The news team of four mostly 11th Grade students rotate through the News roster for a week at a time.  Starting at 6.30am, they have under an hour to find an item of breaking news on the web and to prepare it for assembly. Their audience is Kindergarten to 12th Grade – the 4 year-old pre-Kindies are exempt.

Even though Spiderman was censored (see Blog 2), the school news is not. The four items are followed by question time, which can be quite gruelling for them. During our first week, one of the news team reported on the trial of the horrific gang rape case in Delhi. The school had obviously been following the story since it first broke. Of particular focus that day was the call for harsher penalties. That day the news services revealed that many of the Indian politicians, the ones who need to change the laws to protect women, have faced rape and other abuse charges themselves.

Now this seems pretty heavy news for kids of any age but the reality is that many of the children have observed or experienced abuse of one sort or another, if not in their families, then at least in their villages. Alcoholism and its consequence, domestic violence, have impacted on many of their lives. Thankfully, Shanti Bhavan (which means Haven of Peace) is a place where the children can feel safe from all of this.

The bad news is balanced in assembly each day by the good news, the Virtue of the Week. This consists of an explanation of the virtue, such as kindness, courtesy, modesty, followed over the week by practical ways in which children can include the virtue in their lives.

Dr George’s dream is that some of these children, inculcated with strong positive values, will be in a position of influence one day.  Karthika, is one such child. In the second batch of graduates in 2011, she passed a nationwide exam to be admitted to one of the top law schools in India. Because Karthika had come from a background of extreme poverty, The Times of India featured her story. It was subsequently picked up by the American news service, ABC, who interviewed her for US television.

I took this photo of Karthika a few years ago, showing her Mehindi or Henna Tattoo.

I took this photo of Karthika a few years ago, showing her Mehindi or Henna Tattoo.

In the interview, she said that her ambition was to become Prime Minister of India one day. Last month she won a national award from CNN (India) issued to the top 8 most inspirational young women who had overcome obstacles to succeed. From a nation of 1.1 billion people, this is truly exceptional. Meanwhile, her mother still breaks rocks in a quarry all day, for $3 a month. Like her schoolmates, when Karthika graduates she will be in a position to send money to support her family as well as her little “brothers and sisters” still at the school.

The George Foundation also funds a journalism school in Bangalore. It aims to provide an alternative to mainstream journalism by producing independent critical thinkers who can use the press to counteract corruption on its many levels.

Whilst the news team in the first week did a valiant job, I felt that the news presentation could be improved. I volunteered to help at 6.30am for a week, which turned out to be the rest of our stay. The students usually take it in turns to use the one school laptop, to select and copy a news item by hand, which they later recite – often as quickly as they possibly can, just to get it over and done with. The laptop battery is often out of charge.

I was able to put our own laptop and two iPads to good use, so the team could search simultaneously and have more time to research the background to their article. By the end of each week the team were far less reliant on their notes and able to answer reasonably complex questions.

The bleary-eyed Kandy helps the News Team

The bleary-eyed Kandy helps the News Team

The problem was that the more interesting they made the news, and the more they engaged the audience, the more they were asked questions, which increased the chance that they couldn’t answer – so I don’t think I did much to reduce their stress levels. [“So how did scientists discover that the black hole spins?” , “Can you train any sort of rat to detect land mines?” , “What will be the impact of the fall in India’s credit rating?”]. If they couldn’t answer they had to do even more research and report back the next day!

Daily News Shanti Bhavan style

Daily News Shanti Bhavan style

Bees 1, Wall 1, Barney Nil

The lowlight of last week was a wildlife expedition that went wrong. We had marvelled at several bee swarms hanging from trees around the school, apparently completely unfazed by the passing parade of children at close proximity – all part of the many potential dangers in rural India. We heard that there was an even larger swarm in the Teacher’s Quarters so we set off one day to have a look.

It was just hanging from a walkway above everyone’s heads near the top of the stairs. It was truly amazing to be so close to a swarm of bees and we watched in fascination. They were quietly yet busily engaged in the construction of honeycomb for their new hive. The bees were twice the size of a regular bee and much yellower than the others on campus. We watched them in fascination for a few seconds when, to our delight, their behaviour changed. Ripples coursed through the swarm, like a Mexican wave, and they started buzzing for the first time. There was a moment when we were mesmerised by this new behaviour then it suddenly dawned on me that this wasn’t normal and that we must have spooked them. They were about to do the bee equivalent of a stampede.

I yelled to Barney, “Run!” and took off at a great rate. Barney took a split second longer to react and he overtook me along the walkway, with about 10 guard bees following in hot pursuit. The next minute he was swirling around like a whirling dervish, batting at his head. Completely dizzy and in sheer terror, he ran straight into the corner of a wall. It was the true meaning of “blind panic.”

Thankfully, by this point, there was one bee wriggling upside down on the ground and the others had retreated. I restrained Barney as he was just about to take off again and held onto him until he calmed down. He had blood gushing from his temple, was disoriented but had no visible signs of a sting, although he said his face hurt. We headed off for help and then thought to check in his eyebrow for the sting and there it was, well camouflaged. Of course bee stings keep pumping venom into you until you remove the sting and I guess extra large bees have extra large venom sacs.

The wonderful school nurse, Auntie Annie, patched his head up but it was just a matter of time before his face would react. Barney doesn’t have an anaphylactic shock reaction to bees but he invariably swells up. It hasn’t stopped him from being fascinated by them though, and quite often, if he finds a bee exhausted on the ground, he will give it some honey so it can get back to the hive.

Retrospectively, we took a silly risk but, in defence, we had been lulled into a sense of security by the fact that no-one seemed at all concerned that this bee swarm was in a thoroughfare – where it is still, I might add. It was a horrible experience and we were incredibly fortunate that the whole swarm hadn’t chased us both.

The next few days were intriguing as Barney’s face slowly changed shape. For two days he couldn’t see out of the eye at all – and that’s a worry in a place where other natural hazards abound. Then we discovered why non-non-drowsy antihistamines are still available… they work wonders on sting allergies. Still, the one-eyed Barney got a kick out of being helped up and down steps around the school by sympathetic students.

No explanation needed.

No explanation needed.

To our surprise the swelling slowly took over the entire right side of his face. By the third day it was down to his chin as though gravity had a hand in it. We did wonder whether they would let him out of India, as he sure didn’t look like his passport photo.

Enough for now! We have actually left India and are now in Jordan but there is still more to come about our adventures in Shanti Bhavan.