While life is yours, live joyously
You always meet people on travels who have helped in different social endeavors, sometimes for years. I had always admired that, but, maybe you know it, because I myself had never done it and more importantly because I didn’t know if I could do it, I never fully appreciated it; even mistrusted it to a certain degree. More than reason enough to undertake it myself!
Natpu: Association for helping street children
I was in India for the first time with my parents in 2009, in the context of an official visit (my parents had supported a school project of my sister with the aim of rebuilding a girls school in India, destroyed in the tsunami in 2004). At the time I was 18 and had just finished high school; a perfect time to fly over the big sea out of Europe for the first time. Our plane brought us to South India, to a city on the east coast called Pondicherry, officially Puducherry.
One cultural shock and many new experiences later we decided on our way home to found an association to help the people we met there, especially the homes for street children we had visited. We felt we couldn’t go back to our normal lives and just forget about our visit, about all the poverty and misery, when we have the means to help the people who are really doing something against all that. Since then we fly to Pondicherry every 2 years to check on things.
Since our visit in 2014 we started supporting an orphanage founded in 1995 in a suburb of Pondicherry to shelter boys from the streets: Tojo’s Snehalayam. We had the honour of meeting said Tojo, founder of the home. A corpulent man, energetic eyes behind his glasses, open arms, calm smile, who had dedicated his whole life to the children. He died in 2015 after a dog bite and subsequent diabetic reaction to the medicine from the hospital. The children still refer to him as appa, Tamil for father.
About 20 to 25 boys live in the orphanage constantly, the youngest one, when I was there, was 3, the oldest one 19, who also was the boy who had been in the home for the longest time: 13 years. All the children have either lost both or one of their parents. A lot of the boys get brought in by people from the surrounding villages because the families don’t have enough money to send them to school or even for offering them regular meals. Other kids, who live on the streets in the dirt on the borders of society, are brought by people who have heard about the home.
Before the journey
I had decided rather spontaneously, only a few weeks before I actually went there, to stay one month in the orphanage. Very good friends of the family from Pondicherry talked to Leila if it was possible. No problem, but too hot; if I didn’t want to come in another month? (April and May are the hottest months in India)
But decided is decided. Since I had no clue of what really to expect from my stay there I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach and I needed a few days to bring myself to the decision. So once decided I simply had to do it now.
Arrival in India
The preparations were completed quickly, I still had the necessary vaccinations from my last journey and packing never takes long for me. In the plane the uneasy feeling still wouldn’t go away at first, but the further away I got from Germany the more confident I grew. When I disembarked in Chennai at 12 in the night and the hot and humid air with the strong, typical Indian scent – some part incense, some sweat, spices and some part decay – greeted me, my heart was once again rejoicing with explorer’s joy. Our friends picked me up at the airport; joyful reunion and like very often in India, a little bit exaggerated concern for my well-being, which always makes me slightly uncomfortable.
The drive from Chennai to Pondicherry took three hours, which we passed in a good temper, provided with Coke, cigarettes and tea. After all the sleeping in the plane I was wide awake and could thoroughly enjoy all the honking, all the people still inhabiting the streets, the disorder, the chaos there even at night time, which I have come to appreciate very much, especially as a photographer.
We arrived at the orphanage at 3 in the morning. Leila, Sunu, her right hand man at the time, and two of the older boys greeted me; all unknown, but friendly faces; very short small talk and goodbye to my friends. One of the boys – I tried from the beginning to remember their names immediately: Tamil, 17 years old, who is studying sociology by now – carried my suit case up the stairs, past the children sleeping on raffia mats under the continuous noisy whirling of the ceiling fans cooling the air, to the first floor and placed it in the guest room. King-size bed, desk, a bookshelf packed with books, a refrigerator and an own bathroom with a real shower and a real privy – more comfort than most Indians have. Tamil, well educated, always smiling friendly, a bit shy, wished me a good night and closed the door as he left. So there I was.
Tour through the premises
To give you a feel for the actual place I will first lead you around the home and show you what’s what.
This is Tojo’s Snehalayam from the outside. The gate stays closed even during the day to stop the goats of the goatherd, who pass here every day, from eating all the plants carefully planted and watered. On the left you can see the entrance to the kitchen set in a small building apart from the main complex.
The enormous mango tree offers shade and delicious fruits; a true treasure.
On the small veranda right in front of the house a big part of everydays life in the orphanage takes place. Here food is prepared, the children play, learn, pray, food is usally eaten here, guests received. I myself have spent many hours here in the mornings, reading and thinking.
This is the main room on the ground floor. During the day the children take their afternoon nap, they do their homework, pray and sometimes watch TV here. At night the older boys sleep here on raffia mats, the younger ones sleep in a similar room one floor above (where my room was as well). Since there is not a lot of space to be spared with this many people living in one place, almost every bit of space is used for many different purposes.
Behind the building there are the toilets and showers. The boys take two showers a day: once in the morning before school, and once more after school in the afternoon.
Beside the toilets stairs lead up to the rooftop terrace..