Two years ago my husband and I decided to visit Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment while sitting under a Bodhi tree. Each of us had an interest in Buddhist philosophy and history and wanted to include several Buddhist pilgrimage destinations in our itinerary. We didn’t realize at the time that Bodhgaya is located in Bihar, the poorest state in India, and anyway we would not have understood what that meant. So our trip to Bodhgaya was more than we expected, in so many ways. Perhaps the most surprising and the best part was that we met Sunil, our tour guide, now my friend.
Sunil was then twenty years old. His English was surprisingly good, his energy exuberant, and his story amazed us. Unlike all the tour guides we’d had until then, Sunil was born into the lowest caste in India. Sunil was also orphaned at five, but found his way to a school in Bodhgaya where he learned English, and he was eventually adopted by a family who lives in Bodhgaya. Over the years, he developed a few powerful friendships with visiting American tourists, a couple of whom became his guides and mentors. Sunil became a “man about town” in Bodhgaya. He knew everyone, was constantly making deals, creating connections, and raising funds. He was forthright about seeking support from the tourists he worked with—be it for hand pumps in villages nearby or his siblings’ education. By the end of our trip I decided to pay for his little sister’s education and related expenses—a relatively small amount for me that I knew would make a big difference.
Two years later, when my plans took shape to go back to India as part of an American Jewish World Service study tour (more on that in another post), I seized the opportunity to extend that trip and go back to Bodhgaya. Yes, another visit to the Mahabodhi temple was appealing to me—yes, I loved sitting under the Bodhi tree—but that wasn’t the main thing. I wanted to see Sunil and meet his family, his little sister especially.
So, my sister (who joined me for this trip) and I headed to Bodhgaya and spent three days with Sunil.At twenty-two, he was even more impressive than before. His energies seemed more focused and his mission clearer. Over the course of three days we spent with Sunil, we visited Buddhist sites, we sat and talked for hours, and we met his family, an extraordinary group of 12 people who lived together in conditions that we would define as abject poverty even though Sunil did not see himself that way. Perhaps the most powerful part of our visit with Sunil, however, was our visit to the village of Gauterine.
Some years ago Sunil had befriended Joe Kselman, an American visiting India. They forged a strong relationship—Joe became almost an older brother to Sunil. Joe is also an engineer and, together with Sunil, they conceived of and have now implemented The Solar Village Project. The project is all about bringing solar power to villages that are off the grid. —enough power to run computers in schools, lights in homes to extend hours for studying and other productive activities, and to provide stations for charging phone batteries. Enough power to change lives.
Gauterine is the Solar Village Project’s first village. During our visit, we saw the solar panels that were installed for every home, with a larger unit set up at the school. We visited the school and met the teachers, young men from nearby villages, and we were stared at intensely by the villagers who were fascinated by the sight of western women. Meanwhile, we observed Sunil as he checked in, seeking feedback on his projects, troubleshooting, figuring out where there was adoption and where there was resistance, and addressing the resistance. In the village, the women were fierce and outspoken, the children curious, the adolescent girls shy and the men nearly absent. Sunil explained that the men were off working at a nearby brick factory. The birthrate in the village was high, we saw young girls who were pregnant or mothers.
The life of the villagers is difficult, but there is progress. We met the one village boy who had completed class 10 and perhaps would make it to university. We also saw the next generation of younger children who had a higher chance of doing the same thanks at least in part to the efforts of Sunil and Joe.
Lighting up a village—literally and figuratively—costs about $10,000. The Solar Village Project is an official NGO with tax exempt status. Joe is now bringing solar panels to a third village in Bihar, Rangpur, another completed a project in Northern Senegal. I’d like to ask you to donate to this effort. Joe (and his wife and other family and board members) are unpaid volunteers. At this point, so is Sunil and the on-the-ground support person, a young man who lives in the village. One of the goals of the funding is to provide Sunil and the local teams with a small (tiny, by our standards!) salary to support their ongoing efforts. That, too, will change lives.
Our fundraising goal is $10,000, so give what you are able. Keep in mind that even a small donation will make a big difference!! Please click here to make a donation.