Today is Renuka’s ninth birthday; she is the little girl I sponsor at El Shaddai’s Rainbow House, a residential home for girls in northern Goa, India. I sent Renuka a letter, birthday card and small gift a few weeks ago and it occurred to me this morning that she is likely, I hope, to be having a very different birthday experience this year compared to last year, because this January will be the first of her life in which she has had a permanent home, an education and three meals a day.
Renuka has only been living at Rainbow House since May 2009; prior to that, she and her mother and brother (her father, an alcoholic, left them some years ago, re-married and does not provide for them financially) were living rough in a roadside shack, having arrived in Goa in 2004 as economic migrants from the neighbouring Indian state of Karnataka. An El Shaddai outreach worker met them and encouraged Renuka’s mother to come to one of the charity’s night shelters, which provide a safe place to sleep and a hot meal to those who need it. After a few weeks, Renuka’s mother was offered a cleaning job and accommodation (worth about £40 a month) at a hotel – but there was no room or capacity for Renuka, only her brother (this part of her story really upsets me and makes me think many thoughts as to the feelings of emotional rejection and abandonment that this must have caused in an eight year old child – not to mention how symptomatic it is of gender inequity in India, where sons are valued over and above daughters).
Fortunately, Renuka was offered a place at Rainbow House, El Shaddai’s residential home for 51 girls aged 8 to 13 and now enjoys, in their words: “… love and care along with nourishing food, and a good education”.
Upon arrival, she had only the clothes she was wearing at the time and was issued with her uniform of a school skirt, two Rainbow House polo shirts and some underwear – these remained her only clothing until I visited her six months later and provided her with the dress she’s wearing in the photo and a few other t-shirts – hence the huge grin, I suppose (or perhaps that was at the thought of the chocolate bar!). The girls sleep in dormitories with bunk beds and attend a private school, also run by the charity, in the next village. This is called the “Shanti Niketan”, meaning “Non Formal School” and the classes are organised according to ability rather than age. Stella, the manager of Rainbow House, told me that Renuka wants to be a doctor when she grows up; the scale of this ambition impressed me hugely. I don’t even know if it’s possible in terms of cost and education – but I hope that my sponsorship of Renuka at least makes her feel loved and cared for a little bit.
I visited her about six times when I was in Goa before Christmas and she became a little less shy with me each time. Several of the girls have sponsors and they are fiercely competitive with each other about this. Stella told me that Renuka, as one of the youngest and newest arrivals at the home, had previously felt very left out when other girls received letters, cards, gifts and visits, so she (Stella) was very relieved when I arrived in order to make a fuss of this little girl. Renuka speaks three Indian languages and is learning English, so our interactions were by necessity limited to the bits of English which she did know and an awful lot of hand gestures, plus miming, drawing in the dirt with a stick and improvising. But we played noughts and crosses, drew pictures, looked at photographs and she showed me some of her traditional Indian dance steps, as she is a member of the school’s dancing troupe (I envisage this as being nothing like an Indian dancing version of “Glee” – ahem). However, I am slowly learning a little Hindi and I hope that a combination of feeling more familiar with each other and our respective increased vocabularies will make our next visits (in February) a bit easier.
Watch this space. I’m also a bit more clued up as to what to take as gifts for both Renuka and the other children; it was much easier to shop for her this time around, as I have a rough idea of her size (far smaller than an English nine year old would be), her likes and dislikes and of the limitations of her home environment. This time, I’m taking her a dress and some underwear from my wonderful mum, who I imagine had great fun choosing Renuka a little cotton dress (we only have nephews/grandsons in our immediate family, so shopping for girls is quite the novelty) and I bought t-shirts from Old Navy when I was in the US before Christmas. Prompted by a game that the children and I played with two balloons representing the Sun and the Earth, where we talked about time differences and different countries (“when it’s dark in India, it’s daytime in England …”) I’ve also bought an inflatable globe as I thought that it might be fun to look at a map of the world and talk about different countries, especially as the El Shaddai sponsors are based all over the world.
Plus of course I had a whale of a time with a very helpful sales assistant in Waterstones, who spent about an hour with me a few weeks ago, helping me pick out suitable books. My criteria was quite defined, which made it harder and hence made me grateful for the continuing High Street presence of a bookstore: written at a suitable level of English, not too many Caucasian images in the illustrations, no mentions of stuff to which she could never relate (which cut out tons of American books, with their mentions of “sleep-overs” and the like), no branded books like “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical”, nothing pink and stereotyped … but we got there in the end, so thank you, Rachel in Waterstones, you’re a star. I go back to Goa on 31st January, so I hope to return to Rainbow House in early February – I’m really looking forward to it.
Sponsoring Renuka is one of the most significant things I feel I’ve ever done. It’s only £15 per month but it makes such a difference to Renuka, to children like her and to El Shaddai’s cash flow.