Friendship, Hope, Dreams, and Laughter

By Tina Romenesko

Day Two begins at a different Santali tribal school. The children here include both boys and girls, ages 5-15, in red pants or skirts, and matching red gingham short sleeved blouses or shirts.
They are all adorable, and again we are honored with a marigold shower, and much hand shaking with bright hellos! A girl could get spoiled! The older children are going to play football (soccer) for us – boys against the girls. We can’t help but cheer for the girl team, playing barefoot in SKIRTS! They hold their own, but the boys win 1-0. Ayesha asks the goal maker why he doesn’t help the girls more with their skills. “Because then they would win!” , he replies. Seems competition and kids are the same everywhere.

Debbie gets the little kids on the sidelines going, chanting “ Good Job!” and doing the a.o.k hand gesture, or mudra. Then she runs from one end of the line to the other, their voices rising and laughing, each child giving her a big HIGH FIVE! She was an ESL teacher for 37 years and absolutely loves the kids and knows how to fire them up! Susan has brought two huge packages of pens and Ayesha decides this is a good place to distribute them to the older students. Martha has crayons for the younger ones, and all are pleased with the treasure, most proudly display in their shirt pocket. I share two postcards with the older boys and tell them a little about Milwaukee and Wisconsin, and then give the postcards to their teacher to use as a learning tool. Again, wise sharing is a must. No favorites. We don’t want to create imbalance when it isn’t necessary. The next half hour is spent sharing names. They all know I’m TINA, and laugh hysterically as I try desperately to pronounce theirs. This is a game I end up playing a lot during the day. They are so proud when they can spell their name, in English, which helps me enormously. The kids are beautiful little souls and so curious about us.

For the next two hours, we visit many of the kitchen gardens that were funded by the DFW grant in 2011. These gardens are used to sustain individual families. Each focuses on a particular crop. This time of year, we see lots of squash, eggplant, cucumbers, lemons, mangoes, and a few vegetables we are unable to identify! The next stop is visiting the project that Ayesha’s brother, Toyeb, has created. His thriving agriculture cooperative serves as a model for the community. The land is leased by the tribe and historically yielded about 10000 rupees per year ($150). He has diversified now to include a pond that produces 4 kinds of fish, and an open area where he cultivates papaya, guava, tamarind, turmeric, lots of bananas, and much more. It also has its own poultry coop. The yield on this land is now over 1 million rupees, an amazing profit for the community and MBBCDS! He does vocational training here for community members, helping them see new ways of using the high land between the rice paddies for a substantial profit. The main agricultural product in Bengal is rice. Basmati rice. Acres and acres and acres of it. In the spring, each seed is planted by hand, and workers spending entire days planting the paddies. Then the monsoons hit and the water nourishes seeds. We are close to harvest now and the green plants are turning a golden yellow. I am amazed by the organization and vastness of the product. These sub-products like Toyeb is offering are a way to use high land and diversify the income to serve more of the population, as long as they are open to learning a new skill.

Ayesha’s mother is waiting for us as we arrive at the home where she has raised 8 children, all with higher education, most with Master’s degrees. Nasya is a tiny woman, in a white sari (the sari of widowhood) and she is obviously proud of her brood. We sit on her bed, and again share a light snack. Pomegranates, apples, bananas, sweets, and of course, tea. A friend of Ayesha’s invites us each to introduce ourselves to mom – which she seems to appreciate with a generous smile.

On the way back to the school, we stop at a few more kitchen gardens. Everyone wants us to stop at their home. The local Blacksmith shows us his skill at making handheld farm implements. He has a bellows and boasts that he can make 8-9 tools per day, everyday. The head master shares his cucumber crop with us and proudly shows us his second daughter sleeping angelically on a blanket in their two room home. It is spotless and his wife tells me that she embroidered the lovely blanket on the bed.

When we get back to the main compound, we eat fresh fish from Toyeb’s pond and share curried potatoes. I see fresh tomatoes and cilantro and take a big bite – only to find out it also contains hot chile peppers! They all laugh hysterically as Ayesha runs into the kitchen for a sweet – which cools my burning lips and tongue – at least for the moment!

Next stop is shopping the bazaar that the village women have created in our honor. The crafts are impressive. Their main work is block printing fabrics which they then outline in embroidery. The work is very intricate and Susan’s kashmir shawl was a two month project for two women. These pieces are truly works of art. Color blocked silk scarves with floral designs, even saris. The printing is done in an upstairs room that was financed by Dining For Women. There is a lovely slate plaque, and they have placed a ribbon in front of the door for Taryn to cut, inaugurating the room, officially. This arid space serves as a training room and evening reading room for the children, as most only have one light bulb for reading. Most evenings the children gather up here for two hours of reading, after dusk. They have plans to expand and house a girls boarding school in the rest of the upstairs area, with a focus on science. The dreams are big – and focused on empowerment, education, and vocalization. Big dreams that need funding to come true.

The rest of the afternoon’s activities include a drama/comedy that makes us all laugh hysterically, even though we don’t understand a word of Bengali! When asked to share our own cultural offering, Susan, Martha, and I grab a group of young girls and teach them the Hokey Pokey. The kids laugh wildly as we turn ourselves around, and that’s what it’s all about!

After sunset, we once again gather with Ayesha’s amazing staff. These 36 individuals demonstrate a palpable dedication to their community. Comprised of an equal number of males and females, they serve as a shining example of the importance of empowering women to fully integrate and balance the yin/yang of progress. We move around the circle, expressing our gratitude to them as they express their gratitude to us. A mutual admiration society that has allowed us to form friendships in the last 36 hours that we all hope will last a lifetime. I sit next to the woman who is in charge of the artisan program. She has me write my name in her notebook, and I write her name in mine. Next to hers, I write, “My new friend.” She smiles brightly in understanding, touching her heart. Senehara Khatun – my new friend.

As Ayesha shares more details about the hoped for boarding school for Tribal children, other teachers express their own dreams. An ambulance for women during childbirth. More agricultural cooperatives. Expansion of the sanitary napkin program which involves making and selling these pads that offer freedom to girls. If young women can’t go to school because they are menstruating, they can’t finish their education. I say a little prayer of gratitude for the freedom I have taken for granted in the form of modern feminine personal hygiene products. As we are closing, the staff asks if they can pray for our help with these dream projects and we encourage them to do so AND fill out the online applications. We will certainly advocate for them and it helps that our entourage has actually seen the money transformed into reality, and also felt their enthusiasm.

As the day draws to a close, six women scurry out and ask us to wait. When they return, they wrap each of us in our own beautiful handmade shawl. A gift from their hands to our heart. We are all very touched and honored. Their generosity in the face of everyday struggles is inspirational. More hugs, a few tears, and we are back in the jeeps, headed for the Bequest Inn.

Our hearts filled to the brim with hope, gratitude, and new understandings.