Shaila Lambert

Shaila Lambert’s experience in Chaparda – October 2010

I arrived at Rajkot not sure what to expect. I had heard about BEHT from friends and the little I knew of the place’s philosophy appealed to me.

I’m keen to make a contribution in India, but I was not interested in working with a big organisation as I wanted to make a difference directly and witness change. This is admittedly perhaps self-fulfilling; for me seeing the difference I would help make would give me a greater sense of accomplishment and pleasure. Furthermore, it meant that any money I raise would go directly to the cause rather than to bureaucracy and admin charges.

First impressions

The flight arrived on time at 7.45 from Mumbai; I was told a driver from BEHT would be waiting to pick me up and sure enough there Rajesh was. Chapuda is two and a half hours from Rajkot, meaning he had to get up very early – I soon realised this was a usual day’s work for him. I had seen Gujarat’s countryside before but the ride from Rajkot was very impressive: rolling lush fertile fields of vegetables intertwined with flowing canals, streams and rivers. The main crops seemed to be cotton and groundnuts. The journey was very comfortable and Rajesh was an excellent guide with a considerable knowledge of local history and issues.

I arrived at BEHT and found it remarkable, standing out easily from all the buildings I had passed so far. I had seen pictures of it on the internet which had not done it justice – it was well-planned, well-maintained, and clean. My room was well above the basic accommodation I was expecting. It was very comfortable and clean, with an attached bathroom and even air-conditioning. The guest house was a new block built about two years ago and it is reserved for guests coming to see BEHT and Bapu. It is surrounded by farmland at the back and is fronted by Chikcou trees and plants. A beautiful setting, especially at sunrise. Local donors and supporters can come and stay as they wish and Bapu ensures they are made to feel at home and welcomed.

Meeting Bapu

After breakfast I was taken to meet Bapu. I was not sure what to expect and as I approached I was a bit apprehensive even though the atmosphere was very calm and peaceful, Bapa was sitting on a swing surrounded by followers and people coming to meet him. He welcomed me and tried to make me feel at ease. In between his various discussions with people and managers from BEHT he managed to talk with me. He was constantly engaged in mini-meetings with several groups simultaneously, multi-tasking to make sure his time was available for everyone that wanted to see him, and ensuring the various projects that he was involved with ran smoothly and that he was updated constantly. He asked questions and dispensed advice.

He recognised that coming to a small village is not an easy task for someone from abroad and they appreciated the effort people made to visit. BEHT had clearly tried to create comfortable conditions for their overseas supporters. In my view they succeeded. Bapu also continually asked for advice on how to make the accommodation and stay even more comfortable.

English lessons

I had come for a few days to help at the school, but due to exams and the suspension of the normal teaching timetable is was difficult to fit me in to teach English. However, I did manage to talk to the students at night before they went to bed, to read stories and have a chat. The older students’ English was not bad but they needed practice with speaking. The younger students could recognise the alphabet but had no concept of phonics which would make reading easier.

I would encourage any gap year students looking for a project to help with to consider spending 6-8 months helping BEHT. They would be well looked after and it would not cost them as much as commercially arranged gap year experiences. Perhaps a twinning with schools and colleges would help encourage students to exchange views and come to help at the school.

The school

Sanjay, ‘project manager’ of BEHT, showed me around. What they have achieved in 10 years is impressive. The school buildings are well organised and still in good condition, despite maintence being a big problem in India. The school is well run and it’s more than simply an ordinary school to improve literacy for the poor. The school would match any private school in England and is run like any private education institution you would find in the West.

The aim of the school is to educate children to meet the demands of the 21st century and produce future leaders, businessmen, engineers, and medical, computing and IT professionals. When I asked the girls what their ambitions and aspirations were they gave the usual answers – to be doctors, accounts, lawyers and teachers – but the real difference is that BEHT will make it possible for them to fulfil these dreams. The statistics speaks for themselves – BEHT has been in existence for ten years and the first batch of leavers have gone into further education and University courses including arts and science, computing and IT, commerce, engineering, pharmacy, dentistry, medicine, and agriculture and vocational courses. Bapu hopes that one day some of these students will come back to help run BEHT and support its cause.

The school has well equipped computer rooms (separate computer rooms for Secondary and primary school), science room, library and sports fields (the school has produced state level participants in volleyball, hurdles, yogasan, basketball, karate, judo and field and track). This year they recognised that mixed ability classes were not working, so special classes have been set up for students with learning difficulties to ensure they are brought up to standard with extra support. There are also tests to determine gifted students so that they are supported appropriately.

The school, however, is not purely for educational proposes: its aim is to produce a well-balanced and rounded person. It caters for all castes and backgrounds, though its primary aim is towards educating children who are orphaned and from single-parent families from rural backgrounds. Of the 1,500 students only 120 are girls. They are mostly either orphaned or from single-parent families and they pay no fees. A separate girl’s school in Junaghad caters for around 600 girls and Bapu’s next project is to build another dormitory for girls and increase the number attending Chapuda.

All the children are immaculately presented (a resident barber means even the boys are well groomed!) and on joining all the students are given a school uniform set which includes P.E kit, shoes and night clothes. They are also provided with all necessary stationery, equipment and books. The dormitories are clean (the students have to clean their own dorms) and have fans and individual lockable cupboards. The daily school program is certainly demanding and I suspect that most Western students would find it a challenge to cope with the rigid timetable and discipline required. Here is a typical daily timetable:

  • Wake-up call – 05.00
  • Showers – 05.00-05.30
  • Yoga – 05.30 – 06.30
  • Breakfast – 06.30 – 07.30
  • Lessons – 08.30 – 12.00
  • Lunch – 12.00 – 13.30
  • Lessons – 13.30 – 16.30
  • Free or Sports – 14.30 – 18.00
  • Dinner – 18.00 – 19.30
  • Free – 19.30 – 20.30
  • Reading – 20.30 – 21.30
  • Relaxation time, TV reading – 21.30 – 22.30
  • Ready for bed – 22.30 – 23.00
  • Lights out – 23.00

Food is typical Guajarati thali, as you would expect. Three meals a day and there is plenty of it. The kitchen is powered partly by solar energy. The produce of BEHT’s farms is controlled by Bapu and is used to make the meals, supplemented by produce from the market. One thing that impressed me was how the well-being of every child is guaranteed throughout their stay. For example, there is a herbal ayuvedic drink called kauda kawit (which I had been drinking to keep mosquitoes away) which is often taken first thing in the morning during the monsoon season to ward-off colds, coughs, flu and insect and mosquitoes bites. Although beneficial, anyone who has had it knows how sour and bitter the taste is. I was told that the students have to drink it first each morning during the monsoon season, before they get served breakfast. For any illnesses, there are doctors on hand.

Walking around the school you see the children are happy, courteous, contented, enthuastic and well disciplined.

Considering the disadvantaged backgrounds of the student intake the school produces excellent results. This is due to a number of factors. The school has employed a number of leading experts in Gujarat to plan the curriculum and track progress. This is supplemented with educational experts based in London. They have employed teachers that are well-trained and dedicated. Having Teacher’ Committees in charge of various curricula and extra-curricula activities means that these are properly planned and run smoothly.

Two years ago BEHT was approved to teach undergraduate courses in Bachelor of Education, and post-graduate courses in Computer Science and Management. This is to provide the opportunity for students who leave the college to go into further education. They are planning to ensure 100% employment at the end of the courses and all support needed to ensure this happens will be given.

There is also a school for the blind and partially-sighted. The boarding house contains living quarters as well as the classrooms and the students are taught to read and write and learn music. It will be interesting to see in the future what careers these students will follow.

This, however, was still not enough for Bapu. He realises that to keep up with the requirements of the modern world one has to be able to speak English. A new project is already under-way to build an English-medium school whose educational standards will compete with international schools. This exciting and challenging project will be fascinating to keep an eye on in the future.

Bapu

So who is Bapu who established BEHT? His full name is Param Pujya Muktanandji, and he became a Sadhu (monk) at the age of 11. His Guru (teacher) was Shree Bhagvatinandj, whose Guru was Param Pujya Gopalanandji. During my stay at BEHT, I went to meet Param Pujya Gopalandandji who at 110 years old looks like someone around sixty-five, and still runs his ashram at Bilkha. He has given spiritual guidance and support to people around the district and is well-respected. He was given a lot of land in donations on which various ashrams have been built. Under the guidance of both gurus, Bapu has carried out a lot of charitable, social and spiritual activities and it has earned him respect and lot of admiration. Over the few days that I spent at BEHT, I began to realise that his persona is bigger than the little I knew about him. One could see that he is well-loved and respected by his followers. He provides guidance and help to people living in the 25 villages around Junagadh. Further afield, he has gained supporters over the years in Gujarat and as far as Punjab and internationally in England, USA, Singapore, Kenya and Australia. Indeed for someone who comes from the West it is difficult to describe his status, especially as in the West, with the decline of religion and a strong sense of community, we typically have little or no spiritual guidance from similar individuals. Individual and the community look to him for help in any problems they have as they can rely on him to provide a solution.

Following a short film he watched about Mother Teresa 25 years ago, he realised that spiritual and religious guidance was not enough. Mother Teresa was of a different faith and reached out to help the poor, handicapped and sick from any caste and background and tried to make a difference in their lives without involving religion first. It inspired Bapu, and he realised that the only way to raise the standards of the rural poor was through education and health. Their welfare has to be catered for and they have to be equipped to deal with the demands of the current century. Param Pujya Gopalanandji recognized the vision and drive that Bapu had, so gave him the lands to build the schools and other projects Bapu had in mind.

Bapu works about 16-18 hours each day to fulfill his spiritual, social and cultural duties as well as ensuring his charitable and educational projects are running smoothly. Two weeks after I left he was due to provide facilities and provisions for 251 weddings to be performed in the grounds for the villages that he helps. This has been happening for a number of years. In addition, he provides food rations to the elderly in these villages who have no income or are handicapped. His farming projects produce food for the school and he tries to organically grow his crops. He also experiments to grow crops which have not traditionally been grown in the area. Whilst I was here I saw Turmeric and Suran being cultivated for the first time in the area. Other farmers were intrigued by the new crops being grown and if they are successful they will grow them. The difference is that they can not risk a failed harvest and the resulting loss of income.

BEHT produces its own milk and currently has about 250 cows. They have various breeds of cows including Jerseys. They are well looked-after with a vet on hand. The cows are milked twice a day (I had my first experience milking cows) and some of the milk is converted into butter, buttermilk and used to make yogurt. A new cowshed is currently being built to house around 200 cows. It has been designed to give maximum light and flow of air and will provide milk for the growing number of people that future projects will involve. The dung from the cows is used to produce methane gas that is used to provide power for one of the kitchens.

The current location also has an old people’s home that caters for around 100 people (the oldest being102 years old). Most of them have no home, being abandon by their own family or income to support themselves and here they are provided with all their needs. They in turn help in any way they are able to. Making tasty pickles is one of these. The current accommodation is not enough for the growing waiting list of people who want to live here. Another building is currently being built to cater for another two hundred.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at BEHT and it inspired me to be part of the project. The success of the project to date is evident and has won over the support of many local Indians who are also giving donations, but the momentum has to be maintained to ensure future projects are launched. The projects to date are efficiently run and are constantly evolving to ensure they keep up with the latest developments in thinking and technology. Input from experts in any field is welcome. The surrounding countryside is a great setting for this wonderful project, and if one wants to experience the real India then I would recommend spending a week here. Also, as I said earlier, gap-year students would find spending time at BEHT to be enjoyable, educational and fulfilling. Perhaps even inspiring!

The current projects for school, hospital, farm, colleges etc are suppose to be a models for future set up in other areas. The primary aims of the projects are to help the underprivileged and ensure that the projects are sustainable and self-financing. If these project are replicated all over India then most of the issues with education and poverty would be solved. It would ensure that change does happen and that the rural population is empowered to be able to deal with the future and be part of it rather than see it pass by.

BEHT VIDEOS

watch a short video of BEHT

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