The model village was developed to ensure that human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world. The village is expected to facilitate research and development of eco-villages around the globe. The project demonstrates the application of environmentally friendly materials and technologies as well as participatory planning methods for sustainable development
“The moon weaves through the clouds
like through a sea of white lotus.
The evening breeze carries with it
peals of happy tunes.
We sit by the hay bales and listen
as Mother tells stories from the past …”
A little boy started singing in the dusk. The vastness of crop fields was his backdrop and the courtyard of a farmhouse his stage. A dozen villagers had gathered to watch a performance by some student visitors from faraway places. It wasn’t a bad turnout for the Village considering it was a market day.
Earlier that day, an eighty-six-year-old lady came staggering in with her cane and insisted on taking a photo with the young visitors. She had put on her nicest sari. It mattered not at all what a service-learning trip is. This village had never received any foreigners before. Then she burst into a welcome song in the local dialect.
Had she not been strongly discouraged by her fellow villagers, she would have accompanied me on my tour to the crop fields. This village is a “model village” where crop genetic engineering labs are based. For the past three years, the average income has raised so much that two-storey; three-storey houses have sprouted across the village. The old lady was so eager to show us all the changes her hometown has undergone that upon refusal, she went home rather subdued and would not come again for the evening performance.
The performance was an eclectic mix of pop music, ethnic dance and educational drama, which the students had rehearsed diligently in the hotel lobby the previous night. Maybe it wasn’t so much about the performance. Those newly acquired big-screen TV sets and high-quality stereos back home might do a better job. The villagers had come to see “foreigners” — different hair colors, eye colors, darker or lighter complexions, all in flesh.
The evening performances in the courtyard of a farmer’s family, children, too, were recruited as audience on their way home from school. Curious and excited, they popped their heads in, fluttered across the courtyard and settled on the wooden stools like sparrows on branches. Each still had an oversize schoolbag on his back.
When the performance ended, a few women nudged the children to perform something in return as a gesture of friendliness. Now the little ones retreated from their VIP stools and shuffled behind the adults, giggling and shaking their heads. After some pushing and pulling, the little boy came forward. A middle-aged woman then led him by the hand to the clearing of the courtyard, where he was to sing us a song.
The eight-year-old looked too small for his age and too frail for the evening wind. Unlike his playmates, he was not wearing anything colorful. He was just a skinny frame underneath a dull, dirty outfit. And yet, in his bright eyes no trails of timidity could be found.
He started singing with a gentle voice, a voice half eaten by the wind. By the time he reached “as Mother tells stories from the past,” I sensed something quietly astir within him. And before the chorus, tears had streaked down his cheeks, “… back in those days, Mama …”
The boy sang on with a strange determination. The middle-aged woman, with tears sparkling in her own eyes, was trying to wipe tears off his face. Now the other half of his voice was eaten by the whimpering, as if it were some faint cries from distant fields. Somehow his singing flickered its way to our ears and his brokenness into some of our hearts. The little boy persisted till the end of the song.
For a while I thought he cried because he was too nervous. The woman explained later that the boy’s mother used to sing this song to him. He had seven siblings who all died at a tender age due to poor health. He’s the only child left his parents, who are now too old to work.
The little boy continued to weep after returning to the crowd. Some students went up to him, stooped over and said a few words. Some stood at a distance and looked his way once or twice. Others went about putting props and equipments away. I heard a voice mumble, “Life is unfair.”
The owner of the house mobilized his family and helpers into setting the tables for dinner. Some villagers left. A few children lingered on, among them, the little boy. His weeping subsided in to a gentle sniffle as he weaved in and out the steaming flow that brought dishes to the tables. Night had fallen. I ate with the villagers and left them.
For the rest of the trip, nobody mentioned the little boy. I guess for some of us, response eluded us. For others, it was not worth further thoughts. We had travelled all the way from foreign country to see poverty and hardship. I saw them in those shabbier villages. But I wasn’t quite prepared for some displaced misery in an episode titled the “model village.”
What could I possibly have said or done that would make it okay for the little boy and his family? How much do we really understand their pain? What does it mean to be as privileged as being a student of a College — receiving the best possible social work education? I couldn’t help but wonder what it meant to be privileged. Does it mean living inside a bubble and bouncing around encapsulated when one goes on a service learning trip?
For hunger, thirst, lack of health care and environmental problems, we could always come up with projects, big projects. For what we’ve inadvertently taken away, we could try to compensate. But there was something so utterly inconsolable about what the little boy’s family had suffered something so irreparable about their brokenness that I was once again lost in the loss itself.
Nothing really synchronizes the heartbeats of humanity like senseless suffering. If in our coming and going, we allow ourselves to take in silently a scene like this (which I believe some of us did) and if we dare to let it do to us what it does, then we too have wiped tears off the little boy’s face just as the middle-aged woman did when he was singing in the dusk.