Reports on the MGA (Mahisi Gyanodaya
Abhiyan, a regional literacy and support program run by Sister
Jessy) 2001 - 2006
2001 REPORT - MGA
As always Jessie is an inspiration to me! She continues to
inspire local Indians to help the less fortunate, improving the
quality and breadth of her enterprises.
After the success of her chicken project, where chickens were
given to poor families so that they could sell the eggs and breed
other chickens and due to some very generous donations, Jessie
has initiated a cow program. Cows are given into the care of
a strong woman in a family unit. These cows give fuel (dung for
burning), milk for nourishment and the selling or redistribution
of calves to other poor families. This seems to be opening up
a lot of possibilities for some poor families. I saw several
of these cows on my journey.
Jessie has about 30 school projects with hundreds of children.
My travelling friend, Les and I were both in tears to see these
poor, barely clad children, sitting on cold cement floors doing
their lessons. The teachers themselves were often barefoot or
not that well dressed, but here they were doing what they could
for the children. These village children soaked in whatever they
could and I was reminded that not only the raw information of
reading, writing, etc. was being passed on but the very ability
to think, which is probably the greatest gift of all.
In a very difficult and sometimes resistant environment, Jessie
continues to do her best for the poor. In one school that was
held in an abandoned government building holding over 200 children,
someone spread a rumour that there was a ghost in the building.
Maybe this was due to resistance
to lower caste education or because Jessie is a Christian
(although she has no conversion activities) or for no clear reason
at all. The result was that all of the children left the building
and even after doing prayers and rituals by a Brahman priest
only 1/3 have so far returned. In a superstitious and caste oppressive
society these and dozens of other obstacles occur while trying
to help the poor. Many aspects of village life particularly,
seem to keep the poor ignorant and oppressed.
2002 REPORT - MGA
An encounter with Sr Jessie
by Karen Longland
Sr Jessie is both an amazing and completely inspiring person.
Extremely small in stature, she carried a tough exterior as evidence
of years of hard work. She works tirelessly for the under privileged
in India's poorest state Bihar. I liken her work to that of the
Great Mother Theresa. Where Mother Theresa worked for the poor
and sick, Sr Jessie is focusing her efforts on the poor and uneducated.
In Bihar there are very few schools and no incentive for the
children to attend those that are available. Most children are
unquestioningly prepared to follow in the footsteps of their
parents, and their parents seem unaware of any alternative. The
perpetuation of poverty and illness seem inevitable. The caste
system is alive and well, removing any expectation that there
is a way out of their current existence. With seemingly no national
compassion for the situation in Bihar, it would appear a 'hopeless
situation', yet it is within this environment that Sr Jessie
Sr Jessie's projects have included establishing up to 26 primary
schools spread throughout the state of Bihar. Abandoned government
buildings, churches or shaded tree areas are used as classrooms.
The schools work to a curriculum, grouping children of any age
according to basic numeracy and literacy skill levels. The teachers
are by and large unqualified; some are paid a very small wage
through Sr Jessie. Children, who have gained sufficient skills
to share with others, teach some classes. Sr Jessie is doing
everything she can to encourage government grants and overseas
aid to fund her projects.
The wider community of the school is seen as an integral component
of the projects success. Sr Jessie works with parents and village
dignitaries, understanding the important support these groups
can provide top the ongoing success of the education process.
She has of course encountered difficulties with lack of community
enthusiasm and resistance to her feverish belief in educating
all caste groups together. As the wider community is itself poorly
educated, the big picture benefits of education are difficult
to illustrate. Yet she continues to try.
My introduction to Sr Jessie and her work left me exhausted
physically and quite ill. It was an incredibly humid day, a day
dedicated to the celebration of Gandhi's birthday. It had been
explained to me earlier that we were to travel deep into Bihar
country to attend a gathering of school children who had prepared
a concert both to honour Gandhi's life, and recognize the teachings
he has left us.
The school committee hired a four-wheel drive vehicle to make
the three and half hour journey to the school concert. Once packed
with supplies it quickly became apparent that everyone would
not fit into the car-even after allowing for the usual excessive
over loading of passengers. Against the vocal assertions of committee
members, Sr Jessie got out of the car (with me in hand) suggesting
she would travel by local bus. We had approximately six hours
before the concert was due to start and she believed this to
be sufficient time to make the journey.
That bus trip will certainly remain in my memory for a very
long time. Overcrowding, heat, smells, stops, stares, changing
buses, sweat, vomit, animals and a deafening noise, all combined
into one experience. Through it all Sr Jessie, smiled, chatted
to people, gave up her seat and shared her water. She was amazing.
After approximately seven and a half hours travelling, we arrived
at the site of the concert. Children, seated on the grass in
the hot sun, quietly and excitedly watching their peers perform.
Cheers erupted at the sight of Sr Jessie. We were offered beautiful
garlands and every respect was provided by the village organizers.
The concert continued with songs, chants, and skits performed.
The clear underlying theme of every performance was the power
The children, who attended different schools around the area,
were all well versed in many chants, knowing the words by heart
and yelling together with confidence. The chants were in local
language and later were translated for me; 'education is for
us', 'we will not be tricked by the rich, we want education too',
'we need education and we will work hard'.
Sr Jessie explained she works with the pure spirit of the
children. She uses the example of Gandhi's peaceful resistance,
providing an environment for the children to learn they can rise
and reach their fullest potential. She believes the strength
of her message is the acceptance of the children that they must
take responsibility for themselves, and to work hard and use
the opportunity provided to them. Following the concert, the
children were provided with some fruit and bread and I had the
long trip home to consider. There was an obvious respect and
appreciation shown to Sr Jessie.
She was revered and clearly loved by all those present. It
worried me to contemplate how much of her popularity was in expectation
of her continuing ability to provide, organize and inspire this
grass roots education program. It was clear that many people
relied on her unending enthusiasm and continual dedicated support.
It was an exhausting day, my senses had been absolutely overloaded
and much later in the evening, lying on my wooden bed, I achieved
peace only in recalling that the day was over.
I found it astounding to consider that the events of the day
were nothing special or out of the ordinary for Sr Jessie. It
was just another day for this miraculous Christian nun.
This was to be one of three concerts I attended over the following
week. All were inspiring and all left me with an underlying respect
for Sr Jessie and her cause. Where total dedication and unwavering
persistence is present, anything is possible. May we all learn
from the beauty of her living example.
2003 Report - MGA
One Woman Can Make a Difference
It had been three years since the last time I had visited
with Sister Jessie. I've known Jessie since 1992, when I first
started to go to Bodhgaya. She is one of those very special people
whom I find incredibly inspiring. This time was no exception.
I remember at one point in my visit recognising that she had
been carrying on with this huge project the whole time I've known
her which is now over 10 years!
Every day she does what needs to be done to keep the project
flowing within a climate that is very challenging and often thwarts
her work. She empowers the poor villagers of the Bodhgaya area.
It's a huge task that only someone as inspired and dedicated
to improving the lives of the poorest of the poor in Bihar could
This time, Eoin Meades, his son Toby, Caroline, a fellow manager
from the Bodhgaya retreat, and I headed off for a day-long visit
with Sister Jessie. It was wonderful to experience the very peaceful
environment that she has created in the home of Massihi Gynodaya
Abhiyan. It really is a sanctuary. Her gardens are thriving and
I felt happy to know that finally she has a place where she can
rest and be renewed after the very challenging work of keeping
the project going. In our hired jeep, we went to three different
villages this particular day.
It really is quite an event visiting a school. As soon as
Sister Jessie arrives a crowd of villagers gathers around the
school. I'm always struck by the way she relates to the villagers.
Her manner communicates so much respect and belief in their own
capacity to keep the schools going and to create a better life
for themselves. This visit, I began to think that this in itself
is a very transforming aspect of this project. These villagers
who are really the bottom of the ladder, even in poor villages,
are shown that they are important just by Sister Jessie's wish
to be involved with them. She is helping them to improve the
conditions of their and their children's lives. In a country
where these people are considered "the untouchables"
this is indeed a powerful message of caring.
It really was incredible to go to each of the schools and
find so many children working away with either their books and
pencils or on their slates. What they are learning is quite elementary
in some ways because the instructors are not highly educated
themselves. Slowly but surely however these children and their
parents are accepting the value of education, which is the essential
goal of this project. It is amazing to think that none of these
children would have any opportunity to go to school because there
are no schools there for them and, if there were, their parents
would probably not send them.
Sister Jessie has worked hard and long to convince the parents
that sending these children to school is important. If they were
not at school, most would be at home helping with the daily chores.
This is particularly true of little girls who, particularly in
the lower castes, are not educated. It's a wonderful sight to
see a row of little girls learning to read and write. At these
times, I know that substantial change is happening.
I find each time I go out with Sister Jessie that I'm moved
to tears both by her strength and her commitment to this work
and also by the children themselves who are obviously so proud
of themselves sitting there in such simple settings learning
the alphabet and how to write Hindi. It's a real treat when they
sing us a song which Sister Jessie has usually taught them. They
just light up as they perform for us.
Part of the daily routine in the schools is to say various
inspiring sayings which are taken from the teachings of Mahatma
Ghandi and others. It teaches the children healthy values such
as respect and nonviolence. It's heartening to hear the children
wholeheartedly yelling out these phrases.
There are many different projects that Sister Jessie has initiated
over the years. It's not easy, though. We saw a project where
a large fish pond was started this year but due to some problems
with construction and the villagers being sold bad stocks of
fish, the project flopped. Still she's not giving up. They are
going to try it again this year. Through the years one thing
I have seen over and over again is that Sister Jessie does not
give up. She just tries again!
I strongly encourage you to continue to support Sister Jessie
in her work. Each time I go to the Bodhgaya area, I'm touched
deeply by the difference it makes to these villagers to know
that there are people in far-off countries in the Western world
who support their children to become literate and to better the
lives of the villagers.
Sister Jessie is very open to people coming and visiting the
project and helping in whatever way they can. If you find yourselves
in India in this area, do go and visit her and see what she is
doing. Words don't adequately describe the power of her work,
which can only be seen in the villages where she is so deeply
committed to the empowerment and well being of the people.
MASSIHI GYANJYOYI PROJECT - 2005 Report
The Girl's boarding school in Dobhi has been offically open
for a month. Our 24 students have been working hard, studying
English, Hindi, Science, History, Social Studies, Math, sewing,
knitting, and drawing. All the girls are about 12 years old,
and are Harijans. They're from caste groups considered to be
very low, and the caste system is still very much a part of life
here in Bihar. Many would have no education if it were not for
It is amazing to see how quickly they are picking up on new
skills! English and drawing are being taught by myself, we have
experienced local teacher named Basudev teaching most classes,
and Jayanti teaching swing and knitting. Already many girls are
done creating their first project- a scarf.
At our school we have tried to simplify our rules to two which
should be followed by everyone: To be kind, and to work hard.
We have been working hard to teach the girls to follow these
two rules. In addition, Jessi has been teaching them the values
that Gandhi preached. Beginning with non-violence, each day the
girls reflect on one value in their diary.
Speaking of diaries- we have been having the girls write an
entry everyday! We have already seen improvement in their writing.
More comprehensive sentences, and the ability to write in greater
depth is already appearing from their hard work.
A few days ago we were also fortunate enough to recieve many
of the Class 6, 7, and 8 text books. They are already studying
these new texts. It is our goal to try to help them pass their
School Exams, at the end of this year.
Each day the girls eat their typical meal of rice and sabhgi
(potatoes, spices, vegetables) or kitcherie (a mixture of rice
and daal). At night they sleep under the protection of our two
faithful watch dogs (or watch dog and watch-puppy!) Rex and Pixie.
The school functions purely on outside donations. It costs
$1200 for about a month of food, teaching, supplies, books, etc,
That is approximately $50 per student. We would like to find
sponsors for each of our girls for the school year at $50 a month.
The normal functioning of the school and its residential program
is generally covered by the generous donations received from
donor groups like the BDA.
Unfortunately,. recent developments have forced us to broaden
our areas of responsibility. There have been no substantial rains
over the last three seasons. This long standing drought is taking
its toll on the local community, with many students families
reporting deaths in their families due to hunger. Finding access
to aid at this time appears to be impossible.
All of the children in our schools are very poor and whilst
we can support our student's needs, it is their families that
need extra support at this time.
Sister Jessie in early 2005
Letter from Sister Jessie (2006)
Dear Friends of the Massihi Gyanoday Abhiyan
The vision of the Massihi Gyanoday Project is to provide education
to the people of the lowest caste in Dobhi and its surrounding
villages. It is my hope that one day the people will be able
to educate them selves and in turn be able to increase their
standard of living to include health care and economic livelihood.
It is law that all people are entitled to a government provided
education, however, many of the children of the lower castes
are sent out of the government classrooms. This project has been
created to remedy this injustice in society.
To my amazement the project has flourished over the past 15
years and the community is already seeing its benefits. For example,
the parents of the girls in the residential school program have
agreed to regularly send their children to the ashram for vocational
training. Previously, the parents were suspicious of the project's
intentions, and currently, the parents trust the project.
The project addresses health related, economic, and educational
needs of the people. The homeopathic clinic operates bi-weekly
and provides medical assistance to up to 130 local people. Various
members of the villages have volunteered and taught others how
to manage livestock such as cows, pigs and chickens. Most importantly,
the people learned how to manage their income and keep savings.
As well, educational services are being provided to 55 villages
in the surrounding area.
International volunteers and I have taught local teenagers and
young adults, mathematics, English and Hindi who in turn teach
students in the villages. There is also a residential school
program that has provided vocational training for physically
challenged girls of the lowest castes.
The MGA project has expanded and it has now the potential
to reach many more people in need and to increase the standards
of service. To achieve these goals, I have decided to share the
responsibilities of the project with a group of sisters from
Orissa, the Hand Maids of Mary. These are members of the Society
of St Theresa.
The Hand Maids of Mary have moved into the ashram and by mid
next year will take the full responsibility for the management
of its daily chores. They have also agreed to continue the residential
school program for the girls and manage the homeopathic clinic.
Education and health care are the areas of strength and resource
within the Sisters supporting congregation.
The Hands Maids of Mary have greatly developed the vision
of the project. Improvements in all services will take place.
We would like to have a school built in the field in front of
the ashram. Then to have a vehicle purchased for a mobile homeopathic
The Sisters have set up supporting financial structures and
hope to receive the BDA's ongoing support in realizing the project's
expanded goals. One project the sisters and I have launched,
and would like to commence by next year, is the building of a
In May 2007, I will focus on my core work with the volunteer
teachers in the village schools as my heart remains intricately
tied to the local students and their needs. I will take up residence
in a smaller dwelling where I can have more time for contemplation.
With love and blessings,
Note: The BDA have made contact with the Hand Maids of Mary
and we will watch this development with interest.
Drought Relief News
The MGA is very thankful for the BDA's generous support. The
assistance and funds have worked well in providing for the shortfall
in food and basic necessities caused by ongoing drought in Bihar.
The size of your response called for two separate activities.
The first involved the delivery of five tons of rice to ten of
the worst-hit villages. It took all of our staff and many of
the students. It was conducted on the day we normally have prayers
and celebrations to mark the birth of Gandhiji. Transporting
and distributing the rice proved a very different way to celebrate
Our next mega distribution was to 500 parents of our children
in fifty-five villages served by the MGA. Because it would have
been difficult to carry supplies back to their villages, up to
thirty kilometres in some cases, we provided money for local
purchases. A blanket was also provided to each family.
May all people who have contributed to these events, be merited
by this big Puja/Seva.
Thankfully this year the rains have been more substantial. Hopefully,
the wide spread food shortages of the last few seasons will not
be repeated. If significant feed can be harvested, then hopefully
we can start replacing roofs that are missing due to insufficient
straw, and distributing cows to support the needy families.
Due to the better season we are also planning an annual Mela
fete, the first function conducted with the Hand Maidens of Orissa.
Participants will include children from all the 55 centres around
Dobhi. They will be able to display their good works produced
throughout the year. The fete will be held at the Dobhi Ashram
You are all welcome if your time permits.
Thanking you again on behalf of the poor people of Bihar and
the MGA at large. May all be blessed and be rewarded with love.
Volunteering in the Gyanyoti Ashram (2006)
A number of people have expressed interest in going to
India to work with Jessie. But they would like a better idea
of what to expect. The following is an account from two young
volunteers from Denmark helping Sr Jessie in Dobhi, Bihar.
I thought I was writing a potential volunteer. But this is even
better. I did not know about the BDA, and the fact that the group
supports Sister Jessie. I am very glad to hear you do.
It sounds really good that you might send Australian people to
help out in Bihar! Especially, as the need for volunteers at
the ashram seems quite urgent to me. If they could come regularly
it would make an enormous difference.
Anyway, I will attempt to give you and supporters of Sr Jessie
some impressions of what it was like as a helper with Sr Jessie.
We lived and worked in the ashram from the middle of January
to end of March.
She has room enough and could accommodate a maximum 4 people
in the ashram
It was not ideal, that we only stayed in the ashram for 2 months,
because it was hard for Jessie to really benefit from such a
short stay. It took a while before we got used to it and learned
the routines and customs. It would have been better if we could
have stayed a little longer. It also would have helped if she
knew there was someone to continue the work after we left.
So news of volunteers coming regularly seems like a very good
idea to me! What does Sister Jessie say about it? Well, she has
not had more than two volunteers at a time. This makes it hard
to start new initiatives.
However the projects and the responsibilities she gave us
would never be bigger than something she knew she could not follow
up and do herself when we left.
I will now attempt to answer your questions one by one.
What would I be expected to do?
We were actually not expected to do anything when we arrived.
It was mainly up to us to decide what we might be able to do.
In the beginning we found it hard to really be useful when it
came to teaching and helping in the clinic.
So when we were still having the new India "look" and
were adapting to the place, we would mostly be helping out with
cleaning, gardening, cleaning the cow shed, milking the cow,
cooking and whatever was to be done. So if nothing else, it will
always be helpful for Jessie to have helpers to get those day-to-day
things done. If we did not help her, she would most probably
have to do those things herself!
As time went by, we and Sister Jessie both had some ideas
and we started out by teaching very basic English in the local
school. Soon we would also be teaching the teachers and potential
teachers some English. The other work was to help out in the
homeopathic clinic by registering the patients.
It was a great challenge to communicate with the patients
and writing down their Hindi names with English letters. But
as we learned a few Hindu phrases and they got used to us it
became a bit easier.
After a month we decided to take about 10 young girls to the
ashram and give them a short but intensive course of handicraft,
Hindi, math, English and art. We knew very little of Indian knitting
and sewing but did all we could to teach some simple art and
English. In that way, Sister Jessie had some extra help with
the classes. But the most important help was probably the way
we could give her a break from the responsibility of being in
charge of 10 girls and taking care of them.
We never learned good Hindi, but after 2 months we were able
to communicate with the girls who had also learned a tiny bit
of English. That was essential to our stay, because people in
the area don't know English. So I would say that it would be
helpful to spend some time on learning a bit of Hindi when you
arrive. But again, nothing is expected of you!
What skills do I need?
We do not have any particular skills when it comes to teaching
and assisting in the medical clinics. We actually only speak
English as a third language, and have only just finished 13 years
of school. To do something like this it was very important to
have a whole lot of courage, a lot of patience, a great sense
of understanding, a great flexibility and the capability of adjusting.
And finally the most important skill is the motivation to share
your love with the children and people who need it.
What guidelines does Jesse work by?
I think that is a question for her to answer. As far as I know
there are no rules in the ashram.
How long a stay would be appropriate?
As I wrote, the 2 months of our stay might have been too short.
I would suggest the ideal stay would be from 3 to 6 months. It
takes a lot of energy to adapt, and only after knowing the place
(and maybe some Hindi) would you be a great help.
How do I provide for myself?
You need to be aware that there is no electricity in Dobhi (the
village) and all water you need is to be pumped up from the ground
with a pump. This was no problem to us, even though we had never
been in India before or tried anything like this. You need to
adjust totally to the way of living to be of help in the Ashram.
We both found the experience very special and it was really
great to live there. We felt very safe inside the ashram, even
though it seemed a bit unfriendly around the village. You will
live in a nice room with a bathroom and a small kitchen and with
vegetables and rice from the local market and the garden you
will be able to cook for yourself.
Is it appropriate to suggest a program?
I think that is very appropriate!
Sister Jessie was very interesting to talk to, and for most of
our spare time we talked to her and learned incredibly about
India. She was a great source of knowledge and inspiration for
us, and we enjoyed her company very much.
As for the project, which you have probably already read a
lot about, I will just say that the spirit and the ideology are
beautiful. But the work is not easy and there is a long way to
go to get the people of the area enlightened. So I hope you feel
like helping Sister Jessie in helping the people. It is really
needed, and it will be a great experience for anyone. It is nice
to hear what a beautiful thing that the BDA is doing.