The Anjana School Project: Part 3 – The Electricity Problem

September 4th, 2011

By Murali Bashyam

Part 3 of 7  – The Electricity Problem

In rural India, many communities still only receive approximately 3-4 hours of Government provided grid-electricity per day, and they often have it only at night.

Channa and Solar Panels

After visiting the children and seeing the school, it was time to see the solar panels.    SELCO Solar India Private had finished installing them only a few weeks prior to our visit, but the impact was apparent even in such a short period of time.  Channa told us the power had failed in that area for 12 days.  However, the power in the computer lab continued to work – all thanks to solar energy.  Despite the power failure, Channa said the teachers used the powered computer lab to prepare for their classes.  How does one measure the impact of that?

In rural India, many communities still only receive approximately 3-4 hours of Government provided grid-electricity per day, and they often have it only at night.  Despite the advancement in India’s big cities, and despite India enjoying one of the fastest growing economies in the world, even electricity in big cities sometimes fails and power rationing exists.   However, it is the rural communities that have been left behind to a large degree.   In Bangalore, these big, beautiful, powered, IT centers are located only a 30 minute drive from a small, rural, farming village that receives very little electricity.

Click HERE to read Part 4 – The Solar Solution

The Anjana School Project: Part 2 – The Hokey Pokey: Global Barrier Breaker!

September 4th, 2011

By Murali Bashyam

Part 2 of 7 – The Hokey Pokey:  Global Barrier Breaker!

Silence turned to laughter and dancing when Uma started the Hokey Pokey.

From the moment my wife and I stepped out of the car and met Channa for the first time, I knew we would witness something wonderful that day.  A positive vibe was in the air, and Channa welcomed us as graciously as a person could.  He was happy to see us, show us the school, introduce us to the children, and explain his vision for the school and its future.  He spoke passionately about a school where children would learn to make the best use of the limited resources they have, and of a school where children of different religions could learn together in religious tolerance and harmony.

One of the first people we met was one of Channa’s former teachers.  He referred to him as his mentor.  Channa told us that his mentor’s influence inspired him to work hard and obtain his Ph.D.  To me, this demonstrated a clear case of paying it forward.  Channa was now giving back to his community the same way his mentor had once helped him.

As we walked through the school grounds, Channa explained to us how the school started 10 years ago in three small rooms.  He called that part the ‘old school.’  The ‘new school’ was a nice three-story structure that now houses grades one through 12. We walked through the new school and stopped in a few classrooms.   It is a small school – there was one classroom for each grade.  However, it currently educates about 300 children who would otherwise lack access to a formal education.

The first classroom we walked into had the school’s first graders.   These kids were very cute, and very quiet.  As they watched us, I’m sure they wondered who we were and what we were doing there.  Channa, in an effort to make a connection between the kids and us, asked my wife, Cheryl, to come sit in the middle of the room.  He told the children to say “Hello, Auntie Cheryl.”  Still silence.  He asked Cheryl to sing them a song, but she didn’t know what to sing given the language barrier.  Then Channa’s wife, Uma, stepped in and solved the impasse.

She started singing the Hokey Pokey!

Doing the Hokey Pokey!

Of all the songs, Uma chose the Hokey Pokey.  It reminded me of a trip Cheryl and I took with our Friends Unite colleague, Pam Prather, and a number of others, to Africa last year.  After watching the Maasai Warriors show us their ‘war’ dance, our group wanted to reciprocate and show them a dance that best represented America. What did we choose to show the Maasai? The Hokey Pokey!  And here I was again, this time in India, watching Uma, Cheryl, and the first grade students – a room filled with both young and old – all singing, dancing and laughing to the Hokey Pokey.

Click HERE to read Part 3 – The Electricity Problem

The Anjana School Project: Part 1 – New and Old India

September 4th, 2011

Everything begins somewhere…

I wrote this article to provide some insight into how our partnerships with Brahmi, the Anjana Vidyakendra School, SELCO Solar India, and many others began, and why what we all are doing together is important.

We believe if access to modern technology is the key to advancing educational and economic opportunities, so is access to sustainable energy.

Together we can help children get the education they need to help themselves and those around them.

- Murali Bashyam

Part 1 of 7 – New and Old India

About 20 minutes later, however, the big, beautiful office buildings turned into small houses and shacks, with plentiful undeveloped farmland.

When I visited Bangalore as a child decades ago, I remembered it as being a very quiet city with a moderate climate. It felt good to breathe the clean air. That Bangalore no longer exists. This Bangalore has beautiful Western-style shopping malls, numerous restaurants to choose from, fancy sky-rises, and plenty of well-dressed business people roaming the streets. Unfortunately, it also has plenty of congestion and pollution to go along with the growth. The quaint Bangalore I once remembered as a child is now a very busy metropolitan city.

As we drove from the busiest section of Bangalore to the outskirts to visit the children at the Anjana Vidyakendra school, which is administered by our partner Brahmi, a non-governmental organization in India, I couldn’t help but notice the towering buildings that sit on both sides of the main road. This was Bangalore’s information technology (IT) corridor, and these buildings were occupied by both large and small local and multi-national businesses. We drove by familiar signs – IBM, Sun Microsystems, DELL Computers etc. There were also unfamiliar ones – home grown Indian companies that arose out of global commerce.

About 20 minutes later, however, the big, beautiful office buildings turned into small houses and shacks, with plentiful undeveloped farmland. These communities were small and were ‘poor’ compared to what I had just seen. There were no steel structures with shiny glass. People mingled outside their abodes. There were cows everywhere, and street dogs roamed the streets for food.

Seeing this was not new to me – I had seen it all before.

After all, we were now outside the big city and in rural India. At one time, the big cities exhibited many aspects of rural India. Commerce and our global economy has changed that.

When we finally found the school, the first thing that stood out to me was the short dirt road between the spot where I saw the sign, “Anjana Vidyakendra School,” and the school itself. The road was incredibly smooth and the vegetation around it was well kept. Dr. Channa Raju, who administers the school and founded Brahmi, later told me the children get together and work to fix that road. The school, the environment, and the road belonged to the students, and they worked together to make it the best they could – collaboration for the greater good.

Click HERE to read Part 2 – The Hokey Pokey:  Global Barrier Breaker!

Video: Solar Energy Project in Rural India

April 4th, 2011

Listen to Friends Unite Board member, Ketan Soni, as he describes the Anjanavidya Kendra school in rural India, and how solar energy can be used to help provide children with access to modern technology and better educational opportunities.

Manjula’s Story: Giving Back to Her Community In Rural India

March 24th, 2011

By Pam Prather

When I think about the story of Manjula, a teacher at the Anjanavidya Kendra (Anjana) School in rural India, I am reminded of a picture that one of our Board of Directors, Ketan Soni, sent me when he visited Berlin, Germany. The picture was of a piece of the Berlin Wall, and on the wall it said, “many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world.”

Like many others in rural India, Manjula’s parents were daily wage earners. Manjula and her brother were students at a private school, near an urban low-income group settlement in Bangalore, India.

Manjula and brother, Shivi, as children

Manjula and brother, Shivi, as children

When Brahmi, a non-governmental organization in India and our partner, started its first project in the slums of Jagadishnagar, Manjula and her brother, Shiva, had become dropouts.  Their mother was seriously ill with an unknown disease and their father had deserted the family.  Brahmi staff found the family living under a tree after they were thrown out of their slum dwelling.  The family was unable to pay rent because there was absolutely no source of income, and the mother was being nursed by her two small children.

Manjula at the school

Manjula at the school

Brahmi took up the task of educating Manjula and Shiva. Manjula was a student of our first program, Akshara, a home school.  The family was provided with accommodations in a nearby village, and Manjula was sent to a Boarding School in Bangalore run by Seva Sadan.  Shiva was sent to Abhayadham, a vocational training school.

In 2002, the children’s mother was completely bedridden, and believed she would die any day. Dr. Amarnarayan,  a medical officer at National Aerospace Laboratories and a member of Brahmi’s Board, diagnosed her with acute hypothyroidism.  After two years of treatment she was able to walk again, and even carry out daily chores.  Brahmi supported her during these years, and later her husband rejoined the family.

In the meantime, Manjula completed high school, as well as pre-university education.  She rejoined her family in the village. In 2010, Manjula was hired by Anjana School as a Trainee Teacher and now earns a salary higher than her father.  She’s considered an excellent teacher, and participates in all the activities she herself was a part of all those years. While she has been presented with other opportunities, Manjula plans to complete her training and become a part of the full-time faculty at the Anjana School.

There were many people involved in helping Manjula along the way.  Now she can give back to her community, and help the Anjana School continue to provide education to rural children in India who would otherwise lack access to it.

Berlin Wall Picture

Piece of the Berlin Wall

Using Solar Energy to Help Children in Rural India

February 25th, 2011

By Ketan Soni, Director of Friends Unite

I recently traveled to India with my father primarily, to reconnect with distant family.  During my trip, I had the opportunity to visit a partner of Friends Unite, Mr. Channa Raju and his non-governmental organization, Brahmi.

Grounds of Anjana Vidyakendra School in Guttahali Village, India

Grounds of Anjana Vidyakendra School in Guttahali Village, India

Channa and Brahmi founded the Anjana Vidyakendra School in Guttahali village near Bangalore, India.  This school is located in rural India and provides education to children who would otherwise lack access to it.  Unfortunately, the school suffers from severe electricity shortages and is often only on the power grid for 3-4 hours total per day.

Channa described to me his goal of creating a computer lab and having lighting in the facility to allow the children to properly study.   Accomplishing this goal with the current lack of consistent access to electricity would be a challenge.  To that end, we, along with Brahmi and SELCO, a socially responsible solar power provider in India, discussed a plan to install solar panels at the school.  The solar energy generated by the panels would provide the school with enough electricity to consistently power 20 computers, as well as provide facility lighting that would help further the children’s education.

Although we discussed the solar plan in detail prior to my trip, none of us had yet decided to move forward with it.  I wanted to visit the school, meet Channa and the children, and be certain that the project clearly fit within the Friends Unite mission and vision to partner long-term with people and organizations to help people help themselves.

School Children at Anjana Vidyakendra School near Bangladore, India

Indian School Children at Morning Assembly

When I arrived at the school, the children were already there for their morning assembly.   Channa met me near the front of the school and began explaining a day in the life of the kids.  Channa is actually a model for the students.  He grew up not far away from this village, and had the right opportunities to further his education and complete his Ph.D. as a scientist.   He felt compelled to return to his community and provide the same opportunity to others.  Nearly everything he showed me demonstrated the idea of giving back to the community that he was raised in.

As we walked through the school, I realized that my expectations regarding the resources available to the school were far overestimated, and my expectations about the thought put into maximizing those resources was far underestimated.  Let me provide some examples to illustrate my point.

I come home every day without a doubt in my mind that I can do what I need to at night by just flipping on a light switch.  Until recently, these kids went home from school and could not finish their homework because they had no light.  Brahmi’s solution involved maximizing the use of available resources and relationships.  Thanks to a generous donation from SELCO, there are now 50 tiny LED lights that each child can take home.  These LED lights are recharged daily by a small solar panel donated by SELCO.  This means each child can now continue their education at home in a socially responsible, sustainable manner.  Channa told me that these lights are so versatile and functional, that after the children go to bed, their parents sometimes use these lights to find their way around home at night!

Friends Unite Director, Ketan Soni, tours Anjana Vidyakendra School in India

Building at Anjana Vidyakendra School in India

When discussing this new solar panel project with Channa, the careful thought put into using resources was again made clear.  No energy is wasted, as the working model does not require each student to have their own individual computer.  Instead, through work with SELCO, the school managed to find a way for one computer to be used with 4 separate monitors.  In addition, Channa took me to the kitchens, where part of the education involves how to plant, tend, and eventually utilize the grains growing right next door to the school.  In this way, Channa showed me Anjana school’s mix between a practical and idealistic education.

Nothing given is taken for granted at this school.

The clearest example of how this school is sustainable and future thinking became evident when I met one of the teachers who had been a member of the first class that originated 10 years ago.  Just like Channa, she came back to her village to give back to them.  Ultimately, they were helping themselves.  There could be no greater confirmation in my mind about how many of these students would continue to sustain this school and community down the road without the need for an extraordinary level of outside assistance.

I think of this project not merely as helping to provide education for underprivileged children by powering computers.  Rather, it will give these children an opportunity to take the ideals of the environment in which they grew up and place them on an even playing field with those who had more advantages.  If even one of these students achieves something greater because of this opportunity and gives back to the community, I personally consider that a success.

Each “nudge” that these children absorb will ultimately result in long term changes that I hope to, but may never, experience directly.  The atmosphere of accountability and being conscious of the impact on the environment will stay with these children and influence the attitudes they bring to the outside world and the multitudes of people that they end up influencing in the bright futures they have ahead of them.

The donation of 50 LED lamps by SELCO is a small first step.

The next step is the broader plan of using solar energy to power the entire school facility and computer lab, and to show how solar power can change the lives of children in rural India.   And by doing so, play a small role in helping empower them to change the lives of others.

Inspirational Artwork at Anjana Vidyakendra School in Guttahali Village

"Together We Can" reads the artwork at Anjana Vidyakendra School in Guttahali Village, India

The Tribal Health Project

January 26th, 2011

Tribal Health Project

Post by Murali Bashyam

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

-        Henry de Bracton

It was sometime in late 2010 when I received a call from Dr. Maria Del Pilar Corena, founder of World Solutions Against Infectious Diseases (WSAID).  As usual, she was bristling with excitement.  Maria was telling me about a new project idea intended to help tribes around the world with disease prevention.

The project has two main goals:

1.     To study tribes and document their natural medicinal practices, perceptions of disease, and their treatment of Malaria, Dengue, Chagas and Leishmaniasis, and

2.     To use the local tribal health practices and incorporate modern scientific knowledge and practices to develop effective tools to educate tribes about insect transmitted diseases and disease prevention.

The premise of this idea is based on Mr. Alejandro Valencia-Tobon’s work in rural Colombia. He conducted question/answer sessions to gain valuable information from communities affected by the Leishmaniasis disease. Mr. Valencia-Tobon put that knowledge to work by creating audiovisuals that captured the community’s perception of Leishmaniasis, which were then used to help educate them on prevention and treatment of the disease.

Maria’s plan is to use a similar approach to document tribal notions on insect transmitted diseases, incorporate it with modern scientific/biomedical knowledge, and develop tools to help educate tribes threatened by Malaria, Dengue, Leishmaniais and Chagas.

She asked if we would be interested in helping with the educational part of the project.

Since sustainable health solutions is a part of our mission, we partnered with WSAID and PECET, a research organization in Columbia, South America, and submitted this project proposal to the Wellcome Trust.

Why is This Project Important?

Traditional plant medicines often play a key role in drug discovery. Researchers working on drug development are generally not exposed to the tribal knowledge that contributed to their discovery. Tribal knowledge is valuable in identifying specific natural products that lead to disease treatment.

Development, tourism and conflicts have contributed to increased biodiversity losses and tribal extinction.  But the most significant contributors to increased biodiversity losses and tribal extinction are insect-transmitted diseases such as Malaria, Leishmaniasis, Dengue, and Chagas.  If these communities are destroyed, their tribal knowledge will also be lost forever.

The main goal of this project is to help reduce the rate of tribal extinction.

One objective for the achievement of this goal is to preserve valuable tribal knowledge.  This knowledge, in conjunction with modern scientific practices, can then be used to develop effective tools to educate tribes about insect transmitted diseases and disease prevention.  Tools such as audiovisuals and hands-on approaches can be created to illustrate differences between insects, habitats, and transmission cycles.

The regions chosen for this three-year study include: 1) Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, South America (Koguis tribe), 2) Western Ghats, Madurai, India (Paliyan tribe) and 3) Subsaharan Africa, Mali (Dogon tribe). All three regions are classified as high biodiversity endangered ecosystems.

Project Engagement and Goals

Interventions to improve public health are most effective when communities understand, participate in and benefit from the research process. Isolated tribal communities are often not included in traditional research and interventions, and their medicinal knowledge is not disseminated.

In the first phase of this project with the Koguis Tribe in Colombia, our team plans to film interactions with the tribe, documenting their medicinal and tribal practices. These interactions will be used to develop tools necessary to educate them on various aspects of tropical diseases and the insects that cause them in a manner consistent with their practices.

This project will also provide others with information on how modern knowledge on these diseases can be translated into simple tools to educate tribes across the world on disease treatment and prevention. We hope to establish inclusive dialogue with teachers, researchers, scientists, officers and the general public to develop better and more creative educational tools to be used in other phases of the project in Africa and India. One key objective is to educate public and health professionals so they understand how tribes perceive tropical diseases.

The expected project outcomes can be summarized with four words: 1) knowledge, 2) education, (3) prevention, and 4) collaboration.

Knowledge – We expect to develop a greater understanding of tribal perceptions of tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue, chagas and leishmaniasis, and medicinal practices used to prevent/treat them. This knowledge will be disseminated to other health professionals and the general public around the world.

Education We will take the collective knowledge gained through our interactions with tribes and other collaborators, and incorporate it with modern scientific/biomedical knowledge to develop audiovisual tools and other hands-on approaches to educate tribes on the differences between various diseases and the insects that transmit them.

mosquito

Prevention We believe that knowledge and education, when applied together and in a manner consistent with local tribal health practices, will lead to decreased insect disease transmission within tribal communities. This will lead to decreases in sickness and loss of life.

Collaboration Collaboration with health professionals and researchers in various countries, as well as collaboration with tribes and other interested parties, will lead to an exchange of knowledge on tropical diseases in a way that is consistent with tribal health practices. This collaboration will lead to long-term relationships that will promote understanding of health issues affecting tribal communities, and the development of simple educational tools to disseminate modern scientific knowledge.

When Will This Project Start?

The Wellcome Trust is expected to make a decision on this project proposal in March 2011. We will keep you updated on the tribal health project, as well as our partnership with WSAID, throughout the course of the year.

Join the D.I.Y Revolution – Make a new friend

October 21st, 2010

Guest Post By: Jessica Coscia

“Are these young idealists unsophisticated about what it takes to change the world? Yes, often. At first, they don’t always appreciate the importance of listening to local people and bringing them into the management of projects, and they usually overestimate the odds of success. They also sometimes think it will be romantic to tackle social problems, a view that may fade when they’ve caught malaria.”

The quote, above, is taken from a great New York Times article about the latest “Revolution.” What some are calling the Do-It-Yourself Foreign-Aid Revolution. It’s entertaining, but it also makes a great point.

Friends Unite is an organization, founded by ”regular” people, with a common desire to contribute their own little grain of salt in an effort to make other people’s lives just a little better, I can appreciate the noble efforts of those who work together with modest means to make the world a better place.

When shared with Friends Unite President and Founder, Murali Bashyam, this article reminded him of a  similar point I made at a recent Friends Unite event – that “so many nonprofits focus on how to ‘measure success’ when sometimes it’s impossible to measure because the benefits can extend beyond generations.”

Sure, motivating postitive change in this world of ours is tough work and all of the good intentions in the world will not move mountains, but if we want to have any impact on our world we have to work together.

There is no need to be a lone crusader on your own D.I.Y. revolution when there are plenty of small organizations out there “doing it themselves” who could use a helping hand.

Don’t know which philanthropic effort to tackle first?

How about starting with an easy one. Friendship.

Friends Unite welcomes you to their effort to make a difference in people’s lives, one meaningful friendship at a time.

Kibera Kids Teach Us A Lesson On Happiness

August 23rd, 2010

Guest Post by: Rachel Prather (daughter, Pam Prather, Vice President of Friends Unite)

Kibera1

When I stepped out of the car, the first thing I noticed was the smell.  We had driven through streets that were mostly unpaved and past homes and shops that were made of wood with tin roofs.  I noticed all of these things on the way to Kibera, Kenya, Africa, but the first thing that struck me when I stepped out of the car was the smell.

I thought to myself, “How can these people live here?”  That question lingered for the rest of the morning.

We walked through the streets of the slum, on our way to a new health clinic supported by Carolina for Kibera.  I was wearing a skirt, as we were advised that it would be culturally insensitive for the women to wear pants or shorts.  I was also wearing flip-flops. Kibera6

We were not prepared for what awaited us on the fifteen minute walk to the clinic. I held my skirt up and paid attention to each step as I walked over the visible waste that was part of our path. I watched in shock as I saw residents dumping waste from buckets into the crowded street/sewage system.  I had never seen anything like this.

Some people ignored us, some people greeted us, some shook our hands, others just stared.  It was as if we were walking down a street back home, but it was also very different at the same time.  We were there to observe, to learn and absorb the current state there.

As soon as the kids spotted us, they shouted loudly and often – “How are you?  How are you?”  If we answered them, “I am fine!” they would laugh; delighted to hear English spoken from a native English-speaker.

It was the children who changed the course of my morning.  They were happy, and smiling.  It was hard for me to believe that children in this type of squalor would be able to smile.  And yet, here they were, as polite as can be, greeting strangers into their neighborhood.

The children in the slums were all smiles.  But, how?  Perhaps, because they are alive, most of them probably have parents, they probably have a place to live, and they just enough food to survive.

It could also be because they don’t know any better. We could attribute their happiness to the innocence of the child’s mind. They are not yet aware of the “reality” in Kibera.

What is that reality?

Although 1.5 million people live in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, the largest slum in Africa, Kenya’s government does not acknowledge its existence. The government contends that the massive population is illegally squatting on government land, and thus refuses to provide infrastructure: schools, hospitals, or sanitation. Women are left especially devastated in Kibera as men control existing scarce resources. In Kenya, 33% of women trade sex to survive by 16; in Kibera, 66% of girls trade sex for food as early as 6. Women in Kibera contract HIV at a rate 5 times their male counterparts: Kibera has one of the world’s highest HIV rates. Only 8% of women ever attend school. 1 of 5 children do not live to see a 5th birthday. 7 of 10 women will experience violence. No statistic ultimately captures the severity of Kibera’s human crisis.

There are many members of my generation and younger that take many things for granted.  When their iPod breaks, they get very upset.  It could possibly mean the end of the world – until they get a new one. Maybe, just maybe, if they spent a day with happy children, children who have less “stuff” but just as many things to be happy about, they would get a little tug on their heartstrings.  Maybe it would put things into perspective. Maybe.

I can’t say that my life has turned upside down after visiting the slums of Kibera.  However, I can say that my life has changed in many seemingly insignificant ways.

This month, I start my first year as a high school teacher, and I have already written lesson plans that revolve around my experience in Kibera.

I am grateful that my mom, Pam Prather, and her friend, Murali Bashyam, let us tag along on their trip to Kibera, Kenya.  I have told others of my experience, in the hopes that they will be inspired to visit.  I have started looking at children differently – where does consumerism begin and creativity end?  The most important end I hope to achieve is the education of my students; education about other cultures and other people.

That is something that we all need to be aware of.

Video: Our Visit to Yangngua Secondary School – Kilisa, Kenya

August 11th, 2010

We would like to thank Sports Endeavors (www.sportsendeavors.com) for donating these soccer balls to the children at the Yangngua Secondary School in Kilisa, Kenya.