Let me start by saying I am not easily amazed. I am not easily impressed. I am not easily moved. But from my experience of The Nandri Foundation in India, I felt I had to write something as I am amazed at what an inspiring charity they are. I am impressed at the hard work and devotion the volunteers give to the poverty stricken people of Tamil Nadu. But mostly I was moved, deeply moved by the people of India and how The Nandri Foundation motivates and empowers families through education. Because of Nandri there is a light at the end of the tunnel for each child’s dream of a brighter future. They are turning that dream into a reality
After less than a weeks planning my last minute trip to India with my Dad is happening. The impossible became possible we got our Indian visas in 2 days, the stress as well as the blood pressure was high but it was all worth it in the end I am going to India! Our first day we travel and travel and then travel some more, finally after getting to India. We wait for an hour and a half for our bags, the endless prescriptions, sun creams and bottles of deet went from important to vital. But alas, the bags emerged, and we could breathe again.
The heat hit us like a wall when we walked out of the air conditioned airport. It’s a heat I’ve never felt before, its heavy, humid. The noises are almost overbearing. A constant honking of horns, street dogs barking and the buzzing noise of people shouting in the streets harmonise into song. Chaos surrounded us. The smells are pungent, wisps of putrid scents of open sewage, diesel, spices and human sweat overwhelm our senses.
We embarked on our 3 ½ hour drive from Chennai to Vellore , little did we know the roads of India are a free for all and the one with the loudest horn gets right of way. I learnt the traffic is worse than I could have imagined so be patient, in Chennai there are 4 million people trying to get around the small city. Its best to just go with the flow in India and have faith you won’t die on the roads. Seeing 4 or 5 people driving long on one motorbike is not unusual. Finally never ever ever rent a car in India unless you have a death wish, leave the driving to them. After 3 1/2 hours of heart palpitations and sweats from numerous close calls we arrive at our hotel. I met Father Joe for the first time and he is the furthest thing from my preconceived idea of a priest, he is charismatic, friendly, fascinating and warm.
We attended a wedding in the church of an orphanage which homes a number of sponsored children by Nandri. The wedding itself is an experience I will never forget, they were honoured to have my dad and I essentially “crash” their big day, something we couldn’t understand. Following the wedding we had a meal in the orphanage with the priests. It is clear almost immediately these priests who are so lively and young at heart not only preach the word of God but live their lives by it too by caring and providing for the orphans and lead by example through living a good life.
Mother Group Visits – Once we’ve caught up on some much needed sleep we hit the road with Father Joe to visit Nandri mother groups meetings. They could not contain their happiness that foreigners had come to visit them, it was humbling. They would squeak with excitement when we shook their hand. The room was filled with a sea of blue Sari’s supporting the biggest of grins, eyes watching our every move. The organisation of the meetings is what stood out to me the most. During each meeting minutes were taken, accounts were thoroughly checked and any issues were discussed and resolved, all lead by Joe. The Idea of the mother support groups was a new concept to me. Nandri are forming their own micro community of mothers, who in India are oppressed and often mistreated by the male dominant society in which they live. The mothers support and care for one another whilst learning new values of hard work and the importance of education in the child’s life, in turn overcoming years of unjust tradition and culture one step at a time. Nandri has inspired thousands of mothers to believe in themselves. They can change their future, through financial aid, creating community based support groups and motivational speeches about the “Nandri vision” by Father Joe. Before they could have never envisioned a change or an improvement in their lives. “If I have the belief I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning” – Ghandi The Nandri Foundation provide mothers with the capacity to do it.
We visited a blind school, a truly humbling experience, these children face challenges no one in the western world could begin to imagine. They played beautiful music for us, the children ran around laughing and smiling and playing games. Their disability does not hold them back nor do they let it define them. We stopped off at another destination on our list, Father Joe’s Parish. He succeeded a priest who deserted this parish so it was left destitute and after a lot of hard work the parish was habitable once again. Previously riddled with snakes and scorpions you can imagine how nervous I was walking into the place, that vivid imagery didn’t leave my mind until we left. Afterwards we pulled over for a “coconut break”. Alongside the roads there are men everywhere with small motorbikes carrying far too many coconuts for it to be safe. We ordered our coconuts and he begins to hack at the coconut with his Machete, we sipped away and this stuff puts Vita Coco to shame it is delicious, a couple of satisfied customers hopped back into the car and on we went.
The food is something that takes getting used to, I’m a fan of very spicy food at home but India takes spicy to another level. I’d advise anyone travelling over to pace yourself and your stomach. I was lucky enough to escape the dreaded Deli belly I’d been warned about, I managed to avoid all and any sicknesses over there by some miracle. I was told to bring a few energy bars in my bag in hind sight I wish I had but then again I didn’t go to India to snack on NutriGrain. I got to do some sight seeing while I was in Vellore, I visited the famous Southupaarai Dam and the golden Temple which was stunning. We shopped for Sari’s, Mehndi (what we call Henna), Bangles and silver anklets to complete my transformation into an Authentic Indian- well that’s a stretch but it was fun immersing myself in the culture.
I visited more mother group meetings and the transparency of each groups accounts resonated with me, it is unequivocal where each cent is going and that its going towards their children’s education. What I found to stand out to me the most was the Micro financing plans. Nandri is a sustainable charity with systems in place that will run forever irrespective of who’s running them. The mother groups support one another in society but also financially as not to damage the groups creditworthiness. Each mother will have their own bank account, a facility that was previously not available to lower caste people. Nandri adopts what I believe to be the most practical approach.
They could have establish their own infrastructures and claimed complete control over everything in the system. But that would have taken away from the current orphanages and schools that exist and help children today. So alternatively Nandri decided to enhance the current infrastructures by adding facilities such as toilets, more classrooms, bedrooms, teachers and so on. Nandri want to enhance what already exists, they trust people to do the right thing, the right way. Nandri understand that the poor people must be given opportunities in efforts to overcome their poverty, they must be treated the same as middle class citizens and given equal opportunities. Nandri is slowly but surely changing the prejudicial views against the lower caste, Dailt’s who are viewed as the outcastes in Rural India.
When I saw the Nandri Centre it reinforced the idea that everyone irrespective of your class should be entitled to equal opportunities. I had to pick my jaw up from the floor, its safe to say I was blown away by it. This huge building stood in front of me, an inspiring vision where the low caste mothers will receive the highest quality training here. As Joe tells me, if you train them with the best facilities they will become the best they can be, their current income should not handicap them. Once again Nandri are redefining the traditions people have been bound to and are providing a sustainable long term solution to eradicate India’s poverty.
Chennai Floods – They experienced the worst rain and flooding for over 150 years wile I was in India. I come for some sun and heat and the weather follows me from Ireland. Twice I went with Nandri and Arni Lions club volunteers and we handed out blankets, rice, flour, coil and other basic needs to badly flood effected areas. We drove and drove and drove bouncing along the damaged roads, the pot holes are mini man holes at this stage. We travelled to remote villages along side overflowing lakes and rivers where people’s homes were filled with water up past their knees, and most of these “homes” were mud huts. People were getting sicker and sicker from the rain. They could not work for days on end therefore they did not have money so inevitably they could not eat. Yet every home I went into to give a Pack to they wanted me to stay and have tea or something to eat.
Somethings that have really stuck with me from my experiences in India, everywhere I went the smiling eyes, genuine happiness, the immense kindness and the sharing of what little they had was overwhelming it’s their culture, their nature, their norm.
In the school I was teaching they taught me what Christmas means to them and it is worlds apart from our Western Christmas. Christmas only becomes special and meaningful when you share what you have with those you love or those less fortunate. This belief is instilled in them from a young age, so when the heavens opened and the flooding hit, many were left homeless, families who could barely afford to feed themselves were donating to help these flood effected families, “So whatever you do to the least of my brethren you do to me”; If that’s not Christianity I don’t know what is.
Father Joe is heading up the workers for Nandri over in India and I can put my hand on my heart and say there is no faulting him. He has a heart of gold and lives the good life we all want to live yet somehow he does not get deterred along the way. Joe tells me a story from the bible. Something I’d never thought I’d be writing about but it resonated with me, it was about how you must stay true to yourself. “A man sees a scorpion drowning and picks it up to save it, but it stings him, he drops it back in the river, he tries to save again and again but the same thing happens. Eventually he saves it and the disciples ask him “why do you keep trying to save it, if it keeps stinging you?”. He explains it is the scorpions nature to sting but it is human nature to care and love so you must save it, never let someone else’s nature change your own.” We all want to make the world a better place than we found it but the evil and bad in the world can make us doubt the help we give will make a real difference but we must not change our nature, you must “Be the change you want to see in the world”- Ghandi.
I came away with a lot more than I could have ever hoped for. I learnt a few Tamil phrases, but by far my Favourite is Nandri- meaning thank you. Father Joe explained to me how they do not say thank you to their friend in India because if you are good enough friends, of course you would do something for them. (To any future volunteers the head bobble means yes- it looks like a no but I can assure you it means yes, took me a while to wrap my head around it.)
Naming the Charity Nandri in my opinion is appropriate for 2 reasons. Firstly it highlights these peoples’ appreciation for life and for the Nandri Foundation giving these poverty stricken people an opportunity to change their future through education. Which is the main barrier faced by these mothers and children, it is their ticket to a better life. ” A person who feels appreciated will always do more than what is expect” Ghandi By teaching Indian mothers to work hard for what they want they will appreciate what they achieve so much more than if they were simply handed it. The Nandri Foundation empowers and instils new values which can be past on from generation to generation. They are also teaching mothers to deal with their issues and take the matter into their own hands, echoing my fathers mantra “if its got to be, its up to me.”
In the future Nandri hope that it will be a self Supporting system through its new generation moment. The new generation movement will be all the children who have been fortunate enough to receive Nandri’s support. Who finished their education and are now working and can support themselves, their family and can afford to contribute back to the Charity that empowered them in ways they could have only imagined. Showing their appreciation, their thanks, their Nandri.