By Betsy Dunklin

“My mother believes in self-empowerment,” Archana stated with tears in her eyes as we stood on the rooftop patio of her family home in Ranchi.
Archana, an ICU doctor in Buffalo, NY, had come with her husband and 10-year-old daughter to her family home to help her elderly mother, Chanchala, the founder of Matrichaya, prepare for our visit.

“When I was a child, my mother would bring poor children from the area to our home to teach them and would recruit me, my sisters and others to help her,” she continued in telling us the story of how her mother, a highly respected woman in the community, came to found the school that DFW has helped fund. She had been a homemaker as the wife of a university professor, but after he died when she was in her forties, she knew she needed to push herself to create a new way of life. So she ramped up her efforts to educate the desperately poor youngsters she knew could achieve as well as any, given the opportunity.

She expanded the educational opportunities by compelling her friends to give their time and by organizing classes in nearby communities. When the need for more educators grew, her teacher friends began to train those who had matriculated (completed 10th grade) to teach the young children. These young “teachers” earned a small fee they could use to continue their own education. Archana and her two sisters, also with us today, began to financially support the program, and it continued to grow.

“The classes would meet in a field or a store-front or wherever a place could be found that day. When harvest-time came, classes had to wait.” Archana explained. “My mother realized something needed to change. She decided to turn our home into a school because she just needed a small part of it to live in.”

And that is how our group came to be standing on the roof of Archana’s ancestral home, a three-story concrete structure, modest by western standards, that is now the school Matrichaya. Behind the house was the small slum where some of the students lived. These were permanent structures, a few steps up from the tents and cardboard shacks we had seen in the big cities, dark, one-room houses with goats grazing in the dirt alleyways surrounding the units.

I never would have guessed that the beautiful shining faces of the school children who greeted us that morning were the children of the rag-pickers who lived in the slum. When we left our hotel at 10 am that morning, the sun was shining, the air soft and warm. I saw palm trees, coleus and marigolds. A few minutes later we arrived at Matrichaya, the family home and school. We were greeted by two rows of the most lovely young women who looked like Greek goddesses in their white robes with a green border. They were holding hands, swaying in a two-step dance and singing. We were encouraged to join them as they gently swayed and pulled us through the compound walls into a patio filled with dozens of children in colorful outfit. We began to catch on to the dance step and fell into rhythm as we wove through the colorful patio and on to the front row of seats waiting for us. Other guests were already seated behind us.

I was enchanted!

Today was awards day at the school. For the next hour, one group after another performed. Kindergartners in sweet costumes did hand gestures to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Boy-and-girl pairs of older primary grade students in exquisite costumes performed folk dances. The older girls’ routines were more Bollywood, some with a hint of Beyonce, and somewhat Westernized costumes.

One youngster, perhaps ten, did a ferocious comic parody of a Kashmir mountain man, full of hair-raising howls. My favorite was a parade of couples demonstrating the dance and traditional costume of each state of this large and diverse nation.

I was struck by how proud they all were of their performances, deservedly so, and how respectful they were of each other. Even the littlest children remained well behaved through the hour-long pageant.

Then it was time to present the awards. An elderly gentleman in the front row presented the first awards to the top three students in each class. Many of the students, as a sign of respect, bent to touch the tops of the feet of the gentleman, then their own forehead and chest after accepting their trophy. Next, each of us was asked to hand out various awards — best actor, best speech, best attendance, and so on. The children came forward with such dignity and poise. School principals back home in the states would have been envious of such a courteous student body.

Once the ceremony was finished and the students dispersed, we toured the classrooms in the home. First, we visited a group of women who were learning needlework skills. Some of them were the mothers of the children who had performed. Their male instructor was using an interesting manual technique for embroidery I had never seen, producing a beautiful design. Samples of previous students’ work was hanging from the wall. We were very impressed with the gorgeous designs and quality of the work. Archana explained that they also offered a fashion design class whose students incorporated the work created by the needlework students. The finished products are sold at craft fairs and stores commission some items. These former rag pickers are now skilled artisans with a marketable trade.

Upstairs, we visited a beauty school class of young women who were learning how to “thread” eyebrows, a painless technique to shape brows that is becoming popular in the USA. Debbie volunteered to have hers done and within a few minutes had perfectly arched eyebrows.

After a box lunch of locally made pastries, we piled into taxis to visit the Birla Institute of Technology where Usha, Archana’s sister, is a professor of chemistry, to meet the “women’s cell”, a group of female faculty and students who handle complaints of discrimination against women on campus. The state mandates that each university have such a group. We had a lively exchange of ideas about how to address the problems of sexual harassment, violence against women, and pay inequity. The student body is 40% female and the women seemed to feel that they had an equal voice. They were well informed about issues of discrimination and how to address them and were enthusiastic about Taryn’s suggestion that it is important to educate males about how certain behaviors can be offensive to women as well as defend female victims.

These women, all future members of an elite professional class, exuded self-confidence. I thought they are an excellent example of self-empowerment. Equally so were the former rag-pickers, now transformed into skilled artisans and beauticians through their own initiative, and the young students who performed with such grace for us that morning. Chanchala’s efforts to empower herself after her husband’s untimely death have set the example and created the opportunity for so many others to improve their lives.

Again it struck me that it is the efforts of people like Chanchala and her family that are going to conquer the poverty that is rampant in India and unleash the great potential in these entrepreneurial people.