Endings are beginnings

It was an early start for me today as I needed to get across the city to a meeting. Given that we needed to be heading to the airport by midday, I was on my way to Samne Ghat shortly after 8am. It was an interesting journey. The primary school that I was visiting is attached to a hostel for teenagers but it’s not on Google, nor do local people have much awareness of its location. Consequently, it took a little while to find. The rickshaw driver took me close but didn’t know the last part of the journey. I wasn’t hugely drawn to ask his help anyway as he’d already paused journey to pass a quick pipe with his friends. Various locals sent me one way then the other. After a few phone calls and a burst of bike assistance, I found myself signing into Jeevan School’s visitor log and meeting a remarkable man named Sheelu Kujur.

Formerly a lawyer, Sheelu now runs Jeevan School. The walls are lovingly adorned with familiar educational material.

The students were smartly dressed in their uniform and listening well to their teachers. I saw maths and science in progress, as well as this group who were studying insects and having different species painted on their faces to remember them.

Look for the butterfly and the ladybird here:

There’s a library and a computer room. A large clean kitchen. The children are given breakfast and lunch every day.

The nutrition is especially important for the children whose nearby home looks like this:

Once more I heard stories of deprivation and hardship for young people that make you shudder. Mothers at thirteen. Children abandoned or abused. And good people who battle red tape and funding regulations to feed, clothe and educate as many as they can.

We have now protected the flicker of light in Disha and worked to make it a beacon – collaborating with Act and Help to maximise the life chances of their children; building self-confidence and discipline. Now we have to figure out how to help more children shine.

Another hairy rickshaw ride (through the oncoming traffic because the driver was impatient with the gridlock) and it was a dash to pack and get set for departure. Charlie and I had a coffee and cake to keep us going:

…then it was a fond goodbye to the Ashish Cafe staff who have once again made the FairFight team at home during our work.

Our ever-reliable Genie, Dheer, popped up with Moyee and his car, although I think he would have preferred a magic carpet as the traffic everywhere was beyond appalling.

After some detouring through villages and jumping out to move other vehicles himself to achieve a hairpin bend in the densest of horn-blaring traffic, Dheer got us to the airport. Then a series of bumps: irregularities with boarding passes; a delay over a split bag; a late departure from Varanasi; Jet being denied entrance with us to Delhi’s departures because her flight is twenty minutes later than ours…we’re not in Kansas yet, Toto.

So I’m writing from Delhi airport and my head is full of ‘what’s next?’ I know what I think the project needs. So as ever we have to start from there to see how we can make it possible. More hard work ahead.

Meanwhile, in 2 weeks time middle Kajal will be taking on a huge adventure. She has qualified for the national championships in Kolkata. Ashadiya has allocated her a chaperone so she can make the journey with the girls from Sensei Sohan’s dojo.

She is hugely excited and she’s determined to win a medal. I asked her how she would feel if she lost and came home with nothing and she shrugged and said ‘then next time I will train even harder’. This attitude is consistent across all the girls and a credit to Devesh who ingrains it constantly. No self-pity, no jealousy, just an embrace for the opportunities they are given. With the worst start in life, they are the most optimistic and positive souls you could ever meet. Thank you for following their story. This chapter is ending now but another is opening and it looks wonderful.

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And the Ganges flooded with tears…

With the busy schedule we have missed training on the rooftop. This morning, however, Dheer (‘Grasshopper’) began his tai chi journey with Guy and Jet while Charlie and I trained karate.

Here’s Katie’s roof stretch from January. Charlie was keen to work on hers as Katie is her flexibility inspiration.

I was working on kata:

But all too soon it was time to say goodbye to Guy. He chose chocolate and banana pancake as the last meal of the traveller.

And I grabbed a quick group shot with Dheer and Moyee before he took his taxi to the airport to begin the long trek back to the Netherlands.

His contribution to the project has been immense. The skills and attitude he’s taught here are vital for their immediate self defence value as well as the longer-term intrinsic self worth. This has been his first FairFight visit but we hope it is only a beginning.

Here’s a rare sighting of a cat; a beautiful little kitten which rushed off quickly when it saw us looking. Given the density of the dog population and other predators, it’s not surprising that the cats keep a low profile.

The middle of the day took me to lunch with Elisabeth Bernard who started Disha House in response to the need for a safe place for girls in immediate danger. She explained how the project grew; initially she was helping to provide medical attention for sex workers at the railway station. Distressed by the age and vulnerability of these girls, she decided to take action to offer a path out of this dangerous life into a life with safety, stability, and a future. She also described the common practice of abandoning baby girls which I had read about but she has witnessed firsthand. To learn more about her work here please check out https://www.actandhelp.org/home

It was really good to sit together and talk about our goals for the girls and how much they have progressed. Her love for them is very powerful; their health and happiness is testament to the commitment the Ashadiya team has shown.

I didn’t envy this man his job – no helmet, no harness…

And so to our final visit to Disha on this phase of the project.

Here you can see the house at the end of the alley on the left and the Ganges beyond it.

We had left the youngest Disha girls to last for evaluations. They had lots of interesting insights into their training and how it affects them. They firmly agree that karate makes them strong and disciplined. They say their friends wish they could learn karate too.

This group was less jealous of the freedoms boys have, and their career ambitions included pilot, police, doctor, and karate instructor. Not that unlike any 7-11 year old anywhere, although their focus on being able to walk the streets without interference was more poignant.

Downstairs, Susmita had kidnapped Charlie’s phone which now has about 200 selfies on it.

Here’s Susmita with big Kajal:

And a couple of her selfies-here with Bharti, Anju, Neelam and Anita.

And then Rishika took a turn too, pictured here with Moyee our translator:

Then with Pooja and big Kajal.

Rishika also helped organise the girls’ portrait photographs for Fairfight.

We gathered to sum up the aspirational messages of the visit and to present the ‘most improved fighter’ trophy to Pooja. This was decided after a lengthy private discussion with the instructor team yesterday but, somewhat hilariously, my concerns about the others being upset not to be chosen were completely unfounded and the girls had eavesdropped on the discussion anyway so no one was surprised. And once more, the girls’ warmth and support for each other surpassed all expectations.

The next bit was the worst bit and there were too many tears from us all on parting. Some great mixed expressions here but no happy waving this time. I was very glad to see Uday – Ashadiya’s coordinator- as he has been so helpful to us over the last few months. I was also really touched to receive a beautiful representation of Durga/Parvati from Anjali- the girls main house mother. Durga represents female empowerment.

The last emotional goodbye for the evening was with Rinki and Lalita; the girls who have now left Disha as they are over 18. I took them small gifts and their letters from Katie. Bharti is still coaching them for their exams so that they can finish their journey to independence despite their early disadvantages in life.

We loved Katie’s sketch of Susmita training yesterday. She loved it too!

Goodnight from a very tired team here – nearly ready to pack up and ship out. Final blog tomorrow; probably from Delhi – WiFi permitting!

It’s a new day; it’s a new dawn…

6am. We watched the sun edge up over the horizon and climb rapidly into the sky.

It was spectacularly beautiful. A screen shot of my phone album:

Then we went up the river on a rickety boat to look at the ghats from the water. As usual, there were enthusiastic bathers all along the banks.

…and as usual, the river was full of rotting junk and not-rotting plastic.

Guy managed not to break anything or fall in.

Dheer was an excellent guide and took some pictures along the way too. Here’s Charlie and me enjoying the view.

Later we visited the Monkey Temple. Hanuman is a very popular Hindu god and it was fascinating to see how his devotees bring offerings to the shrine.

Here’s the outside of the temple.

…with a monkey leading the way…

No photography is allowed inside, however so here’s some Wikipedia info:

And a stock photo of the residents. The monkeys here are very tame because they are well-fed and cared-for.

I went to a tourist stall and treated myself to a brass Hanuman and a plastic one as well – there’s no shortage of cheesy replica deities for a special memento.

The afternoon took us back to Disha and it was training day for the girls.

We’re raising an army:

Guy took them through a blocking/counter punch karate drill which paralleled the work they had done in Krav Maga at the weekend.

We continue to be impressed with their great focus and physical progress.

Little Anandi is the newest Disha girl and she has picked up the skills very quickly. Here’s Guy helping her to block:Here’s her front punch:

She also listens well!

Susmita’s discipline has developed at an outstanding rate. Watching her train, you can see how hard she pushes herself to improve.

Here’s the two Artis working their blocking.

A full complement of students with local and visiting FairFight instructors:

We were also delighted to meet Elisabeth Bernard whose vision and hard work as the founder of Act and Help have made everything possible for FairFight and the Disha girls.

Guy leaves tomorrow so the girls garlanded him to show their thanks. Here’s Neelam making the presentation.

Tomorrow is my last full day. Another packed schedule: and the hardest bit will be saying goodbye to the girls. This time though, it’s a not a matter of whether we will be back, but simply when. I’m not yet sure how to get started with another round of fundraising but I’m more convinced than ever that our work here is important and effective. We have some strong plans for extending the project. Tomorrow will be decisive for the first stage of the next level.

Goodnight from the Ganges.

‘We feel more powerful’

We walked to Disha a little later today and had the full rush-hour experience.

This was the road up from Assi Ghat.

At Lanka I snapped this family on a bike. When we see five on one bike we score extra observation points.

The sunset was very beautiful.

We were rooting for this family of pigs who made a sudden decision to cross the road. They didn’t need our prayers though – a smart arrow formation and a well-timed dive saw them safely over.

I haven’t yet added more pictures of my favourite cow but I did like this one.

And we happened across this monkey. He threw his fruit at us as we quickly left him in peace.

This goat was a keen observer.

The traffic became increasingly dense:

Until we struggled to penetrate it at all.

Eventually, we made it through and had our second round of evaluations. These girls are proud of the progress they’ve made since I saw them in January. They are articulate about what they have done to improve and very happy with their training. They say they tell their school friends they should also be learning karate. They think it makes them more assertive. Although they still see the primary purpose as self-defence, they also feel they are more powerful in other ways.

They also think they focus better in classes now and even enjoy the tough parts of training. They loved meeting other karate students at the competition and the seminar.

Here’s Menka opening her letter from Katie who visited in January. The girls loved the drawings she did for them. They also loved her artwork in their new syllabus book especially the drawings of their teachers.

Meanwhile Charlie was at the Disha hair salon – Muskan did an intricate plait for her. When I found her on the roof she was singing campfire songs with a group of girls who were keen to join in.

We walked back along the ghat through the usual crowds begging, selling or working. Peanuts are roasted by the roadside through the city.

And although it isn’t a comfortable place to sleep, those settling down for the night are significantly less distressed than in January when the savage cold brings a carpet of huddled bodies along these steps.

Tomorrow’s schedule is ambitious. At 6am we’re planning to meet Dheer and Moyee to take a boat out on the Ganges and watch the sun rise. Then breakfast and a visit to the Monkey Temple. We’ll be training with the girls in the afternoon at Disha. Let’s see how much of that works out – I’ll let you all know tomorrow.

Oh, and Sheffield? Dheer is an avid snooker fan. It’s now my ambition to buy him an ‘I ❤️ Sheffield’ t shirt but I think I might have to get it made.

Goodnight from the ghat. FairFight India out.

Exotic dreams of Sheffield…goodbyes, good cakes and good data.

A calmer start to the day for our team. It was nice to sit and watch pilgrims making their way down to the Ganges.

Our first meeting was with Harald, Dheer and Moyee. Primarily a farewell to Harald, sadly heading home, but also an opportunity to eat cake and discuss possible futures for our work here.

Here’s Jet, Guy, and a cow. Make up your own punchlines 😂

Here’s our lovely Harald, found on a balcony already ahead with the coffee. We will miss him very much. Working here creates bonds quickly; his warm humour and great stories from all over the world have entertained us all. We’re hopeful that he will access the funding he needs to make a documentary about the effects of karate training for young women. For more details on his work check out: http://applaus.no/english

Here’s Charlie before her coffee. It was quite a noisy night on the Ghat with pre-Diwali fireworks until very late and then morning yoga as usual from 5.30. The cake was very reviving, though.

Moyee and Dheer have been providing us with a lot of support with translation and local information. This morning will forever be special to me as when discussing the UK I never anticipated someone would say (with such passion) ‘I’ve always dreamed of visiting Sheffield!’ I’ll leave that hanging until tomorrow just to allow you to speculate as to why anyone would be so excited about the prospect of travelling 5,000 miles to visit Sheffield. Sorry, Sheffield, but really!

Again there was time to walk up the ghat today before our next appointment. It was a beautiful day- it’s so much clearer than in January without the smoke pollution from the coal braziers.

All day saw bathers immersing themselves in the water. Sitting on the cafe steps you can see a slow rotation of visitors in and out of the Ganges, boats up and down the river and a constant noise of drums and singing.

Our afternoon mission was to begin the impact evaluation with the girls at Disha. The walk along to Samne Ghat took us past these buffalo who were also enjoying bathing although the waters were less sacred.

The goats, however, were mere onlookers.

The younger girls were already back from school and having their extra coaching with Bharti to supplement their education. The older girls returned soon; here’s Anita in her uniform:

The early interviews do suggest a major shift in the girls’ attitude and development. We facilitated a small group discussion about the effects of their karate training and they contributed with insight and confidence. Two more data-gathering meetings will be needed before we can really assess this however.

Here’s Arti and Anju after giving their opinions. Anju was particularly articulate about her experiences and enjoyment of training.

Happy girls here on the roof before we left. Charlie was doing crafts with them so now I have 5 loom band bracelets.

Another joke for UK readers from our evening meal menu.

Guy was officially categorised (by me) as a weapon in one of my official evaluations earlier in the week so we nearly didn’t get him into this restaurant:

And finally, Katie sent a video for the girls to commend them on their stretching. I started to play it to a few students then others ran up waving and shouting as they thought it was Skype! The impact evaluation also showed that they remember and care about Fairfighters who have visited them in the past and they value the subsequent connections made. Katie also sent a lovely sketch of Anandi stretching – drawn from one of the proud photographs I sent her. We definitely heard the little tigers growing from our kittens today.

Last thought for the night. In response to the question ‘what does it mean to you to be a girl in India today?’ Rishika immediately replied ‘I wish I were a boy’. They all agreed strongly. When I asked why, they replied that boys can do what they want but girls are expected to cook and clean. That’s not what they want for themselves. They want freedom. I think they will take it.

You have the right to be angry. This is your city too…

‘Hinglish’ is increasingly recognised as a form of the English language, and what’s fascinating is the type of English phrase which appears in the flow of Hindi. ‘Women’s empowerment’ is Hindi now; it crops up again and again when we discuss Fairfight with local people. The young women we worked with today are a rising generation who feel ready to take power. Power to choose their clothes, their education or just their own route home with no tolerance for abuse or harassment. Today was the sort of day when you can feel the foundations of society shifting under the city’s chaotic surface.

We arrived at the seminar to find the Disha students had arrived before us. They were in great spirits – playing games and revelling in the excursion.

Once warmed up they were very keen to show us how much they’ve improved their flexibility. I could have posted ten pictures like this one with different girls. Stretching is a discipline and in January they fussed and moaned about it being uncomfortable. Today they were dropping into splits without a blink. Here’s Muskan:

And little Ujala (who was one of the chief grumblers before):

The picture below looks like nothing special. It’s incredibly special. Here you see our Disha girls training happily with girls from another club. The other girls have families and some are in university. They’ve had early advantages denied to our Disha girls. They’re articulate and proud to be martial arts students; it sets them apart from their peers in a society which still considers it unfeminine to fight.

The seminar dealt with very close range techniques based around grabbing, choking and being dragged. All local girls have suffered intimidation in the streets. Unwanted attention, touching, ‘eve-teasing’ … all these are everyday experiences. For those rescued from child prostitution the experiences of being choked and dragged are all too relevant but the children all worked brilliantly and bravely as they learned effective techniques to escape from strong attackers.

A huge focus today was about igniting defiance. Guy always emphasises that someone who is making you uncomfortable or threatening to hurt you does not have the right to do this. And you have the right to be angry and to fight back. Susmita managed to push her way out of a friendly circle here, but she will need true determination to shield herself from less-friendly hands.

I had an intense discussion with the older girls and boys about what this means. How to see fear and redirect the energy to create rebellion. To take back your rights. To fight social conditioning by refusing to moderate who you are because you’re afraid, you’re polite, and you’re a target.

There is no doubt whatsoever that change is happening for the women of India. And it is happening faster because of the men also pushing for women’s rights. A roll call for our feminist heroes today:

Here’s Dheer in superhero pose. His translations really brought energy and depth of meaning to the workshop, helping the students get the most out of the opportunity.

Here’s Guy and the guys. These men have successfully created a culture where teenage girls and boys work closely together with mutual respect and ambition.

He’s our Guy… Doctor, martial artist, cook, badass. Watch out for those elbows. I also think I have his teeth marks on my bicep: badge of the uke 😀

The hardworking young men of Sensei Sohan’s dojo. They’ve undertaken to call out their male peers who think harassing women is fun. They’re the new kind of cool.

Today we had presentations of gifts and an exchange of appreciation. Fairfight’s work here is only possible because of the connection with Sensei Sohan’s club.

I was happy to give Devesh an embroidered belt from Fairfight.

And we were all delighted with our lions – a truly Indian memento of the occasion.

Here’s a close up of the statuette:

And here’s another one in the Buddhist park close by in Sarnath.

It was good to spend some time learning about the importance of Sarnath in the history of Buddhism and admire the temple which was constructed with work from Japanese, Sri Lankan and British Buddhists amongst others.

The statue of the Buddha is spectacular against the sky.

A friendly dog joined us for our picnic.

And we gradually made our way back to the south. I find it hard to walk up the Ghat without taking more pictures.

And I’m pretty sure this cow was admiring the view.

We don’t know the true effects of our work here. We are connecting local people who want change. We are supporting them to create the change. Yet the change will take time. Today we heard from the generation of young Indians whose voices are getting louder every day. The future is bright.

Krav Maga Seminar Day 1

Sunrise over the Ganges. Our intrepid team got up early (I’d say ‘woke’ but that would imply we’d slept through the morning prayers and yoga practice). Our cafe base is directly on the Ghat which is beautiful. It’s also a built-in alarm clock as the day kicks off in earnest at 5.35am. So our 6.30am breakfast was practically mid-morning.

As project manager I learned that for the Dutch ‘half six’ is what we in the UK call ‘half five’ so I now give all meeting times in 24 hour clock for the Dutchies, and in numerals for the Indians. Our Norwegian representative is always early for everything no matter what time we say. Here’s the team after their morning coffee:

We had a record 45 minute journey across the city in the early morning traffic so arrived at the venue an hour ahead of schedule. I mention this detail mostly for the benefit of Floris Eland (our previous project coordinator) to make him weep a little bit. We had plenty of time to admire the huge banner Devesh had created with life-sized pictures. We tried to recreate our poses.

Guy wasn’t quite ready to confront his doppleganger without more coffee in his system.

I like how my picture is managing to look into the camera here although I failed completely to do the same.

The seminar got underway with a large gathering of students from all over the city. Most of these students have worked with FairFight before on our previous visits and it’s a huge pleasure to watch their development. It’s also wonderful to bring them together with our Disha girls who have not had the opportunity to train with other young people in karate until now. We hope they will be inspired by seeing their peers as role models.

All the students were a delight all day – keen and focused. The standard of their martial arts continues to do great credit to their teachers.

Guy explained the principles of Krav Maga and the differences they would see between their Shotokan karate practice and the raw self-defence-in-motion work we would be undertaking. They learned how to adapt their stances and hand placements to drop into a defensive position quickly; using simple and small basic moves to evade, deceive and counter-attack.

We are finding a big increase in the girls’ confidence on this visit. Ashadiya Foundation has made such a difference to these rescued young women. Their laughing, outgoing, friendly personalities are a credit to the stability and love provided by Disha. This seminar contained a lot of practical and rough close-contact work with which they all engaged effectively and with interest. When you consider the distressing circumstances which brought them to Disha you have to feel that the programme is doing powerful work. Here’s Menka, Neelam and Susmita enjoying the day.

It was my pleasure to nominate Pankaj as assistant for the medium-range attack section.

It’s the delight and honour of the assistant to continue to attack, knowing that whatever happens next isn’t going to be much fun. And as the following pictures demonstrate, Pankaj was a great uke (assistant) treating his pain and discomfort with unwavering humour.

Pankaj attacks, is given a nose bleed and a quick visit to the floor.

Guy considers the options. Perhaps he will remove the arm.

Look, no hands!

Pankaj makes a comfortable kneeling stool for the explanation of the principle.

Having quelled his attacker, Guy gently guides his head towards better decisions in the future.

Harald was a helpful horrible attacker which made the girls laugh a lot. Here he is trying to get Kajal to counter:

Drilling is important. A real attack doesn’t allow for thinking time … but the dojo is where we get it wrong until we get it right. Here our attacker is serious, static, and patient. Two of those qualities don’t happen in real life!

And here Lalita works the technique with increasing confidence and always a smile on her face.

Deadly combat can be fun!

Here Anita works her defences with Rishika:

Neelam and Charlie had a lot of fun practising the drills together. Neelam is 16, Charlie is 18 but there’s quite a size difference …

Jet worked with different partners all day and enjoyed getting to know the girls better.

Ujala practising her knife defence against a brutal attacker:

‘Didi, didi, selfie!’ The girls love to take selfies even though they don’t see them posted!

We wrapped up in good time and now we’re getting ready for day two. Guy and I are about to have our prep meeting on the roof so I’ve got my body armour prepared.

Special credits for today to Sensei Sohan, Devesh, Amit and Pankaj for supplying a great venue and super students. Also huge thanks to our enthusiastic local translation and travel team – Dheer and Moyee for their constant positive attitude and problem solving.

Final shot for today is Dheer taking us home through a sudden herd of buffalo. Standard traffic for Varanasi but Charlie is really glad she didn’t have to take her driving test here!