Volunteering in India – what’s it like?

Let me start by saying that the vast majority of volunteers who come to serve with the NGO I am currently attached to are young, of the same generation as my children. Many are taking a gap year, or doing an internship – some are short term (a month is our minimum requirement, it is unlikely that you will feel you have achieved anything significant in a lesser time frame), some stay for longer; we currently have a young German girl here for a year, and an American nurse for six months. Most are single, some spend their entire time in India with us, others include a period of service in their trip to India. Many are of Gujarati descent, brought up by expatriate parents commonly in the USA or the UK (who sometimes come too) – others arrive from all over the world, having found us on the internet or, often, through a friend who has previously spent time here.

The demographic is easy to understand. Priorities change once you have a family of your own – I could not have done this while married and with young children, didn’t do it before marrying, but am free to do so now, and so I represent the older volunteers rather well. And age is certainly no barrier. The skills that different volunteers bring with them vary widely, from medical professionals to photographers to entrepreneurs; all have something to offer, and often end up working in a project completely unrelated to their ‘normal’ life. Fifty years in the University of Life and a background in sales management had, I felt, left me singularly ill-equipped for the volunteering life – how wrong could I have been! Gandhi put it beautifully – ‘A volunteer can be anybody. There are no age limits to being a volunteer, no preferred categories, no salary specifications, no special degrees or work experience. All that is required is a dedication to the cause, sincerity about the work one is doing and commitment to a regular and sustained effort with the organisation’ 

We are one of only a few NGO’s (Non Government Organisations) who do not charge a fee for your time with us… instead, we provide accommodation and lunch six days a week; and ask only that you contribute your skills and service, your share of the power bill (negligible), and a donation at your discretion upon departure. When I was looking for an organisation to work with, this was a big drawcard for me.  Never viewing this as a ‘holiday with a difference’ or a ‘conscience vacation’, I was searching for an opportunity to share my skills, and hopefully enrich the lives of those less fortunate than myself, on a budget. Here it is.

I chose to rent an apartment rather than stay in the volunteer houses, mainly because I am here for the foreseeable future, but also because I am a filthy smoker! – living separately allows me to indulge my vice, and also gives me some distance; I’m not sure how well I would have coped with dorm style accommodation for this long, and it has the added advantage of providing a space away from ‘work’ not only for myself, but for the other volunteers, who often come here to eat, to recuperate from a tummy bug  (or an emergency appendectomy in 2013!) with a Western bathroom handy, or just for a ‘sleepover’. Which is fine – I enjoy having them!

Most volunteers hit an apparently insurmountable wall at about seven to ten days in; the issues seem so enormously overwhelming, and our contribution so negligible. What can we hope to achieve within four short weeks?  There are so many issues that will make you so angry, so sad, so frustrated. It’s so difficult to understand WHY, especially in India where there is a yawning chasm between the haves and the have nots, the caste system still has massive potency, women’s rights are well behind by Western standards, illegal alcohol is ruining lives in a dry state, children go begging or rag picking instead of attending school… the list is endless and can leave you gasping for air just as you begin to cope with smells and litter, noise and insane traffic, heat and dust, and the insatiable curiosity of most Indians. All we can do is remember the words of Mother Teresa and do our small things with love. The rewards are immense, trust me; and they often come when you least expect them, and in surprising ways.

I taught English when I arrived, mainly to older students who already had a grasp of the language and wanted to improve their grammar and conversational skills. It was fun! We played games and shared stories; learnt about past participles together (probably the first step I took before starting teaching was buying a grammar textbook… I didn’t remember which tense was which either!) I scoured the internet for ideas for classes, bought dictionaries for my students, and drank endless cups of chai at their houses; on one very special and memorable occasion, one lady, Varsha, made and brought idli sambhar for the entire classes lunch! Ritu made me some beautiful local clothes and taught me how to make paratha.  Ajaybhai, Neetaben, and Maheshbhai have become my closest friends, family really, in India, and have helped me so much.

More recently, I’ve spent the last six months renovating and relaunching our small community library. Working closely with the staff, we spent hours developing and implementing a cataloguing system, repainted and refreshed the space, and it has now become a bustling hive of activity used almost continuously not only as a lending library, but a classroom, a meeting space, and a quiet retreat. I’m free to decorate and design classes as I like, we work in a different theme every six weeks, most recently turning the library into the Amazon rainforest involving a huge anaconda and a brilliant week of blow dart competitions using cotton buds, straws, and paint!

Daily life. Noisy, challenging, never ever boring. Temple bells wake me. It’s about a twenty minute walk from my place to the library, but at 8.30am its still relatively cool. Ashram Road, a major thoroughfare, is quiet, and the slum itself is waking up, people cleaning their teeth in the lanes, semi naked small children roaming around, goats everywhere. Cross an evil foul-smelling black stream, reach the refreshingly calm and clean oasis in the heart of the slum that is our Community Centre. Lots of good mornings and Namaste’s on the way. Open the library, sweep it – dust! Its eternal, that dust. In come my first class for the day, happy excited and chattering, and we settle into the days activity – my Gujarati is limited to say the least of it but I always have either a Gujarati speaking volunteer or a staff member to translate when necessary. Its important to know that you will always have this available – language is the biggest issue I have faced personally.

After class, all the children from the mornings tuition sessions are gathered outside to eat, and Im busy processing returns and fresh loans, until we close at 12 and I can either walk back across to the Ashram for lunch, or eat there… which is what I usually do, its so nice and peaceful! Open again at two, a repetition of the mornings activity, and I’m home by six-ish, walking through the vegetable market on my way and collecting dinner materials… so fresh, so cheap.

Saturday is pretty much a day off, although we do have a large gathering of kids from the slum in the Ashram for an afternoon of games and activities each week, and on Sunday I love exploring the lanes and alleys in the old city, nearly always getting lost, but always discovering something new. I often spend Sunday afternoon preparing classes for the week ahead. There are so many options open to you as a volunteer, and your contributions are always welcome and valued. It can be as easy as helping out in a preschool by playing with the kids, or as challenging as building a new preschool in a slum, as two Australian architects are doing at the moment. Want to know more? Let me know!

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