Fulfilling dreams in India

When Associate Professor of History Wendy Singer got a call from Dana Lightstone '96 and learned her former student had raised funds for a project in India, it didn't take Singer long to suggest where the money should go. India is Singer's specialty and passion, and she told Lightstone the story of her long-time friend Kailash Jha, who dreamed of creating a children's library in his remote home village of Ranti in Northern India.

It was just the beginning of a collaboration among Kenyon students, alumni, and faculty who worked with Jha and the residents of Ranti to make the library a reality. It opened in June of 2000 and, in many ways, it is a continuation of Kenyon's long-standing literary tradition.

Jha got the idea when he visited a children's library in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1996. Less than 48 percent of the population can read in Bihar, the state where Ranti is located. He hoped the library, by promoting literacy, would help erase the many divisions in Ranti; It would bring together children of higher castes with those of lower castes, and allow boys to learn with girls, Hindus with Muslims.

In such a rural locale, these divisions were often absolute. Ranti is a small town with a cobblestone path running through it. Mango trees and ox carts are a common sight. Residents bathe and wash their clothes in a pair of large artificial ponds.

"For children who have never attended school, the goal of the library is to attract them to a place of learning, to generate an enthusiasm to pursue a formal education," says Jha, a political advisor for the U.S. Department of State in New Delhi. "For children who already attend school, the library provides fresh opportunities. The children often teach one another."

Singer called on Kenyon students to help. The first person she thought of was Sarah Fox '02, an international studies major who had been intending to focus on Africa. Fox was intrigued by the idea of working directly on a project rather than simply reading about it. She was soon on her way to Ranti via a long flight to New Delhi followed by an overnight train ride and a six-hour drive.

Jha's daughter, Richa '03, was a Kenyon student when the project got off the ground. "Throughout my childhood I had Kenyon T-shirts and sweatshirts supplied to me by Wendy Singer," she says. "It was no great surprise for me to come here." (It is also no great surprise that her sister, Archita, will be a first-year student at the College in 2003.)

Richa had a work-study job cataloguing books at the Olin-Chalmers libraries. It was valuable training; she was put in charge of cataloguing books and materials for the new library.

Encouraged by Singer and Richa Jha, Holly Donahue '00 visited the library during a trip to India in the summer of 2002. Donahue, who speaks Hindi and Urdu, spent mornings reading to the children. Part of the mission of the library is to teach Ranti's children to speak English. But they enjoyed listening to Donahue read in their language. They liked teaching her.

"The kids kept asking how I knew Hindi, and they were always testing me on words and correcting me," she says. "I think they started to see that if I could learn Hindi, then they could learn English."

Kailash Jha welcomed the help. "The children's library project has benefited immensely from its Kenyon association," he says. "When Richa, Dana, Holly, and Sarah spend time working and playing with the children, it has great symbolic importance. The children and villagers feel that sincere efforts are being made, that people care what happens to them."

The four Kenyon women saw firsthand the dedication needed to create the library. "In working with Kailash, I learned the importance of a project's nuances," says Fox. "What at times can appear as straightforward as gathering books and supplies, finding a building to house them, then calling it a children's library and inviting the community in is much more complex than it seems."

Lightstone recalls watching as Jha spoke to a classroom of children at a Muslim school where only the Koran is taught. After the visit, only a few of the children came to the library, but Jha was satisfied that he had some impact. Perhaps the children would soon bring their friends.

Fox stood by as Jha talked to lower-caste parents who need their children to work in order to feed the family. He gently explained the advantage of allowing their offspring a few hours to begin learning to read. Slowly, a few of these children began to show up at the library, too.

One day, a little boy came by. He was a bit timid, but he finally asked Jha, "Is it O.K. for girls to come to the library?" Told that girls were welcome he said, "I'll bring my sister." He soon returned with a long line of girls, all holding hands, eager to see what was inside the library.

Jha believes the project might lead to libraries in other villages. If enough such places are created where children can learn together, it might slowly bring Indians closer, blurring some of the ancient dividing lines.

And Singer plans to continue encouraging Kenyon students to lend a hand. "I send Kenyon kids to Ranti because it gives them a true local experience in India," she says. "It's a vibrant and rich place where Indians are helping other Indians."

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