I saw Neelima standing shyly at the back door of the priest’s house in the small Indian town of Nandikotkur where we had come to spend the day. I checked the photos that I had brought with me from England, of her standing stiffly with her little brother and parents, so that I could be sure it was really her. It seemed amazing that I had come all the way to India and was finally going to meet my sponsor child.
It all started some years ago when I began sponsoring an Indian child, after meeting Father Pratap Reddy at my church here in Bristol. At the time we felt so lucky to have three healthy children and to give thanks for our blessings we decided to sponsor a boy of about the same age as our oldest son William. The money went towards the education of our sponsor child, to pay for school books, uniforms and other school expenses and periodically we received a photo of our boy Thirumula Sagar. In the earliest photos he was just a little boy, but in the latest one that I still have one of him on my mantelpiece, he is now a grown to be a tall young man just like our boy William. Eight years ago I travelled to India to see Father Pratap, who I had come to know over the years and met Thirumula and his parents who had travelled some hours by bus to meet me – you can read about our meeting here.
Now the years had passed and Thirumula had gone to college and got a job in the big city, he and his parents had moved away and Father Pratap had lost touch with them. It was time for the sponsorship to pass on to another child who I could help through their education and this time I asked to sponsor a girl. Why sponsor a girl?
I knew that in India, as all over the world, families traditionally invest more in ensuring a positive future for boys than for girls. Boys get the education and the good jobs and so they are able to look after their wives and families. If you are a mother in India, it’s your son who will be taking care of you in your old age, so it makes perfect sense to ensure your son will be able to support you. But here’s the problem….when a girl gets married in India, her family traditionally have to provide her with a dowry, of gold jewellery, household goods and other gifts which will be laid out at the wedding for everyone to see. Even the poorest families feel that they must give their girl a good start and not shame themselves by giving too little, so they may borrow money they can ill afford and effectively become slaves to repay the loan over the rest of their lives.
A girl who is well educated will not be married off too early, just because her family can’t afford to support her, and will be able to make a better arranged marriage, to a more educated man. And because she has earning potential in her own right, an educated girl’s dowry need not be so large that it bankrupts her family. An educated women will be able to get a job to support her family and have a bigger say in her own future.
Neelima had travelled 200 km with her brother and father, starting early that morning just to come and meet us. As she waited outside the house , I was only able to say a brief hello, as we were about to meet a larger group of children who were in between exams in the school. Then it was time to meet Neelima and we were able to sit together for a while to exchange smiles and a bit of conversation which was translated by Father Pratap.
I had brought a small photo album with pictures of my family to show to them which was a great success. After meeting so many children, I’d become used to repeating like a parrot; “this is my husband, this is my oldest son who is at college, this is my daughter who will be going to college next year, this is my son who is taking exams.” Even if it was a bit predictable, it was a good way to make a connection and everyone can relate to your family, especially in India. My next trick was a pile of colourful postcards with picturesque shots of Bristol where I live, which we handed out to all the sponsor children. We got used to explaining over and over; “this is the famous bridge in Bristol, here is the harbour, these are the old sailing ships”, wondering what on earth they could make of my home town that was so different to theirs. Again I showed Neelima and her brother the photos and postcards and gave them some small gifts which elicited huge smiles and we took lots of photos together.
Then we shook hands and went off to lunch while Neelima and her family stayed around the campus, as they had relatives there and would be staying the night before travelling back to their village the next day. Later in the afternoon, after we had toured one of the local villages in Father Pratap’s parish, the family came back to meet us again. This time they offered me a gift of their own, a red beaded Shalwar Kameez, for me to bring back for my daughter, Sophie-Anne who they had seen in the photos. I accepted graciously, realising that they had gone into the nearby town after our meeting, especially to buy a gift from their daughter to my daughter.
What I have realised from sponsoring a child in India is that the gift is small by our standards of Western affluence, but it is far exceeded by the satisfaction of giving someone a helping hand towards a better future, especially if you can make a personal connection with that person as I have been lucky enough to do. I hope that I can see Neelima grow up into a strong and confident young woman, just as I have seen my own daughter, Sophie-Anne grow up over the years, knowing that they both have a bright future to look forward to.
If you’d like to support the education of other children like Neelima, then please do make a donation, however small through the special charity PayPal account that I have set up – the Donate Button is below or you can follow this link or donate directly via PayPal to [email protected] Thankyou.
The money that is donated to support this project in India is channelled through the charity that I set up for this purpose and of which I am a trustee. It is Families Initiative For India (F.I.F.I) which is a UK Registered Charity – Charity No 1093565
Read about my last trip to India
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