Saturday, September 21, 2013

Koppal: A Summary

Here is a long and incomplete summary of the last five days:

Last Sunday night all 17 of us climbed onto a bus with our overstuffed backpacks and matching messenger bags and sat shoulder to shoulder as we made our way toward the train station. We found our platform and watched a few trains go by before it was time for us to depart. It’s a ten-hour train ride to Koppal, which goes by quickly if you’re able to fall asleep.

Arriving in Koppal, we exited the train and made our way to the bus that would take us to Bandhavi—Visthar’s bridge school for girls who are at risk of being dedicated as devadasis—which literally translates to "servant of God." Devadasi women are faced with a lot of discrimination and usually lead lives filled with poverty and abuse. We drove through Koppal and then out to Bandhavi where we ate breakfast and received a tour of the campus.

The first day was rough—three hours of sleep and no coffee would have been more than enough for me to deal with, but the world kept on spinning. We listened to a panel of nine young boys and girls talk about their experiences in child labor, which left us in a kind of existential crisis.

We had an hour of down time before it was time to play with the girls. It was complete chaos. We were outnumbered 106 to 14 and there was a language barrier. But the girls knew what to do. They taught us hand games, cheers, songs, and dances and then we taught them some that we knew. I met Meenakshi that first night. She is in Bandhavi—12 years old and studies 5th standard. We played some hand games and then she stuck by my side the rest of the night—and the rest of the trip. We bonded quickly and easily despite her knowing little English and me knowing virtually no Kannada. She called me akka (older sister) and I called her tengi (younger sister). I even met her mother during our last night. It was hard to say goodbye.
Me and Meenakshi

During our second day, we had a panel with three former devadasi mothers. We accompanied them to a Hindu temple where they did their offerings—though they are not allowed in the actual temple, so they did went to the river behind the temple. They had a ritual bath in the river and then prepared their offerings. We prayed over their offerings and then gave a donation.

Later that day we visited a village—as we rode in, children ran alongside our bus—some climbed on. We got off the bus and sat down on a tarp on the ground. Soon we were surrounded by people from the village—most of whom were children. I have never so many children before. We got up and walked through the village to see a person’s home. As we walked, the children followed. They extended their hands for handshakes, waved, and said, “Hi, what is your name?” A sense of relief flooded over me as we stood in the house away from the children. But as we paraded back to the bus, the mob continued. I began to feel frustrated and overwhelmed. I couldn’t do this anymore. I stopped making eye contact, stopped smiling, and didn’t shake anymore hands. I needed to get back on the bus. But the bus was locked. The children surrounded us and started asking for rupees and pulling on clothing. I was one of the first people on the bus, but those who got on last had a different experience than I did. The children got more demanding and even a little aggressive. In hindsight, the village visit was more troubling than it was as I was experiencing it.

Throughout our time at Bandhavi we worked with the Visthar Community College (VCC) students in creating a photo essay. I was partnered with Devendra. We decided to do our photo essay on nature. We walked around the campus and surrounding area and he took pictures of fields, trees, gardens, vegetables, and animals. We selected ten photos and put them in a PowerPoint. Despite the language barrier, we came up with a thesis, introduction, and caption for each photo. Everyone displayed their photo essay while the Bandhavi girls walked around and looked at them all.

During day three, we went to a school and observed a CREA (Child Rights Education Advocacy) meeting. (CREA is a project of Visthar). There were about 30 kids who sat in a circle in a classroom with only two chalkboards and three barred windows.They started off the meeting by naming some of their rights and then they came up with a list of all the problems within their school: no plates for lunch, no gate around the school, adults gambling and drinking alcohol inside their school at night. They decided that they would wright and submit a complaint in the next few days. I was really inspired by this group of children who were recognizing the downfalls of their school and acting to change them. Previously, they had protested for better teachers and separate bathrooms for girls and boys and their demands were met.

That night, SJPD and VCC went to the Koppal movie theater to see Chennai Express—a short (2.5 hours) Bollywood movie. It was in Hindi—no subtitles. Indian movie theaters are much more interactive than American movie theaters. There were cheers, screams, claps, and whistles throughout the movie. After the movie we debriefed about the experience and how we felt about the item number, the gender roles, and the sexual objectification of women.

We also toured a wig factory during our time in Koppal. To be let in and shown around, we pretended to be a group studying globalization. The hair is collected from village women once each month—they collect their hair as they brush it. In return, they do not get rupees, but small trinkets such as bindis. Women (and children) sat outside on the cement as they picked through the raw hair, lice and all, to get it ready for the next stages. Then it was boiled for further cleaning. Then it was repeatedly pulled through a board with nails sticking out of it to comb through it. Then it was sorted, inspected, and sent off to China for further processing. The end product at this factory was a bundle of hair. The minimum wage in Karnataka is 158 rupees a day. The factory paid women 100 rupees a day while men were paid 200+ rupees a day. Women were doing the dirtier and less valued work. Also, women and men were always separated. Either the women were outside or they were in different rooms than the men.

Our last day in Koppal, we got into our small groups with the Bandhavi girls and did an activity where we drew a picture with this question in mind: “What kind of world do you want to live in?” All five groups placed their pictures around a torch, which was then lit. We all stood in a circle and sang a Kannada song together before saying our final goodbyes and heading back to the train station.

It’s nice to be back at Visthar. This week is packed with classes, documentaries, and presentations. Lots of assignments due as well.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Love the picture of you and Meenakshi, and all of this. Keep it coming. Miss you!!

  2. Wonderful descriptions of your time and activities in India!