Continuing excerpts from the diary of ChildFund New Zealand’s Kathy McKay on her journey to India. Kathy and her husband have sponsored a little girl from Kolkata for three years, and Kathy was overjoyed to be able to visit her.

Long time friends who've just met - Kathy and Anita
I land in Kolkata, India, it’s 4.30 P.M. and 31 degrees. The sky is grey – I don’t know if it’s smog or simply overcast.

My bag comes quickly out and I look for someone holding a sign with my name. I hope they are here, I am anxious about my visit to Kolkata. And of course they are here! As we drive into the old city, the roads get busier and busier, cars, New York style taxis and rickshaws pulled by men fight for space on the road. Down every alleyway a house / shack / plastic structure is crammed in. The buildings are dark, old and crumbling. We drive past still rivers with stagnated filthy water, and banks covered with rubbish.

The traffic comes to a standstill and I look into the little roadside workshops. In the fading light men crouch around a bare bulb, hammering and welding.

There are people everywhere. Many are busy collecting water from the taps on the road. Children sit on the side on the footpath, some of the little ones don’t have any clothes. I have never seen a city like this – it is completely overwhelming and I feel a bit teary at the relentless poverty around me.

As we approach my hotel I am happy to see some boys playing cricket. The pitch is a dust bowl but they look like they are having fun.

Meeting My Sponsored Child
Anita is six and a half years old. My husband and I have been sponsoring her for about three years. I love to get her letters – usually they are drawings of flowers accompanied by a letter from one of the project staff.

Anita lives outside Kolkata and is coming into the city to meet me. Her dad and two people from the project have travelled with Anita.

Anita is all smiles

When I meet Anita I feel an unexpected well of emotion and tears spring to my eyes. I feel so happy to see her. She is gorgeous, tiny with big brown eyes and long lashes and very shy. This is the first time Anita has left her village and the project staff tell me that she has been a bit overwhelmed at everything she has seen so far.

There are about 60 families in Anita’s village. It is a very rural, arid area surrounded by forest. Anita’s dad is a day labourer – mostly his work is stone crushing. I shudder as I remember the stone crushing factory I saw in Chennai. The conditions looked terrible – the dust and the noise would surely shorten your life. Stone crushing is difficult physical work for which he earns 40 Rupees a day – around $1.25 NZD a day.

Most of the families earn between 15-18,000 Rupees ($471 – $565 NZD) a year. This is barely enough to provide the basics for your family. ChildFund spends 40 per cent of sponsorship donations on income-generating activities to help families increase their income to about 30,000 Rupees ($942 NZD) a year. If their incomes improve everything improves. Anita’s mum belongs to the women’s self-help group and the family have planted a kitchen garden to improve their diet, otherwise their meals consist mostly of rice.

In Anita’s village sponsorship donations have also helped to provide an Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centre for 3 to 6 year olds. The Centre helps to prepare infants for school. A health centre provides the children with medical help and their immunisations. There is also a maternal health programme to help mums-to-be and their new babies.

Children at the Early Childhood Centre

Even though rural life is hard, Amit from ChildFund India says it’s better than families coming to the city where they have nowhere to live. The rural people are the ones who end up begging and sleeping in the train station. They think that their lives will improve by coming to the city but they end up in the same situation or even worse.

We spend some time chatting, Anita is quiet. I have bought some pens, paints etc and we make some stamps and write our names. Anita shows how she can write and count in Hindu and English. She starts to give me some quick shy smiles.

We walk around the market. It is still early and fairly quiet. Anita takes my hand. We are approached by quite a few children begging. A young girl about the same age as Anita follows us, gesturing for food. She is dirty and looks sick. There are so many children that need our help, I wish we could do more for them.

We go into a department store so Anita can experience going up stairs! She chooses a new dress. It is pink and very gaudy but she just loves it. She keeps checking her bag to make sure her dress is still in there. The cost of the dress was equal to 2 weeks wages for Anita’s dad.

We decide to go for lunch. Anita and her dad aren’t vegetarian and I notice that like most 6 year olds Anita pushes her vegetables around her plate. She has a Sprite and her face lights up, she loves the sweet taste.

When we return to the hotel I give Anita a barbie doll. She is very excited and laughs as she has fun dressing the barbie and brushing her hair. I am reminded again how children everywhere are so similar – little girls around the world seem to love the same things.

Anita is thrilled with her Barbie doll

The ECD centre needs some carpets for the children to sit on so I give the project a donation for these as well as the money to cover the cost of travel. They promise to send photographs of the new carpets.

It’s time to say goodbye and Anita is shy again. I tell her I will think of her often, and wish her well. She has much to tell her friends about her trip to the city – it is a big event. I hope she has got as much out of the visit as I have. I feel sad about saying goodbye and think how wonderful it would be to visit again in a few years.

Goodbye India
I leave Kolkata early in the morning. The streets are already busy. Men gather around a single tap to brush their teeth and wash. The hustle of the market has started with baskets of chickens arriving. Young boys carry stacks of newspapers on their heads.

The old man that is mostly naked and covered in boils is already outside my hotel begging. I wonder if he has leprosy. He is one of my lasting memories; his image comes back to me again and again. I leave Kolkata with a sense of sadness and relief.

As our plane begins its descent into Kenya I look out the window. The sun is setting and Mt Kilimanjaro is above the clouds – it is magical.

Jambo and welcome to Kenya!

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