Jaimala and the Orphanage

By Betsy Dunklin

This morning we drove to the outskirts of Jaipur into the countryside and down a rugged dirt road to the orphanage run by the organization Vatsalya and directed by Jaimala, who has an MPH from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
One of the orphans, who recently turned 16, gave us a tour of the grounds. Jaimala said that she was not much interested in school but managed to pick up enough English to serve as the official guide. She will soon become an employee of the orphanage. We learned much more about her when Jaimala rode in the van with us back to Jaipur after our visit.

The orphanage is made up of a few cement buildings, all very plain but with colorful walls. Two buildings have bunk beds, one is a kitchen with a large solar unit that powers the oven, which impressed us all, and another has six classrooms. While we were there, the children were playing board games on the porch of the classrooms. A simple playground bordered the school rooms. Much of the work in the orphanage, such as preparing meals, is done by the older children who are in vocational training.

One other building, with a patio and comfortable outdoor chairs, serves as Jaimala’s office and bedroom for the two nights a week she spends at the orphanage. The room is very telling of this remarkable, warm, passionate and accomplished woman. It is a small room, at best 10’x10’, made entirely of cement with one window overlooking the meadow where the orphanage is located. It has a very small cot with a blanket covering it, shelves with books and knick-knacks, an old Victrola and an antique tea cart, adding comfort and ambiance to this otherwise most humble abode. We lined up to use her bathroom, also cement, with an uneven cracked floor and water from a leak running across it. A tiny sink was to the right of the door. Past a wall was a toilet and shower combo, typical of many Indian bathrooms.

Several posters decorate her wall. One stuck me as particularly meaningful:

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

Jaimala herself is dressed in a stunning Indian outfit of silk turquoise kurta and full, floor-length blue skirt, something most of us would only wear on a formal occasion but is everyday wear for her. Her thick chestnut hair is piled loosely on her head. She looks regal but could not be more down-to-earth and welcoming.

On the van trip back to Jaipur to visit the sewing project, she told us the story of the young woman who gave us the tour. She came to the orphanage at the age of five. She had been living for months on the stoop of a Hindu temple. One of the religious leaders realized that men were abusing her, tempting her with treats, and arranged for the orphanage to take her. Jaimala said they were disturbed when she arrived because she continued to act out on the younger children what the men had taught her. She was so young, and that was the only way she knew to get treats or “love” of the only type she had known. This caused great anxiety; many interventions were tried but did not work. Jaimala was especially worried about what would happen when the girl hit puberty but instead she gained some insight and maturity and has been useful at the orphanage as an interpreter and guide.

Jaimala said 95% of the children begging throughout India actually have parents and homes. They live in the slums and their parents leave them unsupervised during the day while they work at menial jobs. The children beg to entertain themselves and for the rewards it brings. The parents can’t fathom a different life for their children and do nothing to stop this practice. Jaimala also said most of the money donated to the big NGO’s never gets to the place intended but goes to bribes and mismanagement.

It is powerful women like Jaimala and small, direct-service programs like Vatsalya that are going to change India so more of its people have opportunity for health, education and a meaningful life.