[Sahar here. Please welcome Jessica, our even-newest contributor].

I had quite the experience this summer, thanks to funding from the Peace Awards here at Brandeis.

In short, I went to India for two months and taught English and World Religions to underprivileged Buddhist nuns in the Himalayas.  I went through the Jamyang Foundation, which has many projects in remote Himalayan regions dedicated to providing education for ordained Buddhist women.  This education spans a wide variety of subjects, from Buddhist philosophy to hygiene to English and more.

Before I continue, let me just say that there is no way in hell I will ever be able to completely convey this entire experience to you.  Writing this gives me the same feeling I had when taking pictures of the Himalayas: knowing the picture you take will never be able to capture the tremendous beauty and majesty of those mountains, or the feeling you get when you’re surrounded by them.  So, if I ever sound frustrated in my writing of this, or if this ends up being ridiculously long in an attempt to fit everything in, please understand my dilemma.

So, regarding logistics, while at the nunnery I taught 6 hours of class a day, 6 days a week.  There were 18 nuns with varying degrees of English proficiency and ages spanning from 14 to 30.  I taught typing classes, English, World Religions, and women’s health… as well as some Gender Theory 101 whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Rocking the Deis sweatshirt

Rocking the Deis sweatshirt while teaching typing class


Although my main function for being at the nunnery was to teach, the activist in me was screaming that it was my responsibility to do something more once I arrived.  Many of the nuns suffered from ringworm, fungal infections, stomach viruses, deteriorating eyesight and rotting teeth due to malnutrition, as well as yeast infections– so I did the most obvious thing and spent most of my stipend on taking them to the doctor.

The thing that struck me most about this specific experience is how hard it is when you have it in your mind that “I’m going to this place to help people”, to actually go there and help them in the most long-lasting way.  Easy fixes are so tempting–it’s a lot easier to be on a mission to help people, and find that just doing things for them is much easier on you than teaching them and empowering them to do things themselves. Teaching classes was easy, but when it came to helping improve the facilities of the nunnery I could very easily have done many things for them.  But then what would happen when I left?  It was the whole “teach a man to fish” metaphor, which sounds so easy and cute when you’re talking about fishing.  It’s a lot harder to step back when you really want to help and let those you’re helping take the lead and learn through experience.

The nuns were all painfully shy and passive, but during my stay, a group of five of the older nuns (who before would run and hide in their rooms whenever anyone from the village came to the nunnery) learned how to use their networking skills to call and set an appointment with a contractor, a painter, and concrete workers.  They learned to speak their opinions and to not be taken advantage of.  It was amazing to see their self confidence rise when they realized “hey, I can do this!”.


These are the 6 nuns who started to step up and take charge during my time at the nunnery

These are the 6 nuns who started to step up and take charge during my time at the nunnery

Caste discrimination still had a firm grasp on the area I stayed in, even at the nunnery which was quite surprising to me.  There are two castes in the area, one higher and one lower, and one of the rules is that if you are of a lower caste you cannot go into the kitchen of a higher caste person.  The nuns have workers of both castes that help them in their garden, and when it comes time for lunch you can see the higher caste workers sitting in the kitchen and the lower caste workers sitting in the cow shed.  Yes, the cow shed.  With flies and manure.

“He likes sitting in the cow shed”, one of the nuns told me when I asked why he wasn’t in the kitchen.  I know that if I said I liked sitting in the cow shed, they would throw a fit.

So, in my religion class we studied the caste system pretty intensely, and I focused on the fact that the caste system is itself Hindu and something that the Buddha, 2500 years ago, taught was unjust and not an adequate way of determining someones merit.  Of course, there was no visible change during my stay, big cultural changes take time.  But all you can do is plant the seeds of change, and hope that they grow with time.

Another interesting thing was grappling with the concept of karma and how that often leads to complacency with the inequalities of a social structure, as it justifies them.  I saw my time there as a sharing of the privilege that I unjustly received by being born a white, middle-class, college educated woman in America– but when I tried explaining this reasoning to my nuns, there was a fundamental difference in the way we viewed privilege.  To them, I didn’t unjustly receive this privilege, I earned it in a past life.  And for me to be there trying to share my privilege was just me being a very compassionate person.  This blew my mind for a while.

Now, so this isn’t just all about me– if you’re reading this, there’s something you can do to be involved in this experience.  The nuns right now have their cow shed directly next to their kitchen.  In order to go from the kitchen to the toilets, you are walking through manure.  The amount of flies there in the summer is horrific:

Click here for a video of the kitchen. Note the flies.

… and the nuns are incessantly sick due to malnutrition and a lack of hygiene.  During my stay, they mentioned to me that they had been thinking about moving their cow shed.  I told them that if they called a contractor who would say “I will build this, here is an estimate”, and could find a decent piece of land to put it on, that I would help them raise the money to build it.  So, the day before I left the nunnery, a contractor came and gave an estimate of 5,330 dollars for a two story cow shed with a hay loft to be placed next to their gardens.  I’m looking for people who either a) want to donate to the cause or b) have any interesting ideas for fundraising events etc.  Facebook me, e mail me, or call me!  If you want to hear more about my experience, or details on the cow shed project, or have any ideas, I would love to hear from you!

More pictures at www.jessicasindiatrip2008.shutterfly.com

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