By FATHER JOHN GEANEY, CSP
You don’t know Abraham Edassery. He’s 5 feet 10 inches tall, has a good crop of hair, a strikingly handsome face. Like many of the people in India, he has an amazing gentleness. The gentleness masks a no-nonsense dedication to the poor of India. Abraham is the manager for human capacity development for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Calcutta. His eyes helped my eyes to see. His words helped me to understand. His concern for the people of Hasimpur and Suchetana-Rama Kant forced me to rethink what aid to developing nations means.
Calcutta is called The City of Joy in Dominique la Dupiere’s book of the same name. When I was there, I found none of that joy. What I saw was a city marred, overwhelmed by poverty. People do the daily cleansing ritual that is sacred to Indians at pumps in the street because there is no water in the shacks, or the tents, or the cardboard in which they live.
Tent cities do not provide showers. There’s no place to throw the garbage except in the street. The pollution is overwhelming. It creates a lung searing, eye tearing, throat scratching assault. And that assault is secondary to the constant noise of cars, trucks and buses whose horns seem never to stop and brings with them the cacophony of sound that marks Calcutta traffic.
But the most difficult assault is the one that brings the beggars to your elbow. “No mama, no papa, please mister,” they say. Their tone and attitude would break the heart and open the pockets of a stone scrooge. How do you refuse a child of 13 or 14 with another barely clothed child of five or six months riding on her hip as she pleads, “please mister.” And how do you turn away from the constant pleadings of vendors willing to sell almost anything. “Post cards, mister, 250 rupees.” Within moments the cost is down to 50 rupees and the sale is made. But in the next instant there will be another trying to sell something else.
There is no peace in the streets of Calcutta only poverty, pain and too little human indignity.
Seventy percent of the people in India rely on the land to make a living. Eighty percent of those people or 504 million (the total U.S. population is 220 million) live below the poverty line which is $4,000 a year. Only 57 percent of the people of India are able to read and write, only 40 percent of India’s women. Where do you begin to make a dent? How do you reach into people’s hearts and help them to find their human dignity again?
Abraham would smile and tell you a story about Hasimpur, a village about a two-and-a-half-hour ride from Calcutta. He would tell you about the Safe Mother and Child Survival program. He’d introduce you to Sister Teresa who is training mothers in villages like Hasimpur to speak up and to speak out so that they will be able to feed themselves and nourish the children they’re carrying or learn to feed correctly the children born to them. It’s almost impossible to believe in Charleston, or Mount Pleasant, in Clemson or in Hilton Head that women would not know that in order for a child to be healthy, its mother must be healthy and well fed. But the caste system that was for so long a part of the social structure of India is dying only slowly. That system dictated that the peasants on farms were the lowest of the social classes and among those “untouchables” women were and are the most discriminated against. So the Safe Mothers and Child Survival program put together by Catholic Relief Services and its partners is slowly, village by village, changing the face of India.
And what happens when a child begins to grow? Will they have an opportunity for education or will they follow the ancestral customs that mean they will never get beyond the poverty into which they have been born?
braham takes us to Suchetana-Rama Kant, a village with a day care center. It’s not like the day care centers in the United States. This one is perhaps 70 feet long and about 10 feet wide. It has a dirt floor, and a roof to keep the rain out during the monsoons. Light comes into the day care center through spaces cut in the walls. There are no windows or screens. As we arrive, the children are finishing their lunch which they eat with their hands in true Bengalese fashion. They finish their lunch and gather together to impress their visitors. Suddenly, I’m hearing a familiar melody with familiar gestures in a language I’ve never encountered.
The children of Suchetana-Rama Kant are singing “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” in their native Bengal tongue. The children are being taught to use their imaginations, to enjoy the educational process, and it’s clear they’re doing exactly that. Will these two programs change India and the grinding poverty that is so much a part of life there? Probably not. But these programs do encourage growth and development in rural India. And over the years, CRS and its partners have learned that more progress is made slowly by adapting to local culture than by forcing Indian people to adopt Western ways. Americans would want to figure out how many children need education, divide up the country, train the teachers in huge numbers and build day care centers and schools wherever they are needed. But it isn’t the way Indian people operate. So CRS works with the people as it finds them.
Workers like Abraham give CRS a face that is compassionate, caring, and understanding of local customs. That’s what gives Abraham a deep sense of achievement. He and other CRS workers like him with names like Sean and Duma, Carmen and Kamal, Aram and Ariel, Lori and Tommy come from Massachusetts, South America, Delhi, Calcutta, Wisconsin and Jaipur.
And every one of them is dedicated to helping India help itself to become a more human place. A place in which people can live well — free of disease and the poverty that seems at times, to be the glue that holds Indian society together.
Paulist Father John Geaney is a communications consultant to the Diocese of Charleston. He traveled to India last month to observe the work of Catholic Relief Services in that country.