Reports on the MGA (Mahisi Gyanodaya
Abhiyan, a regional literacy and support program run by Sister
Jessy) 1994 - 2000
1994 REPORT - MGA
A Personal Perspective
Recently, during my travels, I was asked to name a woman I
most admired; my thoughts and then verbal response quickly turned
to Jessie. I had the privilege of spending a few days with her
during my stay in Bodhgaya. My background training and interest
in education, social justice and women's issues meant that rapport
was quickly established. The intention was to photographically
document her work in order to raise awareness and subsequently
more funds back in Australia for her project. I feel I gained
richly by my contact with her.
It was in high school years when Jessie first became aware
of the deplorable educational opportunities for many of the underprivileged,
especially in the state of Bihar. It seems since then she has
been preparing herself for the work she is doing today. Gathering
skills (in education) and increasing her knowledge & commitment
to social awareness (through experience & extensive reading)
and deepening her spiritual practice.
Jessie's approach to education reveals her sharp creative
mind, mixed with passion for social justice. In order to firstly
motivate the children to learn, simple nursery rhymes were taught
by reading these at home. The parents, of course, were impressed
and able to quickly experience the fact that their children can
learn. This increased their self worth & so encouraged further
attendance. Gradually the use of known rhymes leads to reading.
It is the next step, I feel, that shows Jessie's uniqueness and
the blend of qualities mentioned previously. She uses rhymes
that she has written (simple and catchy) that include a social
comment. For example, about a beggar's life (looking at the conditions
of people poorer than ourselves; therefore encouraging compassion)
or about the inspiring life of Mahatma Ghandi. Firstly, the school
age tutors learn these rhymes and through discussion with each
other and Jessie their understanding of social issues relevant
to the rhymes are increased. Then, with enthusiasm the children
are taught and then they carry the message to their homes.
It can be seen that Jessie's project operates on many levels.
Firstly, she needed to find (through the schools & colleges)
a group of willing young tutors (often 15-17 yrs old) to work
for the lesser privileged for token payment (plus whenever possible
small gifts of encouragement). The tutors gain also practically
by developing career (teaching) skills and simultaneously a greater
social conscience. The children benefit of course, and then the
parents individually and collectively. Jessie's next stage is
to encourage each village to build a classroom (at present classes
are held out in the fields or under trees). A blackboard will
be given as encouragement upon completion of the building and
then a garden will be made next to each classroom for the villagers
to learn basic skills in market gardening, help develop self-sufficiency
and raise nutritional standards. Womens classes in literacy are
just beginning, which Jessie hopes will develop into groups of
simple cottage industries. The benefit to the women is obvious.
Jessie believes that it is through education that the conditions
for Indians will be uplifted and their rights increased.
To develop this Jessie works unceasingly, creating simple,
appropriate teaching aides with materials available cheaply and
locally, writing songs and making them into attractive books
for the children and tutors. She travels constantly to different
villages to check on progress, and investigate possibilities
for new classes; conducts group sessions with the young tutors
frequently and sets them tests to determine the progress of the
I remember as the subject of her payment was raised during
one of our informal conversations as we crossed a rice paddy
going from one village to the next; she said "happiness
is my payment". I knew by this she meant seeing the positive
impact that her "schools were bringing to each village was
enough for her. I suspected that sometimes Jessie was not sure
whether she would eat a full meal the next day herself.
Jessie taught me the meaning, through the example of her life,
of renunciation and compassion. When I asked her why she made
the step from being a nun to a sannyasin she told me simply that
by leaving the church she was letting go of any attachment or
security or belonging to an organization that could support her.
The other side too, she tells me, is that she doesn't have to
answer to any hierarchical organization.
Her strong will and commitment drive her, expressed through
an open heart, warm expression and a twinkle in her eyes. Although
small in stature, I could see and feel (as I couldn't understand
the words) the great respect and love that surrounded her from
the tutors, children and villagers with whom she made contact.
I also witnessed how she dealt with any conflict of ideals by
a clear direct manner that allowed the other person(s) room to
move and make their own decision to stay with her or leave. Sometimes
a decision to leave her is made by another family member, for
example, a landowner becomes aware that by educating the harijins
they will become more vocal about their rights, so a son is refused
permission to continue teaching.
Although greatly inspired by her work, I knew it is not my
Path to do the work she is doing, but I hope through my contact
with her, the information I've gathered and the photos I've taken
I can support her in achieving "her happiness".
Financial support for Jessie is vital, as an independent worker
she relies solely on private contributions. This money allows
her to pay her tutors, have song books printed and buy simple
materials such as slate boards and chalk for each child. As contributions
increase more villagers can benefit, materials can be improved
to include note pads and pencils; and the token payments increased
to encourage more tutors to become involved.
While teaching in a convent previously, Jessie was aware that
when she left the education of these privileged children would
continue. In the surrounding villages of Bodhgaya, if Jessie
ceased doing her work there would be no further education (formal
& informally) for these people and for many people their
quality of life would be greatly reduced practically and spiritually.
1996 REPORT - MGA
Massihi Gyanodaya Abhiyan (Campaign for a Literate Bodhgaya)
now reaches 1800 children in 37 schools dotted around the countryside
- not exactly our concept of schools as these are under trees
or on the verandahs of village Temples. The rain gods blessed
the villages with lots of rain and plenty of paddy replanting
work but it did disrupt teaching. Many parents came forward to
construct village-style mud huts. They will build the mud structure
with MGA providing the roof this year. It is planned the schools
will have a temporary roof of bamboos and straw.
Older students (2 years standing) were very eager to plant
more trees as the monsoon approached. This year, new students
will be introduced to tree planting. The seed sown in the students'
hearts for environmental protection is growing.
Regular teachers' training seminars are being held for two
days in September and ten days in October. Travellers having
made contact with these seminars are thanked. If you visit India
you too will be welcome. There are many ways you can help. Just
call on Ma Jaishree Upadhyay (Sister Jessie) at Burmese Vihar,
Bodhgaya, Gaya during the evening as she is out in the villages
during the day.
Joy and sadness. India's 50th Independence Day was celebrated
in August with flag hoisting and sweets. On Teacher's day a motivational,
thanks meal was served and for exemplary service, some teachers
received a present reward. The sad note. One of the first young
teachers Geeta, who had recently married, died of childbirth
complications. Her baby lives and her sister Lalita continues
Imagine this! Switzerland fundraising will provide 1800 children
with a dress. The plan is that this uniform be given to all the
children at the Dobhi centre. If we can see the discarding of
rags and the wearing of the uniform as a shining out of the Light
of Literacy, what inspiration this event will hold for students,
teachers, villagers and Sister Jessie.
1997 REPORT - MGA
Ma Jaishree Upadhaya, also known as Sister Jessie, was once
confronted by a police officer. He questioned her, I get
complaints that you are spreading the religion of Christ?
She answered him: Oh yes. I am spreading the message of
Love, as I understand this is the religion of Christ. At the
same time, I am also spreading the religion of Buddha, which
is Ahimsa .. non-violence .., and that of Gandhi, which is Truth
and Selfless Service. Can I at least spread non-violence and
truth? He laughed and said You may go ahead and do
as you please. Nothing will harm you.
Gandhiji had a lifelong dream of bringing about Ram-Raj,
a kingdom where the ruler and subjects live together in harmony.
Jessies project Massihi Gyanodaya Abhiyan ..
Campaign for Awakening Wisdom is endeavouring to continue this
effort, to bring about total unity of castes, creeds and religions.
Towards this end, her education program was started. The ultimate
aim is education of the heart as well as the head. There are
millions of children who never get a chance for an education;
she hopes to reach some of them.
The caste system is intricate and many .. here are but a few.
There is a caste consisting of people whose task is to raise
pigs; another of people who make a living by polishing shoes
and giving massage; and another of those who, because they are
caste street cleaners, are shunned by others. There are powerful
forces maintaining the system, which persuade the people to define
what is possible for them. Higher caste people can exert influence
on the low caste villagers to discourage them from sending children
to school. Jessies work challenges that system, and is
constantly challenged by it. Whilst the policemans comment
was profound, and she is honoured by many, in reality she is
seen as a threat by those who fear that they will lose power.
Thus, not only must she rise above incredible frustrations, but
also daily face great risks.
Eoin Liebchen-Meades and Kevin Corlette (from Chicago) went
walkabout with Sister Jessie in January this year visiting some
of the village schools. Kevin says: 'Many schools consisted of
nothing more than the bare essentials of teacher and students,
chalk and blackboard, pen and paper; there were few buildings,
no desks or chairs. The sky is the roof and the earth is the
floor. It was a joy to see the excitement of the children as
they greeted Jessie by standing and shouting "Didiji"
.. Elder Sister.
Sister Jessie now reaches around 52 villages. Each day she
visits a village and with so much territory to cover she might
only be able to stay long enough for a brief conference with
teachers and perhaps the parents, hear the children sing a song,
and distribute some supplies. Her mode of transport? .. She walks!
Or she catches an overcrowded bus and walks the rest. By listening
to the song, Jessie can gauge which children have been attending
school regularly; and by keeping the timing of her visits a surprise,
she is able to monitor how diligent the teachers are in carrying
out their duties. Village students number around 1000 and funds
raised provide a very small remuneration for teachers, basic
teacher/student supplies and some books. Jessie ensures that
the money we raise here is used to maximum benefit there. The
special Swiss funded Uniform distribution was made to all students
last December (1996).
The plight of widows in the villages reached by Jessie has
been very much on her mind. When she learned of a government
program to provide benefits to widows, which is generally unknown
among the villagers, since most are illiterate and have very
little contact with government officials, she took on this task
of helping them. Basically widows are often illegitimately charged
fees to fill out applications and frequently the end up with
only a fraction of what they are entitled. Kevin says: "Many
of the women looked to me as though they were 60 to 70 years
old. I was surprised when Jessie told me that most of them were
not much more than 40. She translated a couple of names: the
first meant 'one who should be killed'; another was 'one who
is always sad'. Death does not always come suddenly. Sometimes
it comes slowly, through a premature wearing away of life.
Sister Jessie's work has the perseverance of the spider from
The eensy weensy spider crawled up the water spout,
Down came the rain and washed the spider out,
Up rose the sun and dried up all the rain, ..
And the eensy weensy spider crawled up the spout again.
May we continue to receive the generosity of donations so
that this precious being, Sister Jessie, can further her work.
Dec 97 Report
I spent a few days with Sister Jessie who organizes our other
main support project. Jessie's teaching places are in the villages,
often in spare rooms or under trees; and the books the children
use are pieces of slate and chalk. Everything is very basic and
rustic, even precarious, in its existence.
At one village, one child just died, another looked close
to death and one had died four days prior. The mother was grieving
as we came. It may have been one of the serious infectious diseases
... smallpox was mentioned ... and medical authorities would
not come to the village. The villagers were too poor and ignorant
to do anything so Jessie arranged for help to come. One third
of the women are widows and Jessie was arranging for them to
receive their pensions. Corruption is prevalent and only about
one third will seep through to them (worse than tax here!). Jessie
extends herself to these and literally dozens of little projects.
They are not her main aim ... which is basic education for the
children .. but merely side issues. In one dust bowl of a village
we gave out clothes and some food to the children. One child
was obviously neglected and Jessie said that both his parents
were dead and he lived as a waif in the village. The kindness
he received from Jessie and us was hard for him to receive ...
as if he didn't know what it was ... as if kindness was more
foreign than our language. It is these and many more Jessie reaches
out to. The seeds she plants are in the hearts of those who spend
time with her ... both foreigners and her own people. I am truly
honoured to help her as I can.
from children at a village school
1999 REPORT - MASSIHI GYANODAYA ABHIYAN
The MGA was established five or so years ago by Ma Jayashree
Upadhyay, or simply, Sr. Jessie. Five years ago she left her
(Catholic) order of nuns, where she was a teacher in Patna, to
give education to children of the largely musaha (rat-eater)
caste, who would not otherwise have had any education. like many
of the activists in the region she sees education as the way
to help the people overcome injustice and exploitation, now and
for future generations. She takes her inspiration from Jesus
and Mahatma Gandhi and is quite uncompromising in her principles,
going as far as to return donations from people or organisations
whom she feels have an unwholesome hidden agenda.
She now runs 33 village schools with about 40 teachers who
are paid between $32.00 per month, for a barely educated teacher
or teacher's assistant to grade 8 standard, to $60.00 for a more
highly educated/trained teacher. Jessie currently has 2,500 students
enrolled in her schools, for whom she provides simple uniforms
at the cost of $2.00 each. I spent an afternoon visiting a few
of her schools in the Dhobi area on the back of a donated Vespa,
which took me back 30 years to a largely misspent youth. The
school buildings ranged from a converted cattle shed to an abandoned
government tourist project, which consisted of a lonely building
with no water, electricity, windows or doors, where three classes
seemed to be under way. The curriculum in most of these schools
is quite rudimentary - reading, writing, arithmetic, fundamental
hygiene and general studies. Perhaps the most important effect
of these activities is to raise the self-esteem, of not only
the children, but also the whole village and to increase a sense
of personal and political empowerment, which is so sadly lacking.
A CHRISTMAS PARTY
Just before Christmas I was invited to the teacher's "Christmas
Party" at the HQ, which is currently in a pitiable rented
hovel in Dhobi Village about 20km from Bodhgaya on the Grand
Trunk Road. The building consists of two crude rooms of bare
brick with a dirt floor, no windows and no electricity. It is
situated in the corner of a waged courtyard, measuring about
10m by 5m and open to the sky. In the corner was a traditional
mud brick hearth next to a cast iron hand pump. This space served
as a kitchen. About 25 teachers began to arrive by bicycle or
on foot. As the light began to fade and the cold night began
to descend, the oven was fired up with cowdung and a huge vat
of rice was set on heat, together with a lesser pot of mixed
vegetables (subje). Only Jessie spoke English, so I found myself
surrounded by a hive of incomprehensible activity. Class rolls
were handed in for auditing, oil lamps were lit and a rug of
sorts was rolled out onto the bare-earth ground in the courtyard.
With an air of respectful solemnity everyone sat on the rug
and Jessie led a moment's quiet meditation. This was followed
by, what I can only describe as, a sharing in song - someone
would chant a line which they would feel moved to utter and all
would repeat, then another line would follow and so on. Silence
for a moment or two and someone else would begin. As I sat, watching,
listening, trying to forget the cold creeping up from the earth
under my blanket, the poignancy of the moment was overwhelming.
A young teacher, no more than 15 years old, sitting in front
of me in ragged shorts and thin cotton shirt, showed no signs
of cold under his threadbare cotton shawl, but in one of the
silent interludes I noticed a tear squeeze out from under his
closed eyelids and run untended down his cheek
The 'sharing' came to a natural end and the courtyard was
filled with activity and chatter again. Disposable plates, made
of pressed leaves, were placed in front of each person - rice,
dahl and subje all round and as fingers got busy kneading the
sticky mess, once more silence fell over the gathering. Jessie
turned to me and with a grin, said "You know Keith, we Indians
are funny people. When we go out to shit in the fields, we never
stop chattering to each other, but when we sit down to eat, we
can never think of a thing to say. What is so different?"
With the eating finished, plates thrown into the surrounding
field and sticky fingers washed, we had a surprise visit from
Santa, who had a small gift for everyone. Before I knew what
was happening, the male teachers had disappeared into one of
the rooms and the women into the other and everyone had bedded
down for the night. Fortunately for me Jessie had organised a
floor in a nearby house, so that I wouldn't have to face the
ordeal of the morning conversations, squatting in the local fields.
A NEW CENTRE
During the last year the landlord has quadrupled the rent,
which has forced Jessie to buy her own land and set about constructing
a purpose built centre. This will serve as a dwelling (for her),
storeroom, office, toilet and a room large enough to train her
teachers. Fortunately someone purchased 2.5 khattta of land (by
my reckoning about 180 sq. m.) for her and in addition to the
donation of $3,000.00, we gave her a further $7,000.00, which
hopefully will see most of the building work completed. It is
a testimony to Sr. Jessie's work that she is rather disdainful
of these sort of developments, as she would rather all of the
donated money go directly to the poor people whom she serves.
But her sense of realism dictates that expenditure on such infrastructure
(though minimal by western standards) is necessary for her to
continue with her work and hopefully enlist like- minded people
to help her.
If any of our friends or supporters could afford the airfare
and say $ 35.00 per week and would like to spend a challenging,
but immeasurably rewarding few months in the Bodhgaya region,
I'm sure that Jessie would welcome their assistance.
2000 REPORT - MGA
The New Building
Jessie's new building was easy to find, set in the paddy fields
a mere 150m from the main junction at Dobhi village and clearly
visible from where the bus stops. She was overjoyed to see us
but she seemed rather tired as she showed us around her new place.
The building is unique in many respects, none the least for being
a rare example of a new Indian building which does not look old
and decaying before it is completed.
My first impression of the building was that it was a bit
over the top particularly compared to the hovel that Jessie had
been working and living in last year. But since my stay in Rishikesh,
I realise that it is simply designed in the tradition of all
ashrams, in that the most prominent feature is the temple. In
Jessie's case, this is a bare room capable of holding maybe 60
people (30 westerners) with a high vaulted roof the typical shape
of a hindu temple but without the excessive ornamentation. Set
in a large alcove in one wall, behind a large glass window, is
a rather confronting life sized image of a sitting Buddha with
the head of a stereotypical western Christ. Adjoining this room
are two other slightly smaller rooms which serve the dual purpose
of teacher training rooms and dormitories for the teachers. Here
it must be understood that when the common means of transport
is a bicycle even the relatively short distances to the villages,
in which they work and live, prove to be quite an ordeal especially
Other rooms in the building are a small, simple kitchen and
a small private room for Jessie. The building is surrounded by
vegetable garden and a high wall secured by large double steel
gates. On the outside gate are three panels of a mural depicting
Gandhi, Buddha and Jesus - her gurus. I asked her if she was
happy with it and she simply sighed and said, "it is much
bigger [better] than I thought it would be and the people are
The New Building
As far as her educational programs go there has been a steady
expansion over the year. There are now 42 schools with 43 teachers.
Some of the bigger schools have 2 or 3 teachers while some of
the very small schools operate on only a part time basis with
an itinerant teacher running between 2 or even 3 villages. With
25 out of 42 rolls to examine I counted 1624 children registered
which will probably amount to 2600 children overall.
Apart from the increase in numbers the most significant change
to enrolments has been the need to yield to pressure to bring
non-Harijan children into the schools. Although these children
are a significant minority Jessie feels that little by little
the Harijan children will again become marginalised due to the
deeply entrenched behaviour patterns in their social conditioning.
Jessie enthralled both Dana and myself with stories of children
running out during breaks to deftly catch rats which they would
immediately barbecue on a fire or waste paper and sticks or forsaking
their lessons to look after the family pig and so on.
Jessie has begun a policy of charging fees for each child
more to imbue a sense of value for the education more than to
raise money. This also allows for a minimal amount of affirmative
action to counteract caste and gender inequities. From cursory
look at the rolls it appears that only about 35% of the children
are girls and 10% are new non-Harijan enrolments. At least as
far as the upper caste enrolments go these are very early days.
Another of Jessie's concerns is how to attract better (more qualified)
It is easy to forget that Jessie's efforts are not simply
about education. In fact, as was stated in our last newsletter,
"Education is the key" but the goal is social transformation.
In addition to the school programs, Jessie has been trying to
do work with the women, in particular the mothers of the children
in the schools. In common with a number of other programs in
similar situations, Jessie has been trying to instill confidence
in women in their abilities to create and run small-scale income
producing enterprises. This has to start with creating some experience
with the handling of money at a level most of us take for granted.