Working in India has been delightful these past few months, perhaps due to the very fortunate situation of having abundance to share with the children in Sonada from money raised at Marked med Mening in Oslo 1st September. The delight has also come from the fabulous view to Kunchenjunga mountain range from my balcony in Darjeeling , where I stay with a very hospitable Tibetan family. The fogs came just a week ago, with the cold. The views disappeared, but I know the mountains are hidden for a while only.
When I go to Sonada to work in the Tibetan refugee camp where Shenpen supports a clinic and the almost 200 children living in the hostel there, it’s on a very bumby road in a so called shared taxi, often without windows in the back seats. Cold dusty draft. When I arrive, if the children aren’t in school, they call good morning Ma’m, Tashi delek Ma’m. Makes me happy. Shenpen has more than 50 sponsors in Norway for the children here. They are very lucky, since the conditions are poor.
I also travelled to Miao, a faraway Tibetan settlement in Arunachal Pradesh, very near Myanmar and China/Tibet on a Shenpen mission in November.
First the delight of the children living in the hostels in Sonada these past few days when we have been singing and joking and taking photographs of the teenage girls to hang on the wall in their bleak rooms, and sing another song. They in Hindi, Tibetan, Nepali and English, asking me to sing them one in return. I taught them Rock around the clock. Haha, and You got a friend. And even took Eg rodde meg ut på seiegrunnen. A little cultural exchange. I’m impressed that they know all the Hindi hits by heart, and the dances too. Yet after all they have grown up as refugees in the bosom of mother India who now has become part of them.
There is more joyful news: Dr. Sherpa, Shenpen’s doctor in the clinic, has reported that she now sees less severe diarrhoea in the settlement, and less skin diseases among the children. She thinks it’s due to Shenpen’s work on clean water/waterfilter for the children and hygiene steps taken. Shenpen’s nurse Ambika and Tibetan nurse Dolma have done good follow-up, reducing contagious skin diseases among the children, who have very poor sanitary conditions and no hot water. Some money from the September market in Oslo has gone to hygiene articles for the children, specially the teenage girls. And all who needed it has gotten underwear, socks, warm fleece stockings and t-shirts. We have filled up the dispensary with vitamins. And we have secured the future with an emergency medical fund for the poorest children and elders in the settlement when in need of urgent medical treatment in Darjeeling. Many cannot afford the expenses: taxi fare: 4 kroner each way and consultation fee 25 kroner… Even though many Tibetans are good businessmen, some families are very poor and have little chance of employment. The financial problem for the Tibetan refugees escalated after the carpet industry collapsed in the 90’s.
Pema and Lobsang, hostel mother who looks after 60 small children, and hostel warden who looks after 140, helped me find the poorest children. They brought me 40 children who didn’t have winter jackets and jeans. We took all but the smallest children along to the jeans shop in Sonada, where they got perfectly fitting new jeans, many of them for the first time in their life. Tight jeans, of course. I bought winter jackets (boblejakker o.l.) in Darjeeling, and walked a lot of hills up and down, learning the prices and the right level to bargain. Luckily fashion is high in Darjeeling, so there was no problem finding good jackets and clothes. One pair of new jeans cost around 30 kroner if you buy many. I think it is not only Darjeeling that is fashionable, many may be poor in India, but they all have a new hair cut. And the colours match.
The small street shops along the hilly roads had the best socks and fleece, yet sometimes the owners are illiterate, and can’t sign the receipt, and don’t even have a receipt to give. I carry my own receipt-pad of course. And when they don’t know how to write, the neighbouring shop may have to sign… Unfortunately, now these shops have been removed to give way to bigger business. I have two friends who lost their shop without warning. They have no other means of survival. They cried. But no one dares to protest. It’s too dangerous, they say.
What more do children need in a cold climate? More vitamin C. Shenpen is giving a little for vegetables every month, and lately we have distributed oranges and kiwis to the kids, and donated money for fruit for a whole year ahead from Marked med Mening. The last 200 oranges I carefully selected in the market, one by one. You have to check things in India. Then find a kulli and painfully look at how he or she is weighted down carrying the goods to the taxi roof. There are many kullies around here, carrying amazingly heavy loads up and down the steep hills. I hardly manage to look at them, it seems so painful. Yet the locals say it’s no problem because they make good money.
Good money is everything in India. It really doesn’t matter how you eot them… That’s why, they say, corruption so easily flourishes around here. The goal is more important than the means. Very different from the social democratic thinking in Norway, where riches somehow are too much to display, where “normality” is the highest standard. To be more or less the same. In India, the most important thing is to be rich, no matter how many poor people live next door. People will look up to you no matter what you have done to get there. Whereas in Norway people will look down on you if you flash your diamonds, and laugh behind your back.
I’ve read that the reason Indians are so occupied with praying to Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, is that money is so intimately linked to status, and where you stand in society. People without money and are seen as worthless. The shadow of the cast system. 48% of Indian people now live below the poverty line. The general economy is growing, but it doesn’t reach the poor. In some areas like Mumbai and Delhi people starve.
To be able to survive, Tibetan refugees in India have formed farming cooperatives, where they live together, like in Sonada, and in Miao in Arunachal Pradesh, where I went in November. The farming conditions are better in Miao than in high altitude Sonada. Miao is situated in the planes, in the middle of the jungle near the boarders of Myanmar and China – Tibet. There they grow their own vegetables for the 3000 inhabitants, and have their own health centre, kinder garden, school and old people’s home. The elders walk around with their malas constantly saying Om mani pedme hung. The elders looked happy there. A good place to get old, yet a difficult place to be born…The Tibetan Health minister had requested Shenpen to help this settlement with a delivery room, since so many children are born there, very far from the nearest hospital. Dangerous for mothers and babies. After my visit, where we had long talks with the midwife, Shenpen has decided to upgrade the delivery room with a delivery bed and important equipment that can help mothers and babies, especially in difficult deliveries. I was very impressed by the commitment and skill of the midwife, who’s only option was to pray for the mothers for lack of equipment. She was very happy to hear that the Shenpen board passed the project. A longer tale from this trip is posted in www.shenpenaid.com. What I didn’t say there, was that the people were really very friendly, and that we had a very good time in the guest house, with foxes coming every night. I have never been a place with so many foxes before. They howl a little bit like wolves with thin voices.
Even if the mothers and babies in Miao now will get better conditions, and lives can be saved, there are dangers lurking in the jungle around. Political activists are demanding ransom from local businesses. It is impossible to refuse to pay. And being so close to China/Tibet and Myanmar, foreigners need to have a special permit to enter the area, and show documents at the numerous police check points along the way. It felt a little tense, but lucky to be accompanied by my friend and collegue , Urgyen from Sonada. It’s not a place you go alone.
Another danger lurking in the jungle around comes forth in the more than 6 month long rainy season; snakes, malaria and typhoid fever. I am glad I went there in the sunny season! I met one very poor family in the settlement who didn’t have a carpet, so the mosquitoes would come through the floor boards in the rainy season. We rushed to buy them a good carpet that covered the entire floor, and glass for all the broken windows. I could only imagine how the snakes would accompany the mosquitoes through the floorboards, as they hide under houses in the rainy season.
Ganga Maya, Shenpen’s cleaner in the clinic, also had a happy lift from the worst kind of situation. One day she fell and hit her head and eye badly, and couldn’t come to work. “She is in our family now”, said Tenzin, our partner and clinic administrator. So nurse Ambika, Tenzin and I left the clinic to visit her. Ganga Maya is illiterate, originally from Nepal. She lost 5 of her children due to malnutrition before she came to India many years back. What a shock to see her living conditions. A dripping wet room, totally soaked in fungus. She shared a small bed with her husband, with ancient blankets, while her pregnant daughter slept on a bed with no mattress at all. I rushed to move them to a dryer rooms upstairs, and got a new mattress and blankets and floor carpet, and suddenly they were a little lifted. Shenpen raised Ganga Maya’s cleaning fee with 50 kroner per month which means the family can pay for this slightly better place. Sometimes it takes so little to make a difference. Now Ganga Maya has promised to kill one of her chickens for me. I said oh no Ganga Maya, please don’t, at least don’t tell me about it!
Somehow I think the Tibetans are lucky to live in India, even if poverty is a real threat and jobs are few for refugees. Indian authorities actually run the Central Tibetan schools in India, and give the Tibetans a chance to preserve their own language and culture. That’s the greatness of Indians, the ability to accept and live in harmony with people of different faiths.
I am so grateful for this work, the smiles and the songs from the children, and all the things I learn working and living with the Tibetans.
Not to mention the help received from very generous people in the West.
Love from Heidi in Darjeeling
See photos and updates in facebook and www.shenpenaid.com.
If you want to support us, the most urgently needed funds are for delivery room in Miao.