Daily Archives: June 25, 2018

Little Rural Change Makers – To Be All Smiles


“I’ll pick you up at 9 am tomorrow. Be ready!” I said to Sachin .
“Yes”, he replied.
The next morning bright and early, at the sound of my bullet motorbike, Sachin stepped out of his house, right opposite the Villa Janwaar, on the main road of our village.
He was all smiles.
Full of pride and excitement, he clambered on the backseat of the bullet, and off we went to Panna hospital.

This was the day our mission started.
This was the day Sachin’s life took a turn for the better.

For the past five years Sachin always wore a head cloth.
A horrible infection had taken hold and spread over his head and neck, reaching almost to his chest.
Turning his head caused him considerable pain.
He rarely played with the other kids, and he hardly spoke.
His parents told me that he had seen various doctors in and around Panna .
These doctors had diagnosed cancer but weren’t able to treat him.
Period.

With the help of some friends, we managed to raise funds for his treatment.

Once again Sachin was examined at Panna hospital.
This time there were some American doctors holding a medical camp.
They sent him to Satna for an ultrasound.
Then back to Panna again for the results.
Another dead end.
The American doctors were gone.
And we got stuck again at Panna hospital.
They couldn’t help.

With his parents’ agreement, we decided to take Sachin to Delhi.
Our journey started.

Luckily, we were able to arrange for Sachin to stay in a shelter home with other boys of his age.
I dropped him in Delhi and I was very much afraid that he would start crying.
But this little guy stood his ground.
He was really strong.
Completely focused.
All he wanted was to be cured.
He was on a mission.
It was amazing to see.

During his first three months in Delhi I visited him a few times.
He was always smiling.
He loved his new “home” and quickly made friends.
He told me: “Ulrike, I wanna stay here!”
He even started to learn counting and writing numbers.
This was completely new to him, as he had not yet ventured into the village school.
Now he was smitten with the learning bug and promised: “When ever I am healed, I will go to school!”

Sachin’s medical examinations and treatment take time.
Patiently, he is going to all the hospitals and labs.
Even today – six months later – the doctors still haven’t figured out what is causing the infection.
They assume it’s an advanced form of skin TB.
The medicine they gave him is showing its first results though.
His wounds have dried out and are slowly closing.
Most of his pain has gone, and he can move his head easily.
He is in high spirits.

Recently, four of the Janwaar kids came to visit Sachin in Delhi.

They discovered a new Sachin.
Arun, one of boys, was super excited to find Sachin so changed. He kept saying, “Ulrike, Ulrike, Sachin was talking all the time! I’ve never heard him speak before! And he was smiling! He is so different now! He is speaking so respectfully about everyone.”
It was wonderful to experience his joy in Sachin’s progress towards being fully well.

Yesterday I met Sachin again.
He greeted me with his marvellous smile and a high five.
His parents and little brother were also there for their second visit.
They hadn’t seen him for three months.
What they saw was the huge progress he had made.
It was a very happy family reunion.

We discussed the next steps with the medical staff at the shelter home.
It will probably take another few months before Sachin is fully recovered.
Sachin is fully aware of this and of course ready to go the last mile.

While we were sitting, Sachin kept fondly touching his mother’s arm.
They have a beautiful relationship.
They speak very sweetly and affectionately with each other.
I’ve never seen this before with any other kid in the village.
It’s quite remarkable.
Before I left he said to me, “I want to go back home when the treatment is ended, and then I will start going to school.”

I smiled.
And so did Sachin.

Little Rural Change Makers – The Freedom To Be A Kid



BaliRam is one of a bunch of kids in Janwaar I call “The Adivasi Gang”. Adorable little rascals all of them 8-11 years old, a bit cheeky,very adventurous and ready to take off at a moment’s notice. All in love with their skateboards. They never come alone – Ramji, Vinay, Ramram, Brijesh, Gopal, Chottu. I love these boys. Whenever I get back to Janwaar on my motorbike they pour out open-hearted and smiling – ready for anything that might happen. We’ve got some kind of easy mutual understanding which is difficult to put in words.

They all come from very poor families. Many are malnourished, their clothes tattered. Hardly one of them has shoes. Once I took 11 of them on a five-day-trip to Delhi and beyond. All they took with them was one single plastic bag which held all their belongings. And it didn’t matter. They were perfectly happy and fine with it. Confident, content and comfortable.

I feel these kids are “rich”. Far richer than any rich city kid ever could be. Their richness is grounded in what most city kids don’t have and never will – experienced independence, closeness with nature and plenty of time – in a  word: The freedom of being a kid.

The “Adivasi Gang” feels at home in nature. They know every single plant, tree and animal. And they know how to deal with nature – it’s a very essential part of their lives. They scuttle up trees in no time and swim in the ponds, lakes and pop-up rivers during the rains. They aren’t afraid of getting dirty or missing out on something. They’re pretty much fearless. Not afraid to fail. They feel imprisoned if they can’t enjoy the openness and vastness of their village.

They only have very basic things to play with like a tube, the branch of a tree or an empty bottle which does service  as a cricket ball – but they still have a lot of fun and are capable of unself-consciously enjoying the simple freedom of being alive. They’re growing up very independently, mainly taking care of each other. They’re not over-protected and surrounded by nannies like the city kids.

If they fall or fail, they keep trying again and again until they do succeed. They’re very fast back on their feet and tears are rare. Among them there’s a very healthy sense of competition which means that they can compete and collaborate at the same time. They don’t feel any pressure – they are free in a very fundamental sense.

And from what I’ve seen they’re not the slightest bit envious of  city kids. They don’t hanker after the latest brands and computer games. Maybe they’d love to have a warm blanket or an extra meal for a change but I honestly feel that they’re very happy with their lives as they are –  not because they don’t know any better but because they  can still value what little they have. They are very much at peace with themselves.

The “Adivasi Gang” bubbles with high spirits and curiosity. They love to hang out and enjoy doing nothing. I don’t feel they ever get bored. Their lives are in a very different way “pre-scheduled”. It’s not about rushing from appointment to appointment, from piano lessons to tennis lessons, from the ballet to the creativity courses. Baliram’s life is rather scheduled to remain in the poverty rut.

So the challenge I face in Janwaar is how to maintain this unbelievable crackling positive energy and channel it into a way forward out of poverty. And when I say out of poverty, I mean a decent life with the very basic amenities like electricity, sanitation, good learning environments, food and health care – I am not talking about high salaries, or a life of luxury and blind consumerism.

My dream is to let these kids be kids and and let them learn in such a way that they can live decent lives in their villages. And I feel this is possible with the “Adivasi Gang”.

Little Rural Change Makers – Fragile. Fearless. Free.


Durgha is one of our youngest girl-skaters. The other kids gave her the nickname “kukera” – which means chicken. They say it’s a funny name – all I can see is that Durgha doesn’t like it. And she makes this very clear. She chases anyone who teases her with this name. That’s one of her strengths: She very much has her own mind and isn’t afraid to speak up even against the older Yadav boys. Durgha is just six years old. She looks a bit fragile but this is only the first impression that strikes you. When you look at her fancy clothes she might seem very “girly” –  all pink frocks and frills and so on. But her looks and dresses are misleading. When it comes to taking a stand she acts just like a strong boy. And trust me, she does take a stand and can be very convincing. Durgha will never take no for an answer – and she is always pushing the boundaries. Very untypical for a young girl in a village.

This year she’s started to go to school and she takes it all quite seriously because she knows that school is her entry-card to the skatepark. At the skatepark she’s a rock star. She’s been coming here for the last two years which basically means for one third of her life. Fearlessly she stands on her board and from her first insecure “steps” she’s made very quick progress. Her fearlessness and courage come very naturally to her. By now she can drop from the ramps and safely cruise and zig zag through the crowd. And even though the number of skateboards is limited at the park, you’ll never ever see her WITHOUT a board. It’s her secret just how she manages to do this. When she’s cruising on the board you will never hear her shout: “Ulrike, Ulrike – look at me!” which is what the other kids do to gain attention and show off the latest tricks they’ve learnt. No, she’s always completely focussed trying something new or simply enjoying the ride. At the skatepark she’s in a world of her own. Unlike any of the other girls you will always see her skateboarding alone. This is quite unusual. Not that she is in any way excluded. No. She simply does it her way.

Durgha is much more social when it comes to our volunteers and guests. She was the first one to call Mannan by his name – unlike all the others who still keep calling him bhaiya (brother). Durgha embraces all our visitors. Literally. With an open smile she seeks body contact and is eager for attention. Sometimes she really stretches their patience  – she will clutch and cling to them like a limpet and never give them a moment’s peace. Making faces, starring at them, jumping on them, pestering them. Durgha doesn’t talk much – but just like Ramkesh, her older brother, she is an acute observer.

To me it always feels like she has something in her mind, some kind of plan … or dream. Only she’s not yet ready to let it out..!

Little Rural Change Makers – A Bittersweet Intermezzo

Abhilasha is not the “typical” Janwaar kid. She is much older than the other girls – she acts like a young teenager though – and her playground is not the skatepark but the sewing machine she got one and a half years ago. The skatepark, she only watches from the distance – direct involvement with it came via the homestay Abhilasha and her parents are running. Over the last two years they’ve hosted quite a few guests who have eft Abhilasha with sweet memories.

Abhilasha is a very quiet girl, she’s not one to seize the initiative, she hardly went to school and is basically imprisoned in the house. She’s not allowed to walk alone around the village, and she’s of marriageable age, so both her brother – with whom she has a fraught relationship – and her father are desperately trying to get her married. Even though she doesn’t want to get married she would never dream of disobeying her parents or standing up to fight  for what she herself wants. For her, getting married is just the “normal” path of life of a village girl.

Abhilasha says that her life changed with the skatepark. She started to love her village and when we got two sewing machines, she took her chance and became the best embroiderer and seamstress in “town”. I got her some really nice stuff to work with in Paris – needles, fabrics, thread – and she stitched the most beautiful tigers (our logo), on our bags, clothes, on plain cloth and somehow she’s even managed to make a living out of it! And when she started to earn her own living Abhilasha became “someone” – as she’s fond of  saying.

A friend from Australia and first class handicraft artist, Trish, gave her guidance from a distance by sending material and samples. Abhilasha’s skills improved and as they improved  she became more and more self-confident. She began to smile a lot and you could clearly see how deeply she enjoyed being part of the greater Janwaar community. So when I asked her if she would like to accompany two younger Janwaar girls to Australia where she would meet Trish – her eyes opened wide with astonishment and delight and started to shine. Left to herself, she would jump at the chance. Yet when I went to seek permission for her to go, it was a difficult and even embarrassing conversation I had with her elder brother and father. Many hateful words were mouthed by them, words not necessarily meant to be rude or hateful but words certainly deeply rooted in a very narrow-minded traditional way of thinking and living in a rural Indian society  dominated by caste and men. It confronted me with everything I dislike about India. And honestly it was very hard to take, it really hurt me. But somehow we finally succeeded and the two patriarchs were ready to let her go and even graciously postponed her marriage.

Abhilasha was “on board”.
Our preparations for the trip to Australia were already in full swing when Abhilasha joined. We were collecting all the necessary papers for
the visas, we had raised the funds for our travels and were planning what to do and where to go … We  were all in high spirits.

But then “tradition” struck back.
I had come to Janwaar to get the last requisite signature from Abhilasha’s father when he said the absolutely unforeseeable. In his usual rude manner, chewing as ever his red-brownish tobacco and running around restlessly. Out of the blue he informed me that I could only take his daughter if I would pay him three lakhs INR (roughly 4000 Euros) for her dowry. He was absolutely aware of what he was doing and he did it in his infuriating top-down macho-male manner – but even so I could still sense that he knew he was doing wrong. His restless agitated manner gave the game away. He walked up and down in front of me – puffing out his chest like a little Napoleon, not trying to convince me with arguments of which he had none but cow me into silence and submission with this crude display of male superiority. Male superiority in full tilt reinforced by ignorance and stupidity.

I was thunderstruck, speechless with consternation at first. Then I freaked out. I started yelling I simply couldn’t believe what was happening. Abhilasha was sitting there – helpless and seemingly  indifferent – a mirror image of her mother. I felt like I’ve been hit with a hammer. And I left.

I wasn’t sure what to do, how to handle the situation. It took me quite a time. I spoke with some friends and people who were deeply involved in our travel arrangements and I finally and most regretfully decided to take none of the girls. The fun factor was completely out of the window – what could have been a joyous  celebration for the whole village – four of their girls were travelling to Australia – turned into something very dark and troubling.

I sat down with the other girls and their parents and felt their immense sadness and intense disappointment. I’m not sure if they really understood my point – but certainly they disagreed with what Abhilasha’s father had done. Some villagers decided to talk to him – At the time of writing I don’t know about what outcome this might have had. I just feel that I should make a very strong point to the village.

Looking at Abhilasha and watching her after the horrible crash leaves me with more questions than answers. I don’t know if she’s happy or not about NOT going to Australia. I don’t know if she’s happy or not about the fact that she’s getting married. I don’t know if she’s happy or not about the fact that she is not allowed to walk outside.

For me it was just another lesson in learning how deeply ingrained these old traditions are and how much (financial) pressure they impose on families … I believe Abhilasha’s father is in despair about getting enough money together to finance  the wedding and Abhilasha is just another girl in an Indian village who is not allowed to life her own life. And she simply accepts it as if there were no alternative, as if there were no way out.