The Ministry of Karen Ray
Since 2005, Unity San Francisco community member Karen Ray has actively volunteered with Room to Read, a nonprofit that builds libraries and schools for impoverished children in developing countries. Through her work with Room to Read, she engages in site work in Africa and Asia, and recently participated in the organization's 10-year anniversary trip to Nepal, where they opened their 10,000th library.
An excerpt from Karen Ray's blog
"What do you mean we cannot use the school?!" Lokendra Singh Rathore, cellphone to ear, paces the dusty road in front of the primary school in Nimbera Khurd, a village of 819 souls in Rajasthan, India. Even in the best of times, Mr. Rathore does not speak softly. At our two previous clinics, held in adjacent villages, we were welcomed at the public primary schools. It is election season in India, and nothing is usual. Voting in this region was to be held the following week, and there was fear that the clinic, which I support in conjunction with the Sarthi Foundation, a small local NGO, would be buying votes or creating a scheme to influence the election. "Can you tell them," I say, "that we have done this twice before? We have never asked anyone for a single rupee. Never done anything improper." "We will try." And I get the Indian head wobble which, to me, means there is no place to hold our clinic.
We Americans may be exhausted by what feels like a perpetual election cycle. But here in the world's largest democracy the election is intrusive in ways we can't imagine. Voting in India goes from April 11th to May 19th, in different geographic waves, affecting nearly every aspect of life.
There are roadblocks and random checkpoints. Our car was stopped and searched once and photographed, with an old-school 35mm camera. If you are carrying a lot of money, you better have a good explanation. At the jewelry store, the merchant showed me many beautiful old pieces he had just received, "because of the election." On two previous trips I had, with a local family, I visited the Jodhpur leprosy society delivering tea, sugar, and basic foodstuffs to supplement the government allotment of lentils and oil. We were ordering supplies for our visit when we were informed it wouldn't be safe. It could be seen as a bribe and the local family risked retribution.
Our car is also a problem. As explained to me, the government can simply requisition any commercial vehicle - a car with yellow plates - if it is needed for the election. So our car is kept away in a locked garage for a couple of days, and then the driver makes sure to always have me and my travel arrangements on hand so it was clear that the car was under hire. We also cancel a visit to a temple because of a huge political rally in the city.
Mostly, though, I worry about our little clinic. The doctors come tomorrow, where are we going to set up? Turns out that the Lali Davi who lives across the street from the school heard Mr. Rathore yelling in front of her home. "What's wrong?" she asked. He explained the problem. "Our house is your house," said Mrs. Lali, who remembered a long-ago kindness and instantly offers up her home.
Advertising is done with a tuk-tuk - a baby taxi - and a megaphone. The family removed all their furniture and possessions, except one bed that the physical therapist uses as an exam table. The home isn't as spacious as the school, but we put up tenting so that patients have shade while they are waiting. Women sit on carpets to the left, men on carpets to the right. Registration, bloog pressure, and diabetes checks happen on the front porch. Preliminary eye checks in the bedroom on the left. PT clinic and medications in the center room and advanced eye appointments on the right. Since women here won't remove their veil in front of men, we have a female optometrist. While the other professionals are from Rajasthan, the optometrist is from Agra and doesn't understand the local dialect. An assistant translates.
Mr. Rathore hauls a swamp cooler, fan, and chairs over in his tractor. The electricity is out most of the day, but my helpers thought to rent a generator, which gulps diesel. Three times, a runner on motorbike zips out for more. Money goes so much farther here. I am able to get prescription glasses made for 300 rupees each, just over four dollars. The frames have been donated by Manhattan Beach Vision. The temperature is ten degrees cooler than usual, only 96 Fahrenheit.
We serve over 400 people in one day. I give the bhildren stickers, watch the clinic hum, and am happy, for a few hours, to give not a thought to politics, either in the Indian sub-continent or back home in the United States.
This man is happy to show off his new glasses. Note the cases in the foreground. We distributed 122 pairs on this day.