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John Potts


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Madurai Seed, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, South India: making a difference

In 2002 I spent a couple of months working voluntarily in and around Madurai, in Tamil Nadu, right in the south of India. Mainly, I ran workshops and seminars for teachers, but I also developed a three-day course for members of NGOs and NPOs to improve their skills when making presentations, writing funding proposals, designing their brochures and so on. Through this extended workshop, I made contact with several local projects – one of which was the predecessor of Madurai Seed.

I went again in 2003 for another month of teacher training, but then wasn’t able to return until 2008. When my partner Laura and I went back last year, we re-established contact with the Seed project, which in the meantime had restarted under a new name, Madurai Seed.

The project is entirely a local one: it’s located in a very poor area of Madurai called Karumbalai, where life is extremely basic and hard and where many children fail to make much (if any) progress at school. Their parents are often illiterate, their homes a noisy and crowded one-room dwelling, their chances of breaking out of the cycle of school failure followed by menial and irregular employment as day labourers (for the boys) or early marriage (for the girls) remote. The children fail at school because they can’t do their homework and they can’t prepare for the all-important annual exams that ensure progression to the next grade (or standard, in Indian English). Even getting into 11th and 12th standard (the two years before the final matriculation exams) is a hopeless ambition for almost all of them, never mind passing the final exam that alone leads to college or university admission.

Which is where Madurai Seed comes in. Founded by Karthik Bharathi, himself from the slum but one of the very few who managed to matriculate and take a university degree, it provides after-school support for the children. From 6 till 8 every evening during the week, about 350 of them attend classes divided into the 12 school standards. These take place on two rooftops (four to a rooftop), and one room (for standards 9-12), and are taught by local volunteers – about 30 young men and women, all college students, who help the kids and teenagers with their homework and exam preparation. At weekends and during school holidays, there are sports and cultural activities and the occasional excursion – many of the children have never left the district before.

Madurai Seed also helps to develop the children’s awareness of their culture and rights, of healthy lifestyles, of basic economics (each class has a savings club), and, later on, of vocational training opportunities. And it works with their parents too - it’s very much a holistic programme and a community project. There’s also a library – unheard of in such a poor district.

All of this is done on a shoestring budget, and in early 2008 the future looked bleak.

And that’s where Friends of Madurai Seed comes in. Laura and I decided to try to help the project become more financially secure. We founded Friends of Madurai Seed (registered in Switzerland as a charitable foundation), and started to look for donors large and small. Laura went over for two months early this year to help train the volunteers (most of whom desperately need better English) and has just returned from another two-week training trip. I went for a week in February to make a film of their work: we show it to school classes and potential donors. We’ll both be going back next February for more work with the volunteers. Laura is a grammar school teacher of English here in Zurich, and has persuaded her school to support the project. She also secured the donation by OUP of a class set of New English File – her recent trip included a workshop for the volunteers on using the book with the children.

We’ve created web sites where you can learn more, and you can also see pictures and the film on my web site (you’ll need the latest version of QuickTime to watch the movie). And if anyone would like to donate or help in any way, just contact me by e-mail. I have a PayPal account, so that would be a simple and safe way to transfer any donations. It goes without saying that any help of any kind is greatly appreciated.

And to close: fifteen 12th standard pupils from Madurai Seed took the state matriculation exam this spring. Thirteen passed, and can now go on to college or university. Some of them will come back to Madurai Seed as volunteers to help the next generation achieve the same. It works.