Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sambhali: A Guiding Light

They call him brother, the girls of Sambhali. A year ago, Govind Singh Rathore founded a school for Harijan girls in Jodhpur, a city in India’s Rajasthan state. He called it the Samhali Trust. Sambhali means ‘consciousness’, and trust is what the girls and their families have come to feel for this man. The school teaches English, Arts and Crafts, Hygene and Aids Awareness, and it encourages and prepares the girls to attend Indian academic schools. The school has attracted the attention of international funders which has helped by means of making it possible to build a beautiful new classroom on the premises of Govind’s guesthouse, and also has facilitated the opening of a new classroom in Setrawa, a rural village about 90 kilometers from Jodhpur. The funding also helps send some of the girls to academic schools.

I came to visit Govind to see what I could do to help in the way of making a multimedia presentation that can be shown online. The day after I arrived, he and Nigama and I made the trip out to Setrawa to visit the new school, now open merely a month. There I met a wonderful volunteer from Australia, Amanda, a young woman of 27 years. I admired her bravado to be able to live alone in this village, let alone start a brand new school. Most of the attendees at this school are women of all castes, who share a lack of wealth as a common feature. Amanda teaches English and arts and crafts, and I was impressed with all she had done in one month’s time. When I asked her the most important benefit the school has given the women she said it was the opportunity to have a woman’s gathering place, where women could come together to talk openly together while working on handicraft projects.

This is a little different focus than the school in Jodhpur, which focuses entirely on girls of the Harijan caste, formerly known as ‘untouchable’. Harijan means children of God, a term coined by Gandhi. Now the term Dalit, meaning oppressed, has become popular to describe the lowest of castes.

I interviewed Sophie, an adorable young woman from Germany, all of 18, who has been living at the guesthouse for 2 months as a volunteer. She is doing a fantastic job with the girls. When I asked her what she learned from doing this work, she said it was a continuous reminder of how to live simply. She is leaving in a few days, and is very broken up about it, the bond she has made with the girls and Govind’s family is profound.

I went to visit the homes of several of the girls and was astounded at how clean their houses were. To say house is a misnomer, the girls and their entire families usually live in establishments of one or two rooms and often a courtyard. The courtyard serves as a kitchen where an open fire can be made to cook, and large ceramic pots hold the family’s water supply. The rooms all had shelves upon which their collections of stainless and ceramic ware were displayed beautifully, along with various knickknacks and religious icons. The walls were usually painted with a properly pointed swastika indicating the four directions, and there was usually a picture of Shiva on an alter somewhere in the compound, adorned with flowers and incense.

The girls giggled as they took me from house to house, where I had tea with the families of each house, the grandmothers exuding warmth to me, as we communicated without the benefit of language.

Govind has become a very special man in the minds of the families of the girls. While I was there, I witnessed the parents of one of the girls come to Govind for help in resolving a family problem. One of the girls of the family had been married into a family which was abusing the girl. They were beating her, and keeping her locked up, waking her up in the middle of the night to go do laborious chores. It was an inhumane and illegal situation. Govind was moved and called authorities he knew in that village, who went and retrieved the girl and charges were filed against the offending family. The girl will not be forced back into that family because luckily, her own family will take her back. This girl was lucky, she could have met with an unfortunate fate all too common for India’s young women. Govind’s intervention probably saved her life.

This is just a tiny touch of the story of the Sambhali Trust, but I wanted to post it so you would know what I was working on.

After I finished my interviews with the girls, I realized that it was my last few days in India, and I had still not seen Udaipur. Udaipur had been the city that attracted me to India in the first place. Having memories of a dream I had in childhood, Udaipur looked just like what I had seen in that dream. I couldn’t leave India for the second time without making the trek down there. And so I did.
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