'An account of the 2019 SOTE supporters visit to India', by Jenny Whiting

“I enjoyed this trip immensely.  It was a wonderful mixture of culture, excellent company and very exciting and inspiring visits to the partners”

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The main group met near Chennai Airport on the morning of 20 January before setting off by road in two minibuses to Pondicherry where we spent four nights.  The group numbered 14, very ably led by Billie and Paul.  In addition there was Mathi, our knowledgeable Indian guide, and two drivers. 

Pondicherry has many beautiful heritage buildings in its French Quarter and there has been much renovation of these buildings over the last few years with more yet to be done.  The place has a lot of charm, with some very delightful cafes, hotels and restaurants. Highlights of our time in Pondi included a Heritage Walk led by a knowledgeable guide and a half day visit to Auroville, just north of Pondi  (https://www.auroville.org/)  where we visited, among other things, the jewellery shop where the SOTE  jewellery is produced.  

 

From Pondicherry we headed north to Mamallapuram where we spent three nights in a hotel with a  pool.  On the way we visited Vedanthangal bird sanctuary where, besides birds, we met some mischievous monkeys! The main highlight of our time in Mamallapuram was a morning of visits to historic religious sites, including temples, one of which was situated at the top of a hill and another, the Shore Temple, beside the sea. 

 

It was from here that we visited the first partner, the CARE Foundation run by Peter Dhanapal supported very ably by a social worker.  We visited two villages at different stages of development.  Both communities are part of the Londor begging community whose forebears migrated from Andhra Pradesh about 100 years ago.  They had been basket makers but turned to begging when they struggled to survive.  Many of them don’t have an ID and so the children are not entitled to go to school and the adults can’t get a bank loan to enable them to build homes.  Alcoholism is a problem amongst the adults and many families rely on being given food and money at the local temple.  In the first village the families were living in makeshift tents.  Peter and Lissie, the social worker, work closely with these families. The children are taken to school 8 km from the village and seem to be thriving.  Basic hygiene is being taught to the families to good effect and the women will be taught basketry to help them towards financial independence and ultimately bring an end to begging. 

 

In the second village, the dwellings are more substantial and the women were making baskets under the supervision of a teacher. Two women demonstrated the use of the cooking stove which is sponsored by SOTE. They appeared to be a close, well functioning, happy community.  They were rightly very proud of their baskets.

 

From Mammalapuram we headed north to Chennai.  We stayed outside the city so that we could more easily visit CRUSADE.  We spent two days visiting Jothi and his staff to see the excellent work that they are doing. Highlights included visiting schools, a mobile cancer screening clinic, a women’s self help group and sitting in on a village clinic with the homeopathic doctor and medical staff.  In one of the villages we had a demonstration of one of the water filters that SOTE sponsor.  We saw the new Jeep that SOTE have sponsored for the doctor’s use, and also a large water filter unit at the main base where people come to fill their containers to take home, also provided by SOTE.  We visited the garden where our sponsorship trees are grown.  Some of us were taken to the home of a woman who is a traditional herbalist to see the many different plants that she grows for medicinal use.  We were impressed by her house which had been funded with the help of a loan. 

 

So that we could visit MASARD outside Bangalore we stayed in Hosur which is situated 6 km from the Rural Development Centre (RDC).  For me, the main highlight of our visits to the partners was the RDC.  It has been built to a very high standard in a remarkably short space of time and it provides accommodation for training, meetings, plus overnight accommodation, making it much more easily accessible to the villages so that the staff don’t have to waste time on the road.  Parked outside the RDC was the jeep that SOTE purchased recently for the doctor’s use.   

Over two days we visited many projects, including a village clinic, an adult literacy class and a  primary school where the children danced and performed for us.  About 80% of them are sponsored by SOTE.  The area produces granite, and we saw the smart new surfaces that SOTE have sponsored.  Pottery is made here and we visited a potters’ village and watched them working.  John had just taken delivery of a pottery water filter from China which will last indefinitely and is very easy and safe to use.  The potters will be taught how to make these for local use. 

 I enjoyed this trip immensely.  It was a wonderful mixture of culture, excellent company and very exciting and inspiring visits to the partners.  It has helped me to understand much more clearly what our partners in South India are doing, how they differ from each other and also some of the common problems that they face.  If you’re hesitating about whether to go or not, I would say – just do it!  You won’t regret it.     

For more information regarding SOTE’s 2020 Visit to India, Email lena@sote.org.uk   

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SOTE Admin