Best Foot Forward

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Andy Burn and Henry Dixon (not forgetting their wives Claudia and Sue) have long been staunch supporters of Our Lady of Rosary School in Mandrem and as we mentioned before, this year the boys set themselves a rather interesting challenge…

They would walk the coastline of Goa and get as much sponsorship as they could. It’s not all sandy beaches – the mountains hit the sea in the South, there are three major river mouths to somehow cross – and all in all it would add around 50 miles to the nominal 100 that the guidebooks say.

Well, we can tell you now that they succeeded in just five days… with only a few painful sprains and blisters as injuries!

Andy and Henry - Great Goan Walk

They were good enough to keep notes of their daily progress and take some great photos along the way. We like it so much that we thought you should read and see exactly what they wrote and saw… GGW_Report_final – it is a PDF file to open or download.

They also managed to get themselves into the Goan press – here’s the piece from the Herald:
Walking for a Cause

The best news is the amount of money they raised! It’s all still being counted but already we’ve been able to supply much needed computers, furniture, books ans educational aids to the school. We’ve also been able to give much needed funds to Bookworm in order to keep their Mobile Outreach Programmes into Panjim’s slums going!

So well done guys and you make me feel exhausted just thinking about what you did!!!


Awards time at Mandrem!

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A short time ago, I was invited to be a guest of honour at Our Lady of Rosary School’s Awards Day. Moreover I would have the opportunity to get to know our school’s new headmistress, Sister Trinidad!

Tinged with sadness, as Jacinta’ loss was truly felt, but full of hope for a  future led by her successor, the day was a great success. It was a full programme of song, dance and drama, interspersed with reports on the school’s progress and its activities over the past year. Whilst it is a Catholic-run school, the programme truly reflected Hindu as well as Christian traditions and history, and, even though it is an English-medium school, a full range of Indian languages were used. So many items and so little space to write… but here are some of the highlights for me:

Standard IX - Prayer Dance

The girls of Standard IX started us off with a poignant Prayer Dance, both in welcome to the audience of honoured guests and proud parents, and to the memory of Jacinta. Standard V pupils carried on with a rousing song of welcome.

Darshanna - Standard VIII - Bharat Natyan

Darshanna from Standard VIII then performed a beautiful solo Bharat Natyan, a classical fire dance from Tamil Nadu that reflects its origins as a Temple dance. Then followed a play written by the children – an insightful take on a tour guide taking visitors to see the sights of Goa – followed by Suraj singing a traditional Hindi song, and a time-honoured Portuguese Corridin dance performed by the troupe rounded off  this homage to Goa’s story.

Portuguese Corridin dance

Onto the prize and scholarship giving, and I was honoured to be asked to present some of the awards, along with Father Dominic and  Sister Trinidad. I gave a very short speech to congratulate absolutely everybody and then the big news… Standard X had received a 100% pass rate!

Mandrem awards

Later I had long chats with Sr Trinidad, many of the teachers I’ve known through thick and thin and quite a few of the parents . I think the future is bright!


Helping Girls into Education

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Education and status of girls in India is improving.

It is not a smooth or fast road, and heavily dependent on general economic development. In a nutshell, if a daughter is not needed to work at home or look after younger siblings then she can attain education, and thus status, and even employment.

In Goa, one of the most advanced Indian States, the girls that generally fall between the cracks are usually from poorer States, living as itinerant workers or in the pocket slums that ring the main towns. These are exactly the kids that Helping Elsewhere supports through the work of Sujata Noronha at Bookworm, a pioneering literacy organisation that takes literacy to where it is needed by means of diverse projects.

Helping Elsewhere has provided her with a little red van that she drives into the heart of these marginal communities, armed with a range of large ‘show and tell’ books, a selection of books in multiple languages that teach the kids the concepts of a library and borrowing books (they probably have only ever had newspaper wrappings as reading material to this point) and some basic art materials to bring out the kids’ hidden talents and keep their interest.

‘School’ is a set of mats on the floor of a rented room, or just on the dirt floor in front of a temple. The ‘scholars’ get a Bookworm bag and a personalised ID badge. As possibly the first things they have ‘owned’, these are highly treasured. The late afternoon session usually starts with a shy face appearing around the side of a doorway – many others then follow this lead. It is usually a rumbustious affair, but the kids are always genuinely keen on learning and playing their part. Books are lent out to regular attendees and even the acts of borrowing and giving back have to be taught from first principles. But young kids are eager and flexible and soon grasp the advantages. It is always a fantastic and rewarding atmosphere.

The goal is to attract more of the girls in these communities. And to do this we know we need to gain the trust of their mothers. Most of the girls will be young – without the responsibilities of older siblings – but girls of all ages (even well into their teens) are welcomed. None are expected to have any reading skills at all. The kids, once they get involved, seem to be good at teaching each other, but personalised teaching fills the gaps.

This is education in its rawest form, but it produces very effective results.

Helping Girls into Education

And this leads very neatly on to an event that one of our great supporters, Diana Boulter, with Stargazer Events, is helping to organise…

On the evening of 8th April at the Cobham Hilton (in Surrey, near where the A3 crosses the M25) Diana is organising a “Dinner for Wonderful Women” in direct opposition to the fashionable St George’s Day dinners for the men.

Tickets (for you girls only!) are just £45 for earlybirds (and still only £55 after Valentines Day) and much merriment is guaranteed. Diana is expecting to raise £1500 to go towards promoting girls’ education in Goa, and I’m going to be there playing my part of course.  This is going to be one wonderful night!

Further details and tickets are available through Diana or one of the team on 01932 228544 or from myself.

I hope to see loads of you girls there!!!


Carols, Curry and Old Men!

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As this was our first Christmas and New Year spent in Goa, we thought we would blog something different for a change and share with you our thoughts on the similarities and differences we noticed in the way the festivities are celebrated in Goa and England.

Santa in Goa

Christmas started early and unexpectedly for us a week or so before Christmas Day. Yes, the whole State is decorated to the nines in stars, Xmas trees and Santas, but what we were unexpectedly confronted with that evening was a full blown crowd of kids and a Santa boisterously singing carols and handing out sweets, running between all the local homes spreading good cheer. Thousands of cribs appeared in front of houses, both simple and ornate, and the government award prizes for the best. Christmas is taken seriously here… with great fun and devoutness at the same time.

Goan nativity scene

Communities get together to design little tableaus and celebrate together, culminating with a full midnight mass in a beautifully decorated church on Christmas Eve, with all the children present – kids don’t wake in the small hours raiding the present pile here!

Joe in snowy Goa!

Christmas day itself involves visiting friends and family to ‘wish’ and receiving other friends and family at home. Other faiths join in the wishing, and presents and ‘sweets’ – lots of seasonal savoury and sweet biscuits etc are still made at home – are exchanged everywhere. Family gifts are usually ‘useful’ rather than frivolous, imaginative or luxurious as in the west and, obviously, presents are not stacked under the Christmas tree here!

Presents while going to wish

As you might well imagine, the feast meal is usually the more complicated Indo-Portuguese dishes that may take days to prepare such as vindahlo (not fiercely ‘spiced’ as you find it in the UK as vindaloo, but with meat marinated in soured wine and complexly flavoured!) and sorpitel, with sanaas – light and fluffy sweetened and pressed steamed rice cakes that are difficult to make and highly appreciated with such dishes! Our friends at Casa Susegad laid on a fabulous fusion of Western and Goan cuisine… international friendship and diplomacy lasted well into the morning!!!

New Year is a time for parties with another midnight mass thrown in for good measure. Running through is the concept and ritual of throwing out the old and welcoming the new. So the last day of the new year brings (to us!) a strange dislocation of ritual… kids build and stuff ‘Old Men’ from sticks and hay and dad’s old clothes (just as I and my friends made ‘Guys’ for 5th November as children) ranging from the simple to the very ornate and artistic. They then stand them by the side of roads and lanes (often dressed with a cap, bottle of feni and a fat cigar!) and if you drive anywhere on this day you are besieged at every bend and junction by kids collecting 10 rupee notes (equivalent to 10p in the UK) to buy fire crackers and things for later that night.

10 rupees for the Old Man!

During the day people of all faiths visit each other to offer seasonal savouries – we were lucky to be brought an outstanding vegetable curry portion by our Hindu neighbours! Later on come the evening barbecues (why do all guys leap to be world class chefs whenever a barbecue appears when they are never seen in the kitchen the rest of the year?) and new year parties, both private and public.

Goan New Year's Eve Barbecue
Papa Joe's New Year Party

But every event culminates at midnight with the ritual of burning the Old Man. No bonfires, but plenty of fireworks, dancing and merry-making… let the new year bring better times!

Burning the Old Man (and Woman)

The whole festive week just confirmed to us that everything in Goa is done enthusiastically from the heart!

Happy New Year!!!


Let’s talk toilets…

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Well, just as we said it was all over… something else in the Western Ghats has come along!

India generally has a huge need for toilets in, or at least close to, homes. If you travel on buses and trains in India, you can’t help seeing people defaecating in the open – beside railways, squatting in fields, against hedgerows – and always with their backs facing you to save face.

It’s a recognised scandal in India and the newspapers print stories about it regularly (only this week a young bride only agreed, in court, to return to her marital home if her husband built a toilet in their property). The issue is at least being addressed by the government, charities and other institutions.

India Toilet

We had the great fortune to meet our mentor, Father George (now stationed in Delhi), on Christmas Day and he told us that this situation still applies up in ‘our’ villages in the Western Ghats. The villagers ‘do their business’ in the streambeds and this obviously has a public health implication. As usual, the kids are most at risk and treating water-borne diseases costs the villages scarce funds and weakens the children as they start their schooling. The otherwise great results of raising the watertable has had one major bad side-effect… it is now easier for impurities to enter the water system, even if they are more diluted when they get there.

Father George has come up with a plan and Helping Elsewhere is wholeheartedly supporting it. He has designed and contracted for simple toilets placed between the main houses and they will be finished to a high standard so that they will be a source of pride and thus used (otherwise there is a danger that the new facilities become just another store room).

The cost of each toilet is 50 UKP and we can tell you that just one week’s trading in our Steyning shop just before Christmas (Thank-you Tracey!) has raised enough for five loos already! Great work guys!

Now, I posted a version of this plan on our FaceBook account the other day, and a very kind lady that comes into our shop has messaged me to say that she wishes to ‘buy’ a loo for the village out of her Christmas gift money. We are humbled and can only offer a very simple public ‘thank-you’ to this marvelous lady.


Our Door Step School in Goa…

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In Goa you are just never sure what each day will bring when you spend a lot of time here. And considering how large India is, just what a small world we inhabit.

The other evening I spent a wonderful couple of hours deep within a tiny enclave situated in one of the poorer districts of Goa’s capital, Panjim. The area of St Inez is also very close to where Bookworm first began its existence.

I was invited to spend an evening there by Sujata and Niju to take part in another of their Outreach sessions. But, this night, I was also to meet another special person – Amavaz Kharas who runs a Door Step School in Mumbai, who wanted to join Sujata to compare notes and see how Bookworm does things. That name rang a bell…

The learning space was created on three mats spread on the path outside a little temple. Add a box of books and an imaginary and imaginative school world can be created out of nothing.

Goa's Doorstep School

As the session got underway, we caught sight of two small girls who obviously desperately wanted to join in but who couldn’t quite summon up the courage to come forward. Sujata started reading and finally they quietly joined the edge of the group. Later, Amavaz sat with one of the girls in a personalised reading session – it created one of those instantaneous bonds that never wanted to break!

Amavaz and her willing pupil

That group of around 20 kids had three local languages plus English to deal with. It gives an idea of the challenges. But the rewards include seeing the pride with which they carry their Bookworm bags and wear their personalised name tags as a badge of honour. To the kids, this is a serious business!

A serious business

It showed me that ‘facilities’ are not the be-all-and-end-all. But it does take the commitment of some amazing teachers and volunteers. The sad fact, though, is these schemes do need funding – Sujata’s projects currently come in at around 7000 UKP a year – and it merely takes one evening with her to remind me why Helping Elsewhere supports Bookworm to the extent we do.

And, finally, the reason why Amavaz and the Door Step Schools rang such bells in my brain? Well, I first came across her many years back when a Secret Millionaire – Seema Sharma – highlit them in that television program. That screening brought Seema and I together right at the beginning of Helping Elsewhere’s journey. So St Inez was another circle closed!


Up in the Ghats again…

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The important thing with some projects we aid is to know when they have run their course. And the Light Up a Life project associated with the Watershed program up in the Western Ghats, set up by Fr George, has indeed reached that point. All houses that need them have their solar panels. And Don Bosco have completed their water and crop management works.

But there is one last bit of the jigsaw to complete – inline water filtration between the wells and the pumps. So sixty ‘Purerite’ purification kits (costing about £23 each) are needed. Your support has meant that Helping Elsewhere have been able to pay for ten kits and so I believe the target fund for the 60 units is about 75% reached.


And when that target is reached, then the cycle will be complete. It is often important to know when to quietly leave and let people pursue their lifestyle and culture totally independent of you. One’s impact, beyond that initial identified goal, should be minimal.


A Fashionable (and Useful!) Evening!

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The other night, I spent an evening with my friends Barbara and Fr Avin. The first stop was the Inter-College Fashion Show at the Don Bosco College in Panjim. Different faculties competed against each other in a two-day festival of culture and art. The show I attended was based around interpretations of the different cultures of the world with, firstly, costumes having been designed around each country’s national dress. Then a more freeform interpretation. The students ran the whole show themselves – video, photography and commentary.

Fashion - around the World

They tried to make me judge the winners but I felt totally out of my depth on that!!! Barbara took the risk and did the honours!

Student Fashion...

After the show I spent some time with Fr Avin and I handed over the funds for the second year of school fees for the most needy kids of Sirsi in Karnataka. Currently twelve students are having their school fees paid for their time at the High School. And at this point I would like to thank Pete and Tracey for their continued support to the kids in Sirsi!


A bittersweet visit to Mandrem

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Tuesday saw me making an eagerly awaited but simultaneously dreaded journey to our little school in Mandrem who lost their great headmistress, and our personal friend, Jacinta a few months back. The acting headmistress, Sister Lucy, knew I was going to visit, but had held the news back from the staff and pupils ‘just in case…’. So when I calmly walked into the staffroom, a fair pandemonium broke out. As one teacher said to me, “it will be alright now!” and in their dark moments they had wondered if, without Jacinta, we would quietly forget them.

I was shown their simple shrine to her memory in the school – with Catholic iconography, a Bible in Roman-script Konkani and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita – and I spent a few moments there.

Jacinta's Shrine

Then some of the kids were called in and great excitement was had when our gift in memory of Jacinta was unveiled – a full set of Student Encyclopedia Britannica. Pupils were lined up with a volume each to hold, the volumes were spread out on a large table, photos were taken… smiles were shared.

Encyclopedias at Mandrem

Plans for the future were then discussed, and together we worked out the details of the new scholarship fund generously endowed by our great friends Gemma and Stuart back in the (currently very chilly) South of England. The money will be invested and its interest will fund the schooling of five children who otherwise could not attend ‘Our Lady of Rosary School’. This will be henceforth referred to as the ‘In Memory of Jacinta Fernandes, donated by Gemma and Stuart Paine from Helping Elsewhere Scholarship Fund’.

I then gave them details of Henry and Andy’s Great Goan Walk. If you haven’t been following this, then they plan to walk the length of Goa’s coastline to raise funds for the school. And it’s by no means just the sandy beaches you see in the holiday brochures… rocky headlands, stretches of marshy land, river estuaries… areas to manoeuvre over, through, across and around.


Henry and Andy are great supporters of our school at Mandrem (we introduced them in a blog post in February) and it has been fantastic to see their project grow. They have a website dedicated to it at the Great Goan Walk and a Just Giving page – please visit both and give your best support to this mighty effort!!!


Chimbel and Literacy

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Well we’ve been in Goa for over a week now and as you’ve come to expect, we’ve hit the ground running.

Last Saturday I was invited by Bookworm to visit their literacy project in Chimbel. This is the poor area on the outskirts of Panjim, the State capital of Goa. Not to put too finer point on it, Chimbel is a big sprawling slum, housing a lot of the lowest paid who service the infrastructure of Panjim. Most are not Goan but are immigrants from other, mainly Northern, States so a high proportion are Muslim, speak other Indian languages and are illiterate.

Bookworm sign at Chimbel

Bookworm, through MOP (its Mobile Outreach Programme), is taking literacy, story telling and books to the kids of this environment. Over the past few months, Sujata (our friend and passionate educator from Bookworm) and her team have rented an indoor space in Chimbel, a room above a shop, as otherwise when the rain arrives all work must stop. They’ve created a library cum classroom where on Thursdays and Saturdays they hold reading, storytelling and art sessions.

Time for Art

And I am pleased to tell you that Helping Elsewhere has been able to pay for the rental of the room for this year and also for the next! Because this income is now steady, Bookworm will also be able to look for more suitable accommodation – the current room is above an off-license which means some families will not allow their children to attend.

Helen and 'Reading Aloud'

So on Saturday I arrived with Sujata and Niju as an exotic novelty from the land of Manchester United and Chelsea! Indeed when we got the atlas out most of the kids knew where the UK was because of football! Paradoxically, they had more problems finding India – because India is ‘very big’, it must be represented by the large land mass that is Africa! I held part of the ‘reading aloud’ lesson and one of the boys read me his Hindi book whilst simultaneously trying to translate it into English for me. Wonderful.


The concept of a library and the lending of books is very alien to these children. Most homes have no reading material except for the sheets of newspaper that their shopping is wrapped in. Some do have a Holy book though, even if they can’t read it. Culture and learning is thus generally still passed down by word of mouth alone in the age-old manner. These Chimbel children are the first generation to have some form of systemic education and are, through Bookworm, starting to understand slightly wider issues such as ‘Borrowing’.

community reading

Slowly, slowly the idea is coming…


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