3 Sept 2012: Seb’s Project, Vellore, India

3 September 2012

Our first outing as a group was to go to Seb’s Projects and meet the friends of Tim who had organised our trip.   We were to be briefed about Seb’s Projects, meet each other and learn about India and its customs and issues.  Here is the blog entry of that first day.

Today I heard the faint voice ‘Lily’ and knew it was time to wake up. I decided to change my name to Lily which is the meaning of Susan and in fact means peace.  My room mate is called Alex and she is a school teacher from Melbourne. Her clown speciality is puppets and I am looking forward to seeing her work.

The group formed and we walked over to the canteen at a nearby hospital. We walked through a beautiful forested area and I found myself meeting Ovidi who is from Spain. He has a warm wide smile welcoming all who come into his presence. We excitedly saw some monkey’s. I watched the mother dragging the baby across the roof. Another few were up in the trees. So lovely to see monkey’s in the wild in the middle of a city.

We all ordered breakfast – omelettes, mango drinks, vegetable sandwiches to name a few items. I was hungry so it was lovely to have a meal.

The key organiser is Geraldine, Gerri for short from the Seb’s Project. She has worked for this NGO for 4 years and is very experienced. I will speak more about this small but effective NGO as I go through this day.

In the tuk tuk Jo and Toot were with me. The driver emerged out into the chaos of Indian traffic and indeed tooting is the prevailing sounds that echo like an orchestra of communication that each driver is alert to, for each toot warns that a vehicle is approaching in a mish mash of merging traffic. The city of Vellore is known for housing the famous CNC hospital famous for health care throughout India. The women in their colourful sari’s are seen on the streets or riding side saddle on a motor bike. You see little girls and boys going to school. They are in uniforms and they have white ribbons in their hair. I imagined their pride at going to school and being kids. The family’s here are central and close. There are strong familial networks.

We arrived at the Seb’s Projects in a wealthy part of Vellore. We passed large mansions and stopped outside a very nice white building. As we climbed the stairs we found ourselves in a large room with shining floors and paintings adorning the walls. It was very clean and modern. They had a video presentation set up and we were welcomed with coffee.

Gerri introduced us to Seb’s Projects and we all went around the group speaking about our clowning. Some were new to clowning, others worked professionally, some into puppets, silent clowning, laughter yoga or felt inspired to be there. We met our new Indian friends who would be both translators and clowns with us. My friend Tim who organised the project described how as a child he had cancer and recalled going into hospitals. He spoke of being inspired by a magician and he wanted to do it. He performed for cousins and developed his skills. He said he started going to do children’s parties and had some difficulties with people not appreciating his work. He travelled to Africa and found the wide smiles of children inspired him. The numbers grew as word of the ‘magic man’ got around. He ended up in front of 200 people and he just loved it. Tim felt the magic of being a magician and making others smile. He also had worked with Seb’s Projects here in India some 3 years ago and he set up a eco trail which has brought in much needed revenue for the villages. It was because of his relationship with Seb’s Projects that this clown trip was started. Tim is described by his mother as a hippy, I’d say Patch Adams is as well. I guess what is similar about hippies is there is an easy going quality and laid back attitude. Tim is that sort of person, he is very much consensus based and goes with the flow. Gerri is the one that can motivate and get things moving, she is very intelligent and capable. She is a young woman, but I have to say age means nothing to me these days you meet so many amazing people of all ages.

There is a multicultural flavour to the group but mostly we are an Australian bunch but a few are from Spain and Sweden. There is one Australian who comes from aboriginal background so it will be really interesting to learn from her. In India older persons are called uncle or aunty, Amo I heard speaking to Emma (elderly Indian) and telling her she would like to call her Aunty as that was in her tradition. I reflected on the similarities of indigenous people. There are often overlaps.

It is fascinating listening to other people’s stories and experiences of life and what lead them to decide to be a clown. It is a unique group, Tim feels there is around 10,000 around the world. Certainly clown doctoring has increased particularly with the story of Dr. Patch Adams the American clown doctor. Tim, myself, his mum Margarite and Lisa have all clowned with Patch. There is another very experienced clown with us, Nigel who has clowned for a quarter of a century as he termed it. He saw himself as unique and I could see he is. He is very good at balloons some of the participants reported from last night whilst I was sleeping. He also has travelled many countries and is an independent soul.

We started getting to know some of the Indian volunteers and they have broad smiles and open hearts. One of them who by fate has come to be with us is a spiritual truth seeker, he and I connected immediately. I saw the artist in him and knew he has joined for a reason. Others indicated fate and my overall feeling was this is a sacred trip and much joy is going to be generated. All are easy to smile and there is a warm heartedness. I know we will all become close as we clown together. Yes it will be exhausting but I know it will be incredible.

We are in Tamil Nadu, so the language here is Tamil I am told people are very proud of their culture. We were given a briefing of the culture here and for women to be modest. It is considered a conservative State. The neighbouring State is Kerala, I was pleased to hear this as I studied this part of India and found Kerala had the highest literacy and equality in India. It is a matrilineal society and women are respected. As a result of this dynamic more girls are educated and the State itself has prospered. It is a prime example of why the whole benefits when all members are treated in equality. What I find is when virtues lead any society, the whole society grows and prospers. The language of Kerala is Malayalam. What was made clear to us was the food and customs change as you move States. India is not one, and I recall in the Gandhi movie it was referred to as many India’s. I also heard that people of different religions do live in harmony here. The prime religions are Hindu (80%), Jainism (0.5%), Sikhism (2%), Buddhism (0.7%). Christianity (2.5%) and Islam (12%) came at the turn of the 19th century. There is respect for differences and people coexist. A comment was made about politicians causing division and I felt there was truth in that. Certainly the British brought divide and conquer strategy as a means of control and often politicians appeal to certain groups for votes.

We were informed that Indians have a different notion of space and can come up very close, moreover they can come and stare at you as you are white. I sensed as we travelled around not any Western Tourists so I figure we will be a novelty by being white and also clowns. I am sure it will create a sensation give how long we are here and the incredible ripples that will be sent out by our presence. Ten clowns is enormous energy and as a arrhythmia to the pattern of life it will definitely cause much commotion, I hope we don’t cause accidents as the traffic is chaotic and you can only imagine everyone wanting to get a look.

We were asked questions about what we had noticed which I noted as a strategy of empowerment. Information was not just given to us we were asked questions first. The Seb’s Projects team are small but I can see they understand empowerment. They don’t impose ideas they draw out knowledge, this of course is a powerful way to strengthen people.

We learned how to say hello in Tamil ‘Vanacum’ and ‘Namaste’ – the latter means god in me greets the god in you. We learned aka is older sister, ana is older brother and umma is older lady and iyia is older man (sir). So it was interesting to see in the language the way to speak to people was related to family age and gender. Young people are taught to respect elders and you don’t sit above an older person. There are rules and it is normal for a young person to live with family until they get married. There are love marriages here and slowly the caste system is breaking down. Apparently it is still important administratively as they are given certificates to confirm the caste. We were informed of the caste system as forward caste (typically Brahmin, priest class) backward caste – those in shops, most backward caste are typically in agriculture/rural areas, Schedule caste and schedule tribe are gypsies and forest dwellers.

Interestingly Anup from the Seb’s Projects had a father who was Brahmin (high caste) and a mother who was schedule caste. I asked if that was untouchability (the lowest) he said yes. I recall in the movie on Gandhi and my studies that the untouchables did all the lowest jobs such as cleaning toilets and cleaners etc. He said there were welfare benefits in being a schedule caste as you could access education easier (lower entry pass with 45%) as distinct from the Brahmin who had to achieve 90%. So there was reverse discrimination to bring other castes up to speed. In this area there are engineering tech’s. I did see the one he referred to as a very impressive building. Education and health is notable in this area and when you learn of the difficulties and exploitations of the very poor the need for education is clear.

The middle class has become bigger and there was supposed to be more of a trickle down but this has not materialised. Literacy rates across India are still low with 74% illiterate. So there is much work to be done in a population of around 1.6 billion. This is the world’s largest population and with size comes great responsibility. Anup felt the government did very well at devising projects but was not good at implementing, this is where NGO’s come in and do much grassroots work. There are major challenges in this country but it was very inspiring to hear what a small group was able to achieve.

The number one issue in malnutrition. The rural area have the backward caste and they have barriers with engagement with bureaucracy and gaining certificates to prove their status which gives them entitlement to health and education. The Seb’s Projects are advocates for the tribal and rural people and will assist with the bureaucratic process which must be adhered to in detail. The government appeared to not issue these certificates and I wondered if it was because they didn’t wish to recognise land rights. In Australia land rights is an issue for indigenous Australians who were indeed occupied or invaded by Europeans. They are given welfare but there is tension still there as many unresolved issues have not really been addressed. The former PM Kevin Rudd did issue an apology to the people which resulted in much crying and a sense of recognition but the structures of European society are embedded and attitudes take time to change. The indigenous population in Australia are only 1% so there voice is not powerful. I found when I travelled around and met some of them that they were indeed another country. We did not know them or understand the huge cultural shock of a technological culture dominating a tribal culture with strong ties and deep knowledge of country. I felt similarities here.

The Seb’s Projects is concerned with helping those in need to help themselves and to empower self determination. They spoke as mentioned before about malnutrition, the isolation of the poor who do not have access to education or health care. There are development refugees, issues of child trafficking, bonded labour and illiteracy. Seb’s Project’s through the Humanitarian clowns have built a school and around 50 children go there. It was interesting to learn that bonded labour are children that are sold by desperate parents believing their child will earn 200 rupees per day by a certain date to find the end date is extended and they never receive the money. The parents are too poor to do anything about it. Those in bonded labour do not have freedom nor choice of work and no pay. Exploitation is through economic disadvantage and lack of education.

They are affiliated with the International Justice Mission. They speak of homelessness, domestic violence, disempowerment, preventable deaths (die by 50) and cultural disappearance through modernity. HIV and TB are still issues.

Seb’s Projects have a DREAM program where they teach through art, dance, drama and sports. The arts help with learning English and building confidence. The performing arts have significant impact on children. Another program was called Goodbye to Paper and was for women who were poor, some were forced to go into prostitution, many didn’t go to school. When in remote areas school was too far to go to. The women needed to restore their trust. Seb’s assisted them to build their own small business, to assist them with ID documents and micro finance. Seb’s also works with the tribal people in the Jawadhi Hills. Apparently 92% were innumerate and 98% illiterate compared to 74% for the rest of India. The life expectancy of these people is 45 years. I am 47 so many will not reach my age they will die early because they do not have access to medical and nutrition which would extend their lives. It is strange to imagine our different worlds. I just assume I will live to 80 or 90 years, imagine old age at 45 years, if we live to 90 it is double their life expectancy. Think of all the experiences. In the forest areas there are 7 people in a family, they have an income of $16 per month. Moreover, infanticide is practiced in India particularly with little girls as the family can’t afford a girl. The boys are regarded as economic and the girls a cost. I recall my former Afghan partner talking about infanticide in his country. As a female I find it incredible. Being an Australian I can’t imagine being worth less and I can only feel fortunate that I have a mindset of equality. Things are changing and my inner feeling is, rapidly. They spoke of the HEAL program which is an acronym for Health Education And Learning. They support villages to access government welfare and further research to improve tribal health care and case work.

It was a fascinating day and reminded me of the Rotary Peace and Conflict Studies Program in Bangkok where as a peace scholar I was exposed to NGO’s doing excellent work at the grass roots level. I find very special people are attracted to serve communities. Geraldine and English woman had been involved with Seb’s Projects for 4 years and she had a passion for working with the hills people. An angel sent no doubt. She is articulate and confident, wonderful to see.

We as a group had some team building through a helium straw and tower games. The helium straw everyone places two fingers to hold this long straw. There are people on both sides of the straw, the idea is to bring it to the floor as a team. We found it got higher and higher. The other team did it in 5 minutes by placing one finger facing the ceiling the other facing the floor, somehow balancing the straw and enabling group work. The other tower game required us making a tower that was taller and aesthetically pleasing. The collaboration made us look at how we work in teams. I found that I hadn’t worked in many teams and was conscious that I had not been trained as a team player, I saw it as cultural as well. Australians tend to be independent and we all generate ideas but actually sitting down and really working together is not natural to our society. In tribal groups there would be order to their communities and customs. Some tribal groups have lived on the same land for 250 years, so you can imagine they have their way of doing things, their own wise people and lore. I am very interested in clowning in these communities. It will be the first time they have seen clowns.

Our day finished with dinner at the canteen in the hospital grounds and a visit to the shop. What I particularly liked is that they wrapped all products in newspaper. So when I go back to Australia I am no longer going to use plastic bags but paper.

There were so many stories, so many insights, sharings, expansion today. I find myself very much at home with fellow clowns and look forward to learning and growing with others. It is a unique space and one that will be enormously illuminating. To be a humanitarian clown is to utilise clowning as a means of social change, to show others their beauty is my vision, moreover to transfer love from my eyes to theirs, that is why I am here.


Peace and love, all ways.

Peacefull clown

Mohandas Gandhi

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”


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