Education Is Our Light On The Path To Freedom
“Let us take care of the children for they have a long way to go. Let us take care of the elders, for they have come a long way. Let us take care of those in between for they are doing the work.”
~ African Prayer ~
In 1994 our state, then Uttar Pradesh, had the highest rate of infant mortality and lowest rate of women’s literacy in the nation. 75% of school age children were suffering from malnutrition.
Schools were few and far between. Many of the dilapidated old buildings were damaged and unsafe. Most students were studying in the dirt, without drinking water, desks, or books . Many schools had no road access and up to 100 children in different classes with only one teacher.
In most schools girls were not allowed by families to study due to heavy workload at home. Girls quickly came first when we implemented the rule that any family that had girls and boys had to send all girls to school in order for boys to receive assistance.
I didn’t come here to do social work. I came to do my own spiritual sadhana on the banks of Ganga but It didn’t take long for these poor village children to capture my heart with their ragged clothes, open sores, distended bellies from malnutrition, vibrant smiles that having nothing couldn’t deter, and a keen desire to learn. Something had to change.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the Change you want to see.”
There was nothing to say but YES!! The Say Yes Now project was born.
Youth Education Service
Nutrition Opportunities Women’s empowerment
Our first objective was to tackle their malnutrition by providing nutritious hot lunches in their schools. Next was medical care, clean drinking water, village sanitation, followed by additional teachers, books, desks, warm winter clothing, building repairs and on it went.
Over the next 14 years, Ramana’s Seva Samiti’s programs provided educational assistance to over 1800 children in 68 villages, achieving 100% literacy and zero malnutrition in school age children in 22 mountain villages.
In some schools drinking water was available but “untouchable” children were not allowed to drink it. When I started serving lunch these children were also made to sit and eat separately; which of course I would not allow. In our first attempts to overcome the rigid caste system in place in many of these schools, we were met with opposition and even violence to the point where I needed police protection.
Next came the women. With the shortage of good teachers, the mother’s role in the home became even more important in the children’s education process. Because the number one cause of death for village women was respiratory infections caused from cooking over open fires in their homes, our first job was to build clay cooking chulas with chimneys in hundreds of village homes. photo
Next came women’s literacy followed by empowerment through vocational training. We trained 100s of village women in tailoring and then offered them employment stitching school uniforms and knitting warm sweaters.
In many villages the women did all the work, caring for the family, the animals, carrying wood, water , and fodder long distances while the men did little more than gamble and make “hooch”, their own liquor, which was often poisonous in itself besides the damage it did to their families. The women appealed to me for help and we launched an anti-alcohol campaign whereby we confiscated and burned all the men’s liquor over and over till they gave it up. Since the women were now empowered as the money earners in the family the men lost a lot of their control over their lives for the better.
It didn’t take us long to realize that the uncontrolled overuse of dangerous pesticides and fertilizers was making the produce we purchased unsafe to consume and serve to the children. We had no choice but create our own organic farms and start kitchen gardens in schools to teach the children to grow their own safe, healthy, organic vegetables for lunch.
I had no training or experience in social work so everything was a first for me. Over the years we shared so many firsts and learned to make a difference together. The first and most important thing I could give them was hope for a better future and belief in themselves that they could change their own lives.
Some “firsts” we shared together: plenty of nutritious food, books, desks, hygiene lessons, toothbrushes, playground, yoga, painting, sewing a button, cuddly soft toys, theatre, music, sandwiches, our pony named Poni, wheelchairs, hot-fudge sundae
Three years down the road our project was attacked by negative elements and corruption. We lost our home and were forced to flee with only what we had on our backs and could carry in our hands. The first nights we spent sleeping on the roadside since no hotel would allow my untouchable and Nepali staff accommodation. Finally we found the site that we would transform into Ramana’s Garden. There was nothing but dirt, big rocks, a lot of scorpions, and two old trees. Our dear friends the Briggs family sent us canvas domes from Oregon to live in. The children gathered stones from the river and we started construction. We haven’t stopped building and improving for more than one month in the last 15 years. If I didn’t wake up to hammering I wouldn’t know I was home.