Nilakottai Girls

“How Circumstance and Chance Change Lives”



I am been known to be enthralled with HIV + women in places like Kisumu Kenya, women community activists in Haiti, and women micro loan entrepreneurs in India, but, I do have some heavy career crushes on people like Stephanie Nolan and Adrienne Arsenault who are often reporting from the front lines on world changing issues.  I became hyper aware of Stephanie the year I began working in Zambia and then on to South India.  She had recently written “28 Stories of  AIDs in Africa” and had been sending us dispatches from South India where I had just spent a month working.  I was transfixed by Tamil Nadu, in a country I had long had on my list of “must-get-to” places.  Her reportage from the very region I had become bewitched with struck a real chord and I was thrilled to see her recent report on a unique school in India that supports girls affected by the Caste System.  The stories, the faces and the photos brought back so many memories.


During my last week in India I traveled to a small village about an hour from Madurai.  Nilakotai was home to what I was to discover an unlikely jewel, the Karunai Illam, an orphanage for boys and girls. The Illam was founded by Jean Watson, an octogenarian from New Zealand.  When I met Jean in 2009 she was 85.  Lovingly referred to as “Auntie” by the boys and girls she provides refuge for, Jean has actively worked to create an amazing hybrid of a home, which was amazingly holistic in its delivery of day to day life.  Her work although not revolutionary, is very evolutionary.  Illam translates as home, and Karunai means Grace, and this is very much in line with the essense of life here.


The children that are living here are divided by gender and living in 2 different areas.  The boys occupy an acreage on the edge of the village, where there is a large vegetable garden, deep well, and a number of buildings.  The girls all live near the center of the village in a large dormitory. I stayed at the girls dormitory which had a number of extra rooms to house us, along with a small courtyard, a kitchen and other rooms that the girls could collect in for study, meals, prayer and play.  The Illam is located next to a primary school and an adult learning center both operated by the DHAN Foundation, I was surrounded by the girls as they went about their daily activities, and it was such a joy to see the rhythm of their day and their lives.


I arrived with my co-worker Melanie Jones, a writer, and 2 guides from the DHAN Foundation.  We explored the facilities and met Jean and the Illam’s house mother as all of the children were at school.  Around 3.30 they began to arrive back at the dorm, and the girls were delighted to have 2 new strangers to meet.  They crowded around us, calling us Auntie and asking if we wanted a cup of tea with them.  I was taken by how they all set to work with their school books, or cleaning the dorm, the older girls assisting the younger ones, some doing laundry and others doing simple chores.  It was a synchronicity I hadn’t expected.  They were all eager and dutiful, not one complaining, and the energy created a delicious hum.


That evening Jean, an ex College English Professor, had prepared scripts for the girls to read and perform.  They loved to take turns playing roles in made up scenarious, practicing their dramatic arts as well as their English.  As I sat, one of the younger girls,    had taken residence next to me.  I noticed she had a pretty good skin eruption both on her hands, wrists and around her mouth.  When I talked to the head mistress, I found she was a student of Homeopathy and that they used homeopathic remedies to treat both the physical and the emotional ailments of many of the girls.


This all after dinner and prayers.  Then the girls seamlessly prepared their bed rolls on the cement floors and retired for the evening. I had my own room, but could hear the gentle din of their voices as they went off to sleep. Early in the morning around 5.30 I could hear the girls arise, and as I peaked out the door many of them were beginning their day with Yoga led by the House Mother.  Breakfast was prepared for all of them, and they were all scurrying around, some helping others with braiding hair, last minute checks to their school uniforms and such.


I felt such love for the Illam, in how it provided for these children.  Not only a place to lay their heads, meals and an education, but more importantly, a sense of belonging, love and community.  Support for the mind body and the soul, a humanistic interdisciplinary lifestyle approach, gifting the children with so much.


I managed to do a portrait session of all but a few of the girls who had left early for exams.  Then we got into a tap tap with Jean to take us over to the boys dorms for a quick tour.  Only a few minutes away, we drove up a long lane where some very small homes had been erected, housing without water, sanitation, and in many cases barely held together, this was a familiar face of poverty I was becoming accustomed to seeing.  A group of women were waiting with their brightly colored plastic water carriers for the water pump to work.  Various animals wandered the muddy road, where many were openly defacating or urinating, sometimes alongside children.  The same women were still waiting 45 minutes later when we drove back to the girls dorm.  Life was obviously very difficult for many in this region, and it solemnly reminded me of how much time women wasted without a choice. 


Jean explained the premise of her vision as we walked around the acres of land she had been able to acquire through the Karunai Illam Trust which is based in New Zealand. The Trust provides home to the 33 children living in the Illam, but also runs the primary school across the road, and an Adult Skills Education Center. Jean lives half of her year here at the Illam, and then returns to New Zealand where she is actively involved in fundraising for the Trust.  She had come with a friend to see India 20 years before.  She saw a need in this community with the level of poverty and children that were affected by it. Her response was to find enough money by selling her home, and buying some land.  Since then she has provided home, education, love and support to the children that end up in her care and much needed hope and support to the community.


I found the compelling story to surround the girls in the orphanage.  I saw a resourcefulness in their character, a strength and surety.  I asked what happened to the girls when they finished their schooling here in the village?  Jean told me that sometimes they would be married.


“The problem is, that normally girls in this community would be married, but these girls often have no family to provide dowry or introduction for an arranged marriage.”  Most of the girls had nothing but a school uniform, a sari, and sometimes some ankle bracelets or a bangle, and their bedding, let alone a dowry.  Yet they all considered themselves fortunate to be acquiring an education.  Some would go on to college if funding was secured for them, this was something that Jean saw to. 


The difficult challenge for them to marry in a society where women often become “someone of status” through the culture of marriage, can present a problem.  The only way to provide opportunity is for them to become educated, this way they can at least work and provide for themselves, and it will give them some status allowing the possibility of marriage.  I however felt that by default that these girls may have a better opportunity in life than many of their community peers with a dowry and a family, who may marry into the same life their parents had provided, no education, and no way up and out of the extreme poverty.   We know that girls that are educated, even though they may end up marrying, make much better decisions about number of children they have, usually ensuring that their daughters receive education, and better opportunities overall in life. Many of the girls from the Karunia Illam have gone on to study in the fields of B.Com, Information Technology, Computer Science and Engineering., thus providing themselves with a much better chance for the future.


After returning from the boys dorm, I was about to say goodbye to a group of children I will never forget.  A final line up of the girls along with the freshly arrived boys as the role call was taken before they climbed on the bus that would take them to their school.  I keep in touch both with Jean and receive the Illam newsletters.  Please check out the website, and if you ever wander or find your way to Nilakottai in Tamil Nadu, you must take the chance to spend some time, you never know, it may change your life too!


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