Activities @ 1 Month
Miss the previous update about my work at the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh? Read it here.
One month down living at the leprosy community. Thus far, it has been an overwhelmingly positive and amazing experience, and since I’m here until at least the end of the year, it’s exciting to think about what may lie ahead.
Here's a look at what I've been up to during this time.
Life at the community
I generally arrive at the community early in the afternoon on Monday and leave Friday morning, so it is very much an immersive experience. In days that I'm not at the community, I stay at Safai Vidyalaya, an NGO on the Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram connected to Manav Sadhna, about an hour away.
I live in the office space of a large community center, a beautiful facility donated by Manav Sadhna supporters, created for social activities and workshops. I’ve got some mattresses on the floor for sleeping— it's a simple, no frills setup. A couple perks include mosquitoes not being an issue in this part of the city and the room staying fairly cool at night (night time temperatures hover around the mid- to upper 80s, sometimes more!).
For meals, I am well fed by a family nearby who takes care of breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner for me—at no cost. They're being extremely generous, as is the Indian custom of treating the "Guest as God."
Another family affords me use of their shower (I love bucket showers) and bathroom area.
Thankfully, both these families know enough English and I enough of the local language that we can get our points across. Since I now have mobile broadband, sometimes I will bring up Google Translate on the laptop and let my computer act as translator.
This community is a close knit tribe where everybody knows everybody and everybody takes care of everybody, something I believe has arisen out of its shared story of challenge and the social stigma that goes with the leprosy disease.
The generosity and humanity I’ve experienced, not only from the families that are taking care of me, but also from the community at large that has genuinely welcomed a stranger, has been humbling to say the least.
(When was the last time we helped a house guest wash their hands before a meal or invited a stranger over for tea to make them not a stranger anymore?)
It’s also worth mentioning again that this community is marginalized and relatively poor, filled with beggars earning less than $1/day and nobody earning more than a few thousand dollars per year.
Loving community (an affectionate nickname given to the community) indeed.
Not exactly a doctor...
I was recently approached by a woman who told me that her son’s front teeth haven’t grown in yet and could I help. On more than one occasion, I’ve been stopped to be explained to about various aches and pains. People seem to think I’m a doctor because of the work I've been doing with Guru.
I spend several hours of each day giving Jin Shin Jyutsu treatments, a form of natural medicine native to Japan, to various people in the community with various health complaints. I typically work in homes, almost always on the floor—I really enjoy the basic (uncomfortable, at times) setup.
Often, several children will follow me around and sit in on the sessions. This was really helpful in the beginning because they helped to make me less of a stranger with new people, and could also explain in the local language what I would be doing. They also help lighten the atmosphere through their constant laughing and playing.
It has been a privilege to give this kind of care to those I’ve worked with so far, here are some highlights.
I have a separate thread dedicated to my work with Guru, you can read the latest post here.
Guru is a young boy with Cerebral Palsy that I’ve been working with intensively. Guru’s main issue, to me, was the traumatized state I found him in, a result of a complicated birth that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
After a few weeks of treatment, he is looking much more present and alert, and he is hyperventilating less. He's also been able to eat Cerelac, a food for infants, where previously he could only take juice, water, and milk.
Amazingly, his natural, boyish happiness is bubbling up and often he smiles and laughs during our time together, especially when it is encouraged.
There has even been some (unexpected) physical transformation with Guru’s hips slowly rotating towards a center neutral position, as opposed to flopping to the left as they normally do.
The next step we're working towards is connecting him to Cerebral Palsy specialists, something that has never happened consistently because of financial issues, and the difficulty with transporting him around.
("Massie" or "Auntie" is a respectful way of referring to an older woman. I never did catch her actual name.)
Massie approached me early on complaining of migraine headaches that she’d been experiencing since having a heart attack, migraines that medication and injections had not been able to help with, and migraines she now reports are gone after only a couple of treatments.
I treated her outdoors like this on a few occasions, which attracted a crowd of on lookers.
This was helpful for creating some kind of understanding about what I do and who I am.
Biyama is a sweet, 60+ year old lady who introduced me to the plight of those in the community with leprosy, who also have to beg for a living
Biyama’s story of how she arrived at the community is one you hear repeated over and over again. She was forced to leave her village after she developed leprosy, leaving her entire family (who she hasn’t seen since) behind.
She now lives alone, in poverty, and begs to earn about Rs. 20 or 50 cents/day. Leprosy patients, even ones who haven't lost their fingers and toes, have a hard time finding employment because of the stigma surrounding the disease.
I gave Biyama some treatments after back-to-back eye operations she had, but really the time was about simply being with her and providing caring company, as she is more or less on her own.
I’ve just started with Siv Kumar, a young man in his 20s whose been diagnosed with epilepsy. He's been on heavy medication for the past 10 years and is still prone to the occasional seizure.
It has been quite something how working with Guru lead to a number of other residents taking interest in what I have to offer, which, admittedly, can look a little odd on the surface.
However, maybe you can see in the photo the kind of peace that is usually created during a treatment, which seems to be a universally appreciated quality.
Being an outsider and looking at the community with fresh eyes, I’m in a fortunate position to initiate new activities and projects. Here’s what we’ve been up to in this regard so far.
One of the first things I did was buy a volleyball net and ball, as I was told that the older kids love volleyball but had no net to use (and no money to buy it with) with the existing volleyball poles.
It was a fun experience driving around the city looking for the equipment and haggling for a discounted rate when we found a store that carried the items. After returning, I asked everybody to level out the field and clean up the trash, tasks which they took care of swiftly, before getting the net setup.
Yoga and Meditation
I started a yoga and meditation class for the young kids the first week I arrived and have since been doing it every evening on the temple grounds right before the nightly community aarti (Hindu ceremony).
The kids enjoy it and do well with the movements, and it’s amazing to watch them go into meditation where they become still and quiet (well, most of them).
Trip to the Zoo
We recently took all the kids to a landmark location in Ahmedabad that houses, amongst other things, a zoo, aquarium, science museum, amusement park, and a large lake (a spot I discovered in the ride searching for the volleyball equipment).
The night before we were schedule to go, Aruna (a young lady from the community who has been helping me organize activities and translate) and I sat the kids down and let them know the trip was a gift and that we wanted them to treat it as such. This heart-to-heart did the trick, as the kids were incredibly well behaved and respectful the whole time.
It was a big day, much chatted about in the community, and one built up with a great deal of anticipation. The kids were so excited when the Manav Sadhna khushi (happiness) bus arrived to pick them up and they smiled wide all the way to the location.
So they, many for the first time, got to see lions, tigers, snakes, elephants, exotic birds, and other animals, and also took a relaxing sunset ride around the lake by way of a small train.
The happiness beaming from their eyes when we returned, which rippled through the community that evening, as the starry eyed kids made their enthusiastic reports, made me realize why I decided to organize the event.
Being affiliated with Manav Sadhna has given me the opportunity to invite many inspirational people doing incredible with the underprivileged to our community to do special programs.
Our first such event was with Madhusudan Agrawal and Jyotsana Parmar from MAM Movies, a small organization that encourages social change through film.
Unfortunately, technical difficulties prevented Madhu and Jyotsana from playing all the short films they planned to show but their visit was not in vain!
Jyotsana introduced her project called Akshaya Patra. A simple idea, rich in philosophy, where rupees are slowly and intently collected in a recycled plastic bottle until full, then given away to somebody else to do something good for somebody else, in a pay-it-forward manner.
She designed this primarily for kids in poverty to teach them that despite their circumstances, they can still find a rupee or two to give, even if it takes a year to fill the bottle.
Could you imagine how you would feel if a group kids from a slum gave you one of these bottles, filled with money that had been donated by them over the course of a year?
Jyotsana distributed some rupees that had been collected to our kids, explained the concept, and invited them to continue the cycle and use the rupees to do something good for somebody else.
It was clear our kids were humbled by the sincerity, care, and compassion behind the project and it was a personal privilege to bear witness to one of their first introductions to the philosophy of generosity.
Foot Washing and Sandal Distribution
One of the Manav Sadhna pre-school teachers approached me and said she had about 50 pairs of new sandals she wanted to distribute to the kids at the community. We picked a date and I thought it would also be good to setup foot washing stations and wash all the kids' feet before distributing their new shoes.
I’ve never had an idea quite like this before but I’m glad we went with it in faith. All the foot washers that came to participate in the event had such a good time making all those small feet clean and the kids loved it too, as well as their brand new sandals.
Loving Leadership Program
Last, but far from least, is the newly launched "Loving Leadership" program I’ve designed for
11 unique kids, ages 9 to 15 , who have made a strong impression on me over the past few weeks.
They’ve impressed me because all have exceptionally caring characters, take initiative, and are always willing to lend a helping hand. Qualities that are not typically the norm in slum environments.
The idea is to do a special 6-month program with this group to further nurture their potential, and perhaps encourage some to get involved with community matters in the future.
We got off to a phenomenal start last week, the details of which I will save for a future post dedicated to this specific topic.
For now, all the kids agreed to participate in the program (the option was given for them not to) and we all left our first meeting inspired, enthusiastic, and looking forward to the journey that lies ahead.
Their first homework assignment? Use the smile card, perform a random act of kindness, and journal about the experience.
When I first arrived in the community, I would get up in the morning and wonder what I would do all day, as I didn't have much to do.
By visiting with Guru and getting to know the kids and simply spending day-after-day living in the community, this naturally lent itself to the development of all the activities in this update. Now, I'm pretty busy each day, as things are really rolling along.
Continue to the next update about my work at the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh.