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Glamour Magazine of America came to Shanti Bhavan to make a short Youtube of Keerthi, one of our 8th Graders.

Last year she told me that she works alongside her mother every school holidays so that they can afford her extra food. Her single Mum earns about US$3 per week breaking rocks in the sun all day to make gravel for roads. She told me that they break the big rocks up by fire – then her Mum burns her hands and legs in the hot ash because she can’t afford to wait until it cools down. Whenever I see piles of irregular-shaped, hand-cut gravel at Indian roadworks, I think that could have been made by Keerthi’s Mum.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUjMd8-axOQ

 

Keerthi is just one of the many gorgeous boys and girls that I had the pleasure of teaching this year. Here is a pic of Keerthi (in black kurta) with my 8th Graders.

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That’s all for the school news for another year. If you are interested, after SB, we spent 5 days in Hampi, alternating days of very hot sightseeing with days of slothfulness and birdwatching at the Top Secret guesthouse perched above the river opposite the ruins.

Little-known Hampi was a booming international trade centre, home of the Vijayanagara kings from the 1300s. At one point it had a one million strong army and by 1500 AD Vijaynagar had about 500,000 inhabitants, making it the second largest city in the world after Peking-Beijing. In 1565 it was besieged and razed by a group of jealous sultans and never recovered. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like Angkor Wat, there are many ruins spread over a large area.

Here are some random photos of ruins, and us relaxing!

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Five bamboo huts make up the Top Secret Guesthouse. Best location in Hampi.

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Mosquito-proof bed inside our bamboo hut.

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Huts on the right, outdoor area on the left overlooking the river.

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Enjoying the view from the Top Secret Guesthouse outdoor area

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Our view across the river to historic Hampi

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Paul and Sue Reuvers add colour to the paid fields behind Top Secret guesthouse

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Three motorbikes joined us on the tiny passenger ferry across the river.

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After 5.30pm the ferry stops and the only way across the river is by coracle. Coracles are Welsh. We’ve found them in Vietnam and now in Hampi. Did they evolve independently or were they introduced. If so, who had them first?

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Temple elephant, Lakshmi, trundles down to the river for her daily bath.

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Lakshmi enjoys her daily pampering. She’s 69 years old.

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Stone roofed building in Hampi

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A man and woman prostrate themselves in the temple grounds to give thanks for something that they had prayed for that had come to pass. They traversed about 200 metres this way – alternatively standing and sliding along on their fronts. Family members wet the path in front of them.

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The family were very happy and supportive and there was a big feast afterwards.

 

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150 year-old Frangipani, in flower, in another 15th century temple grounds.

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Barney is taught to wear his lungi.

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Now for the short look for hot days.

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Elephant stables for the 11 royal elephants in the king’s army

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Buildings nestle next to boulders

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Building nestles around boulder

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Man kicks tyres on iconic Hampi stone chariot

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A break from sightseeing to contemplate life in the 15th century

 

We’ve spared you the photos of the dozens of palaces, temples, aqueducts, stone gateways, royal baths and other ruins spread over a huge area but if you like this taste of Hampi, you’ll just have to come and see it for yourselves. Over and out!

Food

Food is such a feature of Shanti Bhavan that I thought I’d throw in some foodie photos.

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Chillies and coriander seeds from the farm dry outside the open air dining hall.

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The food is spicy but in India the green chillies are the ones to fear! Easily mistaken for green beans and they are potent.

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Coriander seeds

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Coconuts used in the beautiful sauces are harvested right outside our house.

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Pancakes for 300 people please.

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At three each, that’s 900 pancakes. 

 

Fond Farewells

After a final busy week, we bid our farewells to Shanti Bhavan. Saying goodbye to the kids is always hard. Here is my lovely 8th grade class. It’s not just the kids that we will miss. I have no photo – but a vivid mental picture – of our fellow volunteers running all the way down the driveway to the gate, madly waving at our retreating car. They are all exceptional people and one of them has already said she will come and visit us in Oz in November.

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The 8th Graders. When we first came they were 6 years old!

Farewells: A time of thank yous

In the final assembly, two very small, very sweet children presented each of us with a thank you card on behalf of the school.  We’d like to pass those thanks on to others back home. So a big thank you to our stalwart supporters, Robert and Bonnie Jenkin from South Australia for your wonderful annual donation, and our other friends and family who contributed money, stationery, books and moral support. Even our ‘Gemini’ friendship group contributes when you forego your birthday presents so we can buy extra things for the school!

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Barney’s collage card: We’d also like to thank Tom Clarkson and Alistair Campbell for your timely contributions to computing from afar.

As well as the books and equipment we took with us, this year’s funds will provide much-needed improvements to the internet connections and to a fly-zapping machine in the dining hall. Another helpful addition is a poster on the wall in the assembly hall featuring the virtue of the week and 52 laminated ‘virtues’ to be displayed in turn. We’ve also provided suitcases and backpacks for the 16 graduating students to take to college. We presented these at the final assembly and used the suitcase as a metaphor, urging the students, as they venture into the outside world, to pack up and take with them all of the virtues they have practised over the years, along with the love and support of their Shanti Bhavan family.

By reading this you are part of that extended family too. So this card is for all of you!

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This curled paper collage must have taken ages to make. Please share the thanks everyone!

That’s all the Shanti Bhavan news for another year. I will post one more blog about our brief rest and recuperation visit to Hampi, a UNESCO world heritage site/hippy retreat. We shared this time with our great friends Paul and Sue Reuvers, who were terrific volunteers (Paul’s third time and Sue’s second) and very amicable house mates. Thanks also, Paul, for the photos used in many of the blogs.

Finally, thanks to Shanti Bhavan for allowing us the privilege of coming back year after year and spending time with these amazing kids!

 

On Saturday, the school celebrated Dr George’s 70th birthday in style, with a very full day of games, performances and festivities. This surprise event was planned, executed and largely paid for, by the ‘working grads.’ Although Dr George knew something was brewing he had no idea of the scope of the activities. The day began at 9.30am when the children lined the path from his accommodation to the school.

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Children line the path to the school

 

Dressed in their finest clothes, each of the younger children handed him a rose.

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These same pink dresses have been worn on special occasions since the school began 21 years ago.

 

The graduates divided the entire ‘school family’ into ten teams, each with a different coloured hat. Teams included security staff, kitchen staff, cleaners, teachers, volunteers, admin and graduates; a total of 370 people. A fiercely competed Tug of War was waged, with 15 per side, and all of us were treated to biscuits and buttermilk.

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Barney’s orange team wins their heat

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Kandy and some of the blue team look on

Next came a very creative carnival. We each received 5 coupons and any points we gained at 10 fun fair stalls staffed by graduates were to go to our team. Simple but effective games included magnetic darts, archery, and various ‘fishing’ activities. We could also spend our coupons on face-painting or fairy floss (aka cotton candy/candy floss).

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William Tell, eat your heart out 

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Face painting was popular

The fairy floss makers, seated on the ground, were a sight to behold. One man threw in the sugar mixture, turned the handle to rotate the machine, and threw the floss onto the mat. His partner, sitting barefoot on the mat, scooped the bright pink floss into a cup.

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Rasiga is all that for you?

At 3.30 we reconvened for the cutting of the birthday cake. The cake depicted three seasons of Dr George’s life, his time in the Indian army, as a successful businessman in the US and now as a philanthropist back in India.

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There followed a few more hours of team games such as musical chairs, wheelbarrow races, sack race relay, bobbing for apples relay, ‘lemon and spoon’ race, and lots of good old-fashioned fun.

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They had to run to other end, drop the apple on a plate and then the next person ran back to the ‘trough’

 

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Two villagers (parents of facilities staff) are bemused by the activities

An amusing game for spectators was “dog and bone”. This game requires the ten competitors to be numbered in pairs and when a pair’s number is called out they both run into the centre to compete for the ‘bone.’ Sounds straightforward? Picture this. Ready? ‘Number TWO!’ Only one person runs into the centre to retrieve the bone. It turns out that the security guard contestant allocated number two can’t speak English. Ooops. OK, we’ll start again but this time all in Hindi. Wait a minute, Mr Paul can’t speak Hindi. OK, we’ll call out in two languages. This works for a few rounds until scenario one recurs because the kitchen hand speaks only Malalayam. By this time the competitors and spectators are rolling around with laughter.

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The games drew to a close with a piñata, and it was time to dress up for the evening activities. The lawn had been transformed with fairy lights and the outside tables had been set with white cloths and flowers. Where we had earlier seen chillies and coriander drying was now a stage. Choral and musical performances were interspersed with terrific dances by different groups of school kids, college grads and working grads. These included traditional Indian dancing, Bollywood, ultra modern gangsta style, and even a combination Irish/ Indian dance. I don’t know how they managed to get together and practice but their efforts were very slick. The volunteers performed a creditable version of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’, complete with ukelele, guitar and piano accompaniment. What a talented bunch!

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Volunteers perform [Low light but you get the idea].

It was a balmy evening and the feast that followed the performances was delicious and enjoyed by all. It was so lovely to be able to chat to the graduates. Just when we thought the evening couldn’t get any better, the fireworks burst forth. We retired discreetly at 10.30pm, totally exhausted but the older kids disco danced for another half hour. What a great day!

We leave tomorrow afternoon so I must go and pack. Off to Hampi (World Heritage Site) and home on 6th March. See you all soon!

 

 

 

 

 

Netflix documentary

This week reminded me of my first day ever teaching at Shanti Bhavan in 2010… when I had a large movie camera in my face. The resultant documentary later won the Toronto Hot Docs Audience Choice Award from 200 films. We haven’t seen it yet as it’s still being released at festivals in the US. Maybe it will come to a festival in Australia one day.

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My first class with camera in face in 2010.

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The 2010 doco on “Three Chairs Lawn” – and I thought THAT camera was big!

This week it is a Netflix camera crew that can appear out of nowhere at any time. They are making an extensive documentary (5 x 1 hour episodes) exclusively about our amazing school. Their intrepid team of four are ‘embedded’ with us, like journalists in a war zone. They are filming absolutely everything from pre-dawn to late at night until they drop. Their stamina is only exceeded by that of the kids they are following. (Our kids would give the Energiser bunny a run for his money – but instead of batteries, ours are powered by rice).

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Dr George’s son, Ajit, Director of Operations, on the same “Three Chairs Lawn” in 2016 – the camera is bigger and a LOT closer.

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Netflix. Now THAT’S a camera!   It’s so big it needs a harness.

We never know when the crew might parachute into our class, or catch us helping kids to prepare for News or Public Speaking. Even though we know that there is a 99% chance that our five minutes of fame will end up on the proverbial ‘cutting room floor,’ it is still a little intimidating – mainly because of the size of the camera and sound boom.

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Ajit with his face painted for the carnival – more on that next week.

The documentary (called ‘Untouchables’) will be released in 150 countries in 2017 – subtitled in 30 different languages. It was the serendipitous result of a former volunteer, Jenny, who was enthusing about the school to her neighbour, Vanessa Roth. Vanessa is a young documentary filmmaker who won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Short Documentary. Her father was the screenwriter for Forest Gump (Academy Award), Benjamin Button and many others. I’m really looking forward to watching their finished product.

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As if debating in front of your peers isn’t challenging enough. [photo by Rachel Immaraj]

Graduates’ lunch in Bangalore

Our Saturday graduate lunch has become one of the highlights of our trip. This year we hosted over 30 ‘college grads,’ ‘working grads’ and volunteers to a lunch in Bangalore. It is always wonderful to see these fine young men and women flourishing outside the cocoon of the school. They love their family reunions and there is always much joking and teasing amongst the ‘siblings.’ We were a few guests short this year, as the annual Indo – German soccer tournament was the next day and 10 of the grad boys had to mark the pitches. They are so committed.

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College Graduates, Working Grads and Volunteers at lunch in Bangalore 2016. 

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As the grads left, they decorated Barney with their name tags.

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Vinceya, who was in 9th Grade when we first came in 2010, is about to graduate.

 

German Soccer Match

On the Sunday, we watched the annual soccer match in Bangalore. German companies based in India compete against each other and the proceeds are donated to SB. There is also a competition for school teams in two age groups; 16 & under, and 11 & under. Shanti Bhavan takes a strong moral stand regarding these age divisions, much to the disappointment of the kids who are just a little over the age group, who can’t compete. Not all of the schools have the same view. The photos below highlight the difference in size between our under 11’s and their competitors. Even the uniforms provided seem to have been made for giant ‘under 11-year-olds.’

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SB under 11 team

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Hey you in red! Pick on someone your own size!

Twenty SB girls provide a cheer squad and festive atmosphere to spur on both adult and school teams – and, just like the soccer boys, it is an honour to be selected. They also perform a dance routine before the grand final. The girls and boys leave school by bus at 5am and return home at 7.30pm, absolutely exhausted.

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Let’s get a little bit ROWDY, R-O-W (pause) D-Y!

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Volunteer cheer squad at the soccer.

 

That’s all for this week. Thanks to the lovely volunteers, Rachel Immaraj and Paul Reuvers for sharing their photographs.

Next time will be about Dr George’s 70th Birthday party and more.

Snakes

Of the six most deadly snakes in India, the Russell’s Viper is responsible for more deaths than any other snake. According to the book, it’s 1.5 metres long and highly poisonous due to its exceptionally large fangs. It is highly irritable and, when threatened, it coils tightly, hisses and strikes with lightning speed.

We’ve had two encounters with these vipers in the last two days. The first was when kids piled out of evening prep to head for the dining hall. One spotted a snake on a low branch and within no time there was a ring of about a hundred kids, six deep, about a metre and a half away from it. Each child expressed a loud opinion about what should be done. If that wasn’t likely to make the snake irritable and threatened, nothing would. Attempts to get the children to move back were unheard above the din.

Fortunately a senior boy fetched a stick and quickly dispatched the snake. It was all over in minutes and then business as usual – off to dinner. The next day, however, they were reminded that in future they should summon security staff to kill snakes.

The following day, Paul, Barney and I were on our afternoon constitutional, along the inside perimeter of the campus. We always look for interesting birdlife and we spotted some small birds making a big ruckus on the fence line. There was also a shrike performing all sorts of gymnastics – it was clearly very upset about something. We initially thought it was diverting us from its nest. Paul’s experience in South African came to the fore, however, and he suggested the behaviour might indicate a snake. We crept forward with camera at the ready and Paul captured a photo before the snake slithered away. From this photo we were able to identify it as another Russell’s Viper.

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A glimpse of a Russell’s Viper next to our path.

 

Computing

Barney has made inroads into the computing scene. Only three of the twelve computers in the junior lab were working when we arrived and by cannibalising a few of them for spare parts, nine are now functional. As you can imagine, having nine computers makes teaching a class a whole lot easier, so the teachers are very happy. He has also been working on an iPhone/iPads App that gives quick access to all of the students’ photos and birthdays. It will be a boon for new volunteers to help them to learn names.

There are some lovely new young Indian teachers this year and Barney has run several sessions on using the programming tool, ‘Scratch,’ which they are pretty excited about. He has also been running an extra-curricular option on calligraphy.

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Barney teaching Scratch programming to the 3rd Grade teacher, Nikita.

 

Last week an Indian, Sundar Pichai, was appointed as Google’s new CEO – now the top paying executive job in America. He was born in Tamil Nadu, the Indian state in which the school is situated. Although his father was an engineer, Sundar’s family of four did not own a car and would all venture out on their Lambretta scooter. When Sundar went to Stanford University, the plane ticket cost more than his father’s annual salary. He is an inspiration for the kids at the school and he hasn’t forgotten his roots. In an interview last year he said that the result of a Google search was exactly the same whether you were a rural kid in India or a professor at Stanford.

Dr George’s Lunch and background to The George Foundation

Dr George put on a special lunch for the volunteers. It was a delicious feast, featuring one of the ducks (remember all our meals, except for one meal a week, are vegetarian,). Dr George turns 70 soon and is still extremely active in running the foundation that he set up twenty years ago. He gave us some interesting insights into the early struggles to alleviate villagers’ fears that the school had devious intent (child slavery, trafficking, etc.). One of the ways of tackling this was to ensure that the school medical clinic also catered for the villagers (which it still does). Villagers soon learned that the school created employment directly, and indirectly through farms created to supply it.

Dr George was a friend of Ralph Nader and twenty odd years ago they were discussing productivity. He told Nader he could increase productivity in rural India for $2 per pregnant woman. Ralph didn’t believe him but a few years later he was able to report what The George Foundation had achieved in villages around the school. Pregnant women and babies had been dying in childbirth due to lack of hygiene, poor antenatal nutrition and unhelpful cultural traditions. TGF introduced several low cost initiatives, including a campaign to train the midwives who served the villages around the school. They also provided protein powder, vitamins and folates for local women from the time they were married (often as young as fourteen!).

The ‘piece de resistance’ of the plan was to provide a package, just before each woman delivered her baby. It contained a small towel, sliver of soap and a sharp sterile blade to cut the cord. Postpartum deaths and illness reduced dramatically and the women lived to raise their mentally and physically healthy children and be productive members of their communities. Other early initiatives of The George Foundation included ground-breaking research that ultimately led to the elimination of lead in petrol in India.

Physical Training (PT)

The kids at school love their PT. They do soccer, basketball, dance, volleyball and more. Paul was sad when we arrived because Paul had brought some new balls but the volleyball net had disappeared. The next day, however, a rope was strung between the poles, and a day later there was a net. Ever resourceful, someone had whipped it up with string and it does a very acceptable job.

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Home-made volleyball net

 

There is a big annual soccer tournament on Sunday (more about that next time) and the chosen teams are practising like mad.

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Late afternoon soccer

We were quite shocked when we returned to SB to find that a deep trench had been dug right through the middle of the school playing fields, halving their size. I can’t go into details as the matter is currently before the courts but, suffice to say, the school did not dig the trench. The balls often fall down this trench, which is directly behind the goal posts and small children disappear while they retrieve them.

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Harish in the trench

On the positive side, the dirt from the trench makes a great viewing platform, as below.

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Watching soccer from the other side of the trench

 

Other kids make their own fun on the edge of the playing field.

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A leafy headdress

 

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A bit of sack makes a great headband

 

Key cutting Indian style

Finally, we needed to get another key cut for the padlock to our house. The picture shows how keys are cut in our nearest town. Unfortunately, the key doesn’t work because the blank key that the cutter used had the indent/furrow on the wrong side… he tried.

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More soon. Meanwhile, thanks for the feedback on our blogs so far. I’d also like to thank Paul Reuvers for providing many of the photographs for these blogs.

 

Great volunteers

As predicted, the volunteers are all great people. This year’s On Site Administrator, Katie, has a good handle on her complex, multifaceted role and there is a very positive spirit amongst the volunteers. Along with the four “Australians” (two of whom were originally South African), there is currently one volunteer from France, one from Colombia, and five from the USA. Two of the five Americans are from Indian family backgrounds and one has Taiwanese roots. SB kids are exposed to such a rich mix of cultures.

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Eduardo captivates the budding robotics engineers

In addition this year, we were privileged to overlap with volunteer Eduardo from Catalan for the first time. This university robotics researcher has been coming to SB since 2005! He enthralls the kids with his motorised Lego constructions. The photos show some construction fun, and a robot taking a message on a string from one side of the classroom area to the other.

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An exciting moment as the robot actually crosses to the other side

The younger children made tiny robots from toothbrush heads that scurried around like beetles. The day Eduardo left he treated the whole school family to ice cream. That’s approximately 300 serves, when you include children, teachers, volunteers, aunties, security guards, admin and grounds staff). As the school does not have a freezer, this is quite a logistical exercise.

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Eduardo’s treat: Ice cream with chocolate sauce

Building Culture: Virtues and School Prayer

The children gave us a warm welcome, which is always energising after a long flight. They are terrific kids. Lots of old faces and a new ‘batch’ of 24 four-year-olds to read stories to in the evening. Each week they focus on a different virtue, which is fostered by a daily reading. We presented laminated copies of the 52 virtues to serve as a visual reminder for the week and the poster has been mounted in the assembly hall. We noticed, also, that there is now a Valedictorian board. This reminds us that six ‘batches’ of students are now either at university or have completed studies and are already working. When we first arrived in 2010 we had the pleasure of getting to know the first ever batch to graduate from the school.

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Karthikeyan  reads the virtue of the week

Virtues are also reinforced when Dr George, the founder, is in residence. He holds a weekly interactive ‘fireside chat’ with the students from 8th Grade up. His first chat was about the difference between feeling/expressing compassion about people in need, and actually doing something about what you see. It was powerful. This week he raised the issue of attitudes towards LGBT people. He is not afraid to confront difficult topics and the students contributed maturely, appropriately and thoughtfully.

Finally, the tone is set each day when the teachers and volunteers recite the following prayer at the beginning of assembly. The school is non-denominational with a range of Hindu, Christian and Muslim kids, and children who follow no religion. it’s hard to argue with the sentiments expressed and I like the idea of respecting the divine in each other. As we say ‘Namaste’, we press our palms together and acknowledge our colleagues.

Shanti Bhavan School Prayer

God, Creator of the Universe, help us remember that you are present in each one of us.

May we respect each other and be tolerant of our differences. 

May we be good and caring towards each other.

May the teachings of all the great world religions direct our thoughts and actions.

Grant that we may be spiritual in our interactions and zealous in our work and play.

Help us discover different ways to serve our fellow humanity. 

Guide us to discover the treasure hidden in each one of us, and to uphold what is right, cherish what is beautiful and revere what is divine. 

As we journey through each day of our lives, give us the grace to accept whatever you have in store for us. Be with us in our joy and our sorrow. 

Help us build Shanti Bhavan into a haven of peace and let this peace touch the lives of all we meet. 

We salute the divine in each other. Namaste!

Wildlife

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The wildlife continues to amaze and amuse us. So far this year we have seen: a duck eating (or was it just playing with) the head of a snake in the school duck pond; a mongoose; a bat feeding its young in the assembly hall; squirrels; and our friendly, chirping house geckoes.

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The ducks now produce 30 or 40 eggs a day. The school still has to buy 900 eggs a week.

Oh yes, and I was ambushed by a frog in the bowl of our toilet, on my first night, AGAIN! I don’t know which of us was more surprised. He hopped around and by the time I got the camera he was sitting on top. Was it the same frog that startled me seven years ago, I wonder?

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It was a while before I would go into the bathroom again without a torch!

 

Next time: the art of key cutting, computing, a special lunch with Dr George and more!