Thursday, April 30, 2015

Encouraging each other

Mehrunessa is the youngest of five daughters. Her father died last year and her house burnt down, so she and her mother are now living with her brother’s family. At age 15, her mother is looking for a good groom so she can be married off.

Through the Nepali Girls Social Service Centre (NGSS) in Darjeeling, India, Mehrunessa receives support for school through MCC’s Global Family program. She is one of about 90 children and their families who receive school fees and food support of just under $200 each year. Mehrunessa walks more than two kilometers to school and back every day.

There are 43 other girls in Mehrunessa’s class at the Ghoom Girls High School. She takes all of the classes that North American girls her age would take and her favorite is geometry. She hopes to continue school through grade 12, but that is five years away. When she gets home from school, she will help her sister-in-law with housework and also carry water up the hill to her house. 

We visit Aloo Bari farm, a potato farm and village close by. Here, a hundred children who are students or graduates of MCC’s Global Family program and their families gather to say thank you to MCC. I learn that only about a third of the children in the surrounding villages are able to go to school and MCC has been accompanying children in this village for more than 15 years, from nursery school to becoming nurses. Mothers of some of these children have also received vocational training.

After a celebratory feast the women prepare for us, we meet with a women’s group from this village and the neighboring village of Pubong Fatak. “We are standing here today and talking to you because of the Nepali Girls Social Service,” Pratima Tamang tells us. “Though we are from an economically backward community, we are learning that no matter how poor we are, we can help others.” 

The women are learning how to help their family income go further through a savings program. Each month, each woman contributes 50 rupees (just less than a dollar) and the money is then available for loans. One woman tells us how she borrowed money to buy a cow to start her own business. Many of the women tell us they are learning from each other and they are able to help each other in times of need.

Mankumari Thami tells us that our coming to visit encourages the women. “We are happy you have come so far and come to this little place,” she says, “You have eaten our food and that is sacred to us.”

Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

When loneliness can be overwhelming

My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.  Exodus 33:14 

Nestled between Nepal and Bhutan in the very northern tip of India, the tourist town of Darjeeling is an unlikely place for an MCC partner to be working with people infected with HIV/AIDS. The West Bengal Voluntary Health Association (WBVHA) is responding to the needs of a community that experiences high migration patterns from neighboring countries, including truck drivers, sex workers and day laborers.

In a country of 1.2 billion people, the relative number of people with HIV/AIDS in India is relatively small – 2.75 million cases nationwide and 7,000 in the Darjeeling district. But the vision of the WBVHA is to provide home-based care and support without discrimination to those who are infected and their families.

During the last 10 years, more than a thousand people who are HIV positive have received help and care from the WBVHA with MCC’s support. The WBVHA also works with hospitals, religious leaders, schools and others to increase understanding and acceptance for these families. 

Thirteen-year-old Usha Kanu lives in the slums of Siliguri. She and both her parents, but not her younger sister, are infected with AIDS. WBVHA provides monthly medical support for Usha and start-up funds for her parents to begin a home business preparing momos (dumplings) to sell at a nearby school.

In Pelkujote, Ramen and Sumitra Barman are both infected with HIV/AIDS. Initially, they said they had no hope.  One baby died at three months, but now they have a son who is a sixth grader, and he is not
infected. Because of help from the WBVHA, Ramen and his brother now farm a two-acre vegetable garden. The organic vegetables meet the families’ needs and provide enough produce to sell in the marketplace.  

Nicholas Subba, from the Kurseong municipality, was a hard-core drug addict in Delhi. When he hit the very bottom, a Christian organization helped in his rehabilitation. He was later baptized and got married. But later he got sick and found out he was HIV positive. Back home near Darjeeling, the WBVHA provides some support for him with medicine payments.

Nicholas is a driver for hire, but his wife, Swabna, is not able to walk and he says it is difficult to help at home with her daily work and also find time for his driving schedule. It is a miracle, Nicholas says, that both of their children are not infected with HIV/AIDS, but he also says the family sometimes cannot afford to buy both the medicine he needs and the food the family needs to survive. Nicholas sometimes is not able to pay the school bills for the children. Neighbors do not accept the family and Nicholas says his daughters have no friends.

“I am lonely,” Nicholas told us, and even though his family experiences discrimination, he knows they need to reach out to others and make friends. Before we left his house, we laid our hands on Nicholas and I prayed for him and his family, that God’s presence would be with them, and give them rest.

We visited a number of other homes where the West Bengal Voluntary Health Association is providing support for HIV/AIDS patients and their families. I found myself praying for each of these people as we left their homes. I thank God for the WBVHA and I am grateful MCC can provide this kind of support for people in need.  

Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

Monday, April 27, 2015

A gift of a cow

In the village of Bandar Kharibari in northern Bangladesh, the gift of a cow is making a crucial  economic difference in the lives of families.

Through a five-year grant from the Canadian Food Grains Bank (CFGB), MCC is working with its partner, Bangladesh Rural Improvement Foundation (BRIF), in the northwest section of Bangladesh, the poorest region in one of the poorest countries of the world.

In the villages around Dimla, including Bandar Kharibari, most families own less than half an acre of land. Families work for larger land owners during the August to November rice growing season. There is plenty of work during the planting and harvesting times, but almost no work in the months in between, known as the monga, or the famine season. 

The CFGB Monga Mitigation Project has identified 1,900 families in the region to receive a gift of a cow. Before the project, almost no one owned a cow, or if they did, they were rearing it for their landlords. Project leaders determined that livestock is a good store of value for Bengali families because the cows can be sold during times of need, rather than at a specific time like at harvest. The milk and the offspring of the cow can be sold, and women can take care of the livestock at home.

We met one woman who has reared three generations of cows. The additional income from the cows and the milk has made it possible for her to replace her thatched roof with a metal one. She is now able to send her children to school and to buy the textbooks and uniforms they need.  

Another family tells us they were able to buy additional land with the money they have earned from the cows and their milk. They now sell 3.5 liters of milk each day in the marketplace.

One woman tells us that because of the gift of a cow, she has more strength and more confidence in herself. 

In responding to the famine season in Bangladesh, the gift of a cow is empowering families by providing them an asset for the future rather than only providing food for their immediate needs.  

Ron Byler is executive director Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

I am a person of value

Just over two dozen young Bangladeshi women sit in a circle at the end of a three day peace education training. When these Hindu, Muslim and Christian women are asked what they learned, one young woman talks about controlling anger and another says peace is when you are in good relationship with other people.

Each woman who responds stands up to speak and everyone claps when each responder is finished. Another woman talks about discrimination against women and violence in her country, and finally a young woman stands and says, “As women, one day, we will mostly be confined to our homes, but today I have learned I am a person of value.”

We are north of Bogra in the village of Nijpara in the northern region of Bangladesh. MCC is working with the Catholic church in four villages here with an integrated approach that includes attention to food security, health and sanitation and peace building.

Earlier in the day, Father Albert Soren greeted us warmly when we arrived at the church. Most of the indigenous population in this region is Christian and Christians, Muslims and Hindus live side by side, in separate communities. There is no significant religious tension in the region, but neither is there many friendships built up in the communities between people of different faiths.  

Father Soren tells us that the indigenous community struggles with alcoholism and access to land issues. Most families own less than an acre of land to sustain their families. He says most families have traditionally relied primarily on rice for their diet, but MCC has helped families learn how to grow vegetables and raise livestock.

In a typical monsoon season, one-third of the country is under a foot of water for at least several months. We are here in April before the monsoon season and the land looks lush and the rice fields are approaching harvest. Water is in ready supply throughout most of Bangladesh, but there is some concern that ground water sources are being depleted.

“We work together well with MCC,” Father Soren tells me as we walk through the community visiting with neighbors. He says that because the Catholic church is working with MCC in the community, people are more ready to believe that the church cares about all of their needs, and is not just trying to convert them. Every month, the church organizes trainings and workshops for the entire community, not just for the Christians.

We visit the head of the local government, a Hindu in a majority Muslim community, who has participated in one of MCC’s conflict resolution workshops and requires his staff to attend as well. He tells us that the workshops are helping government officials respond better to community needs.

Across town, we visit a weekly nutrition class attended by women of all three faith groups. In another nearby location, we visit a peace park built by the Catholic/Mennonite collaborative effort where children can come to play and where youth and adult peace clubs meet regularly.

Back in the closing session of the peace education training, one young woman asks us why it is that MCC foreigners are helping them with peace building work in their community. We talk about MCC’s commitment to peacemaking around the world, but we remind them that the three trainers for their workshop are Bengali, and that peace building will only eventually be successful if young people like themselves also decide that peace is important for their communities.  

Watching these women relate to each other and with us, I am grateful for the promise of the days ahead for this community where young women like the ones we met are learning that they are people of value. 

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Flow, water, flow

You will bring water out of the rock for them; you will provide drink for the people and their livestock. - Numbers 20:8 

Water out of a rock. God did it for the people of Israel thousands of years ago and it is happening again today.

In the village of Sinisingi, the water is flowing. Over 2,500 meters of irrigation pipeline have been laid from the water source high in the mountain rocks to the village. This Gravity Water Flow System has revolutionized the lives of these villagers.

The village is in the district of Gajapati, one of the most remote parts of the Orissa region of India. The land is barren and the tribal groups who live here on the edge of the forest land rarely have the water they need for daily living and growing crops.

With the irrigation pipeline, villagers now have enough water to drink and to grow their crops. Before, the women had to walk more than half a mile to get clean water. “It was a crisis,” one of the women tells me, “But now, we can grow many different kinds of vegetables and have enough to sell in the marketplace.”

We walk the hilly land and see how these tribal people have terraced it. Water gushes through the pipeline and through the furrows in the fields that have been dug. In just three months time, the irrigation system was constructed to provide water for 22 families and 30 acres of land.

Sinisingi was the first of three villages where MCC partner Isara has worked with the village to provide water. All twelve villages of the Gajapati district are targeted for future similar projects as funds are available. Each irrigation system costs just under $20,000 to construct, mostly in labor that the villagers provide in exchange for food.

We visit the village of Abarasingi, the next village scheduled to receive an irrigation line. We meet with village leaders and learn that three kilometers of pipeline have already been laid and only one kilometer remains. This time, the pipeline will provide water for 31 households and over 120 acres of land, including drinking water for a school of more than 100 children.

The villages will own the water rights to the water sources and Isara is also helping the villages gain access to government programs that they are entitled to. The project provides one-time seeds to each farmer for their kitchen gardens.

Isara leaders say that, each time, the process gets easier with the villages because villagers can see the results in the villages that have already received water.  

Just prior to visiting these villages, we learned that MCC will be able to provide an additional $75,000 for irrigation pipelines in four more villages next year.

Flow, water, flow.

Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Sunday morning in Korba, India

Go and tell them . . . I have seen the Lord. (John 20)

I preached last Sunday morning in Korba, India. This congregation is almost 100 years old and it shares a faith tradition similar to my own in Goshen, Indiana with the former General Conference Mennonite Church.

And so I find myself telling this congregation about my own congregation. About our ministries in the community and about our Easter traditions the week before.

I find out later that this congregation has had its own challenges through the years, but it still has maintained a consistent Christian witness for almost 100 years in the predominantly Hindu culture surrounding them.

“We have a heart of joy welcoming you,” a women’s choir sang to me. I am presented with flowers and a garland is put around my neck. The chairman of the congregation prays with thanksgiving for the missionaries and for MCC.

As I prepare to preach, I realize it is Sunday morning here in Korba but only Saturday night back in Goshen, and so when I preach, I ask the congregation to help me out. Will you greet my congregation by waving and I will email it to my pastors to share with my congregation gathering for worship in a few hours? They agree and so that’s what I do.

After church, and after shaking the hands of every one of the 200 or more persons in attendance, and then sharing a sumptuous lunch with church leaders, I am taken across town to a much poorer community where the congregation has started a new neighborhood ministry. Worship is usually on Sunday evening here, since most of the people in this neighborhood are day laborers and are normally working during the day on Sunday.

We pray with the neighborhood ministry leaders and then head on down the road to the train station an hour away. On this particular Sunday morning a week after Easter, thousands a miles away from my own church, I am at home with this congregation in Korba.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.

Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.


Give them something to eat

And all ate and were filled. - Matthew 14:20

It is difficult to miss the miracle that is happening here. People who did not have food in the dry season, now have enough food to eat.

In the village of Raikachar in central India, a new canal helps families store enough water from the monsoon rains to plant a second crop each year when the weather is traditionally dryer. MCC partner CASA (Church Auxiliary for Social Action) says there are many villages like this one where people can be empowered to increase the quality of their own lives.

“This is how we share the love of God with the people,” Dr. Sushant Agarnal, director of CASA, tells us. MCC’s project is one of 25 that CASA is implementing, and in most of the villages CASA is working in, most of the projects revolve around agriculture and virtually all of them involve water.

In Raikachar, more access to water means water can be used for gardening and for bathing. There is more food to eat and some left to sell as well. The quality of life is significantly increased. And now, these villagers will also be able to send their children to school.

In the nearby village of Tendu Tikra in the Bilespur area, we hear a very similar story. In a community meeting, the people tell us, “We will not be hungry here . . . we will not have violence . . . God has given us this community . . . and we want to live happily here together.”

In this community, CASA is helping purchase seeds and implements for cultivating the fields, and man-made ponds and bunding (dirt mounds) help store and direct the water that comes in the rainy season for use later. CASA also helps these tribal people get access to the government benefits they are eligible for.

“We are not as poor as we used to be and we have more bargaining power with the officials,” village elder Vedlal tells me.

MCC is supporting CASA’s work with almost 10,000 families from 125 villages across 10 states in India.

In the state of Orissa in southeast India, MCC is working with a second partner organization Disha in 12 villages. For nine months of the year, these tribal people have traditionally not had enough food to eat. The local government is weak and these villages have not had a voice.

After just two years of water and agricultural training, people in these villages now have adequate food for nine months of the year, instead of just three. The land cultivated has increased by 50% and the rice yield has more than doubled per acre.

MCC is providing better quality seeds, tools for cultivation and better access to water. Land quality is improving because reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers has decreased. One crop each year has increased to two or three. A reliance on rice has now expanded to other crops and vegetables.

We gathered with the community in the village of Tangrain. A woman told us, “Life was tough, but nowadays, we have enough to eat.”

Addressing food security issues first has also enabled Disha to work with these villages on self governance, gender justice and the rights of children in the community. With the increase in food available, parents are less likely to feel it necessary to sell their children into child labor outside the community to work in the mines or other industries.

Jesus’ words ring true here. Referring to the crowds who had gathered to hear him speak, in Matthew 14, Jesus told his followers, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” As followers of Jesus today, we can still respond to Jesus’ call.

Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.