Origin and Answer
At talk at Acha Khana, Bradford, Vermont August 19, 2017
Little Lilies Crèche is in the tiny village of Palangi. Just over the crèche wall is a settlement where 75 families live in the space of an eighth of a city block. They live in warren of one-room huts, made of bamboo and palm, plastic, or tin. There are no latrines and three taps with polluted water serve the whole settlement. Four years ago Little Lilies teachers heard the weak crying of a baby. They went to investigate and this is what they found: A year-old baby girl, emaciated, lying naked on the dirt floor of the hut and her father sitting, inert, outside. He told them the child’s mother had died giving birth, that he is a day laborer without work, that he can’t pay her future dowry, and what’s the point of feeding a mouth that will go to some other family anyhow.
The crèche teachers brought baby Angel to the crèche. The whole staff became her mothers. Like all crèche kids, she got food, health care, love, and nurturing. In time she could sit, crawl, walk, talk, and join the other kids in preparing for school. Hilda, the crèche director, took Angel to her grandparents and gave them a little money to keep her. Angel started 1st grade this year; she’s healthy, bright, and affectionate. After school, Angel stops by Little Lilies to get food for her evening meal. Her grandparents are too poor to feed her regularly.
Palangi sits in a valley of verdant farmland and terraced fields climb up the surrounding mountains.
Why in midst of all this are people living in this miserable settlement? Why are they so poor?
The British government took over governance of India in 1857 and a flood of British families poured over India. They found India hot, foreign, chaotic, full of fearful diseases. So they took to the hills, to the Himalayas and Western Ghats, and built new towns there, called hill stations.
These hill stations– with legendary names like Darjeeling, Mussoorie, Ooty, and Shimla, where the entire government of India moved every summer– the names alone conjure up steep mountains draped in mists, a holiday atmosphere, buildings lacy with Victorian gingerbread, parade grounds and private clubs: in short, British colonial culture. The British didn’t come alone. They brought along skilled Indian workers and builders, and their own well-trained Indian servants. Hindu and Muslim merchants set up shops and businesses. The fields and forests were surveyed and assigned to or sold to colonists and wealthy Indians.
Palangi is near one such hill station, Kodaikanal, at 7,000 ft in the Western Ghats. Hill people had lived in small settlements there for millennia, surviving by primitive farming, hunting and gathering.
As the new-comers took over, the hill people found themselves woefully equipped to take part in the new order. They were forced into a cash economy while losing their traditional livelihood. They turned to money lenders who charged exorbitant rates, and many become bonded laborers, from one generation to the next.
The hill people became paupers in their own home — they were illiterate, in debt, exploited — they were literally pushed to the periphery, into settlements like the one at Palangi.
They had two more problems: the Muslims developed a monopoly on tourist goods produced locally, such as oils, spices, chocolate, and fruit. And, the caste status of hill people was Dalit, outcast, untouchable, “the crushed ones.” People whose very shadow would pollute a caste Hindu.
In the center of this hill station, Kodaikanal, is a renown boarding school founded in 1901 for children of missionaries. It became an international school after Independence and little Betsy Miller, age 8, started third grade there in 1967. Her parents were Canadian missionaries building hospitals and schools in south India.
A child of India, Betsy grew up among the local people and picked up Tamil, their language. Their hardships and struggles stayed with her through college at Simmons, in Boston, where she earned a degree in early childhood education. In the late 80’s she and her husband, Philip Dailey, and their two young children returned to India, Philip to teach at Kodai International School, and Betsy to follow her heart. Betsy’s Kodai friends, hill people, told her that they were desperate for a safe place for their children while they were away at work. Their children needed food and health care. It was that basic.
Then Betsy met Hilda Isaac, a Dalit, raised in a Lutheran orphanage, who also had a degree in early childhood education. Betsy and Hilda discovered a shared belief in the power of education to transform lives. They created the crèche project out of the community’s own statement of need. Using a small inheritance, Betsy and Hilda started the first crèche. Within eight years there were three, and now there are five. The Daileys returned to the US because of health problems and now the five crèches are run by the Betsy Elizabeth Trust, under Hilda’s skilled, dedicated guidance.
Hope is so much a part of our lives it’s hard to understand what kind of prison people live in without it. The absence of hope chokes off ambition. It makes any kind of emotional and intellectual investment in the future pointless. The hill people are caught between their old ways, which hold little appeal except familiarity, and what they see around them — people living a safer, more secure, more comfortable life; people whose lives aren’t consumed by poverty.
The hill people have lacked the skills, the status and opportunity to move into this sort of parallel universe. They are Dalits, there’s no safety net. Life careens between disasters — accident, illness, unwanted children like Angel, death of a spouse or parent, or depression like Angel’s father. They see their condition as karmic, and unchangeable. Women, maybe because of their children, hold up better, but men, emasculated by fear and without recourse, often escape through alcohol, abuse, anger, abandonment, and, literally, by suicide.
How do the crèches address this? The teachers live in the crèche community, they visit homes, they give workshops on hygiene, health care, mosquito control, empowerment, birth control, mental health, money management. They are teaching parents, who are barely even marginal to society, to make small, possible changes, to expect more of their children, to support their education.
The crèches are teaching hope. And after 30 years, it’s taking root. Crèche graduates are finishing high school, some are college graduates. They are moving out of the shadowy margins of poverty, embracing the opportunities India offers, even for Dalits.
Betsy and Hilda could keep the children safe, feed them, give them health, teach them the rudiments, but to really give them wings, they had to teach their students’ parents how to hope. The children needed their parents to say, “I believe in your ability to learn, to grow, to make a better life for yourself. And I can help you do it.”
A healthy child is hope. A child who can write her own name is hope. A boy who lives in a cow shed now and can say he wants to be an engineer when he grows up is hope. The shouts and laughter of children on the crèche side of the wall in Palangi are hope. Their parents see it and learn.
Betsy and Hilda shared a belief in the power of education — and health, and love– to transform lives. And lives are slowly changing for the better, at the crèches and in their communities.
Catherine Kidder, Vice President, Help Kids India, Inc.