Saturday, 17 December 2016

Where to from here?

It is hard to believe that nearly a week has passed since I left the illam.  Already I miss the clear blue skies and the amazing sunrises and sunsets.  It sure beats the grey fogginess of London in December, and I defy anyone not to miss the laughter and the energy of the children.  This is the view that gazes across the landscape between my little abode and where the girls live.  Some mornings the field would be filled with goats, sometimes not, but it was always a magical view.

The next step in the story of the children of the illam will happen in London. I plan bring some of the magic, the images, and the stories of the children, many that they created themselves, to be seen here first.  Images and introductions will appear on the blog throughout the Christmas period.  An exhibition is planned for January. Stay posted for updates.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Exhibition

Last night we held an exhibition of the children's photographs at the DHAN Foundation headquarters in Madurai.  We even had a number of International guests attend the opening.

Something special for our photographers to put on their CV's.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Very Tasty

"Very tasty Aunty"  the boys assured me as they handed me the bright red "vegetable" indicating that I should eat it.  Hmm what is it?  "very tasty" they repeated.

They were right, it was delicious, sweet and yet not overly so.  It had seeds rather like a zuchinni and the flesh was a bit like a very ripe persimmon in texture.  Seeing that I enjoyed their offerings, they scaled back up the tree to pick more for me.  It was hard to convince them that after eating six I really didn't need any more.

What is it called?  I asked. That proved to be a challenge, as the Tamil word meant nothing to me, it sounded like a cross between guava and coconut.

I was certain it was a fruit.  They kept insisting it was a vegetable.  A vegetable growing in a tree seemed unlikely to me.  I hadn't figured on a hidden vine entwined in the tree. Over the next couple of days the children and staff and with a bit of help from google, we finally found the english translation.  It is in fact a vegetable, it is an ivy gourd. The Tamil name is Kovakkai.   In English (or Latin plant name) it is known as coccinia grand is.

My new tasty treat is also laden with health benefits.  Lots of vitamin A and C, protein and antioxidants.  It has been used in traditional medicine to treat leprosy, fever, asthma, bronchitis and jaundice.  New research has discovered it keeps your blood sugar levels in check.  And it has antihistamine properties.  I'll try that on my million mosquito bites and let you know the outcome.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

More of the children's images

Another peek at some of the images the children have created.  It is fun to see images on a screen but there is nothing quite like a print in your hand.  So yesterday I took the hour long trip on the local bus to Madurai in search of a printer.  I had a lot of local help and advice so it wasn't too difficult to find a place that could produce some great hard copy.  Not only that but they printed them straight away and  Indian prices made it affordable to print plenty of images.

We're now planning an exhibition to celebrate their work.

Monday, 28 November 2016

It's a wee bit chilly

Icy hands are placed on my arm to prove just how cold the children are.  My comparatively hot skin is an amusing novelty to them.   Temperatures in the low to mid 20's (celsius) I find rather pleasant and not at all cold.  By midday the mercury climbs back up to the low 30's to the relief of the children.  I'm looking for cool shady spots of course.  Comparing their winter with winter in London is a fun challenge.  "It's colder than inside your fridge" I tell them. They can't comprehend anything that cold.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Make a wish

The girls are whispering into the ear of a very powerful bull who apparently has a direct hotline to god.

On Saturday we took all the children of the illam to three heritage villages within the local region.  Villages whose rulers can be traced back to 300BC.  The trip was an opportunity to give them all a glimpse into some of their amazing history, visiting temples that are centuries old. Stone pillars at the entrance to the temples have inscriptions that are over a 1000 years old.  The trip was primarily educational and I hoped it would also prove to be a source of inspiration for their photography.

In the village of Thenkarai, at the entrance to the temple sits a very old statue of the god Nandhi, whose form is that of a bull.

There are so many deities in Hinduism that I'm having trouble remembering them all and what role they play.  What I can glean from my research on Nandhi is that he has a very special status and always sits at the entrance of the temple facing the Lord Shiva.

It all dates back to a time when the goddess Parvati, wife of Lord Shiva, lost her memory, so Shiva and Parvati spent a lot of time meditating in the hope this would aid its return and for a general peaceful wellbeing of course.   Nandhi was a trusted and loyal devotee of Lord Shiva, and so he joined the meditation.   This seemed to Lord Shiva's enemy, Jalandgar as a jolly fine time to abduct Parvati.   Shiva so engrossed in his meditation he didn't notice and no one seemed able to break through his meditative state to inform him of the danger. They hauled in Lord Ganesha (the god who takes elephant form) to try and get the message through to him.  But even he wasn't successful.  However he did notice that the the bull Nandhi had a special relationship with Shiva and was connected to him in the mediation ritual.  So, he whispered in his ear, "hey your wife's been abducted", which had the desired effect of getting Shiva and he then took notice of the events around him just in time, and all ended well.

"Lending an ear" has a whole new meaning here.  If you whisper something in Nandhi's ear you can be assured it will reach Shiva promptly.  Why the other ear is always covered I'm not sure, maybe that is so Parvati or Ganesha don't share your secret.

So what wish were the girls passing on to Shiva yesterday?  I believe they were all asking for a pass in their exams they are currently sitting.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

A trip to the barbershop

The boys weren't that keen on having their locks shorn.  Just like boys anywhere they like to gel and spike and be trendy.  They didn't complain loudly but their faces expressed it all.  

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

In our neighbourhood

The other night I went for a walk with the boys and their warden My Thirumalai (I'm never going to remember everyone's name) to the neighbouring village.  It is truly beautiful countryside (mosquitos aside), a perfect place for these kids to grow up and learn.

The region is agricultural and I subsequently learned an area where many NGO's have set up to help locals make changes in a variety of ways.  One of the NGO's I visited is teaching sustainable and organic farming practices.  This region has the lowest rainfall in all of India.  The great Vaigai river whose path runs from the Varusanadu hills to the sea, stretching 258km is mostly just dry river bed.

The farmers here are being encouraged to change crops selecting plants that are better suited to the conditions.  In the past, rice, bananas and coconut trees, the traditional crops, were all that were grown, relying heavily on fertilisers.  The use of chemicals has also impacted on the precious water supply.  It is not only farmers that are learning new methods of farming.  Nature camps are run for children, based on a Swedish model using play, they are encouraged to find solutions to imaginary environmental problems (that aren't so imaginary anymore).  The vision is a long term one, planning for sustainable farming whilst caring for the environment that will be second nature to the next generation.

Back to our walk, we met one of the local farmers who was tending his cows. He invited the boys to meet a couple of calves in his yard.

We need to get more boys experiencing life like this.  The Illam is restricted to eight boys until the new dormitory is built.  Which of course needs funding.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

No Washing Machines Here

Weekends are time to do the laundry.  Everyone is responsible for doing their own.  The outdoor laundry area consists of concrete slabs for soaping
and scrubbing the washing.  Followed by dunking into buckets of fresh water for rinsing.

There is one small line strung across the back of the laundry area but mostly it is hung over the fences around the illam.  In this weather it only takes an hour or two for drying.

How many teenagers do you know that would make washing look like this much fun and voluntarily do their own laundry??

Sunday, 20 November 2016


Much to the bewilderment of the locals I walk down to our local village.  It's about one and half kilometres, a distance locals wouldn't dream of walking.  They'd take an "auto" the yellow vehicles that in some parts of Asia are known as tuktuks.

The surrounding area is agricultural with lots of fruit and vegetable farms.  Large herds of goats and smaller numbers of cattle are constantly on the move to new grazing grounds.  Sounds idellyic and peaceful, and in parts it really is and very beautiful.  Once you get closer to the township and especially when you hit the highway it can only be described as chaos.  There are dozens of buses, tractors, carts pulled by animals or people plus the motorbikes zipping in and around traffic and people.  Every passing of vehicle, person or mosquito requires pumping the horn.  Yes this means a drivers hand never leaves the horn.  A melody that will remain with me for some time.  That and the weddings, but that tale is for another day.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

It's Cricket

Time to play.  With a nation that's crazy about cricket it comes as no surprise that this is one of the favourite pastimes of the boys.  They're at the tennis ball stage so no major injuries to them, me or the goats in the adjoining field.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Off to School

It's 8:30 in the morning and the children are off to the local schools.  The boys warden doubles as the bus driver, making two round trips twice a day.  One trip for the older kids and the other for the youngsters.  They'll return to the illam around 4:30 in the afternoon.

In recent years India's education policies on providing quality education for all is regarded as a major contributing factor to the country's economic development. One of the prominent policies that was the catalyst for change was that of the rights of all children between the ages of 6-14, to free and compulsory education.

However, the country still lags behind other developing countries such as China and Brazil in the numbers who then go on to higher education.  There are multiple and complex issues involved, poverty being one of the contributors.

The children at the Illam are some of the lucky ones that are assisted out of the poverty trap.  Supported and guided from primary to higher education and then into jobs.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Children's Day

Last night the children put on a spectacular event to celebrate children's day.  They had been practising and rehearsing for days (it may well have been longer than I witnessed).  We were treated to stunning classical Indian dance, a couple of witty drama pieces and readings and speeches.  Much of the latter I missed out on with not speaking the language.

The event was polished and professional.  Not only the talent in the performances but the organisation as well.  Future events organisers perhaps?

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The first results

  A few instructions on how to use the cameras, a discussion on composition and here are some examples of what the children have produced in their first week.

This is a very exciting start to the project.  The biggest challenge is finding time for photography in their incredibly busy day.  Every minute from the 4:30am rising until the 10pm bed time is scheduled and totally organised.   

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Learning Camera Skills

We’re off to a flying start with learning camera skills and being creative.  With the assistance of Mr Veera from the DHAN media team, as translator we had our first workshop on composition. 

 Everyone turned up for the event. If only I had 40 cameras instead of eight!  Working collaboratively is very powerful, the limitations of equipment may prove to be a blessing in disguise.  Necessity being the mother of invention and all that.

Perhaps not surprisingly the cameras do not include Tamil in the dozens of languages on their systems.  The plus side is that they are increasing their English vocabulary as a result. I am not increasing my Tamil word count at anywhere near the same rate.

Sunday is the children’s free day so last Sunday we spent a good part of the day experimenting with the cameras. It was such a joy to watch them in action.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

A Voyage to India

In a the small village of Nilakottai about an hours drive from Madurai in the Tamil Nadu region of India a little bit of magic takes place each day, changing the lives of disadvantaged children by giving them the chance to turn impossible dreams into reality.

It all started 25 years ago when Jean Watson a New Zealand (NZ) writer came to India on a holiday, and in spirit never left.  A chance meeting resulted in Jean selling her home in NZ to establish a children’s home in Tamil Nadu, South India.

The Karunai Illam Trust (KIT) a New Zealand charitable trust was set up in 1991 to help Jean fund the day to day running of the Illam. Karunai means grace and Illam means home.  It is a place that provides the children with a loving and stable home environment ensuring they are well fed and clothed.  They are given everything they need to attend the local schools for an education denied them before coming to the Illam, due to poverty, dysfunctional family or losing one or both parents.  At the Illam the children also receive tutoring over and above their school day, in academic subjects, sports, arts and culture.   Jean spent the rest of her life dividing her time between NZ and the Illam until her death in 2014 from a short illness.

In 2007 a partnership with the Development for Humane Action (DHAN) was established guaranteeing the future of the home and renamed to DHAN Karunai Illam (DKI).  Since then a nursery and primary school for local children has been set up offering places for around 250 children.  In addition DKI has established a vocational training school called ‘LIFE’ offering skill training in trades such as mobile phone repairing, computer training, beautician and tailoring, giving them a greater opportunity to earn a living.

How did I come to be here?  My journey is a more recent one, which began with a chance meeting with one of the NZ trustees of the Karunai Illam on a visit  “down under” in 2014.  I couldn’t help but be moved by the achievements of the charity, so when earlier this year they asked me if I could help them with their new project of course my answer was “yes”. 

At present the Illam provides a home for 36 girls and 8 boys, simply because that is what the current buildings can accommodate. The plan is to have an equal number of boys and girls.  In order to achieve this a new dormitory building for the boys is required.

I am a photographer so they asked if I could engage with the Illam and take photographs that could then be used to help raise funds for the new building - around INR 7,500,000 (GBP £90,000) is needed.

My aim is to develop a collaborative project of life at the Illam that enables the children’s voice to be heard with them telling their own stories using photography. So now with a handful of cameras kindly loaned by Photovoice, and buckets of enthusiasm, I am here guiding the children to learn camera skills and trying my best to remember everyone’s name.