Daily chores include care of the compound’s livestock. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Father Jose demonstrates some new moves during morning karate class. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Boys at Malankara Boys’ Home recite morning prayers with Father Jose Kizhakkedath. (photo: Sean Sprague)
A Boys’ Home resident hard at work on his studies. (photo: Sean Sprague)
I try to give meaning to poor people so they can give meaning to their fellow neighbors, as the Lord gives meaning to life, explains 34-year-old Father Jose Kizhakkedath.
With the help of CNEWA, this Syro-Malankara Catholic priest put these words into action about three years ago with the establishment of Malankara Boy Home, located near Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala in southwestern India. Thirty-one boys ranging in age from 10 to 14 live there, selected by Father Jose from the poorest of backgrounds.
These boys come from the new missions, where the priest ministers to the Harijans, formerly low-caste Hindus. Embracing Christianity has given the Harijans a sense of dignity and a release from the drudgery of being forever untouchable in a society where the caste system, though officially illegal, persists in keeping them down. In addition, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church provides opportunities for them to better themselves, particularly through schooling.
Education is the basis of development, explains Father Jose. If boys do not get a proper education, the next generation will be in darkness.
The boys home is located in Karamoodu, a quiet, leafy village tucked away from the impoverished neighborhoods from which most of the boys hail. They sleep in a large dormitory that sits atop a three-story building. Along one wall of the dormitory each boy keeps a small suitcase containing clothing and a few personal items. On the floor below are two classrooms, a library, a storage room for musical instruments and a guest room.
The boys attend local government schools during the day, a walk of a little less than a mile for the younger boys and about five miles away by bus for the older ones. They also receive extra tutoring during the mornings, evenings and weekends at the home.
The intense academic routine is geared to prevent the boys from becoming dropouts, explains Father Jose. It is very easy for boys with unstable backgrounds such as theirs to fall into trouble begging, stealing, drugs, sleeping on the streets or falling prey to unscrupulous adults. Through the Malankara Boys Home, however, they are prepared for further education, such as high school, college or seminary, so most of them will end up with good jobs. Opportunities such as these are rare in their old neighborhoods.
Visualize the poverty of an undeveloped Indian village: hot, rank hovels; no latrines; open sewers; a shortage of safe drinking water; crime; a pervasive feeling of helplessness and, often, a lack of schools. You can imagine how hard life must be for even the most stable families. Now consider the broken families, with a father dead or absent and a mother of five trying to survive on a sweepers wage of $8 per month. Malnutrition is so common in this area that many children grow up stunted, both mentally and physically. Such desperate situations can be a living hell.
These are the places where Father Jose finds his boys: Forty percent are orphans while the others come from very difficult family backgrounds. Despite such dire beginnings, however, most of them shine with the nurturing provided by Father Jose.
Pratheesh is one of the stars at the home. Bright, serious and small for his age, the 13-year-old is an expert break-dancer who learned his skills watching television.
Pratheeshs father died when he was seven and his mother barely gets by as a sweeper, considered the lowest of the low in the Indian caste system. What a lucky break the Malankara Boys Home has been for Pratheesh!
We are poor people, we do not have enough food and life is hard back home. Father Jose is a very fine man. He helps us a lot. Thanks to the opportunities he provides, I can go to college and become a teacher.
The boys are given numerous chores while living at the home, for which they are paid a nominal 25 rupees (about 50 cents) a month. They also receive prizes of about 100 rupees for academic excellence and cultural achievement. On the homes four acres of land they look after six cows, which provide their milk. The boys also maintain the homes biogas generator, which uses cow dung to create methane gas for cooking. They feed the rabbits, clean the buildings and serve the meals. And some, like 12-year-old Jamon George, enjoy working in the garden.
Gardening is fun, says Jamon. I also enjoy school. English is my favorite subject, but I also like math, social science, Malayalam, Hindi, Sanskrit and sports. Im crazy about cricket!
Half a dozen boys were playing the game enthusiastically when I visited. Their wickets were made from old sticks, while the bat was adapted from a piece of fence board. A tennis ball replaced a regulation cricket ball. In the same field another group of boys played basketball. Each time they scored, all players from both sides clapped in appreciation, as if good sportsmanship were more important than competition and winning.
Father Jose explained that fighting and conflict are virtually unknown among the boys at Malankara Boys Home. They are very peaceful, he said, in spite of their difficult histories.
We aim for character building and total development of personality through a holistic approach. We teach the difference between good and evil. We live as one family, and there is an atmosphere of love here. Prayer and meditation are a part of our daily routine.
That routine starts early, with a wake-up bell at 5:00 A.M. Fifteen minutes later the boys are on the roof learning karate from Father Jose, himself a black belt. Karate, asserts Father Jose, teaches the boys discipline, concentration and self-respect, but they are also taught not to misuse it. After a morning bath they have 30 minutes of morning prayer and meditation. From 6:45 to 7:45 there is morning study, followed by a vegetarian breakfast. Afterward the boys are tutored according to their individual needs. By 9:15 theyre off to the government schools for the day, each carrying lunch in a metal container. Returning by 4:30, they eat a meal, then different groups set about their evening chores. They also find time for sports and play. At 6:00 there is another bath, then two hours of study, supper at 8:30, a little recreation until 9:45, followed by a prayer and sleep at 10:00.
If you study well you will be a good man, explains 14-year-old Sujith. Knowing this, he doesnt mind that schooling at Malankara Boys Home continues over the weekend, when eight teachers from the community arrive to help. They include a religious sister and brother, a bus driver who is also a graduate and three other teachers. Three of them are Hindus.
On Sundays the boys are allowed to watch a Malayalam movie, but otherwise television is not allowed; Father Jose considers it a negative influence. He explains that the precise and intense daily schedule is necessary to keep the boys on the straight and narrow.
The boys whom I met seemed sharp and well adjusted, and should benefit society when they mature. Father Jose remains in contact with the boys families when he returns to their villages to celebrate the liturgy. He has also launched development projects in these communities, such as a micro-credit program with which some people have begun small businesses. His grand plan includes some graduates returning to their communities, entrusted with running development projects.
The boys will be a source of positive change for their society: just one boy can change his whole society by setting a good example. When the boys return home during their vacations, they act like little missionaries, setting good examples for the other boys in the neighborhood.
Energetic and intelligent, Father Jose was ordained nine years ago and achieved a postgraduate degree in political science, as well as a diploma in health care and administration, after which he started a rural hospital. He is a very kind and fatherly figure for the boys, whom he obviously cherishes. An older woman, also a Harijan untouchable from the mission community, acts as matron, cook and mother figure for the boys. A feeling of family can be felt throughout the home.
Father Joses ambition is to develop the homes educational facilities further in order to be more in touch with the ways of the modern world. In recent years India has become a center of computer development and that, he feels, is where the future might lie for many of his boys. The boys themselves are very eager to get their hands on a computer. To train them, Father Jose hopes to purchase several new computers. He also sees a future for some of the boys in computer and television repair and electronics in general. Father Joses plans also include more traditional vocational training in such skills as motor mechanics, carpentry and metal work. When funding is secured, these facilities will be set up on the compound.
Pulled from the some of the worst parts of Kerala, the boys at Malankara Boys Home are given a new chance at life with the help of Father Jose and his staff. And the education continues long after their studies are finished: Part of the deal at the home includes a promise that the boys will return to their communities as missionaries of development, thereby spreading the prospect of a brighter future.
Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to these pages.