Nine years ago Emma gave me a Christmas present. More than one no doubt, but one of them was a little different. A World Vision sponsor child. It was premeditated. We had conspired about it beforehand.
I didn’t think too much of it after that other than sending off the occasional birthday or Christmas wish or claiming our tax deduction. When this trip came along however we knew that one of the things we would really love to do would be to visit Ramlekha. I liked the idea of making ‘real’ a person and a place that existed, for all intents and purposes, only in my imagination. I also liked the idea of making a connection between our two vastly different lives.
The visit became something of a marker point for our year. We wanted to get here before Rajasthan becomes unbearably hot. Temperatures from April sit well above 40 and regularly push 50, or so we are lead to believe. Our travels in India too are really an add-on to make the most of the visit with Ramlekha. We are fortunate she lives in the same state as so many of India’s famous attractions.
Ramlekha’s village is around 50 kilometres outside the town of Baran. Baran lies 70 or so kilometres beyond the city of Kota and Kota is about 250 kilometres south of Jaipur. The further we travelled from Jaipur the more unusual we became. Not many tourists visit Kota and I’m pretty sure no tourist ever visits Baran. All eyes in the busy cross roads at the centre of Baran fell upon us as we alighted our Innova out front of the Surya Hotel. It wasn’t long however before Mayank from World Vision appeared and we were in good hands.
I had trouble sleeping the night before the visit. No sponsor had ever visited this particular village. Only one other had ever visited the region. ‘Does the community know we are coming?’, I asked at dinner earlier that evening. ‘Oh yes’ Mayank answered. ‘They are very excited’.
We set out early the next morning. The plan was to get there around 8am so the people of the village could spend a couple of hours with us before they returned to the fields. It was harvest time and forgoing a day of harvesting wheat by hand in the hot sun to spend time with us would mean forgoing a day’s wage. All of $3.
The drive was pleasant. Rural India is quite a contrast to urban India. No dirt, minimal litter, no putrid puddles of water. Fields of wheat were the norm in the hot, parched and steadily baking landscape – a landscape eagerly awaiting the next monsoon. We crossed dry, rocky river beds and passed other little villages, like the one we were destined for.
My excitement grew as we drew nearer and I felt a little nervous. What would we say? What would we ask? What would be the common ground? Emma was equally unsure. The more I extended my mind the greater the blank it drew so I let it go and decided that what would be would be, that we would react in the moment and trust in the genuine intent that had bought us here.
Of course when we got there it was not at all what I had expected. It never is. The first sight to greet us was a large purple and white tent like marquee set up as the staging point for our visit. We were ushered in by the World Vision staff accompanying us, there were about 5 of them and they all seemed thrilled at the chance to show off their work. A man was beating a drum and there were loud bangs of fireworks to welcome us.
Inside we were seated as guests of honour at a table set up at the head of the area. The tent soon filled with a few, then a few more and before long the entire, hundred or so strong, members of the village. The women sang songs of love and gratitude in honour of our visit. Individual and small groups of children took turns to dance for us or to sing more songs. We were then welcomed by the head of the village. Red dots were painted on each of our foreheads, Emma was wrapped in colourful scarves and flower garlands as were Amy and Oliver while my head was wrapped with cloth to form a turban.
Ramlekha herself was dressed in what I’m sure were her finest clothes and appeared a little overwhelmed. Not surprising. We felt much the same. The whole experienced exceeded any expectations. This was a most extraordinary reception. As we later told our hosts, the strength of gratitude that the people felt because of the work World Vision has done was palpable and it was being lauded upon us just because we had come to visit.
After all the welcoming, speeches, songs and dance we were ushered off for a private meeting with Ramlekha and her family. The World Vision folk did their best to facilitate this but the fact of the matter was that the village as a whole would not be dissuaded. We were followed by everybody on our way to Ramlekha’s house, highly curious eyes tracked our every movement, staring with curiosity, grinning and shying away if you made eye contact but popping back to keep ogling as soon as you looked away.
The village itself was simple and neat. There were no outward signs of poverty and unlike the Indian urban environments we have seen, the whole area was clean. Ramlekha, her parents and three siblings live in a colourfully painted mud-clad stone house not more than two metres wide and about six metres long. It was dark inside and significantly cooler than outside but there was also no light by which to see, I did notice a simple clay stove built into the ground. The front courtyard had been decorated with a coloured powder welcome sign for our visit. Though it was neat, it was also poor. Not poor in spirit, but poor in resources in a way I have not come across before.
Imagine having have to choose between taking a day off work to take a sick child into town to a doctor (if in fact it was possible to get there at all) and not earning a day’s wages which would mean you couldn’t buy food to feed the family that day. That kind of poor. Ramlekha will spend her entire life in that village, the only time she might travel further would be for serious illness. The aspirations of the village families are for a light in their house or things of that nature.
Malnutrition for children in communities such as this throughout Rajasthan runs at a staggering 98%. Well it does for communities where organisations such as World Vision are not present. The Indian government does what it can, but remote communities can apparently be beyond their reach or resources or both. World Vision’s intent to focus on those communities was genuine and moving. The reality is that people suffer and die out here and there is no support, no voice to advocate on their behalf, until World Vision or another NGO steps in. World Vision has recently commenced an ‘ambulance’ service to ensure that people can travel for help if it is needed – it is apparently used daily.
It is hard to wrap your head around the wealth hierarchy that exists within India let alone between India and other parts of the world. By Australians standards we are well off but not, I wouldn’t have said, obscenely rich. Yet here, I felt like Rupert Murdoch or James Packer. Even our comparatively wealthy and well off World Vision hosts could, I think, barely comprehend that we could travel the world for 12 months. They said little but their faces betrayed their thoughts.
Elsewhere throughout the village was tangible evidence of World Vision’s work in the form of water tanks and filters, toilets and bio-gas systems so that cooking by dried cow dung could be replaced with gas. Solar powered street lights were also scattered around and have apparently significantly improved safety, especially for women and children.
The installation and use of this infrastructure represents a hard won trust and relationship that has been established between the World Vision staff and the communities. We have been brought up knowing that sanitation and clean drinking water keep us healthy. The communities here have not witnessed this cause and effect and World Vision works diligently to develop their understanding which leads to acceptance and better health outcomes.
After a short tour of Ramlekha’s home we got down to the business of meeting each other. My mind still raced and I remember turning to Emma and asking, ‘what do we say?’. Face to face, and confronting the reality of how different our lives were it was really hard to know where to begin. But for all that, it wasn’t uncomfortable. The overarching joyful mood of the family along with the helpful World Vision staff to translate made for a fun interaction.
I think I asked a few inane questions to Ramlekha’s younger brother about school and what he liked studying and then had a go at asking them to teach us some short Hindi phrases, knowing that our clumsy efforts to repeat them would probably cause amusement – which it did.
Sport, it then occurred to me, is a fairly universal language and so we asked if they played cricket. Doesn’t everyone in India? Well no actually, these guys knew the game but not the rules. They were however appeased when we made clear that really didn’t matter. The cricket bat and ball we had given as a gift soon appeared and games followed.
A few brave souls leapt forward to play with us while the rest of the village lined the make-do pitch like spectators lining the finish of a Tour de France stage. Oliver bowled politely to our new friends and viciously to his father, but gaining ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of admiration when the chair offered for stumps was knocked clean out from behind me.
Before we knew it our time was up. We gathered in front of Ramlekha’s home for photos where Ramlekha’s dad really caught my imagination. His happiness was so vivid as he stood proudly by our side. Ramlekha herself still seemed overwhelmed and so we did not try to force interaction. The rest of the village, still hovering all around, provided more than ample opportunity for it not to matter. We walked back to the cars lead once more by the beating drum and followed by our admirers and before long we were on our way. It was a special day for us, and we hope for Ramlekha, her family and the village as well.
It can be hard when deciding from home which charity or international aid agency to support. You want to think that your money is doing some good on the ground and not being wasted on excessive administration. Goodness knows we filled out a mountain of paperwork to make this visit possible, but that could just be requirements of India’s bureaucracy which we have also grappled with elsewhere.
Despite the paperwork, the commitment and passion of the staff that accompanied us on this visit was undeniable. The Christian ethos underscoring the World Vision operation was real and heart warming in a way my skeptical views of the church at large is not. I can vouch for the tangible, on the ground infrastructure which is all there only because of World Vision’s work.
More than all that I know that an entire village forewent half a day’s wages that they could ill afford in order come and see us and express their appreciation. We are only one of 45 sponsors for this village but we may have well been paying for the whole lot the way we were received. If you can, sponsor a child. If you already have, sponsor another. We will be. You’re doing a world of good.