of NPWT, described to me how, when they first began their work in 2001, they not only had to convince village families about the importance of education, but they had to actually teach the parents what an education even was.
Principal Pathak paying some students a visit
Twelve years later, one of the principal's many duties is sorting through the hundreds of applications and admitting only the number of students that their funding and facilities have the capacity to support. While the local farmers were previously opposed to giving up their child's valuable time who could be earning for the family, the principal gloats that now "parents are so filled with pride in seeing their child dressed in smart clothes," and given the opportunity to break through the merciless conditions of their reality.

As the Project has grown, so too has their community outreach initiatives to increase the quality of life in these villages. The NPWT has proudly finished constructing a second functioning school and runs a third school remotely part-time until enough funding is raised to build. 

NPWT Health Clinic
The NPWT, with the help of donors from all over the world, has added a public health clinic offering free medical care to villagers, a women's center providing local women a chance to learn trade skills and earn for their families, and an orphanage to care for students without family.

The Project is constantly looking to expand in an effort to improve as many lives as possible. Most recently, the fund has started an agricultural project to help provide a more nutritious diet to local families. As admirable as their undertaking is, expansion requires increased funds, which aren't always the most abundant considering their original project could stand to see further improvements.
Many of the classrooms are without tables and chairs
Lack of equipment or not, one thing is for sure at the Niranjana School, and that is that hundreds of lives are being changed through education, everyday. The Niranjana Public Welfare Trust is an honorable project that I'm grateful to have visited and volunteered for. Still, I couldn't help noticing that fundraising needed to be a full-time job.

So here I am back in America, with an odd mixture of gratitude and guilt as I'm trying to adjust to life in the West with our huge homes, hot showers, clean water, plentiful nutrients and excessive luxuries. 

I must admit that I am missing the simple life I experienced in Bakrour village. And I'm remembering the shining faces that looked up at me Niranjana School, and hoping that I, too, can make even the smallest difference in their lives by sharing their story with anyone who wants to listen.
Disclaimer: This piece was written on my own accord in an effort to help spread the word about this worthy project. Please consider checking out their website to learn more about the Niranjana Public Welfare Trust. When we hear stories like this in the West, we often want to help, but it's hard to know where to start and what's legitimate. I wrote this piece to tell any readers, hey, I was there, I was impressed by the good people working for this cause, and I want to do what I can to spread the word. If you're able, a donation of any amount really does go a long way in India and really can change someone's life. Read more about the NGO and learn how to donate or volunteer.
With the female teachers of Niranjana

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