Sunday, April 06, 2008


This is Mikku, who's just been assigned to us as our new sponsor child. He's about five, and comes from the Patna district of the province of Bihar in India, in the top north-east corner of the triangle of the country, on the Ganges and not so far from Nepal. His family are Dalits, untouchables, though he looks quite cuddly to me. Bihar was the birthplace mof Buddhism, and of Gandhi's satyagraha movement; many of the people have long had to move and migrate to find work, and their lives while doing so have not always been easy. It is a fertile region and the food is largely vegetarian and sounds very good, except perhaps for very poor people like Mikku's family who mostly eat rice and onions.

Mikku replaces Raju, who lives in Rajasthan, who we've sponsored for the last eight years and who must be about 13 by now. Rajasthan is over the north west side of the country. My geography and general knowledge of India is not instictively very good; I've looked up about these places, which is educational to me.

Child sponsorship, and charitable giving in general, is fraught with problems, of course. On the one hand are all the questions, doubts and objections that can be raised about it and its general usefulness, ideologically, politically, practically and morally; is one doing a good thing for the wrong reasons, or a bad thing for the right ones? How much is all about guilt, ego, consumerism? Is it just a sop and a sticking plaster? How much goes to the people it's meant for, and how much should people employed by charities expect to receive from it? etc etc. On the other hand are the increasingly aggressive marketing and fundraising techniques of the charities themselves; one of the reasons we're glad we do it is because it enables us to say with a clear conscience that we give regularly and, according to our means, fairly generously, to a development charity and don't wish to commit ourselves further.

We started doing it at a time when I was feeling a lack of involvement and connection with the wider world, and it was one of a number of things, both looked for and unlooked for, which did help to remedy this state of mind, so, yes, it was done to make me feel better. Which doesn't mean it didn't do any good to anyone else. We've never really doubted its being worthwhile, though it soon became clear that the involvement with the individual sponsored child is necessarily very small. In effect, you make a regular donation to the charity, who work all over the world, to do with as they see fit, and in exchange, they keep you updated about their work in general and one local project in particular, with a token photo and some details about a child in that project, who you have some correspondence with, though this too is really a token matter. There is no question of sending gifts other than cards and letters, which are received and shared at school, to the child, as this is unfair to the other children and invidious, and may even put your sponsor child at risk, and you cannot communicate directly, as it is inadvisable to divulge your personal name and address in case unscrupulous people obtain and make use of it.

Raju's writing and drawing seemed to progress very little in eight years; even allowing for the limitations of poverty and schooling, it seemed to me that his natural development and basic cognitive levels should really have reflected a little more change. The news about him always seemed the same, he had good health and vision (fine), he had been to his cousin's wedding, he liked sweets and football ... we began to suspect that the paper and crayons were given out to all the kids of whatever age to scribble on and a formula of words written on the back by the teacher or community worker, or that perhaps it was just a chore for both the children and adults concerned cutting into otherwise valuable time. That's OK, doubtless they had better things to do than gratify the patronising vanity of sentimental guilty westerners whose consumerist urges drove them to want to buy a bit of the Third World (do we call it that any more?) along with everything else they've got to make them feel good, and who stupidly insist on individual human interest to make everything palatable. I wrote from time to time, sent drawings and simple accounts and descriptions of home matters I thought might be of universal appeal, then after a while only a card at New Year.

However, we believe that the charity - ActionAid, does a good job in general, and we did enjoy receiving the newsletter from the community project - Prayas - in India, which was short, simply produced and informative. The accounts of the efforts of the Dalit and tribal peoples, especially the women, to improve their own lot and obtain justice were impressive and heartening. I've found these really more interesting than the magazine from the UK about the activities, campaigns and fundraising of people there for the charity, which, idle introvert and not-a-joiner that I am, always left me rather cold and feeling slightly tired.

So, now ActionAid feels able to hand over the running of the Rajasthan project to the community groups involved, many of the schools and healthcare centres are now government managed, so their, and our, involvement there is at an end. This would seem to be a good thing.

And now we have a photo of and a letter about Mikku. He looks a bright enough little button and goes to a nursery class in the village, but there is no health centre, and his parents have neither land nor livestock - Raju's family at least had a couple of goats and, I think, a cow, and a garden for vegetables. He has drawn around the first letter of the Hindi alphabet, and a picture of a banana, because he likes them very much. Something about small boys' fondness for bananas always seems endearing to me. Unfortunately he's crayoned it in yellow on pink paper so it won't scan very well. He also likes pink flowers and the colour yellow, and playing with goats, all of which I sympathise with.

So, to say hello, I've made a collage with pink flowers, yellow, and a banana. Having become rapidly accustomed to electronic communication, there is something slightly miraculous about making a shiny print, putting it in an envelope with a stamp and a series of increasingly delimiting specifications of physical locations: country, province, city, road..., of its travelling over the surface of the earth to be, we hope, finally opened, taken out, looked at and touched, probably with incomprehension, by a group of tiny children in a village in Bihar. It all seems rather unlikely and precarious, rather like giving to charity, an act of faith and hope.


vicki johnson said...

Ah, Lucy...what a beautiful heart you have! We must act with our best instincts and investigation...and then yes, have a boat-load of hope and faith.

Mike said...

Wonderful Lucy.

I've often wondered about this. Mostly about does the money go where we intend for it go. Most research indicates that it does, so I suppose it is a good thing.

I've been feeling the need to do a little more lately, so maybe after I get all of my health issues behind me, I will look into this a little deeper.

Thank you.

Rosie said...

It does sound interesting. You are helping so it has to be doing some good, whatever you might incidentally be getting out of it.

jzr said...

It is so hard to find a way to help in this world. You are doing good work. Thanks!

katydidnot said...

this is great. isn't good to do something? just something, what you can.

leslee said...

I three consecutive children I sponsored through Save the Children foundation, which has a pretty good reputation. After the last one, they changed the way the program was done in the area where I supported such that you wouldn't sponsor an individual child, but a program, which was no doubt more efficient, but of course less personal. Still, I would have continued to support STC but the change coincided with difficult financial times for me, so I dropped it. I have been thinking of doing it again - it was a small monthly donation, but many small donors adds up.

I did like the personal connection. It gave me (and I'm aware this was for me, not for her) a sense of being responsible (however imperceptibly in the scheme of things) for a young life in a faraway place. World events that affected that place, that life, mattered to me in a way they would never have otherwise. Yes, there are issues around sponsorship that get complicated. But I think selecting a reputable and responsible organization makes a great difference.

Anyway, enjoy. And I wish Mikku much luck.

Lucy said...

Thanks all, for such positive comments. It is easy to be cynical, but I'm sure it is worth doing. I trust the organisation; the fact that they were able to pull out when their work was done, and the responsible attitude about not encouraging direct gifts and too close personal contact is actually reassuring.

It is interesting to see at least an example of how and where the money is spent, which keeps us engaged in way it wouldn't if we simply made a regular general donation. I make an effort to find out a bit more about the issues and places that are involved, and raised awarenenss is no bad thing. The regularity of the donation must be useful too.

Pam said...

Hmm, yes, I know what you mean. It must be better than doing nothing. He looks sweet.

I'm interested in your use (and spelling) of the word "haiver" in your previous post. In recent years I've heard English people using it(though I'd always spell it "haver") and they use it, as you have, as if it meant the same as "waver". In Scotland, to "haver" means to talk nonsense. It's a noun, too, though always plural - "That's just havers" ie nonsense. I wonder if it's just taken on this other meaning in England because people think it might mean waver, or if it's a completely new word, quite separate from our word?

To a Scot, the actor Nigel Havers therefore has a very comical name.

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Jean said...

This is lovely, Lucy. I agree with your views in general and about Action Aid in particular. And I can imagine the pleasure this little boy and his friends will find in your shiny, colourful photocollage

meggie said...

It is a kindness to try to aid others. The little boy looks lovable.
They have programmes here, where folk can supposedly choose the child they would like to sponsor. I have always recoiled at the idea the plainer children might not be chosen. Perhaps it doesn't really work like that- or I hope it doesn't.
You collage is very colourful, & attractive.

Lucy said...

Isabelle - thanks. Re 'havering/haivering': I first picked it up from a friend out here who grew up in South Africa, but may have had Scottish forebears, she said, I think, her mother used to say it. Than I think I've seen it on blogs, notably Lesley's, a Scots lass living in Bordeaux, who has it as her blog sub-title: 'Peregrinations, (or just haivering)' - I think she uses the 'i' - in which case she may be using it in either of the senses you describe. The 'i' may simply be a mis-spelling, as it's probably more a word you hear spoken than see written.
Jean - lovely to see you; glad you can endorse ActionAid for me.
Meggie - yes, I think that might have been one of my hesitations in the past, the idea that people picked out an attractive looking child like a puppy or a kitten... but these children are simply assigned, you can choose the country, and perhaps a boy or a girl if you prefer. I might have preferred a girl, as they are even more disadvantaged than the Dalit boys and less likely to be sent to school, but really, it's a token thing anyway; the programme, hopefully, is trying to address that.

Jules said...

Lucy, you are doing a wonderful thing in sponsoring a child. So many people leave the doing to others and then nothing gets done at all.

tristan said...

cor blimey ! that was bright

i'm hurrying off to the shops ... for some double-glazed sun-glasses ... before you blog again


MS said...

It's really interesting to see other experiences of child sponsorship. I've been trying to find out more from other organisations and I've come across SOS Children (
which send 100% of my money to the child and stay long term to support communities (staff are from the country) working in partnership. Oh and I think this is some of what they do with the MDGs ( Looking forward to sponsoring very much...