I recently returned from a very moving trip to Asia in connection with the discharge of my responsibilities as Board Chair of READ Global. What I experienced on this remarkable trip enriched me greatly as is always the case when I am engaged in humanitarian work. This is an item I emphasize in Back to the Summit because by helping others we help ourselves.
The first stop on this trip was Kathmandu, Nepal where a number of organizations honored READ Global for 20 years of work in the most impoverished parts of the country. It was a very moving celebration, with emphasis on stories told by individuals (primarily women) whose lives have been dramatically changed for the better by the work of READ. Hundreds of people were in attendance and I don’t think a single person left the room other than for lunch, even though the program was eight hours in duration.
The next day I traveled to the sacred village of Napauti, where there is the convergence of three rivers (quite auspicious to Hindu’s), as well as the oldest Hindu Temple in Nepal. There I received honors, gave opening remarks and laid the foundation stone for our 50th project in Nepal. Some of our projects are high in the great Himalayan Mountains in the regions of Mt. Everest and Annapurna. There, the people are primarily Buddhist. Others, like Napauti, are in the lowlands near the border with India which are primarily Hindu. Although there is ongoing political conflict in the country, there is no religious conflict.
The following day, I flew from Kathmandu to Calcutta and traveled several hours by car through some of the most congested, impoverished and squalid conditions to be found anywhere in the world. Eventually, I arrived in the village of Ullon. This was my 5th visit to Ullon over the last four years. There is to be found the Oceanic Library. Although READ now works in the States of Rajasthan, Haryana, and Manipur, as well as West Bengal, the Oceanic Library was READ’s first project in India. To see the Oceanic Library today takes ones breath away. Located on the Bay of Bengal near the mouth of the sacred Ganges in the Sunderban area of India, the area is the home of the largest mangrove forests in the world and one of the last sanctuaries of the endangered Bengal Tiger. If one visits the website www.oceaniclibrary.com, one can watch the slow but sure progress that has been made on this incredible project over the years, most of it by the villagers themselves. The incomplete project currently found on the Oceanic Library website will be outdated as soon as the website is updated because the current site does not do justice to what stands there today. What I saw on this recent visit is like a modern day Taj Mahal in the midst of over four hundred villages where people live in abject poverty. I was stunned and almost moved to tears. On my Facebook page, my daughter has already posted for me photos of the Library and of its sustaining projects which provide scores of jobs to people who have never before had the opportunity to receive a decent education and where employment beyond the growing of rice for sustenance is generally out of the question. I will quote from part of what I emailed my staff in the States about my observations in Ullon.
“Every photograph I am sending you, except for the last three, was taken by me the day before anyone thought I would arrive and before the large celebration was to be held in my honor. A surprise visit is what I wanted. As you can see, the villagers have finished the second floor and, to my surprise, added a third floor. All floors are beautifully tiled throughout the building, a state of the art honey processing facility is in a walled off room at one end of the building, and a solar installation unit is on the other end. The government is opening a college offering a B. Ed. Degree at the beginning of the year. This is the start of the first impoverished village anywhere in India becoming an education center and will be part of the first planned conversion of an impoverished village into a planned community in all of India (perhaps anywhere in the lesser developed world). Many people from various parts of the world are watching and many are visiting, notwithstanding the difficulty in getting there. The building also has conference facilities, and the first electricity in this part of India will be installed by the government because of the development of the Oceanic Library. The Oceanic has become the catalyst for dramatic changes throughout this part of India. Already solar powered fans with backup generators have been installed in every room. A cultural center will soon be completed, a tourist office has been constructed directly across the roadway from the Library and the first 10 of 25 “air conditioned” (believe it or not!) cottages are also now under construction. The new orphanage has also now been completed. Inside the Library will be an ATM machine (the only one south of Diamond Harbor in all of India, and a major Indian Bank is going to install a banking window in the Library– also the first in the Sunderban area of India). The Library staff is first rate and keeps meticulous records which are sent monthly to READ India and forwarded to me wherever I am. The greatly enhanced Library sections are being completely sustained by the supporting business projects which we helped develop, scores of jobs are being created, and women are flooding the Library along with their children. The local schools, almost completely bereft of books, allow their students to leave school early in order to use the resources we provide at the Oceanic Library since it has books which the schools lack. Playgrounds with instructors present are also on the Library grounds. The building, inside and out, has been painted a glistening white. All in all, I was stunned. Kapil-Da, the village leader, has kept his word, and more! The Oceanic Library is but the first phase of a 5 year plan that much of the undeveloped world is watching. The dream of the people of Ullon is to turn one of the poorest villages in India into a beautiful well-planned community, and to do so with a heightened sense of environmental awareness–all within five years. I have a strong feeling that it will be accomplished. They see the Oceanic Library, established by READ, as the lynchpin of everything that is now happening—educational opportunities, economic development, women’s empowerment, environmental awareness, and a future for their children that the villagers thought they would never see.”
Finally, on my next to last day in India, by a boat donated by the Netherlands, I traveled about two hours out to an island in the Bay of Bengal to visit a health clinic built by Ireland for the people in the Sunderban island area where over 400,000 people live on over 100 islands. It is the first time that any health care has ever been available to these people who live in constant threat of typhoons and other natural disasters. A doctor is available and medical supplies can be taken by the Dutch boat to sick people on other islands and in severe cases people can be brought by boat back to the clinic. What a magical and beautiful gift from Ireland! The non-profit Indian entity that is reaching out to READ is the same one that reached out to the Netherlands & Ireland. They have requested that we build a READ center next to the health clinic to promote rural literacy and prosperity where current conditions are pretty hopeless. I have encouraged our READ India staff to give this item top priority. By helping there, as in Ullon, we help ourselves.
Namaste, Omer Rains