Nav Yatra with Keith
By Maxwell Pereira
maxpk@vsnl.com

Keith Saldanha is a friend who dropped in on me when I was IGP Pondicherry. He was visiting, to probe possibilities for cooperation and learning from the Aurobindo Ashram experiences, in respect of crafts that could be introduced at his own ashram in Kerala at Vilappilsala near Trivandrum, for orphans and street children. My mother, who was then alive, was pleased to bless him for singing to her in his rich baritone.

Keith has called his crusading NGO, the Nav Yatra. Every year-end he sends his annual newsletter to friends and well-wishers up-dating all on his work. In this year's he says "…..and there's news that's good and news that's not so good. The bad news first: By the end of this letter I'm going to be asking you for your help for our work here in India".

Continuing with other news on his ashram, he states, "Its called by different names - Nav Yatra Forest, The Garden, BGs Farm (Baby Giant - BG - is what the children in the village call me!). Someone called it a Sanctuary. Not a tree can be cut, not even a leaf or a flower plucked in Nav Yatra. Nothing can be killed or harmed here".

I'd be selfish of me not to share his endeavour with the world, and hence reproduce extracts from his newsletter: "On this small hillside in South India, we've planted thousands of trees and indeed a forest has returned - complete with wild cats, civets, wild rabbits, birds, fish, monkeys and foxes. We've even got four dogs, all rescued from the street - Chu Chi, Choola, Chickoo and Chutney. Two of them have only 3 legs. "Hell," I figured, "we're working with street children and disabled people amongst others - why not disabled street dogs!" To see these dogs limping about quite nicely, getting around the hillside without any support or fuss really brings one happiness and hope".

"Integrated into this natural setting are the buildings. Ecological in their design and construction. Woven into the hillside terraces. Incorporating alternative energy and rainwater harvesting in aesthetically designed ponds filled with fish".

"Then there are the children who come to Nav Yatra - poor children, orphans, disabled children, street children. Aged 2 to 15. Over 80 in all - a number that will soon double as we extend our programs to other areas. Their stories are heart wrenching. Several abandoned by their fathers. Many whose fathers have taken to alcohol or some illicit activity. Others from families where the parents work as 'coolies' (day labourers) not knowing if they have work the next day. Two brothers abandoned by their father know that their mother has taken to prostitution to fend for the family. They live mostly in one or two-room shacks, the men & boys often sleeping outside. Ramshackle buildings for classrooms too. Children packed to the rafters. A 9-year old street child from North India found in Trivandrum began to cry as he sang a song. For the first time he felt the warmth and the affection that the other children in the room offered him - most of whom he was meeting for the first time. Children cast aside by society supporting each other".

"In whatever we did for these children, we had to offer joy. A glimpse of a childhood they hadn't known. Restore in them the self worth and dignity denied to them by society. Hold out hope to them. Even beauty".

"Nothing does this like dance, music, art, theatre and sports. And so we brought in dancers and musicians and artists. Not ordinary teachers - but other youth themselves studying these arts. So children teaching children. They call each other 'sister' and 'brother'

"The chemistry is wonderful to observe. And the hillside reverberates with life. A dance class here. An art session there. A drama rehearsal in one of the little outdoor theatres. Cricket, soccer, kabbadi and 'dog and the bone' in the playground. Some helping in the kitchen with the cooking of the food they will all eat together. Others playing Snakes & Ladders, cards, Scrabble and other word games - learning English in the meantime".

"Someone had the bright idea to teach magic. And so we brought in a young magician - Jiji. He's worked wonders with the children. They get asked to demonstrate their magic in other places. Poor children bringing joy and wonder to others".

"Dance, music, art, drama, games, sports - these are simply means to an end. The real end is to help these children to know themselves and the world around, to express themselves freely, to grow in self confidence and to realise their potentials - not in isolation but together with each other. To be loving and caring, self reliant but sharing, understanding and compassionate and responsible".

"It's a journey. We'll walk with the children. We'll observe them. We've planned residential workshops, trainings and camps for them. We'll support and nurture those who show the desire and the passion to reach their possibilities - in whichever field this is displayed".

"Little children. They bring you simplicity and spontaneity and wonder and dreaming. In their way of being, the true nature of God is indeed revealed. Our other programs in handmade paper and paper art & craft, terracotta, organic farming, herbal gardening and nutrition continue".

"My sincere gratitude to those who have supported us in the past year. A happy Christmas and a New Year filled with peace, hope and love for all. I also send some images of Nav Yatra. Good wishes, Keith"

(you can reach Keith Sadanha at Nav Yatra, Vilappilsala, Trivandrum, Kerala-695 573( india) or through keith@navyatra.org )

900 words: 30.11.2004: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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