Bhimanapally, small Indian village

This is a translation from the blog: “Bhimanapally, petit village indien », published on the 4th of November. More photos of Bhimanapally are posted in the French blog.

We have now been in Bhimanapally for 2 weeks, or more exactly in the settlement of Kammaguden, next to Bhimanapally. Kammaguden is a very small village of around 300 Catholic families, and it is situated in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Traveling from Udaipur in Rajasthan to this small village took us 2 days and a half…. We started with a 5 hour bus journey and experienced the « comfort » of Indian roads. As our Indian guidebook describes it most appropriately, it was a real «  bone rattling » experience! Then, we travelled by train for another 24 hours… These 24 hours of train were in fact quite nice and seemed to pass quickly, as we had time to read and play. Xavier started to learn to play Chinese chess, which is very different from our traditional chess game. The countryside we passed was beautiful and contemplating it, while drinking Indian tea, a sweet and spicy tea that we buy from sellers on the train, made the journey seem quite short, in the end! We had lunch and dinner on the train and while lunch was not too bad, dinner was the same meal, only not as fresh as lunch… At a few stops in particular, I wast amazed to discover that cows were actually grazing on the rails and some were even resting in the shade under some wagons, at railway stations…

When we arrived in Hyderabad, we were welcomed warmly by Father Ignatius’ family. It is through Father Ignatius that we discovered this little village and were invited to come for a month. Born in Bhimanapally, he is now priest in the United States. One of his projects for this village is to build a computer centre, so that children and teenagers can learn computer skills and find a job more easily in the future. Indeed, life in Bhimanapally is not easy and many families are poor, and being able to find a job can make all the difference for these young people. When we first got in contact with Father Ignatius, we were supposed to come and teach computer skills to the children, but then the computer building completion got delayed, through lack of money essentially, for nearly all the funds come from donations from the USA.

Originally, we were to spend a few days in Hyderabad before going to Bhimanapally, but, on arrival, we found that plans had changed and we headed straight to Bhimanapally. We were hoping to post our blogs and tell our families of our roundabouts as well as do a bit of shopping and withdraw some money, but there was no real time for this. We had no idea what to expect about Bhimanapally, as none of our guidebooks mentioned such a small village. We were not even sure were it was situated… While our hosts spoke good English, we still found it difficult sometimes to communicate, the Indian accent being quite different from ours (and our English accent being difficult for our hosts). After a good one hour journey in car, we stopped at a little village where we were expected for lunch. It was the second time we were invited for a meal in an Indian family, since being in India, and, every time, we were surprised by the Indian way of receiving, so different from ours. Indeed, our hosts served us and remained attentive to our every needs while watching us eat, and it is only when we had finished eating that they started to serve themselves and eat. Not yet completely used to eating with our fingers, using only the right hand, while balancing the plate on our knees, we gladly used the spoons that were provided for us… Then, we resumed our car journey and after ¾ of an hour, wondering at every small village we crossed whether we were in Bhimanapally (every village being smaller than the preceding one), we finally spotted a church in the distance… We had at last arrived at Bhimanapally, after 2 days and a half journey!

On our arrival, we were welcomed by Father Fathima, priest of Bhimanapally. We are lodged in the old presbytery, just next to the church: one big room to cook and eat, another big room to sleep and a small room to wash. The beds are Indian beds: they are made of a metal frame, with straps criss-crossing. These straps form the bed structure… and the mattress also. The wash room is equipped with a cold water tap: we fill buckets and use small recipients to pour water on us to “shower” or to “flush” the toilets…. Shobarhani and Pratap, Father Ignatius’s relatives, welcome us and lend us everything we need to cook: a gas stove, pans, plates and some cutlery. We even have a fridge, but electricity is cut for the main part of the day… I must learn to cook the Indian way, as there are few resources available here and as I am not sure how to cook them. Shobarhani shows me how to prepare and cook rice and curry, as well as chapatis. Indeed, the meals consist mainly of rice, served with a vegetable curry, and very rarely, on special days only, a meat curry. In the evening, women also prepare chapatis (flat Indian bread) to go with the rice and curry.

The area where we are is very dry and arid, and few vegetables and fruits grow. The courgettes are the size of our green pickles, while eggplants are no bigger than our tomatoes… For a living, people grow cotton, as this plant requires little water (in fact, only four good rains are enough to get a good crop). The fields are small and the crop (only once every year) is entirely dependent on rain. When we arrive, people are awaiting with anxiety the 3rd rain which is not coming. Without this rain, the cotton, the only real source of financial revenue for most families, will be lost. In fact, now that winter is coming, the odds of getting rain are very reduced, and some fields have started to dry up. Some families thus already know that they will have no financial resources until the next crop and some, who have had to borrow money, know they will not be able to reimburse their loans.

A few families have bore wells, which means that they do not depend on rain. Little by little, Father Julian, another priest born in Bhimanapally and settled in the United States, is trying to collect money to have more bore wells built. Father Julian is in Bhimanapally for a few days, on holidays, and we are lucky to be present while new bore wells are being dug. A ceremony is organised and, while we try to sit discretely in the back, people gesture to us to come to the front where chairs have been reserved for us… The kindness and generosity of all here is always very touching and quite impressive… The digging truck is blessed and we all go to the field where the first bore well is going to be dug. The family, for whom this bore well is being built, invites us along with Father Julian and Father Fathima. There is no guarantee that the bore well will be successful and yield water, and even if nearly all precautions are taken to ensure that the site has water underground (a geologist comes to study the place and determine where to dig the bore well), some have to be stopped because of hard layers of rocks or lack of water. On this occasion, 3 of the bore wells yield enough water, but the 4rth one, unfortunately, doesn’t give any water.

In this village, all the inhabitants are Catholics and of the same caste (there are around 5000 different castes in India). They came to settle here in 1919, from the area of Madras, with the Italian Fathers who were with them at the time. They came in search of lands to cultivate and this migration movement was facilitated by the Central Authorities, as they wanted to encourage the cultivation of commercial crops, such as tobacco, chilli and cotton, plants that native people did not cultivate. The natives of the soil could not tolerate these new people, from a different caste and religion, to settle among them, so they settled just next to Bhimanapally and formed the settlement of Kammaguden. Today, there are around 300 families, and the total population is 2154 people. Such a village, where all the inhabitants are Catholics, is quite exceptional in India, as Christians only represent 2,3% of the Indian population, and as normally, Christian families are mixed with Hindu families in villages and towns. Most of the time, this cohabitation is peaceful and good, but these last 10 years, some Christians have been persecuted and killed by fanatical Hindus, particularly in the area of Orissa.

In Bhimanapally, people are deeply religious, in a way we have seldom witnessed elsewhere. In fact, we can feel that every moment of the day, every action, is deeply rooted in prayer and turned towards God. Vocations from this village are plentiful, as there have been already 16 priests ordained and more than 40 nuns have come from this village. Also, 25 seminarians from this village are now studying for priesthood. At 5.30 in the morning, the bells ring and Father Fathima reads the Angelus and the Gospel of the day. His microphone can be heard in all the village, for all those who will not be able to come to Mass, as they have to work in their field or try to find employment for the day. For us, who are sleeping just next to the Church, and who are not naturally early risers, this wake up call at 5.30 in the morning is a bit hard… though no doubt very good for us… All the children of the village, as well as the ones from the boarding school and all the adults who can come, gather in the church to pray and have Mass at 6.30. Every evening, at 5.30 in the church or at 7.30 in front of a house in the village, the Rosary is prayed and it is the children who are leading the prayers and reading. Their loud voices echo in the church in a very moving and impressive way. In fact, children learn to read, sing and answer with loud voices in school, and these strong voices contrast with the quiet and tiny voices we sometimes hear in our own schools… For us, there is something deeply moving as we listen and pray with these children. Bare feet, seating on the floor with our legs crossed , we pray with them in our own language, as everything here is in Telugu.

The priests of this village are very active and, day after day, try to make life a bit easier for their people. Some years ago, after the initiative of a priest, good brick houses were built to replace the simple huts some families were living in, and now every family has a real house with one or several rooms to live in. Equally, every house now has a water tap linked to the home. In this area, water contains too much fluoride, and elderly people have deformed joints and walk with difficulties because of this. One Father, with donations he was able to collect, had a water filter station built to purify the water and avoid these problems. For women, the Sisters have started an embroidery workshop, to help them have some revenue. Also, thanks to money collected, one Father had a little dispensary started: one bed, a few medicines and kits to draw blood samples and analyse them, thus allowing early detection of any real serious health problem. The money also pays for a doctor to come and visit Bhimanapally twice a month…

The two schools of the village are run by Sisters and Priests. The education is mainly in Telugu, and this is a problem, as only English will allow these children to find real jobs later on. This means that families who can afford it send their children to English boarding schools in bigger towns. The primary school, run by 7 nuns, has started this year a Kindergarten section, all in English. We go there every morning to sing and teach simple English rhymes to the children. We adapt the words to make them easier or more suited to Indian culture. This way, for example, “Old MacDonald” is now called Farmer Joseph and the cows do not do “moo moo”, but “emba” and the dogs “bow pow”…The Sisters try to obtain permission to extend this English teaching to older classes, but oddly enough, the government does nothing to facilitate the process, though eradicating poverty and pushing education are supposed to be among its main priorities… Obtaining permission is a costly process that has to be repeated every 5 years if it is successful. Also, the secondary school, run by a priest, is seeking permission to extend its teaching to 12th class, instead of stopping at 10th class. This way, every child in this village could study up to the age of 18 years old, as some families cannot afford to send their children to other places to study after their 10th class. Finally, the completion of the computer centre will allow children to learn computer skills and help them to find jobs later on. Indeed, computer is one of the most promising sector for employment here and Hyderabad is even sometimes nicknamed “cyberabad”.

In the meantime, the primary school has 5 computers, donated from abroad, but the power cuts during the day make it hard to teach computers. Xavier made didactic programs to teach the children how to use the keyboard. To install them on the school computers though, we needed one little installation file that we could only find on Internet… Less than ½ an hour after trying to install them at school, one local villager, Lourdes, arrived with his motorcycle to take Ian to a small town, where there was ONE computer with an Internet connection, the computer being at the back of a little bangle shop… When they arrive, there is no electricity in the town… Finally, when power comes back, Ian finds the file he needs, but the connection is so bad that he hardly manages to download it. Trying in vain to get all our emails or to send some, he must acknowledge defeat… We will have to wait to read all our emails or to post our blogs, till we get to a bigger town…

For us, life in this village is full of discoveries and the children enjoy it. We are learning to live with very little, compared to what we are used to… Ever since we started this round the world tour, we have been living with less and less: only one travelling bag each, 3 pair of trousers and 3 tee-shirts or shirts each… In Gwexintaba, we learnt to live without water to wash even our hands for a week (by far the biggest challenge…). Here, electricity is cut for the main part of the day (it is reserved for industries and towns) and sometimes, there is not enough water as the electrical pump is not working. The tiny shops (which we would not call shops in our countries) have very few items (only basic ones) and our meals, all consisting of rice, are very simple, without any luxury… We have hardly eaten meat since we arrived in Bhimanapally, only when invited, and fruits are a luxury here, and can only be found in nearby towns… We know that people who receive us can hardly afford to prepare meat for us or to give us fruit, and still, to our great embarrassment, they all go to great length to offer us the best they can… The generosity of the people in this village, who have very little, is a great lesson… Also, everywhere we go, people try to find chairs for us, the mere idea that we sit on the floor like them seeming to be quite inconceivable… Little by little, though, they seem to realise that we want to live as they live and share their way of life…

We slowly adopt Indian ways and we can now eat with our fingers, using only the right hand, and we can cook Indian food (though my currys still do not have exactly the right consistency…). We are a great source of curiosity for people in this village, and particularly for children, as we are the first white family to come and live in their village. As soon as we go out, all the children crowd around us and want to touch us and shake our hands. The women come to see what I cook and how I do it, and we try to communicate, though it is not easy, as everyone here speaks Telugu and very few can speak English. We have learned a few words in Telugu, but conversations are still quite limited… The children call us “uncle” and “aunty” and, every day, they call with insistence for Xavier, David, Eric and Amandine to come and play with them. Sometimes, we would like to be a little more on our own, but we know how lucky we are to be able to discover life in this little village and to be accepted and welcomed like this.

We participate in the village’ s events and, since we arrived, in the same week, we went to two funerals, one baptism and one wedding. People who die during the night or in the morning are buried within the same day and the whole village is present at the funerals. As for the wedding, the bride is dressed with a superb orange and red sari and wears her most beautiful jewels. Her hair are beautifully adorned with flowers of many different colours. The groom is all in white. Everyone has put his best clothes for the celebration and the colours of all the women’s saris form an extraordinary multicoloured pattern. For this event, Shobarhani lends me a beautiful blue sari and helps me to fasten it securely (with safety pins…). Another woman, Juvitha, seeming to find that I have too few jewels, lends me hers. Amandine also wears Indian clothes and her hair are adorned with orange flowers attached together and prepared by Shobarhani, and her hair style is supervised closely by many women. It is obvious that people appreciate seeing us adopt Indian clothes, and I am happy to be able to get closer to them. Amandine’s outfit is a superb pink skirt with an embroidered black top and a pink scarf. Girls here, though from poor families, are dressed beautifully in vivid colours, and their clothes are embroidered and often glitter. We bought Amandine’s outfit in a nearby village with Pratap’s family and they negotiated the price for us, as buying at the marked price would not be right… The marked price was 300 rupees (around 5 euros) and the final price is 200 rupees (around 3.2 euros).

The cost of life in India is very low compared to ours, and this is not surprising since, here, in Bhimanapally, a day’s wage (when people can find work) is around 50 rupees for women and 75 rupees for men (that is less than one euro for women and hardly more than one euro for men for one day’s labour…). People who seek daily jobs cannot find jobs everyday and, when the crops fail, there is no money and people have to buy food asking for credits… Understandably, life is not easy for many, especially as prices of basic necessities represent a good part of one day’s wages: the price of rice, for example, is of 27 rupees a kilo, sugar 21 rupees a kilo, tomatoes 16 rupees half a kilo and oil 70 rupees a litre… One day’s work thus allows people to buy 2 to 3 kilos of rice or only one litre of oil, which is often the only fat used for cooking and which is necessary to prepare chapatis and currys. Some families have buffaloes or oxen, but if the crop is lost, some of them will probably have to sell them as they will not be able to feed them.

One morning, Father Fathima takes us to another village where 8 Catholic families are settled amongst Hindus families. To get there, we use an autorickshaw and, we are now getting used to it, we all jump happily at every hole in the earth road… In this village, a church is slowly being built, but money is scarce, even though nearly all the labour is provided by the Catholic families and the land was donated by the first Catholic family who settled in this village. Meanwhile, Mass is celebrated in front of one of the houses. I cannot help wondering what is the reaction of Hindu families to this church being built in the village, but Father Fathima tells us that they like the presence of a church and of a life of prayers. They are also touched by the way these Catholic families live. In this village, the land is even dryer than in Bhimanapally and many have already lost their crop of cotton. After Mass though, we are all invited to stay for a breakfast of “semoule” and curry. Indian hospitality is as always so generous…

Yesterday, Sunday 2nd of November, we all went to Mass in the cemetery. The whole village is gathered there and many relatives came from nearby towns or villages to join their family. Our presence amongst them seem to be appreciated and we are moved by the way they celebrate this day. Candles are lit everywhere on the graves which are covered with flower petals and people have been preparing this moment since early morning. Joy and sadness, smiles and tears intermingle… Many have lost children or a husband.. and all are there to remember.

Today, 3rd of November, is Eric’s birthday. Father Fathima offers Mass for Eric, and right after Mass, comes with a birthday cake that he has had prepared just for this occasion. The Sisters are also here and have also prepared a birthday cake! Eric, who was worried that he would not have a birthday cake, as there was no way for us to buy or make a cake here, is reassured and overjoyed… We are all the more touched by the attention that children’s birthdays are not particularly celebrated here… Everywhere, we are treated with generosity and attention, and also a touch of curiosity, and we really fully appreciate this welcome and this simple life that we can share.

There would still be many things I could write about, but it will have to wait for next blog. Tomorrow, for the first time, we are going to a town (Nalgonda), where we will be able to find a real Internet connection (or so we hope)! Nalgonda is situated at 40km from Bhimanapally and it will take us one hour and a half by autorickshaw to reach it… Thus, today’s priority is writing and completing our blogs… Be patient for the next news, they will come at the latest in 2 weeks, when we leave Bhimanapally… or before if we have another opportunity.

As you can see, we are all happy living in this village and feel privileged to have all these opportunities to meet people and discover their way of life and share in it. We still keep you all in our thoughts and thank you for all your mails and comments that we hope to be able to download tomorrow and read in the next few days…

English in China.

English is definitely not enough to get around in China. It is second best to Chinese but it is far off the mark. We realised that as soon as we arrived in Hong Kong. And it just got worse as we went into mainland China.

Nevertheless, it seems to be a political will to encourage young Chinese to learn English. Posters boast about how they can give you a fulfilling life by teaching you English. Being an English teacher in China is a great asset. Schools will pay you well by Chinese standards and help you with sorting out your visa.

Young Chinese children are taught English in primary school, and when they see a foreigner like us they will try out their counting or a more risky “hello”. An all-girls English institute in Yangshuo holds a party every Thursday. The young teenagers go over town and invite any English speaking tourist they can find. The party is for them a way to practise their English.

Now Chinese obviously don’t always ask for help when translating to English. The resulting texts, even graved in stone are quite amusing. “Don’t stick your body outside” is interesting.

China has still a long way to go, but if they keep up the way they are going and accept to ask for some help, in a generation or so, travelling to China might be quite a bit easier… and Chinese will have opened up the world for themselves.