A Lifetime’s job

Stories for Lent  (1.) Rena. 

When Madhu studied community development, his university professors said it was a job that would take a lifetime or more. Perhaps back then, he didn’t feel the weight of that as he does now, twenty-five years later.

Jolting along the unpaved dirt road, Madhu goes through a list of unusual things he’s seen while driving. Once there were two men with a long metal container precariously balance on their heads as they zipped down the road on their motorbike. “People here have a lot of creativity,” he laughs.

Bihar isn’t a place usually lauded for creativity. It’s one of the poorest states in India, synonymous for most Indians with crime, poverty, and backwards people. The hard parts of Bihar – those are what hit you first. But if you look, you find amazing beauty, resourcefulness, and – yes – creativity. In twenty-five years, Madhu has had plenty of time to look.

Madhu remembers a village mayor who once blocked their way with his jeep, “He was shouting at us and threatening us because we had visited his village and told the local committee that they should be getting money from the government to improve their village. He was mad because he’d been skimming money from the fund and now he couldn’t do that anymore.”

Madhu’s first stop of the day is in Rena’s village. His work here goes back over a decade and villagers come away from their work to greet him. Rena isn’t among them. Like 70 percent of village women in her state, Rena was illiterate. Uneducated about other opportunities, she expected what every girl she knew expected from their future: an early marriage, several children, days spent trying to put food on the table, and constant fear of an unexpected illness or accident that would push the family further into poverty.

Madhu works for Chetna, a community health and development ministry run by the Emmanuel Hospital Association, a partner of SIM India. Every three years, it takes a renewed look at the villages it has chosen and decides what issues to take on next. This means its focus projects change over time and staff are regularly thinking about how to best empower and equip the community to carry on the work once resources are focused elsewhere.

Rena first met Chetna staff nearly a decade ago when they were facilitating girls’ literacy groups. At first, her parents were skeptical about letting their pre-adolescent daughter learn to read. Girls leaving the house, even to go just a few streets over, was unheard of, and doing so would make her a target of community gossip. Even more damaging – it could hurt a girl’s chances at marriage. The local Chetna volunteer persisted and finally Rena was allowed to attend.

The group of girls gathered in the home of one of the few local woman who was literate and had been equipped with materials by Chetna. They learned quickly and found they loved learning. When the literacy program finished, Chetna found them a sewing teacher. The opportunity was one of the earliest Income Generation Programs (IGP) Chetna offered in multiple villages.

Rena quickly learned to sew; her nervousness giving way to self-confidence as her aspirations grew. She began to make clothes for local families to earn a small income. Her parents’ confidence in her grew as well. She went back to school and graduated while simultaneously teaching other girls in her village how to sew.

Rena has left her village and moved into a local Christian hospital. She’s training to become a nurse – the first person in her family not only to pass class 12, but to pursue higher education. Hers is an entire lifetime changed by a single literacy class facilitated by Chetna.

— Sarah