Search This Blog

Monday, December 26, 2011

It takes a village! Choraha, part one!

It's somewhat a commonplace to say that large parts of India are poor. It's rather an understatement and I bristle when I hear westerners say that the Indians are money-grubbing or pushy or only driven by self-interest. Sure, there are elements of that throughout Indian society but it's for a reason. If you're born into a life where you have no chance of advancement, you would probably scramble to survive, too.

As a visitor, you can opt to say, "no, thanks" (sometimes forcefully) or simply keep walking. Beggars - many of them crippled - will pursue you, random people will call you "my friend" and try to convince you to buy stuff you don't need, go to restaurants you don't want to go to, take you places you don't really want to see, etc., but these are annoyances. Touts and frauds tend to back off; genuinely good people don't tend to force the issue back. One such is my friend Kapil who make a living showing people around Bodh Gaya, but his passion is working as secretary for the Lord Buddha Welfare Foundation (founded in 2003), particularly the Charitable School they opened in 2005.

When it first opened, it was in the village of Sujata, so named for the woman who gave yogurt to Siddhartha Gautama after he had been enduring years of severe ascetic practice. You can review the history of the LBWF/LBCS in greater detail at their website: Even better, contact Muhendra Kumar, the founder and director at or If you're in India, call directly: 09934434566. In the meantime, I'm head over heels with what they're doing and will be helping paint the school you see in the pictures below.

What Muhendra has done is remarkable. Please bear in mind that Bihar is the poorest state in India right now. Much of the area is wetlands/marshlands and there's severe problems not only with potable water and reasonable living conditions but a lack of infrastructure in general. Both Kapil and Muhendra alluded to improvements over the years in the area and it's true that more investment is coming in the form of hotels to provide and profit from lodging from Buddhist pilgrims. That doesn't necessarily answer other, greater needs: food, housing, education.

It's great that people want to invest, but most people in any given population have other dreams than working in the hospitality industry. Some, like Mahendra, have dreams of becoming engineers. As it is, Mahendra's story is inspiring. He came from farming family that paid a stipend of seven rupees a month to see that he got an education. To put this in some kind of perspective, a rupee is nothin'. Almost literally, and some years ago when Mahendra was younger (and he's still young!), it was probably less. So we say a rupee is/was less than nothing, but to a farmer with a family in Bihar state, it's very, very much money.

The thing is, Mahendra did well in school and completed college, but continuing to complete an engineering degree was costlier than you might anticipate and as he told me yesterday, he's decided to do embark on this project (and another; starting computer school for older kids) to at least give others the chance that he couldn't realize. Actually, in fairness to Mahendra, I think he probably might someday realize that dream, he's a very determined young man.

What attracted to me to all this was that Kapil and I met in Bodh Gaya near an internet kiosk and discussed possibly touring the area. I said I was more inclined to stay near the area. He was fine with that and said if I knew of any Americans who might want to tour around, they could contact him. When I asked him for his info, he produced a card and looked like he was going to write on the back of it. I caught the word "school" and asked him about that. In turn, he said it was a project of his and his friend Mahendra (and two others).

Naturally, I was curious and I pressed a bit more: where is it? could I see it? Kapil was taken aback, I think. But it occurred to me that if he was engaging in subtle marketing, it was working (he wasn't, I think he didn't expect me to respond the way I did); but mostly, I found him genuine and incredibly self-effacing about this. He's explained to me a couple of times that if you engage in non-profit activity, your peers will mock you, if not outright try to ruin you. I thought this was hyperbole and I've come to find out, it's not.

We agreed to meet yesterday and I went out to Choraha, a remote village where living conditions are pretty tough, to say the least. But the school had around thirty little kids attending (the older children are working in the fields since it's harvest time.) The building itself is on land that the foundation raised funds for and built. The plot of land (about a half acre) cost 87,000 rupees or about US $1,600. You read that right. You or I can afford a good chunk of land in India for very, very little.

Much of the funding for the foundation and the school comes from Europeans and a couple of Americans. I met Lee and Myriam who were painting the building (with lovely blue hands) and there is a strong support from a French group that had come out a couple of years ago, conducted surveys and research to determine whether LBWF should get funding. They obviously decided in the affirmative. But while this sounds like funding's a breeze, it's anything but.

After looking over their books, I realized that they're in a similar position to most NGO's. They're operating in the black, but just barely and it's important to stress that the Indian government does not give grants. Loans, sure. Free money? Not so much. (One of the reasons Mahendra's engineering education hit a roadblock; "scholarships" you can apply for, but they're actually loans and if I understood him correctly, they come with ten percent interest.)

So far, a number of individuals have donated computers for the new school. They have a smattering of textbooks for the younger kids and they do have a state-approved syllabus for the older kids up to age fifteen. But they still need professional teachers, particularly for the computer classes (to be taught in Sujata because there's no electricity and no security out in Chohra to speak of). They have one teacher waiting in the wings, but the salary is steep: 7,000 rupees (UD$135, to put that in perspective).

Even more immediate priorities is to build a fence, as much to provide a safe haven for the kids if they want to stay after school as to protect the school itself from the kids who want to play and have already dinged the concrete here and there. Additionally, a water pump and some kind of generator would be really helpful, too.

I personally can't tell you what this meant to me. We pulled up on Kapil's motorcycle and hearing a bunch of tiny voices sound out "Namaste" to you can change your world right there. I'm going back out today to help Leigh, Myriam and Kapil finish painting the main classroom. If there's anything else they need over the next couple of days, I'm there.

You see this kind of thing all over, and admittedly, we respond to situations according to our temperament, but do follow this blog over the next few days, please. And please forward links to this to anyone you think would like to hear or learn more or even better, help out.
I see a hopeful future. What do you see?

Education, village style. You should have heard the kids reciting "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star".

Yep, Kapil is a hands-on boardmember!

Leigh with the professional painter's color scheme for the hand.

Myriam, relaxing blue-handed, too!

Of course, she smiled right after I took this picture and then got all serious about her schoolwork right after I clicked another one....

Two teachers and about 3/4s of the student body. The rest are working the harvest.

Everybody's outside because the schoolroom is being painted. The sacks you see to the left are steps for the time being until they can get workers to come back and finish the job.

Kapil with fashionable blue hands and to his right, Kamala, master tea maker!

Mr. Singh and a few of his charges in after class discussion.

Please, please contact me directly by posting a comment or on FB or check back frequently for more on this project. As I say, even better if you contact Mahendra or Kapil at:
and do check out their website:; it's not slick, but it's got lots of valuable content.

Also, the Lord Buddha part doesn't reflect any particular religious affiliation. It's just that the area is so tied into Buddha and Buddhist history that you'll see "Buddha" just about everywhere.

No comments:

Post a Comment