I know the value of AMMACHI Labs’ work; at least I tend to think I do. I know the importance of self-sustainability, of self-empowerment, and of comprehensive skill training. When speaking with women who have taken part in the Labs’ toilet building training, I can see the value they place on their new toilets and their new skills. All this, however, was recently underscored and reaffirmed in my imagination after spending just one day with AYUDH members and Amrita Vidyalayam students from Mangalore, alongside our six toilet-building students and their families in Byse, Karnataka. When the forty-person team arrived, including Br. Mangalamrita Chaitanya from Amma’s Mangalore headquarters and five AMMACHI Labs team members, the group immediately began to disperse and intermingle.
Young adults, little kids from Byse, our toilet building students, eighth standard students from Mangalore and local teenagers found a rhythm together, based in joy. They played games, they performed skits, they discussed sanitation, they made a Kannada version of a board game originally created by an AMMACHI Labs team member in Hindi. They sang, they teased, they made kites, they clapped furiously to bhajans. They discussed the importance of protecting their water from cholera and their own struggles in the village with sanitation and access to medical care. There was a cacophony of sound, laughter, and voices. In this context, I learned a few special things, things I should have already known but ideas that I hadn’t quite understood until I saw these groups laughing together:
- Children are incredibly resilient and hopeful
- God, love and joy are found in moments of heartfelt connection
- Be a role model, you never know who is watching you
These concepts may seem general. But they are all ideas that I knew intellectually, but it wasn’t until I saw them on this temperate Saturday afternoon that I truly began to understand them, feeling tears come to my eyes as I saw the power of this interaction.
1) Children are incredibly resilient and hopeful. When the AMMACHI Labs facilitator in the area began to hand out some text-heavy magazines to the children of the families, they immediately began to read the articles. They sat quietly, reading, even as they all sat among their friends. These are kids that currently attend school in the area, most of them the local government school. They walk five to seven kilometers each day to school, often going without notebooks and pens. They continue to attend, however, no matter the obstacles.
These are children who are happy, delighted with their friends and mothers. They cuddle with their families, they tease each other and spend hours tossing a ball back and forth. The kids are grateful for gifts of pens and paper, while also happily giving gifts to their visitor: they are generous and proud of their village. I was walking with the thirteen-year-old daughter of one of the toilet-building students, as she took me to a tree full of guava fruits, which she then climbed and found me the perfect fruit. She asked me how I liked India. After I said that I loved it, I added that I loved Byse as well—that it was beautiful and I wanted to stay here longer. She grinned, pinched my cheeks and thanked me, looking proud and excited.
No matter what these students end up doing in the future, they will do it with delight and relish. They will move forward happily, hopefully with educational abilities that were often denied their parents. Perhaps they will stay in Byse, working alongside their mothers in the fields. Perhaps they will build toilets, explaining the dangers of cholera to other villagers. They might go to college, or a skill-training program. Whatever their paths may be, they will bring joy, thoughtfulness and gratitude to those around them.
2) God, love and joy are found in moments of heartfelt connection. After a day of activities, the entire group—over 120 people, including villagers from all over the area–settled down for bhajans (devotional songs) led by the Mangalore AYUDH and Br. Mangalamrita Chaitanya. During the music, the entire village was held in rapt attention. The children began to clap furiously as the music gained speed, laughing and singing loudly. As I looked up at the crescent moon, the easily visible stars, the dark foliage, and then at the bright and delighted faces around me, I felt that God, goodness, and spirituality were more present here then in the most spacious of temples.
The children were so excited and so devotional, so happy to be taking part in a communal form of worship. Beside me was another of the toilet-building students. She arrived late to bhajans because she needed to milk her cow, so she squeezed next to me with her little son on her lap. Both mother and son stared, their attention completely consumed, at the flickering lamp placed before the singers. The student sang whole-heartedly while her son, though previously nervous and fussy for most of the day, laughed and clapped with me, kicking his feet in joy. In this moment of true connection and joy, I realized the potential for true spiritual growth that arises from simply existing, happily, together.
3) Be a role model, you never know who is watching you. During this same bhajan set, one little girl who I hadn’t met before sat behind me and Sheeja, another AMMACHI Labs staff member and zonal lead. She was meditating throughout the bhajans, looking peaceful and contemplative, eyes closed. I noticed that after she saw this, the little girl began to sit in the same posture, her eyes closed and her hands resting on her knees. She was meditating, just like Sheeja! They sat like this for the rest of the songs, looking so peaceful. Even though the girl might have been simply copying the physical motions of meditation at first, by the end of the bhajans she seemed blissful, truly meditating and enjoying the music billowing around her. I smiled at her mother who was sitting behind her, and when she saw what her little daughter was doing, she grinned and pointed at the daughter and mouthed “my daughter.” She was so proud.
Then it hit me. There is so much power in such simple actions; it is always possible that another person is watching you, even when you aren’t expecting it. This can be both good and bad: it means that you must watch yourself carefully, especially around children, and only model good behavior. But it also means that immense emotional, physical and spiritual change can occur by simple interactions, by gentle smiles. When the kids saw me clapping along to a fast bhajan, they followed suit, and soon the entire crowd was clapping alongside each other. It was a ripple effect: when one child or adult saw the other enjoying the music, they also started to feel happy. The joy and peace spread, it was infectious!
It is not as if only Westerners or urban people entering villages can act as role models for the local people. In fact, arguably, the villagers we are lucky enough to spend time with are actually the real role models: they are happy, resilient, and very giving. They give what they have, and more. They work alongside each other, they support each other. When one child didn’t get a pen that we brought as gifts for the kids, the others all made sure he got one. When I was feeling tired, two of the girls brought me to one of the women’s houses and made me sit on the chair, politely answering my questions about school even though they would much rather have been playing. They are my role models, and they certainly inspired the visiting youth from Mangalore, who expressed repeatedly that they wanted to return soon.
At the end of the day, on the ride back to the local school that hosted us, the whole team settled into a satisfied silence. Then, spontaneously, bhajans erupted from the group. We sang and sang on the ride back, thinking of the stars, the red dirt, dancing around the campfire, sharing food and the joy of true connection.