Ambika Paraja, nine, is the little girl fronting this year’s Trócaire Lenten campaign. Claire O’Sullivan travels to Jhilligoan, India, to discover how Trócaire has helped to change the lives of Ambika and her family
I DON’T know where the Trócaire box sits in your house. In mine, it’s always on the window sill above the kitchen sink. And so every time I have washed my hands in the past few weeks, I have felt the staring brown eyes of a nine-year-old Indian girl who was chosen to be the face of this year’s Lenten campaign.
Each Lent, when a new box goes up, the same questions go up from my sons. Who is that girl and why is that box there again? And so begins an often hilarious conversation about how there are things in life — such as education, clean water, and being fed every day — that millions of other children in the world can’t depend upon. But each year, as they get older, these simple questions become more difficult to answer as the young boys balk at the injustice of it all.
The face of this year’s campaign is a young girl is called Ambika and, as I sat on the floor in her family home in the village of Jhilligoan, I chatted to a painfully shy Ambika Paraja and her parents about what difference Trócaire’s work in India has made for her.
Trócaire, through local organisation South Odisha Voluntary Action, has been working in the village for seven years now. Ambika’s dad Hari explains that Trócaire had brought “big change” to the villagers’ lives.
“There is a lot of change. I am a farmer and I have learnt from SOVA improved agriculture,” he says. “Before I only grew rice but now I use better seeds that SOVA taught me about. Now I also grow all kinds of vegetables that can be eaten all year around.
“Before, we often went without food for days. My wife had nothing to cook. But I have learnt new things and earn money from the vegetables. Before, I never earned money and now, through this change, I hope my daughter’s life will change.”
And change it certainly will. Sitting on a green straw mat on the concrete floor of the home that the family received as part of Trócaire’s global gift campaign, Ambika’s parents say “they are no longer blind” to the outside world and to what their children could achieve because of the rights awareness work that Trócaire has started in this community.
It’s important to remember that Trócaire isn’t about “feeding black babies” any more. It’s about teaching their parents life skills and educating them or their rights so they can feed their own children and then offer a future where education is a real possibility.
IN INDIA, where a daughter’s dowry can cost €20,000, there is often little interest in “wasting” money on education. Instead, from birth, it’s the dowry that parents save for and often it can be the payment of a dowry that torpedoes a hard-pressed family into starvation when they are forced to mortgage their land and sell off their animals.
Ambika’s mother Dharama laughs at the thought that she herself could have gone to school for more than a year or two. “When we were young, we didn’t know what an education was,” she says. “We had to work to eat, so school didn’t happen.
“I would love my daughter to have an education, to have a job and earn money, to go travel to different places and learn about the world. Then she can take care of herself and also of her father and me.”
Dharama and Hari had little chance to learn about the world. The furthest they have ever got is Koraput — a town 90 minutes’ drive away.
However, Ambika wants to be a teacher. “I’d like to go to Ireland too, as lots of people from Ireland come to see me,” she smiles as she clutches her school uniform.
Trócaire, through SOVA, has been working in the village for seven years now. Its objective is to help the village build its own community development committee so villagers can learn more about their rights under Indian law and develop the self-confidence to go out, as a group, and demand those rights.
A potent mixture of corruption, unaccountability, and transparency means government agencies rarely go out to rural areas to spread awareness of rights.
As India’s tribes are one of the most excluded groups in the country’s hierarchical society, before SOVA began this work, these people didn’t know that they had a right to rice, butter, and kerosene from the government; that they were entitled to 100 days’ work a year, and that they can also seek title to the land that they have farmed for generations. And so they regularly went hungry when the rice harvest had been all eaten; lived in mud shacks where the rain poured through during rainy season; and education was something that only happened to other people.
There’s something wonderfully quaint and Irish about Trócaire boxes. I remember them at my granny’s kitchen sink and at my own mother’s sink when I was a child. My mother used to faithfully throw money into that box every Friday night when Dad got paid.
Trócaire boxes and the questions around social justice that they provoke have probably created awkward moments for Irish parents for generations. As adults, we know we can’t solve the world’s problems, but we should continue to do our bit to support the social justice work Trócaire is doing for 40 years now. The Lenten campaign makes up 50% of their funding for the year worldwide.
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