Thursday, January 06, 2005

School cleaning

Dear Friends,
Yesterday I went to Nagapattinam to clean up a school with the team from Orissa and Maharastra. We had planned to leave at 8:30, but breakfast wasn’t served until 8, and the bus to take us there didn’t arrive until 9, at which point we had to get everyone together to get on the bus. Oriyas are harder to herd than cats! We had somehow to fit 30 people, digging tools, buckets, and several large boxes of medical supplies into a bus made for 15 passengers. A number of people (I had no idea how many people there were in this team until they tried to fit on the van, as I had never seen more than five or six at a time) had to sit on the roof, which they climbed up on as the van began to move. I was squished into a corner, balancing a box on my lap.
As we rode from Kuthur to Nagapattinam, the people on the bus began to sing prayers, or at least that’s what I think they were, as they were all in Hindi or Oriya, and could just as easily have been grocery lists. Noticing my bemused look, they decided to find something I could understand, and began to sing "We Shall Overcome." First they tried singing it in English, but quickly switched to Hindi, as I began to sing along. All of them knew more verses in Hindi than I do in English. They asked me to sing something, which I did, but I was too squashed to really get enough air. This overloaded bus full of khadi-wearing (khadi is the homespun cloth worn by Gandhians) people singing in out-of-tune Hindi attracted some very strange looks from people along the road.
The coastal area of Nagapattinam looked exactly the same as it did on Monday, though perhaps with fewer goats around. We parked the van and carried our tools to the school, splitting up with the doctors, who were going to staff a medical camp. At the school, the cleaning of which had been started the previous day, the floor of one of two classrooms was covered with a layer of dirt 12-18 inches deep. Two bodies had been found there the previous day, when it had been full of broken furniture as well. The water had been ten feet high in the school, as shown by a brown line on the wall. There was a strong smell of dirty mud, like a compost pile that has not been turned in years. We began to work, breaking up the soil with mattocks and picks and shoveling it into buckets with spades. The buckets were then emptied on the soil outside. About an hour into the work, I got a small cut on my toe from a careless mattock swing, and went to get it cleaned at the doctors’ tent. They were swamped with people complaining of injuries, coughs, and dysentery, and that day they treated 90 patients. Fortunately the cut was very minor, and had healed cleanly by the time I got back to Kuthur. After that, however, I switched from using a mattock to a spade or to emptying buckets.
There were many people working on the site, and so within three hours we had shoveled all of the dirt out of the rather large room, at which time we went to have lunch, which was yellow rice, lentils, and lemon pickle. We returned to sweep up the dust covering the floor, and I met two students at the school, a small boy and a nine-year-old girl named Kaileras, who had lost her father in the tsunami. As we swept, the BBC and the Indian National News both arrived to film us, the BBC shooting from a distance and the INN coming inside to show the transformation.
The Oriya Sarvodaya people can be very playful, almost childlike. One of the team found a small, live crab inside the school, and promptly put it down another’s shirt, not once, but three times. (After the third time I told the victim he should have expected it.) They are still trying to convince me that one man’s name is Mercedes, even though the name on his ID badge reads Sachin Patil. This is some sort of inside joke that I do not get, and even if I managed to get it explained I probably wouldn’t understand, as their accents are extremely difficult to comprehend.
Krishnammal arrives to visit some of the fisher folk. She looks at the work we have done and says, "It’s good, but I want these peeling walls whitewashed, and I want new furniture for the school. We must let these people make a new start." We pick up our tools. When I ask why, I learn that we must clean another school as well! We walk to this second school, put down our tools, and find that to get inside we must break open the blue metal doors. Inside there is complete chaos. Benches, tables, cabinets and desks were all picked and smashed against each other by the waters. The room is almost completely impassable. I find an orange "welcome" sign, obviously cross-stitched by a child, and hang it on a hook on the wall. One of my fellow workers discovers a jar of chocolates, the contents completely untouched by the wave. A teacher from the school arrives, and we have to tell him that unfortunately the necessary water for cleaning has not been supplied and we will have to come back the next day.
I leave with Krishnammal, though the rest of the team has to wait until the doctors have finished and will not arrive at Kuthur until 6 in the evening. I arrive, filthy and tired, and learn that there is a shower in the new building. I take my first shower since leaving the Delhi airport. (Note: My Dad just arrived and told me there is a snow emergency. He meant at Smith, but I was sure he was joking about snow in Nagapattinam! It is been unseasonably cold here for Tamil Nadu – the temperature likely has reached 64 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and while this makes it easier to work, adds to the misery of the tsunami survivors.)
When I came out, I found Krishnammal talking to a Muslim man (recognizable as such by his plaid dhoti) in dark glasses. When he left, Amma told me, "This man is blind, but he still cares for his family and for the poor. He himself has enough, as his brother and sister both work in Dubai, and send money home, and he manages the family accounts. But he spends most of each day going from village to village (he feels his way!), talks to people, and finds those in need (he doesn’t care whether they are Hindu or Muslim, and he will get them food and better houses. When merchants see him coming, they give him things – a little money – perhaps 60 or 70 rupees a day, packets of biscuits, etc. He then comes back, finds the original village he visited, and distributes what he has collected to the poor. He does this every day. What a happy man! He lives near here, in a house he designed himself, even though he is blind."
Here among all of these people I feel truly blessed by God. I must now get ready to go back to Nagapattinam. There is more digging to do.
In the Light,
P.S. Krishnammal reports that the state and federal governments are growing tired of the international relief agencies, and their lack of coordination. There is likely some truth to the complaints, but is also probably true that the government wants the credit for relief efforts, and don’t like the agencies stealing the show. It also remains true that while the relief agencies are comfortable dropping off food, water, and clothing, and running some medical camps, they seem very uncomfortable getting their hands dirty. The government is so pleased with LAFTI’s work that they have started dropping off water and snacks.
At the school site, reporters kept on asking Krishnammal for LAFTI’s website. "What do I know about websites?" she says, "I am just trying to make sure people have something to eat, and a good roof over their heads, and work to do."
We shall have to work on that.
It is wonderful to see the contributions the cows are making to the operation. They are providing enough milk for all the tea and coffee, and seem to be working overtime.
Thanks to all for your prayers, good thoughts, and contribution.


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