By Tony Shaku
What a wonderful sight to see 3500 mothers, plus a few hundred children converging on the Nandri Centre in their purple Nandri saris. They arrived in buses on foot, on motorbikes. in trucks and tuk tuks (called 3 wheelers here).
I had been told about this event prior to heading out to India and that I should definitely make it in time to participate. It’s the biggest day of the year for the Nandri Foundation as thousands of empowered women who are receiving support from Nandri come together to celebrate and raise awareness of this movement.
However, I should start by mentioning the hard work gone in to produce a successful event. It no doubt had started much earlier than when I arrived, led by Joe- the driving force of the organisation in India. And the preparations went into the early hours of Sunday morning as staff, other volunteers and I finished making banners, signs, decorations and organising the raffle among other duties before the big day! It provided a glimpse of the sense of community as local kids and elders alike pitched in during the day to ensure things ran smoothly.
After a few hours of sleep, I awoke and put on my veshti or dhoti, the traditional garment tied around the waist worn mainly in South India, normally in white for special occasions. It was time to attend the street rally/parade organised in the nearest town with hundreds of women coming from many villages. In true Indian fashion, the rally only began when it should have finished!
The rally helps raise awareness and the profile of the organisation in its goals relating to support for agriculture, rural life, children’s education and the empowerment of families.
This year it was also held in conjunction with CanKids, a non-profit working to improve the treatment and support for children with cancer in India. It was great to see our signs and banners used in full with leaflets given out to the public with info on issues that both foundations tackle. It was my first rally and I feel people took notice with the surge of women in matching purple saris walking through town. Also with the press and some local politicians attending it should reach a wider audience around the state.
Then we headed back to the newly constructed Nandri Centre where thousands more women, children and locals joined for the convention. The land around the centre had been transformed with a stage and two large marquees set up to protect from the searing heat. To begin Joe spoke about the values that underpin the work that the organisation and other senior staff gave a summary of the annual report in which Nandri has continued to expand its support to the women and children of the Tiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu.
There was also a prayer held in remembrance of the movement’s founder, Tony Barron, who passed away recently. The major events of the day were the opening of the computer and language teaching room which will undoubtedly be crucial to improving the prospects of a better life for numerous children in the area. Concurrently the solar power generation room was inaugurated with the centre now running on power generated from the newly installed solar panels which shows the commitment of Nandri to being environmentally sustainable which was pleasing to see.
Back on stage there were speeches from the invited dignitaries ranging from people involved in higher education, pro-agriculture and feminist groups as well as politics. Admittedly I didn’t understand quite a bit from the speeches but they were certainly impassioned and seemed to resonate well the mothers. There were also cheques and certificates given to continue the work of Nandri with a new education fund set up in honour of Tony Barron.
Then I got a big surprise Joe unexpectedly called me on to the stage as a representative of Nandri from Ireland and I received a ponnada- a ceremonial shawl usually given to acknowledge dignitaries or important people.
So, in a moment I went from a volunteer to the chief guest from Ireland. It will most likely be the first and last time in my life!
The generosity extended to the local folk as the elderly gentleman sitting beside me in the crowd insisted on buying me ice cream, which was very welcome given the heat. As I savoured my ice cream there were plenty of energetic dances and singing performances to be enjoyed from children in their various village groups (including a memorable freestyle from Fr. Joe) Although most enjoyed their day, I’m sure some left a bit happier as they took home the prizes they won from the raffle.
Overall it was a unique experience, one which I’ll remember for a long time. The strong turnout of women who came from far and wide in the district highlighted the reach of Nandri and the community spirit it can foster which was particularly nice to see. Among other work I look forward to volunteering in the new solar powered computer and language lab which also shows the progress the foundation is making just a year since the centre opened. However, that might take a while as I re-adjust from being a VIP back to an eager volunteer!